Interview: Van Walker

Tasmanian native, Victoria-dwelling singer-songwriter Van Walker released six albums under his own name between 2008 and 2010; Ghosting is the first since then, although he’s been involved in various bands and projects in between. Music is, it seems, inherently part of him.

Walker’s first music-related memory is from the movie The Blues Brothers. He says his father ‘thought I’d enjoy that scene where they go to see the nuns and they do all that swearing. I always wondered why he thought I’d like that. But later when we got into rock ‘n’ roll and blues music, me and my brother always thought that was probably the first time we saw Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker and James Brown and all these blues guys.

‘My mum and dad liked music and had fairly good taste in pop music, but no one played music. I remember me and my brother would always share a bedroom as kids and when we were lying in our beds at night, bored, we’d sort of sing harmonies. That was just something that we did because we have really bored,’ he says, laughing. ‘We were sent to bed and just staring at the ceiling. But then later we’d be on stage singing harmonies and saying, “Oh, this is sort of what we used to do when we were kids.” So it’s strange to find out where it all sort of started.

Walker says that he and his brother were more interested in sports when they were young. Then, ‘Someone gave us this Red Hot Chili Peppers CD or tape or something because it had this song about this basketballer on it [“Magic Johnson” from Mother’s Milk] … My brother brought home this Jimi Hendrix CD and a Bob Dylan CD. Then we started getting into music. Gave up all the sports and took up guitar.’

Walker and his brother were the only musical members of his family, apart from one predecessor: ‘I think my mum’s great-grandfather might have been a band leader in the war, but there’s not a lot of other musicians in the family,’ he says.

Walker and his brother would go on to move to Melbourne together to start a band for which, says Walker, they tried to find a drummer for about a year before his brother moved to Glasgow. After Walker started a band, Swedish Magazine,’ says Walker, his brother returned. Although they’ve been musical entwined, ‘I collaborate with him only when he’s got an idea I’ll turn into a song,’ says Walker. ‘Then he would stop showing me his ideas because he’d say, “I want to write this song myself.” I’d say, “Okay, then, go ahead.”‘

When asked if they spurred each other on, because there was another person to encourage their musical development, or even just be interested in the same thing, Walker says, ‘I often think sometimes it can be the opposite of that. When you have these unshakeable relationships sometimes you wonder if they’re spurring you forward or holding you back. But I think it does a bit of both. But it’s unbreakable, whether it’s good or bad.’

Walker’s voice is powerful and rich, although it seems as though he didn’t set out to be a singer.

‘I think when I first started getting into music and I was hanging around with the kids at school that were into music, they were a lot more proficient at their instruments than I was,’ he says. ‘I sort of defaulted to singing.

‘My brother was a really good singer and probably a better singer than me. He can sing harmonies a lot better than me, but I was always very confident. So it didn’t bother me to sing as a lead … I think it’s a lot of confidence. You’ve just got to sort of your mouth and … It’s just blind faith. So I did a lot of the lead singing. I can sing harmonies, but I have to work them out. I know some really great singers, you ask them to sing the third or the first or the fifth harmony and they can just do it, whereas I’d have to work it out for a bit. But that’s also from being a lead singer. You get used to singing the main part, the front of the song, and it’s a different kind of singing as well. You have to put the face on the song and singing harmonies is almost a whole different sort of singing.

‘When I try to sing harmonies I tend to float back to the main,’ he says laughing. ‘I drift back. I can’t stay on that. Because to sing harmonies you almost have to listen, but not listen. You have to tune out a little bit and just do your part, but also listen to make sure it’s still in key, whereas I tend to listen to the other part and I start drifting over. So it’s a different skill. And I started writing songs very early as well, so I think I’m writing songs and writing lyrics has got a lot to do with the voice. Lyrics have a lot to do with how they’re sung. So you start to develop your own style of singing for your own songs and lyrics …

‘I think of really great lyricists like Bob Dylan or Paul Kelly, and I think that their voices are really tied into their lyrics and their storytelling. And I can’t separate the lyrics from the voices. I think that there’s a strange dichotomy there. And a lot of people will say the better you are with lyrics, the worse you tend to be as a singer. They say Bob Dylan’s a great lyricist because he can’t sing, or Paul Kelly. But I think those two guys are fantastic singers, and I think part of their lyrical talent is wrapped up in their voices and their great delivery. It’s tied up in how you pronounce and convey this lyric, it’s wrapped up in your voice. And the voice also gives the power to the lyrics. So you can’t really separate the two.’

