Getting lunch with Ryley Walker is a lesson in starving artistry. When I meet the 25-year-old folk singer at Don Chema in Logan Square, he's already downed a basketful of corn chips, and goes wide-eyed when our server brings a second. His sweater is thrift-shop roomy, his face vague with jet-lag. "They've got everything you could possibly want here," says the Rockford native of his prized taco joint, and by the time we're bloated and waterlogged, I believe he believes it.
The deal with Ryley Walker: He's the black-sheep folk musician in a city nearly bereft of the genre. After brief stints in Chicago's punk and noise scenes following briefer stints at Columbia and UIC, Walker ultimately fell into his stock brand of hippie folk (John Fahey being the comparison he'll never shake), and eventually attracted a sect of jazz musicians based on sheer guitar prowess. "A lot of them are 10, 15, 20 years older than me," says Walker. "It's inspiring to play with them, to hear a jazz dude play folk songs. I don't want some wienery indie rock people."
Walker is a musicians' musician, to the degree that anything outside of writing and gigging—including money, fame, and probably this interview—is white noise. He lives on a friend's couch ("I don't want to be tied down"). He neither owns nor wants for material possessions ("Just money for beer and guitar strings"). And the business side of his career is an unwelcome distraction: "A lot of days, the last thing to come to mind is ‘I should play guitar.' Isn’t that what I do? It’s like, ‘No, I’m on the fucking phone all the time.’"
There's no slowing down for Walker, though. His sophomore LP Primrose Green (out March 31) is technical enough to shame his debut and diverse enough to draw critical attention from Pitchfork and NPR alike. "There's more of a psychedelic jazz feel to it," says Walker. "Really, I just wanted to make songs good enough to play live, that I wouldn't get bored of."
Consequently, Primrose Green isn't so much an airtight folk album as it is a sonic play structure, spacious and meandering and built for improv. If that all sounds a bit untapeable, it more than clicks live: Walker's show is staggering in a way that few jams are. "I feel bad for anything else in my life," says Walker, "because music always comes first. It’s the only thing in my life that’s remained constant. I refuse to do anything else."
That declaration, by the time he's finished his al pastor, makes answering my last question—where he'll be in five years—easy: "I'll probably be playing music. That's all I can do. I'll wake up, make a pot of coffee, play my guitar, get a taco eventually, then play more guitar."
GO: Ryley Walker performs at Chopin Theatre Monday, March 30 at 9 p.m. 1543 W. Division. Tickets: $10