Interview: Joshua Ray Walker Reflects on the Lifetime That Led to His Debut Album, ‘Wish You Were Here’
"It's a very personal record. I can't wait to play it front of people and have everyone hear it."
Joshua Ray Walker is talking to The Boot on the phone, from Dallas, Texas, just days away from the release of his debut full-length record, Wish You Were Here. As he gets closer and closer to getting the finished album in his fans' hands, he's taking some time to reflect on all that has led up to its release.
"We went in to start tracking Feb, 2, 2018, but I've been writing the songs on the record for almost a decade," he says. "That's not to say these are all the songs I've written in the last 10 years, but the first song I ever wrote, it's on there."
That song, "Fondly," was written early on Christmas Eve in 2009, moments after Walker's grandpa died of cancer. Wish You Were Here is steeped in Walker's personal experiences, from processing the death of his grandfather to diving into his own fears, in "Canyon," after his dad was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.
"It really is a little bit of everything I've done over the last decade," Walker says. "I'm just excited to get on the road and play it."
When he's not cutting open his own heart in his songs, Walker is putting himself into the lives of people he's met over the years. Often, those stories come from the downtrodden and the destitute.
"I guess I just relate to that," Walker confesses, "because I've been in those situations before. I grew up in a somewhat poor household in East Dallas, which is hip now. But at the time, it was kind of the shady side of town. The people in a lot of these songs, those are the people I grew up around.
"Later in life, I started meeting people who grew up with money, and I realized that everyone has the same issues," he continues. "You'll find about the same amount of happiness in nearly every demographic here in town, but honestly, I find more inspiration when you're down and out and you're still positive about life. We work through it and do what we have to and enjoy the little things."
"You'll find about the same amount of happiness in nearly every demographic here in town, but honestly, I find more inspiration when you're down and out and you're still positive about life. We work through it and do what we have to and enjoy the little things."
Walker's years in Dallas were not only foundational to his eventual songwriting, but also to his musicianship: "I started playing banjo and guitar when I was five. I grew up in a duplex next door to my grandfather, and I picked up the instruments in his workshop when I was real young, and I'd try to play along to bluegrass records that he had," he recalls. "I got pretty good through grade school and picked up a few more instruments. By junior high and high school, I was playing drums and bass and guitar in different bands."
That passion for playing live music never waned. "I've been gigging pretty regularly since high school," Walker explains, "and I started trying to play guitar full-time when I was about 18 or 19 years old. I started playing solo on a regular basis — that is, my own music — for about five or six years. It's really been a lifetime thing for me."
Though he's been playing music pretty much his entire life, writing songs that cut through the noise and show the beauty and pain of the world around him is a somewhat newer endeavor for Walker.
"I don't think I really listened to lyrics until I was an adult," he confides. "The melody and the phrasing, that was always interesting to me, and I kind of saw that as another instrument, but I never really connected to the lyrics much when I was growing up. I think that's why, in my late teens, I was really into writing post-rock guitar music, like Explosions in the Sky and that sort of stuff."
So, what was the turning point that pushed Walker into pouring his heart and soul into the words of the songs he was writing? "I got turned onto Hayes Carll and Sam Baker by my longtime drummer, and all of a sudden, I started listening to the lyrics," Walker says.
"Maybe I was finally mature enough to relate to them," he adds. "Listening to Carll and Baker led me to Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, then from there I just really started digging through songwriters and it became a style of music that I listened to regularly."
"I got turned onto Hayes Carll and Sam Baker by my longtime drummer, and all of a sudden I started listening to the lyrics."
As Walker's repertoire began to grow and change, he committed to playing his songs as often as he could. "In 2016 and 2017, I played 250 shows a year, all in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and then within a three-hour radius. But in 2018, I decided I was over-saturating my hometown, and so I only played about 70 or 80 shows, but I spread out," he shares. "I was going to Nashville a lot, and was playing the Midwest more, getting up to places like Kansas City, Oklahoma and St. Louis."
And now, in 2019, Walker's first-ever LP is ready to hit store shelves -- though a full-length was never in his initial plans when he went into the studio. In large part, fans can thank Dallas musician John Pedigo for helping make Wish You Were Here a reality.
"John has been a part of the music scene in Dallas for over 20 years. He's in a band called The O's, and I used to play in a band called Ottoman Turks, and we were on some bills with them. I knew him through that, but I've been watching John play since I was in junior high," Walker recalls. "I'd sneak into rockabilly shows in Deep Ellum in Dallas. Eventually, I asked him if he'd do an EP with me, and he was willing to work with me but asked why I wasn't doing a full album. I told him it was for financial reasons, so he asked me to show him a few songs. I gave him a new one I just wrote, "Canyon," and he took that demo and gave it to State Fair Records. We were in the studio about a month later making the record together."
For an album as personal as Wish You Were Here is, Walker admits that it was kind of strange bringing these songs into the studio and trying to finish them.
"You know, I think a lot of writers say that a song or a book, they're never really finished," he says. "This particular recording of it, this is just what it is right now, at this moment. A lot of these songs have had years and years for me to make changes, and then some of them are pretty new and were laid down really quick, but it's hard to let go of a song, regardless. You always think about how you could make one word better or how you could tweak the bridge or change a chord here. Actually locking it in and having a concrete version of a song is scary. Letting go, it's hard, but it's also really great."
Throughout the writing, recording and mixing of Wish You Were Here, Walker found himself experiencing the music industry like he had never before. "A year ago, I didn't know anyone," he admits. "You just don't know how anything works until you do, and then everything becomes normal."
One example of this shift toward a new normal in Walker's life is his friendship with Colter Wall. "He's probably the artist I've listened to the most in the last couple of years, and the first time I met him, I got to shake his hand when a buddy of mine opened for him here in Dallas," Walker explains. "We exchanged a few words, and it was like meeting any other person you have a lot of respect for. You say hello, they're nice, and that's that."
But, for Walker, that wasn't that.
"The next time I saw Wall," Walker says, "he actually came out to a show in Nashville and watched my set. It was a surprise, and I had happened to be playing with my friend who had opened for him in Dallas, and so Colter came to watch our set. He was attentive and into it and was really nice.
"We went and had a beer and sandwich afterward, and it was just one of those things ... when it happens and you meet someone you look up to, it's just normal, you know? The next time I saw him, he came up and gave me a hug, and now we're buds, and he asked me to play some shows with him," Walker continues. "It's the same way with [American Aquarium's] BJ Barham: He happened to hear "Canyon" on Spotify and tweeted about it, so I reached out to say thank you, and then a month later, I was opening for him at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa.
"It's all been very surreal," muses Walker. "Everyone has been very, very nice and supportive and accepting and inclusive. We talk, we swap stories — it's been great, and it's really exceeded my expectations."
As he prepares to unveil Wish You Were Here to fans, Walker is already thinking about what's next — not just about this year's tour, which will take him across the states and even to Scandinavia, but the next collection of songs he'll put together.
"I feel some pressure just because this album has garnered a lot more attention than I anticipated," Walker divulges, "so of course I want to live up to expectations. There were some key songs left out of this first album, and I think they're good. I have quite a few songs written that didn't make it, so I kind of have material ready to go, and of course, I'll probably write a few new ones.
"I'm ready to make the second one," he says. "I don't know if it'll have another "Canyon" — you can only write so many songs about one of your parents being diagnosed with cancer ... but I think I have a pretty solid catalog of songs."
Meet Joshua Ray Walker + More of The Boot's 2019 Artists to Watch