Walker is a very articulate singer, and when asked if that was always the case or whether it was something he honed, he says, ‘I think that just comes from having something to say. There are artists like John Martyn who, over his career, started using his voice more like an instrument than reading poetry or a narrative. You couldn’t really understand anything he was singing. But I think he was doing that because he’d come from a jazz idea where he was trying to get his voice to sound more and more like a wind instrument.

‘But I think other times people perhaps are trying to hide the fact that they haven’t got anything to say when they’re singing …. sometimes I’ll sit and listen to a musician and I’m listening really hard. And then eventually you go, “There’s nothing there.” They’re just doing this song that’s a cool song, perhaps, but it’s more like play-acting. You can’t listen too closely to it because there’s no thread there … So I think if you actually do desperately want people to follow the narrative you’ll try to make that narrative as clear as possible.

‘I like the idea of songwriting – if you’ve got a free form you tend to overexplain things in a story and having said what I just said, it is important, I think, in storytelling and narrative songs to not say everything right, but it’s a balance of saying enough but not saying everything. The song is a great medium because there’s rules. There’s meter and a rhyme and maybe you can only do this in a certain amount of verses. You can’t say everything in the story. And I think that actually helps. Whereas if you were to write a poem or a short story or something, the danger is you overexplain everything, but in a song you tend to say well, look, that’s it. We’ve gotten to the end of the song, and this is as much information as can be. So I think sometimes that’s a positive and you get lucky in songs like that, because if you had the chance to just write a novel about it, you’d re write way too much.’

While Walker says it’s, writing like that does require a huge amount of discipline and some ruthlessness in order to pare back what the writer wants to say to fit the structure of the song. Walker’s skill suggests that he’s learnt to edit himself over time.

‘I’ve always written a lot of songs,’ he says. ‘The way I write is that I write a lot of stuff and maybe I’ll get a few good things out of a big mountain of material … but because you’re writing all the time it’s all practice. It’s all play and practice. You look at songs that you think work better than others and it’s very hard to always know why that song works better than another one. A lot of time it does seem like it’s an accident or luck or whatever. But it is a refining of practising something. You do get lucky, but I guess it’s like they say, you get to identify the lucky bits, you get to be good at saying, “That was a lucky accident, let’s keep that. That was a happy accident, let’s keep that. Well, let’s work at this and forget about this.” That’s the art of it.

‘There’ll be things going on and it seem obvious to some people that this is important, this other stuff is not so important to where the song’s going, where the actual heart of the story is. And I think you learn that from listening to lots of songs and reading lots of poetry and doing it yourself. But I think if you’ve got that skill, it’s not apparent to you that is a skill and that it’s a rare thing, but sometimes you’ll be talking with other people and you realise that’s not as apparent to them as it might be to you. So I think that might be a skill, to get all this stuff to come out of yourself, to know what to keep and what to get rid of and say, “I think this is where the song’s going. This is the important part and this other stuff is more fringe.” But I don’t think that’s as interesting. I don’t think that’s apparent. I think people who have skills don’t realise that they do have them and that other people have other skills. And you tend to think things that are obvious to you are obvious to everyone. It’s not the case,’ he says with a laugh.

Tied into the skill of doing it the act of being mindful of who’s on the other side of that song – the listener – and having that relationship with an audience, even though you can’t know exactly who is in that audience. When asked if he’s aware of the audience at all or of one potential listener, while he’s creating songs, he says, ‘I don’t think I’ve got an imaginary audience or critic. It’s a hard thing because you don’t want to have the critic into the creative process too early or else you can’t get past the critic. You have to try to create for your own enjoyment. A kid would do a drawing and the kid doesn’t really care what happens to the drawing afterwards. It just does the drawing. And then at some point you have to have some kind of critical eye come into it.

