I first saw Chicago musician Ryley Walker at a boutique Toronto hotel where he was playing. Having dinner, I noticed a shaggy fellow at the end of the bar. It was early – the place was empty, and the bartender had no other customers. And yet he ignored Walker completely. Walker waited patiently for a few awkward minutes before leaving, unserved, without a fuss.
It bothered me. Here was a guy – a very talented guy who was playing a small show and likely making barely any money – who couldn’t get a glass of water or a beer or whatever it was that he wanted. He didn’t get his refreshment, but, more than that, he didn’t get respect. This is the plight of an indie musician.
According to a new report published by Citigroup, artists received only 12 per cent of the US$43-billion generated in music industry revenue in the United States last year. Twelve per cent? That’s not even a good tip.
A Van Morrison enthusiast and a sublime acoustic guitarist, Walker, 29, plays a free-flowing style of alt-folk rock. Sometimes he’s all breezy, pastoral and British Isles. Other times he works in jazzed, stoned and seventies-era head-nodding ways. He moans, he drones – he’s a fingerpicking firecracker. He makes music to pick up hitchhikers to. I could listen to Walker all day, which has been known to happen.
Occasionally in his lyrics, he hints at financial distress. “I haven’t got a penny to my name,” he sings on The High Road, off 2015’s excellent LP Primrose Green. On the experimental jazz-rock of Accommodations (from his latest album Deafman Glance), Walker is weirder and poetic:
Daydreaming of paying off my debt
State of Bavaria, you bastards took all I had left
Don’t let me spoil the fun
But can you please pick up the check?
My fandom of his music has recently turned into a fascination with the man. It’s his Twitter feed. Raw, hilarious, clever and, at times, scruffily poignant, his missives from home or on the road are too good to be contained to social microblogging. A publisher needs to hire a cartoonist to draw Walker as a graphic-novel indie-music folk hero, with his observational and vivid confessional tweets – “My life’s trajectory is definitely headed towards being shirtless with a knife in the parking lot of the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company” – as captions. Does Robert Crumb need a gig?
Walker often tweets about his weight: “I will become the fattest man in indie rock, one tortilla chip dunk at a time. Calculated deep scoops bursting with pride. The smooth finesse and elegance of a classically trained violinist playing their rendition of System of a Down Aerials during an evening rainstorm.”
The thing is, he’s not heavy. “It’s disrespectful to come to my gigs and tell me I’m not as fat as I say I am,” he recently tweeted. Is Walker playing a character online?
“It’s definitely not an act,” his label publicist tells me. “Although his music is pretty serious, he’s a pretty fun and funny guy, but definitely very self-deprecating.”
Friend, collaborator and fellow Chicago indie musician Bill MacKay has this to say: “He’s a charismatic, extremely funny and talented guy. His creativity tends to express itself via many outlets. Some of them are songs, others are characters, and so on.”
Canadian singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman of the Weather Station sees Walker’s brash online persona as very real, but also a long and funny continuing joke. “His Twitter feed is a relief to me because Twitter is such an uptight place, full of people promoting things in the correct way, using the right words, saying the right things," she says. "His feed by contrast is a gonzo blitz of reality and hilarity that is most specifically funny to people similarly driving around the world playing shows.”
Walker, then, should be viewed as an indie-musician everyman (or everywoman), unashamedly voicing the frustrations and experiences shared by his melodious, unkempt kind. Here’s a guy, for example, who uses a movie pass not to watch films, but to take naps in theatres when he arrives in towns before the venue doors open. If we buy his merchandise, he says he’ll have enough money to pay off his cellphone bill ($56.02), with enough scratch left over for a chicken tender basket ($7.62).
It bothers Walker that “crash-zone” houses, homes where musicians stop to sleep while on the road, never have any toothpaste, and yet there are always gobs of it in the bathroom sink. He’s upset that there are no places to play between Fort Collins, Colo., and Omaha, Neb.
And while I won’t argue with his opinion that Mumford & Sons are an awful band, I draw the line when Walker tweets that his own music is “basically the kind Jeff Buckley’s bloated corpse would make.” That’s just not true. One day, I’ll buy him a beer and tell him that.