By Al Kaufman
Seth Walker likes to go where the music is. The North Carolina native has bedded down in Austin and Nashville before reaching his current destination, New Orleans. At each stop, Walker has absorbed the scene and incorporated it into his music, which now includes great storytelling, big guitars, Gospel-tinged blues, some Texas swagger and twang, and now, thanks to the Big Easy, some Dixieland jazz and funk. On his new CD, Sky Still Blue (Royal Potato Family), he blends all those elements while maintaining his distinctive sound, which includes his clever lyrics backed by infectious hooks. Produced by The Wood Brothers’ Oliver Wood (brother Chris Wood and his bass also appear on the CD), Sky Still Blue has a swampier feel than previous releases, Leap of Faith and Time Can Change. While he has always had a deep bluesy sound, it was more crystalline on those releases. On a cut such as “Trouble (Don’t Want No)” off Sky So Blue, the guitar is so full it sounds as if it just indulged in a few to many bowls of jambalaya and is now burping it way through the song. But it’s a beautiful belch.
Walker took time out from his tour supporting the new CD to talk about all the stops along his musical journey, both physical and mental.
Your parents are classically trained musicians. How did they feel about you becoming a bluesman?
At first they may have scratched their head a bit as I was flailing about on my musical quest, but they have always supported and encouraged me in this beautiful mad affair. They are as much fools for music as I am. They are my biggest fans, as I am of them.
Since leaving North Carolina, you’ve moved to big music cities; Austin, then Nashville, and now New Orleans. What did you take from those cities musically? Where do you plan to go next?
Austin was the first big leap. The clumsy fly from the coup. The blues pilgrimage. I really learned how to stand up on my own two feet in Austin in many ways. As a guitarist, a singer, a songwriter, and as a person. It learned me real good. Nashville taught me to pay attention. New Orleans is teaching me how to take what I learned, undo it, and make it yours again…with some syncopation. I have no idea what my next step is, but I’m sure something will be grabbing me by the collar soon. Something will have to really seduce me, to get me to leave the crescent city though.
You can hear New Orleans all over the new album, such as the rollicking sound of “Tomorrow.” What do you think this album would sound like if you never left North Carolina?
It might sound a lot more southern and straight ahead. I don’t think it would have the gristle that this one does.
While opening for the Wood Brothers, you obviously developed a good relationship with Oliver Wood, who produced the album and co-wrote five songs on it with you. How did the relationship come about?
We met in Ames, Iowa in 2006, randomly. I was on tour and opened up for The Wood Brothers and became an instant fan. We had common ground musically, and we were mutual friends of the amazing, soulful, late Sean Costello. Through the years, we have stayed in contact, and began to tour together. Songs started to spill out, and next thing you know we were perched up in the studio together working on this album.
You worked with [Grammy-winning songwriter and producer] Gary Nicholson quite extensively on 2009’s breakthrough album, Leap of Faith. How does working with Wood differ from working with Nicholson? Do you prefer collaborating to working alone?
They both have different approaches and I think both influences have greatly steered me in a forward direction. Gary has the great gift of songwriting, a Texas blues root, and the long time experience in the business. We call him “The Word Man.” I can’t tell you how much he has influenced me. Oliver has a beautiful way of letting music organically happen. He encouraged me to embrace the abstract, and the sonic space that gets lost in recordings these days. The songs I have written with Oliver opened me up again to art of songwriting. It’s a feeling — in 3 to 4 minutes. I tend to prefer collaborating with like-minded folk. I feel it gives much needed perspective. Corralling a song needs four hands sometimes. Although there are times when the solitude of working alone can open things up. Occasionally, when I’m writing solo, I don’t even remember carving them out. I was just a channel of sorts. It’s all an elusive dance anyway, and I’m thankful to have the opportunity to spin it around the floor on occasion.
Seth Walker plays Eddie’s Attic on Saturday, June 28th.