‘I remember when I used to go out with a girl – she was a musician as well, but she was working during the day and I wasn’t. We used to play a lot of completely different types of music, but she quite liked my little songs that I’d written for her. When she’d get home from work I’d always try to have a song for her to kind of excuse the fact that I was just sitting around doing nothing all day, but I actually wrote a lot of really good songs during that period, because I think I had a purpose to write a song. I did have a lot of time, but I had to get it done during the day because I wanted to give her a little song when she got home. We’d have a laugh over one of these silly songs. And I think because she appreciated my songwriting, that was an added impetus to think, She’ll get it, she’ll understand this. All the songs were different but I was always confident that she’d get some kind of kick out of it …

‘And maybe it was a little bit of showing off, to force myself to get this song done. It was half showing off, half trying to prove that I wasn’t completely useless. “I’ve done one thing today – I’ve written this song.” And then we could get some kind of enjoyment out of it at the end of the day with a class of wine and a cigarette. I think that was good, to have that. I always thought I should never broken up with her. I should have stayed with her. I wrote lots of good songs when I was with her,’ he says, laughing.

Talking further about his creative process, Walker says, ‘I think if you do it fairly quickly things come out of you that you’re not conscious of. So you don’t know what this song is about necessarily any more than the audience does. You’re as surprised as anyone else as to where this comes from and what’s going on. But I think that’s a good sign. If you’re letting stuff naturally offer to you through a fun play instinct – I think that’s common probably to a lot of writers. They’re not necessarily an authority on what the work means any more than anyone else is. It’s just whether they they’re able to just keep letting it flow out of them, you know?’

It’s the art of getting out of one’s own way, which allows things to, in a way, be channelled through the creator, and also the artist understanding that it is their job to let it come through.

‘That’s it,’ says Walker. ‘Exactly. And I get that quite a bit where I think, I don’t want to write any more songs about this topic because it’s just going to bore the pants off everyone. But then there’s more – ‘I’m sorry, but there’s just more coming.’ He laughs. ‘Sometimes you can stop it and say, “Look, I could make this song about any subject.” You’re creative, you can change the topic. But if it feels really natural … you probably should go with what that is. And if you have hundreds of songs about the same topic, what can you do? You’ve got to make a choice about whether you’re going to be honest or whether you’re trying to change it because it is becoming repetitive. But you just have to make that choice.

‘People say, “Oh, more love songs”, but they’re all love songs. That’s what songs are going to be about. I remember some people said to me once that I’ve always got these songs about murder on my records, there’s all these huge body counts on my records. I said, “Well, that’s what humans do predominantly. We love each other and we kill each other.” The majority of the songs are going to be about love and death because that’s actually what happens in life.

‘I guess you hope that eventually you’ve said your piece and burned this thing out of yourself by writing about it. And then you write another song and here it comes again and you think, If people are getting bored with this I was bored with it a long time before you guys were. I think it’s a process and it’s a process of discovering stuff about what you really feel that you don’t even realise.’

Walker’s new album is called Ghosting; when asked if he thinks we have to learn to live with ghosts he says, ‘I was actually reading something the other night – I think it was a book about David Foster Wallace. It was called Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. And I guess it is. The older you get the more ghosts you have following you around. It’s just the nature of living and getting older and having more experiences.

‘I had a year where so much stuff happened that I didn’t even really understand it at the time. It wasn’t until later that I just thought all of a sudden, You’re standing in this sad, strange experience of survival. If you survive, you survive to experience the wasteland that you’re in. Whereas if you had have perished, you wouldn’t be there to see that there’s nothing around. In a weird sense you survived, which is a positive thing, but you also survive to think, Where is everyone? Where is my life that I had yesterday? And it’s gone.

‘Obviously, all this sort of stuff can just happen all at once. I had a strange experience where I lost two or three people that were very close to me all in this one time and I had to rebuild what I was going to try to do and be as a survivor of that. You basically have to rebuild that complete darkness [and] you can’t rely on the tools that you used to rely on because these tools have led this thing to break down or to disappear. That’s the scariest thing. You [think], Well, I’ll just do this then, like I used to, and then you think you can’t do that because that led to this. You spend a lot of time waiting, I think. How do you proceed from here?

