In 2008, a solid bunch of demo songs led to When Strangers Say Hello, the full length debut of Anthony Walker, a roots artist from New Brunswick. That album included wonderful tracks like "Darlene", "The Year of the Flood", and "Lucky Numbers" - the first two showcasing a lyrical ability far beyond his years, the latter hinting at the full band sound to come. A three-track EP was released in 2010, followed by This City Won't Sleep - another full-length which came out a year a later.
His second album mixed singer-songwriter tracks alongside full-band rockers supported by his band, The Medicine Chest. His world was expanding musically and solidifying himself as one of the state's best up-and-coming artists. Tracks like "Forget The Railroad", "I'm Taking You With Me" and "The Movie Universe" left fans thirsting for more. But then he seemingly disappeared from the music scene...
A decade later, he has returned with the release of a pair of new singles: "Wolves Can Wait" and "Stealin'". In a brutally honest interview, Anthony Walker explains why he left, what he's been up to, and his plans for the future.
It's been something like a decade since you last put out a record. What have you been doing all this time?
I hadn’t fully realized that myself until somewhat recently. Next week will be ten years since the last full-length which has been blowing my mind. The long and short of it is that, ultimately, the release of the last record coincided with what was essentially the beginning of the end of a long struggle with alcohol that ultimately culminated with me spending some time away in treatment.
By the time I would have otherwise been looking to record a follow up to This City Won’t Sleep, I was trying to navigate this addiction that was just progressively spinning further and further out of my control. This was something I struggled with for pretty much my whole adult life, at times more effectively than others, but it got to a point where I just wasn’t in any shape during that last stretch to be out playing or thinking about releasing music. I was blacking out pretty much all the time and the benders were getting more and more serious, so it was just easier to isolate than to deal with the consequences that come along with that. I shut a lot of things and people out of my life by that point. In the end, it was taking everything I had just to try and hold it together.
I was eventually really fortunate to get a shot at starting my recovery, but just like things got progressively worse, over those last few years especially, I realized I had to have the patience to allow things to get progressively better, or I’d end up back where I started. Stuff like that has to happen on its own time. As much as a part of me would have liked to just detox and get right back in the tour van and hope for the best, I really simplified my life for a while. In retrospect, it was the right move. There was just this enormous physical and mental toll, it was all-encompassing.
Early on, it was really just about learning how to keep things on the rails and a big part of that is introspection. I had to get reacquainted with myself. I developed new perspectives when it came to a lot of stuff, including my relationship with my music. I was still musically active, at least in some capacity, through a lot of that, but it was definitely a different vibe - comparatively low-key.
Have you been doing any live performances - either solo or with a band?
I’d say the last year or so, with the virus wreaking all this havoc, this has really been the quietest stretch, obviously that goes for all of us. I haven’t played anything outside of a few virtual things in over a year. But there were definitely some long breaks from the stage for me before that.
By the time the last record was out for maybe a year or two I was really playing a very limited number of shows. The last few I did while I was still actively in my addiction were in a total blackout. There was this festival in particular that I played - a few sets over a few days, I think - and I have no recollection of any of it. There was like over a thousand people there and I have no idea how many were watching me, what I played, how I did, if I remembered the words, nothing. It was getting really unsettling and I just couldn’t trust myself not to do it again, so it became easier to turn gigs down. I was starting every morning with no idea how bad it was going to get that day. I was totally out of control.
Once I was starting to get my legs back under me, I started playing again here and there. I’d mostly play if a friend was putting a bill together and asked. I’d do handfuls of smaller, super-local gigs at bars or coffeehouses, but outside of the occasional spurts of inspiration, I didn’t feel too compelled to ramp it all the way up to playing as regularly as I had been. I was also in a completely different headspace for the first time in my adult life and just naturally started to pursue other interests, relationships, creative outlets and opportunities outside of the music world that were worth exploring. Those were all things I didn’t have access to when I was drinking every day.
Behind all of that, my idea of what it meant to be successful as an artist, and just generally as a person, had really changed by that point. There was probably a few years where I realized I was pretty content to just play the gigs I wanted to play when they popped up and leave it at that. There was nothing stopping me from creating as much music as I wanted, which is ultimately what gives me the most satisfaction anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always enjoyed the gigs, but as a songwriter, I’m usually pretty happy if I’m just writing songs.
I think there was a time, earlier in my career, where I would have seen that as not being “enough,” because like a lot of working musicians out there, I was constantly trying to measure myself, and a big part of that was how “busy” I was. Not that I don’t consider myself very fortunate for the success and acceptance I found when I was out playing a whole lot, especially locally. I was playing on great bills at great venues with some seriously talented people at 18 and 19 years old and I felt immediately embraced by the whole music scene here in New Jersey pretty much out of the gate. I’ll always be grateful for the people that supported that and helped make that happen, but at the same time, I became comfortable with the idea that, although being visible and sharing my music can be really rewarding, that wasn’t always going to be a requirement in order for me to be able to feel satisfied with my relationship with my craft. That was especially true at that point in my life.
