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In Conversation: Joshua Ray Walker

By Holler

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Since his 2019 debut album, Wish You Were Here, Joshua Ray Walker has been enrapturing audiences and luring in new fans with his bold approach to country music. Walker melds his storytelling ability with a timeless sound, creating music that is not only sonically pleasing but has the ability to draw you into the scenes he sings of.

His creativity is so strong that it feels infectious.

Wish You Were Here was not only his debut album, but the first of a trilogy. Walker used his years of experience observing patrons in dive bars to craft a fictional world where he developed characters and spun tales of everyday people.

Now, a decade after the first song for the trilogy was written, Walker is releasing the final chapter of his fictional world, See You Next Time. The cast of characters he has been writing about are all gathered for the last night at the honky tonk. It’s closing time, for the final time.

Holler Country Music

Joshua Ray Walker

We’ve learned from your first two albums that you make really bold choices when it comes to the lyrical content, as we saw with ‘Voices’. Are there songs on the new record that similarly tackle big issues?

I think, in general, I try to write songs about people that are kinda forgotten in culture. That’s a big theme throughout the record. There are a couple of tracks, like ‘Flash Paper’, that is about my dad passing. That one’s pretty personal. ‘Dumpster Diving’ is a cute love song, but it’s talking about a picker or a dumpster diver.

When I was growing up, my grandpa and I would go around on bulk trash week and pull old mowers out of the garbage; we’d fix ‘em up and sell ‘em at the pawnshop. That was how we made part of our income as a family. So, the fact that two people in that environment can fall in love, I thought it was a funny, cute idea.

It's real life. I feel like a lot of time those people are looked over in culture. The homeless or the foragers. They’re living full lives too and they’re just not represented in art and media very much, so I like to write about those characters.

You seem to have a deep capacity for empathy, which makes any perspective you choose to write and sing from believable. How did you develop a level of empathy that allows you to do that?

It started with my family. My mom is an extremely empathetic person; she never met anybody that wasn’t a friend. If she saw a homeless woman on the side of the road, she would go buy a meal and get some bottles of water and we’d sit and talk.

It wasn’t like she’d throw it out the car window and give ‘em twenty bucks. We’d go meet the person, hang out and figure out how they got there. She took time out of her life to really get to know people and I feel like that rubbed off on me.

I really like to know people and learn their backstory. That’s how I kinda’ ended up hanging out at dive bars, meeting some of the barflies and regulars that hang out there and figuring out how life led them to that place.

Do you have a favorite story that you tell on See You Next Time?

I don’t know if it’s a favorite story but ‘Sexy After Dark’ is one that can resonate with a lot of people. I find a lot of confidence out at bars where it’s kinda dark and grimy that I wouldn’t necessarily have during the day at a grocery store or something. That environment allows you to be a different version of yourself.

I think everybody can relate to that in some way, if they’ve ever put themselves in that position. It’s an interesting story to me because I feel like at least once everybody’s had that experience, like, “I’m gonna go out tonight and be whoever I wanna be.”

It’s fun and empowering, as long as you don’t use it for evil. I think that’s a fun experience to have.

‘Sexy After Dark’ sounds like it's from a different era. Do you have other songs on the record that call back to a different place in time?

I try to make an album sound as timeless as I can, so if you listen through it, you wouldn’t really tell if it was made now or the 90s, 80s, 70s. It doesn’t go much further back than that.

All three albums were written about this timeless, fictional honky-tonk that existed somewhere between Red Headed Stranger and Guitars, Cadillacs. You know, from the early 70s to the early 90s, in that era. So, I tried to make the record reflect that and sound how country sounded in that 20-to-25-year period. It draws from different places.

The album opener is called ‘Dallas Lights’. That has this late 80s, George Strait, twin-fiddle sound to it. Then there’s a song called 'Gas Station Roses' that has a mid-90s Chicks vibe to it. I definitely pull from different eras when I’m thinking about the production of my songs.

Did you write all three records in the trilogy at the same time, or was it a staggered process?

They were all written over a period of about 10 years.

There’s a song called ‘Fondly’, from the first record, which I wrote when I was 19. Then ‘Flash Paper’ is the newest song; that was written the night before it was recorded. So, there was an 11-year gap between the first and last song, but I’d say about 50-60% of the songs were all written in a 3-year period.

That was when the idea of the trilogy really came together - where I tied the thread, named them and decided on the characters. It was another five years before I got to actually record them. It’s been a long process of putting all this together.

It feels like this album is coming at a very important moment for you, just as your career is gaining momentum. Does the completion of the trilogy feel like an end for you or a beginning?

Both. I’m really excited for people to explore the trilogy and listen to all three records and try to figure out who the characters are, what they’re doing and piece the world together. That’s kind of been the big plan the whole time.

I didn’t wanna announce that I was releasing a concept trilogy as my first album. That just would’ve been too confusing. Coming right out of the gate with that being the first music you release; I just don’t think that would’ve gone well.

This is like a big reveal, so that’s really exciting. It is the end of something. I created this whole fictional world and I lived with those characters and wrote songs about them but also, I can explore new things now and write from a different place. I’m excited to see where the album after this goes - I have no idea.

The fictional world you’ve created is really fascinating, though. Will you ever explicitly tell everyone who all the characters are and how everything fits or is it up to us to piece it all together?

