Sydney Festival Interview: Ryley Walker

Ryley Walker
Image Courtesy of Ryley Walker

This year’s Sydney Festival is jam packed with amazing musicians, many of which have a folky leaning. Chicago based singer-songwriter Ryley Walker will be making his way to Australia as part of the Sydney Festival so we sat down with him to chat about his live show, his latest album and how his music is evolving.

Gareth Hugh Evans: So I would imagine that Sydney audiences are probably not that familiar with your music – how would you describe it to them? For me it’s folk music with a very strong jazz influence.

Ryley Walker: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Live we jam a lot – so yeah, folk with jazz influences is just fine.

GHE: You’ve probably had this comparison a lot of times but your music reminds me a lot of Nick Drake where you’ve got that wonderful finger-picking guitar style which is backed with jazzy accompaniment.

RW: Definitely. Having jazz musicians has definitely been influenced by musicians like that. And they’re some of my good friends so it kind of made sense – it was pretty natural.

GHE: Are you bringing the full band out for the Sydney Festival?

RW: I wish! But it’s a lot of scratch to get five human beings from the United States across the Pacific to your neck of the woods. So it’s just going to be solo.

GHE: It’s definitely a long way to come. I think we appreciate anytime anyone makes the trip out here. How does your live show change when you playing solo compared to when you’ve got the band with you?

RW: All the shows are heavy on improvising so I guess solo it might be a bit more concise. There’s so many different tools musically that you can use when you have keys or a drummer, bassist or a second guitar. Solo is definitely more of a challenge to be honest. How many dumpy white guys do you want to see playing acoustic guitar? There’s just so many. I try to just make as much energy as I can, as much far out shit as I can acoustically.

GHE: Do you play the 12 string much with the solo stuff?

RW: I’ve been playing more 12 string solo for sure. I use both – I guess it’s half and half at the moment when I play live.

GHE: The 12 string has that wonderful resonant sound to it. It adds an extra layer of depth, especially when you’re playing solo.

RW: Yeah man, definitely. I think 12 string is just super far out. You can let that thing ring forever. It’s a really weird instrument, a super strange instrument. It’s totally strange, I love it.

GHE: You released your album Primrose Garden in 2015 and it’s been going really well back in the US. How are you feeling about how it’s been received?

RW: I’m happy it’s getting attention in different parts of the world. It’s crazy, the record feels like it came out a lifetime ago. We’re playing a lot of new stuff mostly right now – we’re recording a new record hopefully some time in 2016.

GHE: How do you feel that your sound is evolving with the new music?

RW: It’s completely different, you know? It’s a lot slower, it’s all about these big spaces. It’s not really a guitar record, there’s just so much horn arrangements and string arrangements on there. It’s more a collaborative record with a producer too. Everything’s changing for the better – we’ll certainly alienate people who wanted a sixties groovey record. I think I’ve developed so much musically and lyrically since the last record came out so we’re definitely showcasing a lot of new ideas and stuff like that.

GHE: Do you feel that the songs from Primrose Green have evolved much live since they were recorded for the album?

RW: I’m making subtle changes every night – improvisation is a big part of the show. I’ll often stretch them out or change the pace, change some of the voicings in the chords. It’s really important to make each show unique. I’d hate for people to see the same show over and over again – it’s no fun. There’s a lot of jamming for sure.

GHE: When you go into a live show where do you draw the improvisation from? Do you have tried and tested licks that you improvise over or does it just appear as you’re playing?

RW: Even though the songs are different every night there’s definitely comfortable phrases people can go to. With ideas no two are the same – it’s just a path that keeps getting carved out in different directions. It’s often informed by the moment – so much can depend on how many beers you drank or if you have to take a piss or if you’re in a bad mood or a good mood. Everybody in the band improvises. It wasn’t a conscious decision to do, it’s just how everybody plays – we all come from that background.

GHE: I guess in the way a live performance can be a workshop for you as well. The evolution of your songs happen in a live setting and you can get instant feedback from your audience.

RW: What’s been really fun lately is people have been recording the shows, kind of like [Grateful] Dead style. It’s really fun that people care enough and notice enough that they know going to the gig is going to be different from the previous night so they want to document it.

GHE: So is this going to be your first trip to Australia?

RW: Yeah man, the first time. I’ve been wanting to go forever, I’ve talked about it forever since I was a kid. I’m really happy to go.

GHE: You’re choosing the right time of year – it’s going to be a hot January.

RW: I’m from the subterranean middle of America which is freezing cold in the middle of winter so I’m very happy, believe me.

GHE: And as well as the Sydney Festival you’re also doing shows in Brisbane and Melbourne.

RW: Yeah. I wish I could see it all but I’d need a lot more time. Hopefully this is the first of many many many more trips.

GHE: Are you going to get a chance to do any travelling while you’re here? Your tour dates are pretty close together so it feels like it might be a bit of a flying visit.

RW: There’s not as much time as I would have wanted but I’ve got a lot of gigs coming up in Europe and stuff. I mean I sound so jaded – “I don’t have any time off because I’m going to Europe” [laughs].

GHE: Well I think you’ll have a blast.

RW: I’m very excited.

GHE: Thank you so much having a chat with us today. Looking forward to catching you live when you’re in town.

RW: Sounds great – I’ll see you around!

The full list of dates for Ryley Walker’s Australian tour, including his shows as part of the Sydney Festival, are below:

Friday 22nd January – The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney, NSW
Saturday 23rd January – The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney, NSW
Sunday 24th January – Junk Bar, Brisbane, QLD
Monday 25th January – The Toff, Melbourne, VIC

1 Comment

  1. January 8, 2016 at 14:18

    […] “All the shows are heavy on improvising so I guess solo it might be a bit more concise. There’s so many different tools musically that you can use when you have keys or a drummer, bassist or a second guitar. Solo is definitely more of a challenge to be honest. How many dumpy white guys do you want to see playing acoustic guitar? There’s just so many. I try to just make as much energy as I can, as much far out shit as I can acoustically” – Ryley Walker chats to Gareth Hugh Evans ahead of his appearance at the Sydney Festival. Interview here […]


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