Inevitably, I did start to get the itch to play more regularly and release music more regularly. I was thinking about maybe putting a few short regional runs of shows together here and there to see how it went. I was making plans and starting to feel open to more and more possibilities. It was exciting to think what it would be like to approach a lot of these things I’ve done a lot of in the past from a different angle. I was recording again. I was revisiting a lot of different material. I was playing with some old friends. Then the virus hit and everything shut down. It was frustrating obviously, but I can’t complain much, I’ve been overall really fortunate over the last year compared to what a lot of people are going through.
Were you writing songs all this time?
For the most part, yes. There were definitely times before I got clean that it was really hard for me to get any enjoyment out of anything, even writing music. That was tough to deal with. I really resented the whole situation. The guitars went into their cases and didn’t come out – I couldn’t even look at them. I’d inevitably feel the pull, or a new idea would pop up, and I’d get drawn back to it, but it was really up-and-down. It was hard to really do anything consistently, that was just the nature of what I was dealing with.
I wrote quite a bit when I was really early in recovery. It was probably the most artistically prolific period in my life. I think because it served as an important link back to what felt like normalcy at the time. I was at an in-patient facility and after a week or so they let me have my guitar there. I remember I broke a string and didn’t have a replacement, so I was tooling around on this five-stringed guitar, my hands were still shaking from the withdrawal – just totally in a fog. Looking back, it was pretty brutal, but at the time, it was comforting in a sense to have that familiar outlet. That’s why I’ve always played and written music. There’s a connection there that makes me feel more at peace with myself and I needed that, especially in that place.
When it comes to the writing aspect of things, there’s always some idea in my head, there’s always the possibility that I’m going to pick up a pen and a song is going to come out. It’s not so much something I do as it is something that happens to me. It’s always been that way. For me, a big part of songwriting is not a conscious thing. I can’t turn it off.
Have you been listening to any artists in the past decade that you'd now consider as an influence or inspiration for your own music?
There’s been plenty. I’m usually diving into new things I hear about. Most recently I’ve been really into this album called “Cavalo” by this Brazilian artist, Rodrigo Amarante. There’s an up-and-coming duo from Southern California called Mapache that’s made a couple gorgeous records in that whole So-Cal tradition. Esme Patterson came on my radar out of nowhere a couple years back and I think she’s one of the best doing it right now. I went from really liking to really loving the newest Fleet Foxes.
Over quarantine, I’ve been gravitating towards a lot more instrumental music than usual. I was listening to a lot of old John Fahey and Bert Jansch, who did some pretty stunning instrumental acoustic guitar stuff as well, when I saw that Luke Brindley (who I think I met for the first time when we were sharing a bill at Maxwell’s years ago) has been putting out these instrumental guitar records over the last few years. Particularly, there’s one he did a few years ago called “Invitation to Joy,” and the compositions and playing are just pretty remarkable. It’s one of those records that makes me want to play better.
What can fans look forward to? I think I saw you are working on a complete album. Are you planning on releasing a song at a time? Any estimated release date for the album?
The immediate goal was to release a few songs as singles because it’s been a while and it was an easy lift to just go bang a couple songs out in an afternoon. With that pretty much behind me, the next move is likely to start test driving some of the backlog for a new LP. I really prefer to release songs in album-format verses going song-by-song or the EP thing. I have a few ideas of how that can pan out, but there’s just a lot of ways something like that can come together and I have lots to dig through. I haven’t actively started production on anything yet.
Parallel to whatever that ends up being, I’ve watched a few artists I admire release some really amazing stripped-back records of their previous material and it’s got me thinking of doing a full-length that incorporates some of the songs from my previous records along with new material, all with just the guitar and a mic – a complete bare-bones record. This is how all the songs started and I think it’d be interesting to try and recreate the vibe of my solo shows on a record, which is something I’ve never fully explored. I think that can be a cool transitional thing to do while I’m figuring out how I want to approach making a proper new record.
When live shows totally return, do you plan on setting up some solo shows?
For sure. I know a lot of people are aching to have live music back, myself included. I’m looking at perhaps doing a few outdoor festival-style gigs this spring and summer. I also have some plans beyond that for shows in the fall, both solo and with the guys. Assuming the virus is under control, we’ll be renewing some old traditions later in 2021.
Finally, what does it feel like to be releasing new music again? Does it feel like you're starting over or continuing what you started?
Well, in terms of the overall music landscape, it’s an understatement to say that much has changed since I last put something out. It certainly doesn’t seem like the same “music business” as far as I can tell in a lot of ways, even compared to just a few years ago. I just don’t even know what half this shit is anymore.
But it feels good and doing these last couple songs in particular was a really positive experience. I had reconnected with Steven Piperno, who worked on my first record, and we got together at his place in Doylestown with the guys and it was just a totally laid back and causal vibe. Getting the new songs out has felt a little like a reboot since it’s been some time, but I’ve always felt like any phase of my career has been a continuation of the last, no matter how much time goes by. That’s the only way I know how to look at it really. You only get to where you’re going by being where you’ve been.