Seth Walker opens his latest effort, I Hope I Know, with a groove and tone as greasy as it is apropos. Lowdown with a resignation dressed in optimism, “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be” offers up a tomorrow sketched but not quite realized and still capable of goodness– or tragedy. Walker, accompanied by longtime friend and producer Jano Rix (The Wood Brothers), stylishly feels his way through a collection of fresh tracks written with Gary Nicholson, Oliver Wood, and Jarrod Dickenson that carefully capture the emotions of broken love and pandemic isolation with syncopation, crucial instrumentation, and deft lyricism. The R&B of “Why Do I Cry Anymore”, the innocence of the title track (featuring Allison Russell), and the arcane jazz of “Remember Me” roll like clouds, the wind picking up with the funky blues of “Satisfy My Mind” before plumbing the heart with a rendition of the Bobby Charles staple, “Tennessee Blues”. Elsewhere, Walker saunters through Van Morrison’s “Warm Love” and cherry-picks “Buckets Of Rain” from Bob Dylan’s 1975 entropic marital meditation, Blood On The Tracks. On “River”, Seth seems to accept fate (or providence) no matter where it flows, making the overture, “Consider this an invitation, I extend to you / And don’t forget your demons / They’re welcome too,” before the praxis of the album’s finale, a welcome call to lay down arms called “Peace In The Valley”. Answering from his home in Asheville, NC, Walker was keen to talk influences and share his thoughts on writing and recording a personal album at an extraordinary point in time.
AI- I’ve been lookin’ forward to this because I’ve written about you in the past, you’ve been to Macon a bunch, but you and I have never had the one-on-one conversation, and a new album is a great reason to do it! For I Hope I Know, I have read where you say there are two themes to the album– search and surrender. The question that I have is where did the search start, and what was the question?
SW- When the pandemic hit us, it started to ask all of us some questions. It’s kind of like a magnifyin’ glass, right? I found myself havin’ to address some things that I had shelved for a long time, not only personally– I went through a breakup during all of that– but just askin’ myself how I related to my art, to the music. Sometimes, lookin’ back on it, you caught up in the wheel of the whole thing– the writing, the touring, the next gig the next this, the next that… Sometimes, you forget to actually be there (laughs)! This whole season, the last couple years has spotlighted that for me, and I think that carried over into the record because I took my time with it. I didn’t have to rush, so I think the limitations of it brought some things into focus and actually helped me.
The album’s opening track, “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be”, that’s far from a lament– I mean, it does have a somber tone, but in that track, the way you set things off, you are embracing that change.
(Laughs) Yeah! I figured, better look at it that way than the other way! I definitely had a lot of pain, a lot of struggle, a lot of heartache– this whole album was literally a rope that I hung onto!
This is far from the first time you’ve worked with Jano Rix. I’m gonna guess (laughs) there was probably wasn’t another choice, that you guys have got a good thing goin’ on! What you said about being able to take your time, I think that stands out brightly. There’s plenty of room to breathe on all of these songs– you don’t sound like you’re going through a motion with anything. It all feels very immediate. Were you conscious of that while you were in the studio working? ‘Cause for a lot of these tracks, it’s really just you and Jano makin’ the music– with some exceptions.
Mostly, with a few embellishments. This album took me, by far, longer than any album I’ve ever done– partly due to the circumstance. But like I alluded to earlier, just meeting it in the middle, I went to it as much as it came to me. When there’s balance like that, I wasn’t forcin’ stuff. This was probably the quietest I’ve ever sung on a record. I really just tried to sit in it. Jano and I, this was our third album that we’ve done, and I think to further your question, Jano and I have developed a connection with the music, a friendship, and most importantly a trust. So I think we felt relaxed enough to let it breathe and not try to smother it with a bunch o’ bullshit.
The latest single that just came out, “Remember Me”, you’ve talked about that song bein’ evocative of Billie Holiday or even Tom Waits. It has a really haunting weight to it that reminded me of Tom’s album Alice, almost has a Tim Burton, cinematic feel.
Yeah! I love that album! God, that’s a great record!
What were you listenin’ to during your downtime? ‘Cause you’ve got a pretty voracious appetite for music yourself.
