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 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 black blues artists.

‘My mum and dad liked music and had good taste in pop music, Mum liked Van Morrison and Nick Lowe, and Dad liked The Beatles and The Animals, but no one played an instrument. I remember my brother and I would 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 were really bored,’ he says, laughing. ‘We’d be sent to bed and just staring at the ceiling, singing harmony, like really simple stuff, just entwining our voices. But years later we’re on stage singing harmonies and thinking, “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. Until, ‘Someone gave us this Red Hot Chili Peppers tape because it had this song about this basketballer on it [“Magic Johnson” from Mother’s Milk] … We started to get into rap and early hip-hop. Then my brother brought home this Jimi Hendrix CD and a Bob Dylan CD. Then we started getting into guitar. Ditched all the sport 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 The Swedish Magazines, 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,’ he says. ‘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’s a really good singer, probably a better singer than me. He can sing harmonies a lot better than me, but I was always a lead singer. It didn’t bother me to sing lead … I think that’s mostly just confidence. All singing is … It’s just blind faith. Open your mouth and hope for the best! 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 deliver this lyric, it’s wrapped up in your voice. The vocal performance powers the lyric. 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 rather than narrating poetry. 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 intently. And eventually I think, “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 these kinda singers seek actively to obscure the lack of narrative. I think if you actually do have something to say and want people to follow you’ll try to make that narrative as clear as possible.’

‘I like the form of songwriting – in that it keeps the story compact. If you’ve got a free form you tend to overexplain things. And having said what I just said, it is important, I think, in storytelling to not explain everything. It’s a balance of saying juts enough but not too much. The song is a great medium because there’s rules. There’s meter and form and 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 prose or something, the danger is overexplaining everything.’

While Walker says 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, his skill suggests he’s learnt to edit himself over time.

‘I’ve always written a lot of songs,’ he says. ‘The way it works is that I write a lot and maybe I’ll get a few good things out of a mountain of material … but because I’m 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 difficult to always know why one song works better than another. A lot of time it does seem like an accident, or luck, or whatever. But it is a form of refining, of practising something. You certainly do get lucky, but I guess it’s like they say, the skill is being able to identify the lucky bits. So the more you practise, the better you get 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 lets ditch this bit.” That’s the art of it.

‘Knowing what’s important and what’s not important in a story is the main skill. It may seem obvious to some people what is important and what’s not, but it’s not, and that’s the story-tellers art, knowing the thread of the story and where that thread’s going, always connected to 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 practising it yourself. But I think if you’ve got that skill, it’s not apparent to you that it is a skill, and that it’s a rare thing. Often it surprises me, when I’m talking to people and I realise the heart of the matter is not as apparent to them as it is to me. So I think that might be the fine art of it all, to get all this stuff to come out of yourself, but to know what to keep and what to discard. Like sculpting.”

Tied into the skill of corralling ideas and information is the act of being mindful of who’s on the other side of the story – 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 enter into the creative process too early, otherwise you may not get past that critic. You have to try to create for your own enjoyment. Children will draw without a care as to what happens to the drawing afterwards. The child is just enjoying the act of drawing. And then at some point in our lives, sadly, we learn to allow some kind of critical eye to 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. 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. “At least 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 positive, to have that. I never should have 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 work 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 exactly. But I think that’s a good sign. If you’re letting stuff naturally offer itself 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 keep letting it flow, 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 gonna try to change it because it’s 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 always going to be about. I remember some people said to me once that I’ve always got songs about murder on my records…. that there’s these huge body counts on my albums. 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 what actually 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 they were! But 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 called Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. And I guess that’s true. The older you get the more ghosts you have following you around. It’s just the nature of living and getting older.

‘I had a year where so much stuff happened that I didn’t even really understand it all at the time. It wasn’t until much later that I realised, all of a sudden, I’m standing in this sad, strange experience of survival. If you survive, you survive to experience the wasteland of survival.

