A Q&A with PT Walkley

The New York-based PT Walkley has managed to successfully and carefully walk the tightrope between creating music for mass entertainment and consumption such as TV shows, commercials and movies without losing sight of what he got into music to do – to create, deeply personal, thoughtful music which is heavily influenced by the blues, soul, R&B and 70s rock. And in some way, Walkley’s sound is warmly familiar as it possesses elements of the Muscle Shoals sound, the Beatles with the thoughtful and personal nature of the troubadours,  – think of a James Taylor, a Nick Drake etc., and the swagger of the blues. 

Walkley’s latest full-length effort, Shoulders, which was released last month may arguably be among his most personal work to date as the material was heavily inspired by the emotions and thoughts of a rather bittersweet period of Walkley’s life – over the period of about a year, one his closest friends suddenly and tragically died, and his son was born. In some way, the album’s material reminds that life always pushes us forward whether we’re prepared for it or not. But it also manages to remind the listener that our lives are essentially about the connections we have with others, along with the accumulating compromises and regrets that become part and parcel of our lives – well, of adult life, really. 

I recently spoke to PT on a variety of subjects starting with how he got into music; how he got into the blues – a scene in Better Off Dead, which featured a rendition of one of the great blues songs of all time, “Mannish Boy”; his new album, Shoulders and how he crafted the densely layered sound of most of the album’s songs; his creative process, which interestingly enough suggests an unflinching candor that’s unusual in an age of sneering irony; of NYC’s influence on the lyrical content of the song; and much more. 

Check it out below. 

Photo Credit: Victoria Jacob

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know it was your calling? 

PT Walkley: I always gravitated towards it.  Even as a kid, I would mess around on the piano and come up with little tunes.  I got a guitar at 15, and it wound up under the bed after a couple lessons that were a slight buzz kill (“you mean I have to work at this?!”)….

   I picked it back up in college, playing along to every record I had, then I wound up joining up with a couple bands, playing guitar.  

   I started writing my own proper songs once I moved back to NYC in 1999.  I had just heard George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass for the first time, and it was tremendously inspiring – not only musically, but just the conviction in those tunes, in those recordings. 

WRH: Who are your influences?

PTW: Too many to name.  I do remember falling for the blues after hearing “Mannish boy” in the movie Better Off Dead.  It was just so badass and so fascinating to me.

   Musically it came naturally to me for whatever the reason, and as I got more and more into the usual suspects (Stones, Beatles, Kinks, Beach Boys, etc.), I could hear they had heavy blues influences as well.  I’ve always had big time ‘60s influences, but also have a soft spot for the mid to late 90s indie rock scene: Pavement, Superchunk, [The Jon Spencer] Blues Explosion, Yo La Tengo, Luna, etc.

   It was just that window where I was hungry for new music, and I was going to shows a couple nights a week.  

   There’s so much great stuff out there now, I just have less and less time to find it, as I am so busy with my own stuff.  Oh yes, and two little kids 🙂 

WRH: What are you listening to right now? 

PTW: This is a couple years old now, but I think Elvis Perkins is one of the best living songwriters- I got hooked on his two records about a year ago, and still listen a couple times a week.

   I love everything Regina Spektor does.  I really like the Lorde song, need to hear more…..but I like Regina better. My friends have a band names Weird Owl, and they just tapped into a very cool and interesting sound that I dig.  I like the new Beck album, and I like Fruit Bats.

   Once a week or so, I throw on my “Hawaiian All-Star Band, Steel Guitar Magic” record.  It is so lush and transporting.  Also lots of Herb Alpert, especially Going Places.

   [I’ve] been going back to my 60s mod stuff a lot too, as I am doing the music for a 1960s cop show pilot [Public Morals] from Steven Spielberg and Ed Burns.  So much fun!!!   

WRH: How did you meet your backing band? 

PTW: My old friend, producer Bill Sherman, put the band together on this record.  I told him the demos were skewing classic soul/R&B, and he helped shape the sound.

WRH: As I was listening to the album, the material sonically reminded me at points of Muscle Shoals-era soul music, 70s Southern rock and of the troubadours of that time – Nick Drake, “Fire and Rain” dude whose name escapes me, and the like. [ED NOTE: I was originally writing the interview questions while on the subway to my day job and thanks to sleep deprivation – I’ve been getting about 4 hours of sleep during the workweek for some time – I had forgotten James Taylor’s name. This should be particularly shameful and painful because my folks played a lot of James Taylor back in the day. After I had sent it, I had remembered Taylor’s name and it was of course, way too late to correct the damn thing.] On a couple of songs, there are subtle nods to the Beatles. How much did all of that influence the overall sound of the album?

PTW: Yes, I love all of that stuff- it is just ingrained in my DNA at this point, and it can’t help but come out in anything I write at any given time… If you mean James Taylor- thank you!! 

WRH: With the exception of two or three songs, the material is densely layered. You got backing vocalists, a horn line, along with the traditional rock instrumentation. So with all of that going on, how did the songwriting process go for this album? When did you know that you had a finished song? And when did you have a sense that a certain song needed horns or backing vocals or when a song needed to have a simple arrangement?

PTW: The layers, to me are just about how dynamic the song needs to be.  I love the feel of a big song, but you have to define big by also having small.  That goes for each song, and for the record as a whole.

   I knew some of the songs would need to be stripped down in order to have a nice dynamic listening experience through the record.  So I picked the couple really personal ones to strip down and keep more solitary.

WRH: The material on the album is informed by the bittersweet events of your own personal life, the sudden death of a dear friend and the birth of your child among others. In some way, there’s this sense that through everything life pushes us forward whether we’re ready or not. Was there any point where you had your internal editor scream out “maybe you shouldn’t write about this because it’s too personal” or “maybe now isn’t the time”? When did you know that you had the right sentiment for the right song at the right time?

PTW: No such thing as too personal when writing a song.  When an idea comes to mind, and comes out in song, I think you have to capture it while it’s raw, so you can really convey what you are feeling.  And record it sooner than later.  

   When it’s something heavy, like a loss of a friend, or birth of a child, I think you need to capture that emotion while its fresh without crafting it too heavily, if you can.  

   My friend was the world’s biggest Stones fan.  When I heard he friend passed away, I just fell down and couldn’t get up for a while.  When I did, I went to the guitar and out came my version of a stones song for him, “Blindsided.” 

WRH: Most of the material struck me as being either directly or indirectly inspired by New York. As an NYU alumni and as a native New Yorker, the reference to Sullivan Street, in “Don’t Forget About Me” and countless others resonate with me – but I suspect that even for those who have never been here, they’ll have a sense of what has us as writers, photographers, whatevers mad in love and hate with here. And there’s a ton of novelistic detail throughout. How much has NYC and what you’ve seen in NYC inspired this album? 

PTW: I imagine that it has had played a big role in inspiring my music.  It’s hard to really say how much while you’re actually still here.  I do know that I love my hometown, and any time we think of the prospect of moving I worry that I might be amputating something in a way.

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves?

PTW: You can do it. Go do it.