You talkin’ about during the pandemic? You talk about Billie Holiday, I love that era of jazz– that stuff is so timeless to me! It’s probably the kind of music I can listen to the most for the longest periods of time. I don’t know what it is! Even the ballads! People are like, “God, how do you listen to that slow stuff for so long, Seth?” I’m like, “It gives me energy!” I’ll drive down the road listenin’ to the slowest song you can possibly imagine (laughs)!
There’s so much involved with it as well when you think of the skill and the pathos that comes from those old records. It’s somethin’ that people spend their entire careers tryin’ to elicit!
That’s very true! I’ve just skated around it and dipped my toe into it, but you know, when I first got goin’ on this music years ago, when I first moved to Austin jazz, swing, and blues– that was my whole MO! I was tryin’ to copy T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown and all these swing guys, jump blues guys. I think “Remember Me” was a return to some of my earlier influences for sure.
But to get back to your question, as far as what I was listenin’ to, I was listening to a lot of West African music. Ali Farka Touré is a big influence– which you can actually hear a lot of the influence in “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be” guitar-wise. That his desert blues stuff that I kinda lifted (laughs)! He did a lot of stuff with Ry Cooder. Ry Cooder is also a big influence on me– I don’t play slide like Ry, but the tones, the feel, all that… He did all that Buena Vista Social Club music. But a lot of world music and a lot of blues!
Did that keep you sharp on the guitar? Findin’ those things to explore?
Yeah, always! When you find somethin’ new, you can try to dig around, and I definitely had a lot of time at home to woodshed, that’s for sure (laughs)!
You’ve got a couple covers on here– you do Bobby Charles’ “Tennessee Blues”. I don’t think there’s anybody that captures the poetry of a moment quite like Bobby Charles. Where’d you come across that song?
Amen! Well, I had heard that record [self-titled]– that’s the one that Levon Helm’s on, Dr. John on… They did it up in New York, and it has “I Must Be In A Good Place Now”, “Street People”… Well, for some reason, I don’t know what rock I was under, but that “Tennessee Blues song had escaped me! ‘Cause I used to sing “I Must Be In A Good Place Now” at my shows all the time! Now that’s actually the Bobby Charles tune I was plannin’ on doin’. And then a friend o’ mine sent me “Tennessee Blues”. He was like, “Man, I think you should put your ears on this!” When I heard the lyric– just like you said, Aaron– talk about paintin’ a picture! The lyrics of that song– leaving Tennessee, which I was, movin’ to the mountains to try to get away from everything and everyone– struck such a chord with me, I was like, “Well, hell, this song is exactly where I am!” So yeah, that one really resonates with me!
You close the album with “Peace In The Valley”. The line, “We can’t take no more war…” It’s unfortunate that you could have written that song at any time in your career, but this very minute, I would call it crushing in its proximity. Everything that’s goin’ on overseas in Ukraine and that has been going on in Afghanistan– how much of that plays a role in what you do creatively anyway? And especially right now? I mean, you open an album with “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be” and close it with “Peace In The Valley”. That feels like a statement to me.
Definitely, my antenna is up as an artist. There’s a collective consciousness, I do believe, and obviously, the song was written long before this war started in Ukraine, but I think I was meaning it across the board. I wasn’t pointing necessarily to the Afghanistan war, but I was talkin’ about the dissonance that we as people, for some damn reason, keep falling into in going against each other. I guess the song was a call. Actually, I wrote it right in the room I’m sitting in at this very moment lookin’ up at these trees. I can hear the birds, and it’s funny we’re talkin’ ’bout it right here ’cause I remember feeling a call to end it, as in beatin’ it (laughs)!
Is that a challenge you think you’ll continue to try to meet as a songwriter and as a performer?
Yeah. We’re always tryin’ to dig in there, challenge ourselves. I was pretty raw in my state of mind for this album in particular, and I think it served me well that I didn’t try to steer it as much, perhaps. That’s for you to make your decisions on. This is album number eleven, and every time I try to step and do one, the journey continues. It’s like I’m starting over again.
What did you say? “Search and hope are cousins if not synonyms?”
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s right!