What’s considered cool may morph between different crowds and generations, but a proud and curated declaration of musical taste unites the blueprint for them all.
At no time does that declaration matter quite so much as in your teenage years. As a 15-year-old playing in punk and metal bands in his hometown of Dallas, Texas, Joshua Ray Walker had more understanding than most of the cultural currency attached to different artists.
“It wasn’t cool to listen to Fiona Apple, Joanna Newsom, Regina Spektor, Alanis Morissette… It was kind of this guilty pleasure music that I couldn’t let my friends know I was listening to,” he explains from his front porch. “But it was actually ‘Samson’ by Regina Spektor that was one of the first songs where I ever really listened to the lyrics and saw music as a way to tell a story, not just as something to listen to for musical enjoyment”.
Those female artists’ influence on his musical life reach a symbolic peak this week as he releases his new album, What Is It Even? - a selection of covers of female artists. It’s country-led, an approach which is particularly apparent on an afternoon honky tonk cover of Cher’s ‘Believe’. But there’s also blues and gospel on Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, soul on Lizzo’s ‘Cuz I Love You’, a spaghetti western coating on Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills’, and bluegrass on Beyonce’s ‘Halo’, amongst others.
It’s Walker’s fourth record, following the trilogy of albums that made his name for their character-driven songwriting and universe creating. Built on years as a shy boy observing the world around him, his experiences were spun into stories that are as recognisable as they are fresh and strange. The choice to follow up with an album of covers will seem unexpected to many.
“I feel like I’ve been given this duty as a more traditional songwriter,” he explains. “I can get called a ‘torchbearer’ or things like that because of my traditional country writing and the yodels. That’s not something I ever sought. I was just making the music that I wanted to make. I’m really not a country traditionalist, I like a lot of different things, so I wanted to shake up that image a little bit and probably rub off some of the more old-hat listeners - or at least give them something to think about”.
As enigmatic as his characters and stories may be, Walker actually thrives on order and logic, a quality instilled in him by his original and most important female influence. Now 32, he spent his childhood years observing his mother as she carved out a career in the motorsport world, one not known for being female-friendly.
“My mom scares the shit out of people,” he laughs. “She’s the sweetest lady in the world but I’ve seen her dress down the biggest, meanest looking guy in the room to where it looks like he’d want to cry”. Every time she took on a new contract she’d insist that she be able to have her son accompany her and he grew to love the logistics and planning side of it all.
So given his admiration for and upbringing by strong women, his penchant for logical decision making and expansive vocal range on previous works, we should be less surprised with the choice to make this an all-female cover record.
“I still have a high voice, but even my speaking voice through my early teens was really high, so I could sing Beyoncé songs and things like that. Those were in my vocal range. I’d belt female pop songs. That was the only time I ever raised my voice at all. How often are you singing as loud as you can? There aren’t that many opportunities in life to do that, particularly if you’re a shy person. These female pop songs gave me confidence, they gave me the ability to practise singing in this way that I now use in my other music”.
The record comes after a difficult time in his life, with his dad passing away, his home flooding and the shadow of the pandemic. He and the band floated around a few concept record ideas before settling on the all-female roster. The ultimate goal was to make something light-hearted and fun, but that’s not to say that the record only goes for the light. It includes a cover of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ by Sinead O’Connor, whose passing comes one day before our interview.
“It’s very sad,” he says of Sinead’s death. “It’s hard when you see someone who’s struggling with mental health for such a long time and make it so far into life yet still not make it out. She was such a rebel. History changes the narrative, and her career was cancelled because she ripped up a picture of the Pope. I think most people looking back have probably changed their opinion at some point based on what we know now”.
Walker is speaking of Sinead’s appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, when she ripped up a picture of the Pope to protest child sex abuse during a rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘War’, an incident which caused permanent and widespread damage to her career. Is there a lesson in ‘cancel culture’ there, if time allows the same action that once received widespread condemnation to now receive widespread praise of its bravery?
“Most of the time if someone’s being cancelled it’s usually for good reason these days, I’d say,” he says. “It’s not like when Morgan Wallen said the n-word, or Jason Aldean’s music video being shot at a lynching site. It was just her trying to stand up for people without a voice, so it just came from a different place. It feels like culture as a whole has kind of shifted.”
Sinead’s act may have been overtly political, but there’s something more casually political about being an act in the country music sphere, given its frequent underrepresentation of women, and putting out an all-female cover record. Was that the intention?
“The idea wasn’t to shed light on these artists, because no one needs me to tell them who Beyonce is,” he says. “It’s unfortunate that female artists aren’t more empowered to make the music that they want to make in country music. I think there’s a freedom in pop music. They’re empowered to have more diverse takes in general in pop music than they are in country. You have to fit into a box in country music as a woman to have any sort of success”.
In choosing which tracks made the record, it was simply a case of getting into the studio and seeing which worked out of a list of 50-plus songs. Shania Twain and Miley Cyrus covers faltered, whilst he describes Lizzo’s ‘Cuz I Love You’ as being “shoehorned in” by himself, with a stacked horn section and an organ to round it off. He has it on good authority that the cover is in the hands of Lizzo’s team.
One loose rule he did follow in his selections was that the song should be famous enough for people to know it’s a cover, which ruled out Scandi outfits Fever Ray and The Knife. The discourse around other famous covers confirmed he’d made the right choice.
“Luke Combs put out that ‘Fast Car’ cover and a ton of country fans think that it’s his song and it’s just like, ‘how do you not know who Tracy Chapman is?’ If you can put out that song and people think that it’s an original then I can’t imagine if I started sticking weird, avant-garde noise music on there. No one would ever know that’s a cover”. In fact, ‘Fast Car’ was on his original contender list. “Good thing we didn’t include it, because I would have gotten crushed by Luke Combs,” he laughs.
The countryficaton of ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ could be read as an interesting subversion of Whitney’s borrowing of a country song for her most famous hit ‘I Will Always Love You’, originally by Dolly Parton. “If a song is really good it can be reinterpreted in any genre”, Walker says. “It’s not weird to go from one genre to another. Back in the day you could have four artists put out the same song in two years and they’d all chart. There are so many cool examples of that from the 60s or 70s. It wasn’t strange for people to share good songs”.
It’s no longer the 60s or 70s, and Joshua is no longer 15. When he first got the idea for the album, inspired by an impromptu jam with his drummer outside a show in Tulsa, it was passed off as a joke. Joshua couldn’t be deterred. “Any time I hear something vividly in my head it’s like having to sneeze and you can’t get it out. Getting into the studio and cutting the track and hearing the version you had in your head come to life is such a huge relief”.
With that, Walker’s perhaps cracked what it means to be truly cool, whether you're 15 or 50; mastering the art of simply doing what you want.
What Is It Even? is out on Friday 4th August via Soundly Music. For more on Joshua Ray Walker, see below: