Interview: Seth Walker Finds Musical Influence in Family, Friends, Location
Austin-based singer-songwriter Seth Walker is on the road supporting his ninth album, Gotta Get Back, released in early September. Before performing at the Basement East during the 2016 Americana Music Festival in late September, Walker sat down with The Boot to discuss his newest album, his upbringing in classical music and how the different cities in which he's lived have influenced his style.
AmericanaFest and the Americana community as a whole have offered a musical family for artists such as Walker, who are often difficult to place into a particular genre.
"When you're on the fringe, which I am, you know, it's nice to have a little community that you can kinda call your own," Walker tells The Boot. "When you're in pop-country or pop music, it's just not open ... Americana is much more open. I'm more in the blues and soul, jazz side of Americana, and then you go as far as bluegrass or folk -- we're still in this together."
Walker's music has always been heavily influenced by blues. He recorded his first album in 1997, and according to the artist, the project was basically a copy of "jump-blues guys like Louie Jordan, T-Bone Walker, BB King."
"That is some of the fundamentals of my music still to this day," Walker says. "Through the records, I've kind of tried to flirt with -- you know, I'll go into songwriting, go into some different grooves and experiment, some unsuccessfully. Leading all the way up to this new record, with the culmination of my family involved in this record, it kind of brought all of the albums and my family and all of it together as one album."
Indeed, Walker's family has been a big influence on him musically. His parents were both classical musicians and taught using the Suzuki Method, which aims to train children to play instruments in a similar manner to how they learn to speak their native language.
"It's ear-training, so you listen ... It trains your ear, and I think that definitely has helped [my music]," Walker says. "In blues music and soul music, it's all about feel -- it's not written on a page like classical music -- so I think that has helped me. And just the fact that my fingers have been on strings since I was three or four years old probably does not hurt me.
"I do think that the harmonic sense of classical music is -- God, it's just like, it's so connected," he continues, "and jazz comes from that harmony, and I think that the sensibility of the classical music has definitely influenced my harmonic sense for my music."
But familial influences stretch far beyond Walker's upbringing. On Gotta Get Back, the singer played a guitar specially made by his uncle, who owns Moriah Guitarworks in Greensboro, N.C. That instrument added something extra-special to the project -- something that Walker says he may not have felt playing a different guitar.
"I mean, you're playing this guitar, and it was crafted from your blood, and it was sounding so good," he says. "Sometimes, it could be the most beautifully crafted instrument or whatever, but it may not suit you. Like, somebody could build me a hat, and it may be the most amazing hat, but it just don't fit on my head; it don't look right.
"Honestly, I was a little concerned," Walker admits. "Like, he put all this time into this guitar, and what if I don't like it? And when I picked it up, I knew; I knew I was in good shape. It just reminded me again that I was in the right place with this music."
Gotta Get Back was produced by the Wood Brothers' Jano Rix. Walker met the folk band around 2007 and ended up on the road with them; his first gig opening for the band also happened to be Rix's first time playing as part of their lineup, and the two hit it off. The group's Oliver Wood produced Walker's last album and recommended bringing Rix into the studio on that project, kicking off a working relationship between the two musicians.
"[Wood] said, 'You should get Jano to come in the studio. He'd be like the wildcard; it's gonna be great.' I had never performed with him before, and it was killer. I mean, he just played the funkiest, weirdest ... His drumming was just so soulful and original, and we became friends through that record, tighter friends," Walker remembers. "Then we went on the road, and we were in Florida, and I was talking about making this new album, and he said, 'I have some ideas for you, sir, about your new record,' and we just started talking when we're driving 5,000 miles together in the van.
"He has a gift of letting music unfold. It's like holding a bird: It's like if you let it too loose, it'll fly away -- you've gotta hold it just tight enough. He really gets that balance, and that works good for me in the studio," Walker adds. "We're friends, so the whole record kind of had that 'Hey man, let's play some music' [feeling]."
Despite being close friends, Walker and Rix have also maintained a good working relationship that doesn't let ego get in the way of making good music.
"We can be honest with each other; it's like, 'Hey, Jano, this is not working,' or, 'Seth, dude, you gotta sing that again,'" Walker says. "We're at that point, and there's no weirdness about any of that. And that's true friendship, too, when you can be really honest with someone."
Walker was raised in North Carolina, but he has lived in music-centric cities around the country, including Austin, Texas; New Orleans, La.; and Nashville -- and each city has greatly affected the music he's recorded while there. The singer moved to Austin, where he recorded his first album, after hearing Stevie Ray Vaughn, which he says made him think, "Oh, God, I've got to go to Austin."
"When I got there, I started studying and learning from the local people there and learning from the records that Stevie Ray learned from," Walker recalls. "That blues, that Texas blues, and that swing, obviously influenced my records."
Walker then went to Nashville, where he started writing more and paying closer attention to lyrics. His time in Music City helped him develop higher-level writing skills, but he started to feel like he was able to "phone it in" too easily, so he headed down to New Orleans.
"When I moved to New Orleans, I wanted to almost un-learn things in a way; I wanted to get that rough edge," Walker admits. "Rhythmically, New Orleans has definitely changed my music -- the push-and-pull, the swing-and-straight ... You want music to happen, you don't want it to be so bland that it chokes. When we listen to a great record, there's something that happens on that record that that's what pulls us in."
He continues, "I definitely make a point not to make the same record every time. Most of my records, some of them are pretty drastically different, some might say to a fault. But I think that when you get yourself out of your comfort zone, that's where you'll find things in yourself."
Nearly two decades after the release of his first project, Walker feels like he's finally where he wants to be. Looking back at his career, he wonders if he was ever really enjoying himself before now.
"Almost 20 years I've been doing this, nine albums later. And, I don't know, when I made this album with my family and the way it kind of aligned me with the music, I'm actually enjoying it more than I ever have ... I don't take it for granted as much as maybe I used to," Walker says. "That's just kind of helped my spirit."
Walker has tour dates scheduled through November, with upcoming stops set in Austin, New Orleans and across the South and Midwest. A complete list his of upcoming shows can be found at SethWalker.com; Gotta Get Back is available for download, with options for CD and vinyl, via Amazon and iTunes.
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