“Everyone wants to change, but no one wants to do the work because it’s painful. We avoid saying things that are hard to say, but those are exactly the things that would lighten our load – if only we’d say them.”
Peter Walker’s been ruminating on this fundamental conundrum of the human condition. It surfaces vividly on the song “Talk to You,” from his new album, Young Gravity (due April 11, 2006, on Dangerbird Records). The earthy, gently propulsive track bears the slide-laced refrain, “If this wasn’t so easy, maybe I’d talk to you.”
“Talk to You” is a prime example of Walker’s penchant for chasing unflinching observation with a spoonful of sugar (albeit unrefined sugar). The chorus gets under your skin; it’s a catchy melody you find yourself humming after a single listen. Before you realize what’s happening, you’ve been infiltrated by a lyric about someone living in an emotional bullet-proof vest: It protects him from the harm of addressing difficult feelings, but it also prevents a genuine embrace, the intimacy of human contact. He’s living a half life, and you’re singing along.
Walker is adamant about the universality of his songs, the essential opportunity for each listener to interpret the material so that it holds most meaning for him. But he does reluctantly reveal: “When my father was a teenager, his father committed suicide. My dad moved past it in the only way he knew how, which was to act like it didn’t affect him. The truth is, he was enormously affected by it. It kept him from really communicating with the people closest to him. But to him, that was an easier situation than talking about it. I do it, too – writing songs about the rough things in my life is easier than actually dealing with them.”
The standout Young Gravity tracks “What Do I Know” and “39 Stars” also present dark themes in a framework of organic ear candy. The latter, however, is an unpolished pop gem about a friend who died young but whose death nonetheless imparts direction. Amid the tragedy, he lights a positive path, saying simply, “Do the things you want to do.”
The song “Young Gravity” puts the listener alone in a hospital room, clinging to life and coping with isolation. But undeniable good comes of this when it inspires a moment of clarity: “It might be easier for me without you.”
“It’s about a young person dealing with the heaviness of life,” Walker says. “It seems like the youth of this generation are bearing such an incredible weight. So many people are struggling with depression, addiction, dysfunction … ”
Again, though, Young Gravity doesn’t sound heavy. On the contrary, much of it has a laid-back, rootsy feel. (In a review of Walker’s 2004 album, Landed, a writer for TheFADER.com’s “Tripwire” said: “The indie singer-songwriter’s songs are damn good…. Fans of Neil Young, the Jayhawks and even Wilco should definitely keep Peter Walker on their radar.”)
The album’s relaxed nature is partly attributable to producers Aaron Espinoza, of Earlimart (who heard the demos for Young Gravity through a mutual friend and immediately asked if he could be involved), and Jim Fairchild, of Grandaddy. Walker says of the recording process: “We were all on the same page so we just banged it out. The whole thing was very smooth and comfortable and fun. Everything just worked.” And it sounds like it.
Mixed by Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Tom Waits, Modest Mouse), the album was recorded at Elliott Smith’s studio in Van Nuys, Calif., one of the first records to be cut there since Smith’s death (Espinoza, a friend of Smith’s, has ties to the facility). “Elliott is definitely still there,” Walker informs. “He would write on anything and everything, so there were these gear cases around with scrawled verses and poems. His vibe was all over the place.”
(An in-the-studio footnote: Walker and co. got word of the flooding of New Orleans while mixing the Young Gravity song “New Orleans,” which includes the lyric, “Last night was so bad/ Dead in New Orleans.”)
Young Gravity has a ramshackle, lived-in charm, an unstudied authenticity. Walker notes that much of what he recorded on his own as demos made its way to the final version of the record, including the vocal for “39 Stars.” What you hear is him singing the song for the first time. The performance bears an immediacy that was impossible to recapture in the studio.
Asked how Young Gravity is a departure from Landed, Walker is quick to mention his performances. “I’ve definitely grown as a singer,” he says. “I had a higher level of confidence going into this record, and I think you can hear it [check his falsetto backup on “Talk to You”]. It means I was better able to express the feelings that inspired the songs. I’m leaps and bounds ahead of where I was.”
He volunteers that he’s progressed even further in this area since he began working with his current bandmates, bassist-singer Tim Hutton – rock trivia alert: Tim is the son of Three Dog Night singer Danny Hutton – and drummer Chris Reynolds. “Our live show is amazing,” Walker testifies, “and it just keeps getting better. We played at [L.A.’s] Spaceland recently with Daniel Lanois to a packed house, and it was incredible. Knowing how solid Tim and Chris are, it allows me to forget about everything and just be completely in the song. It’s totally opened me up as a performer.”
Not that this has been easy for Walker, whose transformation from guitarist-only to frontman proceeded tentatively. “I’m not hard-wired for communication,” he confesses. “I’ve had major issues in that department.”
That has sometimes led to feelings of alienation, which have been reinforced by Walker’s natural tendency toward nonconformity. He chose to become a rock musician, not exactly the path most traveled (or most easily navigated). “Driving a car, watching TV/ It’s not somebody that I wanna be,” he sings on the insinuating “Sleepin’ Around,” and then: “Let’s go to places that none of us ever saw.”
“Nonconformity is tied into this idea of the upside of struggle,” he says. “Fighting for your individuality, dealing with who you really are, can be terrifying, but not doing it leaves you just a shadow of yourself. People live their whole lives without ever realizing their potential, their full humanity, because it’s too hard to get past the shit that’s holding them back.”
There’s a line in the song “Preacher” that goes, “At least I’ve got my alcohol/ It’s not a celebration,” and Walker confesses: “I have a very addictive personality, and I write about it a lot.” He says that medicating yourself with drugs and alcohol is about the most conformist way of not dealing with your problems, noting, “So many people have a bar in their house.”
Still, even on Walker’s most dire days, he manages to see a glimmer of light on the horizon. “See it as a lesson learned/ There must be some way to stay afloat … ,” he ventures on “Flagship.”
“I have hope for people who are dealing with their stuff,” he confirms. “It’s such an amazing thing to struggle and to come out on the other end better than you were before. The key to doing it is focusing on the payoff. When you’re learning anything – whether it’s how to play guitar or how to talk to your family – once you see some benefit and make the connection between the effort and the reward, you understand that it’s possible to get where you need to go. You definitely need faith and perspective and desire, but it’s possible, and it’s worth it.”
Produced by Peter Walker, Aaron Espinoza and Jim Fairchild. Mixed by Jacquire King at Sound Factory B. Recorded by Mike Creswell at New Monkey and at Dangerbird Studios. Mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering.