The young man with the road-weary voice and knack for lovelorn songs is already earning comparisons to the American folk greats.
Combine the dexterity of guitarist John Fahey and the eclecticism of the late singer Tim Buckley and you get Ryley Walker, the 24-year-old who has recently broken out of Chicago’s indie folk scene to build a fan base from Reno to Raleigh. “I don’t want a regular job,” he says. “I want to play the game, get out and talk to people, and make it happen.”
As a kid in Rockford, Walker found inspiration at CD Source, a small independent shop in town. “I remember buying Black Unity by Pharoah Sanders,” he says. “I got into these weird sounds at a young age.” That urge to explore, combined with a natural talent on guitar (honed with lessons since age 12), helped Walker develop his remarkable, mature-beyond-his-years sound.
At 18, he decamped for Chicago to study music at the University of Illinois, a stint he says lasted “about 10 minutes.” Instead, Walker spent most of his free time playing house shows, including many at the now-shuttered Mopery, a DIY space on Milwaukee Avenue. “I was this 18-year-old dingus, a total freak, and I saw Mike Forbes [of the band Tiger Hatchery] wailing on the sax,” recalls Walker. “I’d never seen anything like that before.”
From there, Walker began collaborating with members of the experimental- and free-jazz scenes, playing everywhere from dingy basements to the avant-garde music hub Constellation. His road-worn voice and finger-style guitar soon earned him comparisons to such folk icons as Fahey and Bert Jansch. But it was his unique blending of the American songbook with out-there free-jazz flourishes that set him apart. Walker had an early fan in Dustin Drase, founder of the local cassette label Plus Tapes, who met the singer at Pitchfork Music Festival in 2010 when Walker handed him a self-recorded demo. “At first I thought he was trolling me because I’m a huge John Fahey fan,” Drase recalls. “But then I realized it was all original.”
Plus Tapes released Walker’s first solo recording, The Evidence of Things Unseen, in 2011. The cassette sold out within weeks. It didn’t take long for bigger labels to come calling. Walker soon inked a deal with the San Francisco label Tompkins Square, and in April he released his first full-length album, All Kinds of You. The recording reveals Walker’s tender side: Lush strings and intricate guitar lines layer over his smoky vocals on “The West Wind” and “Great River Road,” two gorgeous acoustic tales of pastoral wanderings.
Walker is already thinking about his next record, which he says will be a return to his improvisational roots. “Each song is like its own ecosystem,” he explains. “When you add another element, it takes on a life of its own. But the one true love is the improvisation, which is this really beautiful and Zen-like thing.”