‘That’s one of the scary things about about ghosting, because ghosting is a kind of disappearing act where the other person that has no right of reply. So they’re just left with infinite questions that can’t be answered, and it’s really hard to move on from there because you just have nothing. You don’t even have someone telling you that you’re an awful, horrible person and then you could say, “Well, that’s probably why this happened.” You don’t have anything to hold on to. So you have to wade for a while before you can start to think, Okay, I’ll swim in this direction and we’ll just see whether that’s the completely wrong direction. It’s a very interesting experience because it’s impossible to compare it to anything else.

‘I compared it to a coward’s punch. It takes you so much by surprise that it’s almost the surprise that’s what you have to get over. It’s worse than the hit. It’s the shock of having no idea. As we all know, the coward’s punch is the most deadly one because people don’t see it coming then they fall and hurt themselves or injure themselves worse because of the fall than the actual hit. It’s a very odd experience to doubt everything. To say, “Everything you think must be wrong because this has happened to you.” You have no resource to even heal yourself after that because you can’t trust yourself. My experience of the last four years have just been so weird. Such a learning time.’

Out of that time, writing songs became a tool to help reconstruct things.

‘I try not to,’ says Walker. ‘And then I wrote these songs [on the album]. And I didn’t play them for a few years. I wrote these songs and thought, I can’t even show those songs to people because they’re just too raw, they’re too honest. And you just wonder how honest you can be. Sometimes you think it’s even a little bit sort of rude. It’s like pulling your pants down in public or something. Nobody wants to see that! How honest is what people want to hear? But I guess you just work with what you’ve got.

‘I spent a long time almost getting to the point where I was a bit beyond the songs enough to be able to play them in front of people. That was a very strange thing to do. And they do say that if you’re scared, you’re on the right track. But also how honest do you want to be?’

There’s a point, of course, at which the songs no longer belong to their creator: once they are heard by others. And between the artist and the audience there’s an understanding that the artist might be revealing a lot of himself, but the audience really doesn’t know exactly how much. Walker says that when he first played the songs from the album live, ‘I don’t think anyone really responded that much. And I thought maybe I’m overreacting to this and it’s not really that full-on. But it’s hard to judge, because as we all know, people aren’t revealing all their innermost feelings ever. Everyone has a persona that they maintain to protect themselves.

‘So their response to you revealing yourself without a persona and actually being honest is not necessarily going to be an honest reaction, it it?’ he says with a laugh. ‘I thought, Everyone’s just normal. Then people I respect and other songwriters said to me that they were really into these new songs. A friend of mine was in the audience once and they overheard someone else say, “Oh my god, he’s so honest”. That was probably where I got that thing of honesty from because this person said that. Sometimes that kind of stuff is disarming. But I like to have the odd line in a song where you play around the edges just like you do in real life, and then all of a sudden there’s a line that’s straight up the middle and it’s very powerful because everyone knows that that’s what you’ve been skirting around. And suddenly when it’s said it’s all the more powerful … And like I said before, I think the writer doesn’t really know what they’re getting at until it comes to them. I don’t sit down with the intention of what I want to write. It’s a process of revealing that.’

That suggests that he’s not trying to control everything but, rather, sitting down to see what work has to be done, then letting that happen.

‘There’s always many multiple sides to a story,’ Walker says. ‘So you know that already, that your side of the story is just your experience. And I think we forget that. We tend to think that what we’re experiencing is what everyone is experiencing, but it’s really not. As soon as you start talking to your friends about stuff that’s happened in your lives, you notice that nobody really agrees on the story. As many people as there are, that’s how many side to the story. I think you always know that, you just try not to abuse that too much.’

Walker’s commitment to honesty is part of the marrow of Ghosting, which is as unforgettable as it is impressive. It is an album that requires savouring – showing the same amount of care in listening to it as there has been in creating it, and being rewarded accordingly.

Ghosting is out now.

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