When we last heard from singer/songwriter Seth Walker, it was on 2016’s “Gotta Get Back,” an album that rose to No. 6 on Billboard’s blues charts and found the North Carolina-born songsmith delving into his own family ties along with the jazz and blues of New Orleans. The “Gotta Get Back” album was Walker’s ninth, and some critics said it was also his best. But as successful as the album was, both he and producer/multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix (best known for his work with The Wood Brothers) felt that it was a little too — in Walker’s words — “buttoned up.”
“’Gotta Get Back’ was a pretty ‘arranged’ record,” he says, adding that the album left him longing to do something different and less formal the next time.
Which brings us to “Are You Open?” — Walker’s just-out album that was once again made in collaboration with Rix. The production and instrumentation are far sparer this time, and every track, even the solo acoustic ballads, has an infectious, propulsive groove that some of the songs on “Gotta Get Back” didn’t have. Whether it’s through Walker’s own percussive guitar-playing or Rix’s creative work behind the drum kit, the 10 songs on “Are You Open?” have a funky rhythm that pulses like a heartbeat.
That’s largely because Walker changed up his songwriting approach for his 10th album and based the tracks on grooves instead of chord patterns or lyrics.
“I did some things for this record that I’d never done before,” he says. “I just holed up and created all kinds of rhythms and layered things. In fact, ‘Inside’ [the album’s second track] came from a sound check that I recorded on my phone, just to save for later thinking it might be good for a song. I ended up stacking vocals on top of that, and it’s what we ended up using on the record.”
Walker says his new rhythm-based songwriting method was part organic and part intentional.
“I do vividly remember asking myself questions like, ‘What are you going to do this time? Can you think outside of your norm and challenge yourself and your listeners?’” he says. “It was a mindset, and the songs stemmed from that.”
To Walker’s mind, though, that artistic restlessness is simply a part of his personality, the same drive for change that’s spurred him to move from North Carolina to Texas to New York to New Orleans, eternally following his muse.
“It’s kind of a natural progression for me,” he says. “I definitely have some wanderlust, and that’s why I try not to do the same record twice. If you look at the 10 albums I’ve made, they’re pretty sprawling. And as far as my mindset going into “Are You Open?” I guess it was more of me stepping onto the skinny end of the branch and trying to do something different.”
And when you’re stepping onto that skinny end of the branch, it’s nice to have a collaborator who can catch you if you fall. That was Rix’s role, and Walker says it was vital.
“He’s my partner,” Walker says. “He was really with me from the get-go through the whole process of this record. Having someone you trust is the No. 1 thing, and we trusted each other to explore.”
As for the lyrics, Walker, who will play an in-store album-release show with his band at Horizon Records in Greenville on Saturday, says that as he wrote them, a concept emerged. Most of the words on “Are You Open?” take their cue from the title, exploring themes of artistic and personal receptiveness and vulnerability.
“I didn’t plan it at all,” he says. “I just wrote the tunes and they came out that way and I was like, ‘Man, I guess I’m doing some introspection these days.’ The album deals with the idea of, ‘Are you open to what’s inside of you?’ I don’t know exactly how to sum it up, but I guess it’s finding and speaking your truth.”
What: Seth Walker (album-release show)
When: Noon Saturday, March 16
Where: Horizon Records, 2-A W. Stone Ave., Greenville