“Are You Open?” Seth Walker sings on his transfixing new album of the same title. More than just a question, it’s a challenge, an invitation, a dare. Are you willing to risk pain and heartbreak in the quest for something true and pure? Are you willing to push your limits to create something honest and new? Are you willing to pursue beauty and love and compassion in a world of darkness and doubt?
“That song came to me at home one lazy afternoon in New Orleans,” explains Walker. “To me, being open means being vulnerable and exposed, but that’s where all the little nuggets of creative gold come from. I never planned an overall concept for this record, but each of these songs seemed to spin out from asking myself that one simple question.”
Produced by The Wood Brothers’ drummer Jano Rix, the album marks Walker’s tenth studio record, and the songwriting is undoubtedly his most inventive, exploring new sounds and textures as he examines what it means to truly be open, both as an artist and more broadly as a human, in a increasingly complicated world. The music here is bold and infectious, with melodies and rhythms drawn from time spent in Havana and filtered through Walker’s split-screen life in New Orleans and Nashville. The songs frequently build off of a single chord, shifting in color and tone as they ebb and flow and stack layer upon layer over hypnotic bass lines and percussion grooves.
“For a lot of these tracks, the grooves were born first and the lyrics came after,” explains Walker. “That was a new way of writing for me, and it’s a big reason this album has a different flavor. I aim to try something new every time I record, so I end up learning a little bit more about myself with each release.”
‘Are You Open?’ follows 2016’s critically acclaimed ‘Gotta Get Back,’ a stunning collection that found Walker excavating the roots of his love affair with music by reuniting his family that first sparked a fire for him as a child. That album traced its origins back to Walker’s native North Carolina, where he grew up on a multi-family commune and studied classical violin and cello before ultimately discovering his passion for soul, jazz, blues, and folk. He’d go on to deftly mix all those genres and more in his work as a solo artist, organically building up a celebrated two-decade career that’s earned him praise everywhere from The Washington Post to NPR, who hailed his “hard-driving” songs and “sweet tenor,” in addition to landing him dates with The Mavericks, The Wood Brothers, Raul Malo, Paul Thorn, and Ruthie Foster, among others.
“Are You Open?” sees Walker continuing the conversation his music has been engaged in from the start, contemplating growth, loss, acceptance and fulfillment, but he tackles those notions from fresh angles on the album, incorporating Caribbean and African influences as well as hints of Eastern philosophy. The result is a melting pot of sounds and perspectives, a soulful brew of roots music from the Americas and beyond. The pared down “Something To Hold” strips away the trappings of the material world in favor of a more spiritual satisfaction, while the Tom Waits-esque “Underdog” celebrates patience and perseverance, and the gospel-tinged “No More Will I” takes a timely stand against hate and division. The record features Walker’s guitar playing more heavily than ever before, and the new approach suits him well, showcasing a melodic prowess to match his prodigious lyrical gifts.
“A lot of these songs were recorded in my house, which afforded us the luxury of hitting the little red button whenever inspiration struck,” says Walker. “I’ve always been at the mercy of a studio and an engineer when it came to recording, but not this time around.”
The result is an exhilarating collection of songs that are unafraid to follow the muse wherever it may lead. Embracing the journey without sweating the destination, Walker traces musical threads that fan out around the globe and stretch back through the centuries. They’re both fearless and relentless, fueled by hunger and genuine curiosity, and while they may not offer any easy answers to the big picture questions they tackle, they do make one thing abundantly clear: Seth Walker is open. Are you?
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