Laying his soul bare on record isn’t new for Atlanta native Butch Walker, but it’s never been left quite as open as it is on Afraid of Ghosts, his new record out Tuesday.
Just this week on his website, the singer/songwriter/producer/
Inspired by the death of his father, Afraid of Ghosts is a 180-degree turn from his last record, power pop gem The Spade (2011). His latest effort is stark alt-country, driven by acoustic guitars, sparse arrangements and Walker’s emotive vocals front and centre.
“The Spade was a different band and everything entirely,” Walker, 45, told The MusicNerd Chronicles in an interview late last year. “That was with my band the Black Widows and we are pretty much a straight up rock band getting to indulge in our classic rock fantasies, you know? And that, to us, is awesome. We loved doing that and it’s a lot of fun to get out there and turn everything up and have a blast.
“But it’s just not the only thing I like or the only thing I love. It’s two parts. I really love a lot of songwriters like Graham Parsons and Bob Dylan and Springsteen. All the usual suspects that tell great stories and are lyrical, and a lot of their best stuff has been their subtle work. They’ve all done records where they’ve turned up, and those are cool too, but I’ve been greatly influenced by their records where they were a little bit more tender.
“My pop died a year ago, and we were really close,” he continues. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever went through in my life and ever will, because of our relationship. It was a tough time for me to really think about making music or doing anything. But I did write a lot. Not music; I wrote a lot of words. And to me it felt like that was really going to pave the way for this kind of record. It didn’t make any sense to turn up and make this fuckin’ loud rock record with all of these songs that were probably my most personal songs I’ve ever written. That being said, it cut the cloth and a pattern for the making of this record.”
Walker hired friend and alt-country hero Ryan Adams to produce Afraid of Ghosts after showing Adams some of his new songs at a New York City hotel.
Walker – a celebrated producer who has worked with everyone from Avril Lavigne and Pink to Keith Urban and Taylor Swift – wanted “somebody else to call the shots” on his new record.
“I played him some of the ideas I had, most of it unfinished, but a lot of lyrics, and I was singing it pretty quiet (in the hotel),” Walker said. “I didn’t want to blow up the neighbours or anything. And one of the things I loved about him is instantly he started taking charge and picking apart and basically producing what I was doing right there on the spot, even with just an acoustic guitar.”
Adams often suggested the opposite of what Walker wanted to do over the four days they spent in the studio and roughly a month spent wrestling to create the final product. Ultimately, the push and pull appealed to Walker, even Adams’ insistence that they hit “record” before his band had a chance to completely learn and rehearse a song. The producer didn’t want anyone to be too comfortable with the material.
“You’re sort of on the edge of your seat there a little bit,” Walker said about the experience. “A lot of times when you’re doing that, you’re thinking, ‘Well shit, I don’t know if we can get through it without trainwrecking it because we don’t even know the fucking bridge chords or whatever.’ And we would do it, and we would get through it and you would play it back and it would have this amazing nervous energy to it that was beautiful. There’s tons of mistakes and tons of figuring out everything. And to me, that’s how a lot of our favourite records are, mine and his. And so, it didn’t make any sense to not to it that way. I think every song we did, it was all first or second takes.”
The ability to take those chances is something Walker relishes in his solo career, where he can make records his way and not how outside forces might dictate.
“I’ve had to make my fair share of pop records for my day job,” he said, “for people where it’s like … you’re sitting there wanting to keep it a little messy and stuff and it’s just not even in some of those artists’ or labels’ or managers’ or whatever’s wheelhouse.
“They don’t even understand it unless it’s perfect and fixed and that’s kind of a bummer,” he said. “I try to fight it as much as I can, but it’s a day job. I’ve got to make a living just like anybody else. And it just so happens that I know how to write and produce other styles of music. And I like doing that too, it’s fun.”
Afraid of Ghosts is out now on Dangerbird Records.
Eric Lewis is a news reporter in Moncton, New Brunswick who contributes features to The MusicNerd Chronicles. He once watched Butch Walker open for a young pop star in an arena full of teens who probably didn’t know him at all and completely kick their asses.