There are some hints at it. If you look at the album art, put ‘em front to back next to each other and it makes a big panoramic shot. That’s the case for all three records - if you look at the records carefully, you’ll find all the characters on all three album covers.

The characters reappear in the art and they also reappear in my videos. The videos for ‘Canyon’, ‘Voices’ and ‘Sexy After Dark’ all have recurring characters from the album. I brought the characters to life with my friends playing them.

In the back of my mind, I’ve always wanted to write a treatment for a movie. Not necessarily a musical, I’m not a big musical guy. I think if I had all the time, resources and money, making an independent film with all these characters would be the ultimate goal.

In my mind the movie already exists; I was writing songs about this movie I’d written in my head.

You seamlessly transition between fun songs like ‘Sexy After Dark’ and heavier numbers like ‘Flash Paper’. How do you find a balance between those two spaces?

As humans, we’re all pretty multi-faceted and complex. If you have an emotion, I can write a song about it. You kinda have to be able to embody all those different feelings that a human can have. That’s just what I try to do.

Sometimes I’m feeling goofy, fun and sexy and I wanna shoot a music video like ‘Sexy After Dark’. Then other times, you have loss; you’re sad and you’re feeling grief, and those are all just human emotions.

I try to be as sincere as I can in my songwriting. If I’m being true to myself, then I have to write songs about all the different parts of my life.

Speaking of different parts of your life, let’s talk about your style. You’ve described your style as “flamboyant”. Where does that come from? Do you have specific style influences? You always look very cool.

I’ve been overweight my whole life. I remember, up until about junior high, I would try to fit into whatever was cool at the time.

Whether it was the skater look or preppy or jock, I was trying to figure out who I was, and it just was never right. I didn’t fit into those boxes, and in trying to force yourself to look a certain way, you just end up looking worse, or you lack the confidence to pull it off and it just doesn’t look right.

Through my teens, I was pretty defeated. I couldn’t find anything that looked cool, so I just wore a lot of denim and baggy flannel. I grew my hair out, looked grungy. I wore Chucks.

Somehow, in my late teens, I started to gain confidence as a person and started taking risks. Like cutting my hair weird or dying it. I started getting more piercings and tattoos. I started finding clothes that fit me that I could combine in a way that suited my personality.

I grew up wearing western wear. I’m from Texas, so every kid has a pair of boots and a hat. I got back into that, started wearing cowboy boots. The boots and the hat really gave me an identity in my late teens, and also made me feel more like an adult. Something about taking the chucks off and putting on leather boots gave me some confidence.

Then, over time, I noticed every risk I took would pay off. I’d find this weird piece of clothing and think, “I don’t know if I have the confidence to wear that.” Then I’d wear it and get compliments. It just progressively became more of my personality.

It emboldened me to wear even more things that I liked. After a while, as a guy who has to wear plus-size clothing, I started getting pissed off that you can’t find anything in my size that isn’t cut poorly, and it’s all earth tones. You know, forest green, navy, brown, tan, black, gray. There’s never any bright colors.

I think the people who design the clothes assume that plus-size people wanna blend in and not be seen, almost like we’re hiding. But there’s no hiding. You can put me in a big navy shirt and I’m just a fat dude in a navy shirt. That’s not gonna trick anybody. I think that pissed me off, so anytime I found anything in my size that was bright or flamboyant I was like, “I’m gonna wear this and I don’t wanna blend in.”

When I try to blend in I look worse. When I stand out it’s not like this weird taboo thing that I’m overweight. It's just, “yeah I’m here, I’m bright, I’m confident this is what I look like.”

It kinda took that topic off the table. Because of course I know how I look; I dress like a peacock. It made it a non-issue and I feel like that added to my style. I love Elton John and I love flashy designer clothing. I love spikes and chrome and metallics and glitter and bright patterns and floral patterns. That’s just what I like. If I can find it in my size, then I wear it.

In that same respect, do you have any unexpected musical influences?

Probably. Prince was a pretty big influence for me. I like all Latin music. I grew up listening to Gypsy Kings. Cynthia Fernandes, you know, old Tejano musicians. I grew up in East Dallas and heard a lot of that growing up; the trumpet work and the accordion, I love the Tejano flare you can put on country music.

Pop music too, I’m a huge Lizzo fan. I look to pop music for hooks and that sort of thing. I wanna write music that resonates with people, but I also want a chorus that people will sing along to.

The world needs a Joshua Ray Walker and Lizzo collaboration.

That would be a dream, I can’t think of another big artist I’d wanna collaborate with more than her.

How are you most looking forward to fans experiencing See You Next Time? Is it a record to listen to alone? In your car on a drive? Is it best experienced live?

I think that I want people to experience it however they need to experience it.

Some people are gonna hear the record and think that it's a party record. Some people are gonna listen and think it’s a lyrically driven record. Some are gonna listen to it and think it’s a record to dance to.

I try to make my songs fit in a way that no matter what mood or scenario you’re in, it kind of fits that space. Hopefully, people will just enjoy it in whatever situation they listen in.

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Joshua Ray Walker’s trilogy-closing new album, See You Next Time, is out this Friday, October 8th, via State Fair Records.


Read Holler's review of See You Next Time here.