- Courtesy Of Emma Smith
- Ryley Walker
There was a time, not long ago, when Ryley Walker was anointed as the new king of drunken folk artists. The singer-songwriter and guitarist had burst from the Chicago indie scene with 2015's Primrose Green, a record so in line with the modern folk world that Pitchfork claimed it placed Walker above other such luminaries as Sharon Van Etten and Hiss Golden Messenger.
Yet to Walker, and some critics, his early work was "a pastiche," too devotional to early Van Morrison and Pentangle's Bert Jansch, particularly when it came to his vocal delivery. He started pulling on his sound like taffy with 2016's Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. With each subsequent record, Walker has broadened his horizons both as a songwriter and guitarist, leading to Course in Fable.
Released in April, the album is a warm, complex, generous work that surprisingly leans into progressive rock. It also documents Walker's changing life. In the last two years, the singer has embraced sobriety and started his own label, Husky Pants. He also traded New York City for the quiet life in Vermont.
Seven Days recently sat down with Walker at his Calais home to talk about his new album, moving to the Green Mountains and his upcoming solo gig on Friday, July 2, at Backside 405 in Burlington.
SEVEN DAYS: I'm sure I'm not the first to say so, but welcome to Vermont.
RYLEY WALKER: Hey, thanks, man. The banks of Vermont have my money and my information, so I definitely feel welcomed. I'm one of those New York transplants that everyone up here just seems to love, buying up all the houses.
SD: It does seem to be trending. What made you head north?
RW: My girlfriend brought it up first. I'm from Illinois; I didn't know anything about Vermont. But I was out of a record contract, and nobody was taking anyone on because there was this traumatic and fucked-up pandemic happening. Everyone was tight on cash; there were no shows. So, I was like, "All right, I'm moving to Vermont and starting my own label." I'm just salt-of-the-earth indie rock.
SD: After Chicago and New York City, I'd imagine Calais is a significant change of pace.
RW: If you had told me 10 years ago I would live in middle-of-nowhere Vermont, I'd have spit my coffee in your face. But I have a pretty good life up here. It's serene and beautiful. For years I was just stepping on sandwich wrappers, and now there's a big prairie in the back of my yard.
I have been here before, though. I played ... ArtsRiot, I think? I don't know, man. It was the late 2000s; there was a lot of acid around.
The first time I came here, though, I was 19 — so, like, 2008. I played a show in Brattleboro and a show in Burlington. But we couldn't get over the border because we were dumb and didn't know you needed passports to get into Canada. So we ended up staying in some kid's house for a week because the Canadian tour was canceled.
SD: So now you're in the sticks, sober and releasing music on your own label.
RW: Yeah, it's great. I just take it day by day. I chill and play guitar, do therapy and medication. I'm healthy and happy, just honestly glad to be existing. I'm not paying New York City rent every month, and I'm in my own house, selling some records. It's pretty tight.
I like running Husky Pants. I like mailing records out. I was on a label, Dead Oceans, for years. And they're great; they're good friends of mine. But this is a good thing for me. I can release stuff whenever I want.
SD: Which brings me to your newest release, Course in Fable. It's an incredible record, one full of surprises — most notably, the progressive rock leanings.
RW: I'm a fan of prog. As far as playing it, I sort of water it down to elementary school level for myself. I don't think I've read enough Canterbury Tales to be Prog with a capital P, but I'm definitely influenced by it.
There's a spirit of adventure in the songwriting, and some humor. I've always been a Pavement and Sonic Youth fan. So my prog is sort of like if Phil Collins moved to New York in '81 and got into dirty speed instead of, you know, making billions of dollars wearing a leather jacket.
When I first started, there was an element of "right place, right time." I was making these British-folk-sounding records, which I was a big fan of. But it was 2014, and the folk thing was big and marketing was pushing me as this psychedelic '60s dude. And I was probably too nervous or too shy to really make the kind of stuff I wanted to make yet. It was a bit of a pastiche, and I was ashamed for a while by the way I was marketed as part of that pastiche.
Look, it was great. I toured the world doing that. But I couldn't make those records anymore. It's not for some deep, artistic reason, either — it just got boring for me. I've got nothing to lose; I'm not famous. So, I like to think the songs got better. I think I've found something more original and pure, which is all I've ever been after.
SD: You've changed your lyrical style, as well.
RW: Ah, I don't know. It's a craft like any other. I think I've just gotten better. The last few records were kind of dark and damaged. The ones before that, I was just trying to rip off Nick Drake. Now, I write in non sequiturs. I write couplets and stitch them together. Anything linear in my lyrics is mostly accidental.
SD: With venues opening back up across the country, are you going to tour behind the record?
RW: Yep. I'm touring in the fall, and the whole band on the record is coming with me. But I'm also playing the Burlington show in July, just solo acoustic. That'll be my debut as a tax-paying Vermonter.
SD: Do you see that as a first step into the music community up here?
RW: I don't have a ton of friends up here yet. But I like being out in my little cottage home. I've been omnipresent in music scenes for years, [so] it's a nice change. That doesn't mean I don't want a community to be part of, but I'm also super happy to be a fly on the wall here and just enjoy it. I don't think there's an underground scene in Calais. I might be it now!
SD: You recently recorded a cover of Phish's "First Tube" for a compilation called Cluster Flies. Was it an early attempt to win over Vermonters?
RW: [Laughs] Man, JamBase [paid me] to do that — I want to be transparent about why I did it. It's funny because sometimes I get lumped into that world a little because, live, I like to jam. Which is what I grew up thinking Sonic Youth were doing. Phish are cool, I've just never been big into that world. Nothing but love and respect for them, though.
SD: Now that you're a homebody, as you say, do you think jumping back into touring will be difficult?
RW: I'm doing it a little differently. I used to do maniac tours for months across the country. But I don't want to headline or worry about selling tickets right now. I'm opening for Dinosaur Jr. and Drive-By Truckers. I just want to show up at six and make sure I don't suck. It's a good way to get back into touring, just opening gigs.
That's where I'm at now. A few weeks on the road is chill, but I have to get back. Sure, I miss touring, getting paid and the ego thing. But I like other things more now. I like being home.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Correction, Thursday, July 1: In an earlier version of this story, Ryler Walker misstated what he was paid by JamBase.