Ryley Walker's music sounds like the open road. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter's debut album, All Kinds of You, is the musical equivalent of a booze-fueled drive through the American West. It's a collection of loose, meditative folk in which Walker's mantralike melodies drift over a chugging engine of fiddle and nimbly picked guitar.
Walker is indeed no stranger to the highway. But for all his exploits, his heart remains close to home.
"I've been all over God's green earth," he writes in an email from Rostock, Germany. "But I always say Rock Cut State Park in Rockford, Ill.—my hometown—will always be the most special. It holds a lot of empty ghosts and beer cans."
As a young guitarist in Chicago, Walker was an omnivorous performer who always took the adventurous path. He's an avid jazz fan, and he spent several years making noise on the experimental music scene. When it came time to record his own album, though, he drew on the sounds of longtime influences Tim Buckley and Bert Jansch, working with producer and Cave guitarist Cooper Crain to craft a blues-flecked record that leans a little further left than most mellow folk projects.
"Folk music to me has always been part of what I do," he writes. "Improvisation, and having a living, breathing tune that has many minds seeking out new paths, will always be No. 1. Collaboration and jams are crucial for me."
Walker's album comprises mostly jams. Opener "The West Wind," for instance, is a whirlwind of ethereal strings rooted in a loping jazz groove. Walker's sighing melody is enchanting, but it's when he stops singing that the track really takes off, building to a smoldering climax with chiming piano chords and squealing violins. It's the electrifying result of completely live, in-the-moment recording sessions.
"I work in probably the worst possible way in the studio," Walker writes. "I come with mere ideas and sketches, and flesh them out with people I trust. I'm addicted to the process."
Even before he enters the studio, Walker's method is loose. But it's rarely lazy. His enigmatic lyrics are composed at the last minute, but he speeds through them because they're intensely personal, not because they're an afterthought. A particularly personal story is "Clear the Sky," one of the first tunes Walker wrote for the album and one he is "really sick of playing." As the marchlike beat drags along, he sings about a brief stint he spent living in Richmond, Va., under the "Blue Ridge Mountains/ All covered in clouds."
"The short story is, I was loaded on mushrooms and hanging in the South being ignorant and dumb," he writes. "But the short time I was there was huge for me. I realized nothing else but tunes was my path. Real Zen moments between all the booze and drugs."
Hung over but inspired, he returned to Chicago, the place he can't seem to escape. And while he recently tweeted, "nuke this city," he'll probably be kicking around the Windy City for a while.
"Chicago is an endless loop," Walker writes. "It's the best and worst. You want to leave, but cheap rent keeps you. Summer is great, winter is bad. It's the city I love to hate and hate to love. What I'm saying is: It really is the greatest."
SEE IT: Ryley Walker plays Bunk Bar, 1028 SE Water Ave., on Monday, July 21. 9 pm. $8 advance, $10 day of show. 21+.