When Joshua Ray Walker released his debut album Wish You Were Here in 2019, fans were instantly charmed by the country singer-songwriter's wit, craftsmanship and old-school country stylings. The Dallas-based artist was already a favorite on the Texas country circuit, but Wish You Were Here brought Walker an international audience, one that would have launched him on a 2020 European tour and a major presence at SXSW had the COVID-19 pandemic not ground live music to a halt.
In July, Walker released the follow-up to Wish You Were Here, the cleverly titled Glad You Made It. The new album builds off Wish You Were Here's traditional twang and narrative songwriting, and finds Walker sounding in just one year like a far more seasoned a songwriter, one who can deftly mix humor and tenderness on tracks like "Boat Show Girl" and channel a man's rock bottom moment with grace and compassion on "Voices."
Vinyl Me, Please caught up with Walker this fall to talk about navigating the pandemic, avoiding the sophomore slump and working closely with the album's producer, John Pedigo.
This year has been tough for everybody, but particularly anyone involved with the music industry. How has it affected you?
Financially it's been rough. And as far as touring goes, it's a disappointment for sure. I had the entire release tour for my new record canceled and five or six weeks worth of European dates canceled. I was going into SXSW to make my album announcement. I had some cool stuff lined up at the Luck Reunion. It was going to be the big year, right? In a lot of ways, it's been disappointing. But I feel like I've accomplished a lot with my team that we weren't expecting to go as well as it did. Our press campaign went incredibly well. My streaming numbers have tripled... The things that we could control have actually done really well. There were a lot of wins, for sure.
Was there ever a point when you considered holding off on releasing the album?
Briefly, yeah. We had just put out the first video on a Friday. On that Wednesday, that's when the first NBA game got canceled and when SXSW got canceled. So I literally started my campaign a few days before the shutdown. We didn't think we could push the date very far, because I'd lose momentum from the first record... We did end up pushing the record back a few months, just because of manufacturing issues. It was a tough decision.
Your debut album Wish You Were Here came out just a year ago. Did you take much time after that release to start writing material for album number two?
I had been writing for about 10 years when the first record came out, so I had quite a bit of material to draw from. I'd say five or six of the songs on the new record are from that 10-year period leading up to Wish You Were Here. But most of the singles, like "Boat Show Girl," those songs were written in between the release of Wish You Were Here and the recording of Glad You Made It. So the singles were all new songs and the others, the b-sides, were from the first 10 years of me writing.
I definitely felt the pressure. The amount of praise that Wish You Were Here got came as a surprise. It was my debut record; I didn't have any music out. I didn't really have a fan base outside of Texas. When the record came out, it just kind of exploded. I wasn't expecting to get the press that I did or the radio play that I did. It was pretty surreal. I realized, "Oh no, I had 10 years to come up with the concept of what I want a debut to look like. Now I have about a year to turn around another record." I definitely felt the pressure not to have a sophomore slump. And the added pressure of the pandemic didn't help.
John Pedigo, who produced Wish You Were Here, came back to work on Glad You Made It. What makes your creative partnership so fruitful?
On the first record, it was magical. I was bringing these songs to life that I'd only heard in my head, and he made them sound like I always dreamed they would sound. By the time we were making this record, we had a working relationship — we'd been working together on other projects — and it was so much easier. He knows what I want and I know what he needs from me. It was a really smooth, easy process. And I've put my band together that I love and trust so the second record felt a lot easier to make. I guess that made me a little more scared, like, "Did I get jaded?" We poured so many hours into the first record and then the second album just came together. You're so in the process that you lose all objective thoughts. It's really hard to tell if what you're making is any good or not.
"Voices" is one of the songs that I spent a lot of time with. It was a really powerful choice for a single and such a statement to open the record with. What was it like to write that one, and now to have it out in the world?
Every once in a while you get a song that comes out all at once. It's usually the more emotional songs. On album one I had a song called "Canyon" that was like that. It is personal. I've struggled with depression and suicidal ideation in the past, and mental illness and addiction. I think that's a fairly common experience that doesn't get talked about as much as it should. It can be a very alienating feeling. Knowing that other people have experienced it has been important in my life. When I wrote the song, I felt like it was important for me to get it in front of people and be honest about the experience. Maybe it could help someone through something. That's what I turn to. I listen to sad songs and somehow sad songs make you less sad when you're already sad. It is personal and I was a little scared to put it out, but I felt like I needed to.
Is it typical of your writing process to have a song pour out like that? Or does each song arrive on its own timeline?
Those first 10 years, I may have only written 20 or 25 songs. I wrote very, very slowly. I thought that was how songwriting worked: you let them come out when they come out. I had a song called "Fondly" that was one of my first songs, and "Canyon" — those came out all at once. But most of the time I'll get a melody or a hook line and they'll sit in a notebook for six months and then I'll think about it again and write half a verse, go back a month later and write a bridge. They slowly form into these final songs. It's only happened to me a handful of times where they come out all at once, and "Voices" was one of those times.
Songs like "D.B. Cooper" and "Boat Show Girl" are so character-driven and really give you a sense of the person at the heart of the song, which is something you really seem to have a knack for. How are you able to channel the spirit of another person in your songwriting?
That's something about my writing that just happened naturally. I wasn't a student of songwriting. I barely listen to lyrics. I don't think I could have sang all of the words to any song until my early 20s. I didn't pay much attention to lyrics very much and I got into the Texas songwriter scene in my late teens and early 20s, and that's when I started writing. So I didn't really have any reference point for how you're supposed to write a song. When I was writing from this third-person narrative of these other characters, I didn't realize that was a style and that it wasn't typical. That's something that just happened naturally. I'm a fairly empathetic person and I enjoy getting to know people deeply and quickly. I used to go to bars and end up in a conversation with a stranger and by the end of the night I know their entire life story and why they didn't take that job in Tuscaloosa. I really enjoy that initial spark when you meet someone. A lot of those things have ended up in my songs.
You seem like someone who tends to keep busy, given your solo projects and your work with bands like Ottoman Turks. What are you looking forward to as you look ahead to the end of the year and early 2021?
I'm excited to have some Ottoman Turks songs come out. I love playing music with those guys. I've been in the band for almost 10 years. I kind of describe it if like your favorite high school band never broke up... I have some live recordings that I did while I was in Europe last year that will probably be released before the end of the year, as well as some covers I'm working on with some other local Dallas talent. There's a big Dallas band I have the honor to swap singles with. I can't announce who it is yet. Hopefully around spring or summer of next year, maybe music will be up and running again. If so, I have a tour rescheduled for Europe in August, and possibly Australia next summer. If touring is safe, I pretty much plan on doing a world tour in 2021.
You can get a VMP-exclusive edition of Glad You Made It in the VMP store right now.
Brittney McKenna is a writer living in Nashville. She contributes regularly to many outlets, including NPR Music, Apple Music and Nashville Scene.