‘Obviously 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 at once, in a short time frame, and if I was to survive, I had to rebuild. The nature of Ghosting is it leaves you with nothing but unanswered questions. You basically have to rebuild in complete darkness [and] you can’t rely on the tools that you used to rely on because these tools have led you to darkness. That’s the most awful thing.  You freeze like a rabbit in the headlights. And you can remain frozen like that, emotionally, for years. You spend a lot of time waiting, I think. Waiting to slowly rebuild your confidence and trust in yourself. And if you can survive it, that’s once of the great new gifts you are rewarded.  Learning to accept and respect an enormous patience. Step by step. That’s the only way to survive, slowly, considering every step. But it’s awful. Like walking on ice, even once you’re back on terra firma, the fear of slipping remains.

‘That’s just one of the hellish things about being ghosted, because ghosting is a disappearing act where the remaining person has no right of reply. They’re just left with endless questions that cannot be answered, and it’s really hard to move on from there because you just have nothing. Absolutely nothing. You don’t even have someone crying or screaming at you, telling you that you’re a horrible person and that’s why they have to leave. At least then you could reason, “Well, ok, they hate me, that’s why this has happened.” You don’t even even have that certainly. You don’t have anything of any certainty to hold on to and make sense of. So you have to wade in nothingness for such a long time, just try and keep your head above it all, this awful abyss, that’s potentially very tempting, to just let go and enter, but if you wish to survive, you just have to simply keep afloat for a long time in nothingness before you can even start to think, Okay, I’ll slowly swim in this direction and maybe I’ll find something resembling safety or certainty, or maybe that’s the completely wrong direction and you start back and try again! It’s an…. interesting experience, I’ll say that, because it’s just impossible to compare it to anything else.

‘Maybe you can compare it to a coward’s punch. It takes you so much by surprise that it’s almost the surprise that is more damaging. As we all know, the coward’s punch is the most deadly because people don’t see it coming then they fall and injure themselves worse than the initial hit. And then you lose all trust, and you’re mentally jumping at shadows, every thought, every feeling, the brain or heart or whatever just will not trust anything anymore and that’s the awful, exhausting experience…. to doubt everything. To reason, “Everything you think must be wrong because this has happened to you.” You have no resource to even begin to heal yourself after that because you can’t trust yourself. The person has completely destroyed you just to ease their uncomfortable experience in leaving. My experience of the last four years have just been so…. incredibly weird. Such an enormously challenging time.’

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

‘I tried not to,’ says Walker. ‘And then I wrote these songs [on the album]. And I didn’t show them to anyone for a few years. I thought, I can’t even show those songs to people because they’re just too raw, too honest. And you just wonder how candid you can be in this world. Perhaps 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 acceptable? But I guess as an artist you just work with what you’ve got.

‘I spent a long time almost waiting to get 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. But they do say that if you’re scared, you’re on the right track.’

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 knew how to respond. People hide their emotions so well, so I think it didn’t seem any different than usual. And so I thought, maybe I’m just overreacting and these songs are not really that full-on. But it’s hard to judge, because as we all know, other people aren’t revealing all their innermost feelings. 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, is it?’ he says with a laugh. ‘However, eventually, some people I respect… friends and other songwriters, mainly…. said to me that they were really into these new songs. I remember a friend of mine was in the audience once and him and his girlfriend overheard someone  say, “Oh my god, he’s so honest!” Sometimes this kind of raw songwriting is disarming. But as I said, I don’t think the writer really knows exactly what they’re getting into until their neck deep. 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 multiple sides to a story,’ Walker says. ‘You know that already, that you’re coming in with just your experience. And I think it’s easy to forget that. We tend to think that what we’re experiencing is what everyone else is experiencing. It’s easier that way. To understand and accept the complexity of reality would be far too much for us. But as soon as you start talking to your friends about stuff that’s happened in your lives, you’ll notice that nobody really agrees on the story. As many people as there are, that’s how many sides there are to any story. So writers have to at least try not to abuse that subjectivity 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.

~ from Jolene The Country Music Blog