Q&A with Scottish award-winning songwriter, composer Wily Bo Walker, regarded as one of the top blues vocalists in Europe.

"However, these days I feel that there is a wonderful mix of what the ‘blues’ has now become and I feel there is a refreshing artistry evoked by artists the world over who aren’t afraid to mix influences but who still operate in the realms of what we understand as a modern ‘blues’ genre. I find that exciting. New sounds and new ways to express your own ‘blues’; that very essence of human emotion."

Wily Bo Walker: Welcome to VoodooVille

Wily Bo Walker is an award-winning solo artist, songwriter, composer, and performer noted for his swaggering ‘live’ performances and is regarded as one of the top blues vocalists in Europe. Renowned as being a diverse and prolific artist and hailing originally from Glasgow, Scotland, Wily Bo works across many styles and genres – blues, gospel, soul, classic R&B, rock, jazz, AAA, and Americana. From his acoustic swamp ‘n’ stomp Americana “VoodooVille” shows with The Wily Bo Walker Acoustic Band, his live & kickin’ 5-piece rock & blues Wily Bo Walker Band through to his full band with Danny Flam & The New York Brass, Wily Bo proves why he has been recognized as an artist, who can twist genres into new forms. An independent Scottish artist, selling into 79 plus countries and with a huge global following on streaming sites like Spotify (over 5 million streams), his previous release “Moon Over Indigo” (Sept 2015) was considered for a 2016 Grammy nomination as was his prior collaboration with Grammy Award winner, Danny Flam, “Wily Bo Walker & The Danny Flam Big Band” (Nov 2013). In 2016, the compilation twin album releases “The Wily Bo Walker Story Volumes I & II” were released. His 2018 album “Almost Transparent Blues” received accolades worldwide and reached #1 for five weeks in the Roots Music Report UK Album charts and Top 30 in the coveted Roots Music Report U.S. Blues Album charts.

Working with guitar supremo E.D. Brayshaw, the album “The Roads We Ride” charted worldwide and received spectacular reviews with the track ‘The Ballad of Johnny & Louise’ reaching #1 in the prestigious Netherlands’ Hit-Tracks Top 100. In the second half of 2020, Wily released the album “Welcome to VoodooVille" (2020) with Danny Flam, a multiple Grammy award-winning musician recognized for his work with Kanye West, Jay-Z and others. Danny has joined Wily Bo on two previous albums – “Wily Bo Walker & the Danny Flam Big Band” and “Moon Over Indigo.” The session players included members of Walker’s acoustic and electric bands, a wide assortment of guitarists, drummers, keyboardists and of course the New York Brass with special appearances by The Brown Sisters of Chicago Gospel Choir and The Cenovia Cummins String Quartet.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Rock n’ Blues counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I’ve been involved in music for all of my life. My parents were both classically trained pianists. I, of course, wanted to go my own way; my sister’s love of pop music introduced me to The Beatles. I then started listening to The Stones, The Yardbirds and then Cream, Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green). My hero was Jack Bruce – a fellow Glaswegian, and I bought my first bass guitar, a ‘Gibson EB3 copy’ to emulate him. My first introduction to playing in a band was with a piano player, Peter J. Vetesse who, although we were kids, had an incredible talent (He went on to play with Jethro Tull amongst others). I’d been singing on stage since I was 5 years old but playing in a wee band with him and doing music that was popular then shaped my desire to follow a particular path. So, from very early on, I surrounded myself with musicians and follow the lifestyle that that involves. To this day nearly all of my friends are involved in the music business (or are huge music fans) and I have been lucky in that I have been able to play all over this beautiful planet with some amazingly talented people.

With regards my view of the world, I am more interested in the song, the chord progressions and melodies than much else. Couple that with my interests in the written word, art and cinema and my whole life has been following a specific path; searching for the aesthetic, drawing from all sources and being influenced by the true innovators. So if anything, my views of the world have been drawn by those who have taken those hard paths previously.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

My sound is an amalgam of all that I have heard over the years, all styles and derivatives of blues, soul, gospel, jazz through soundtrack, rock, AAA and Americana. I guess all artists do that same thing; soak up all that you possibly can and see what emerges from that creative part within. My lyrics are personal but veiled in stories derivative of cinema, film noir, gothic and littered with broken characters. They are my diary and travelogue.

These days I don’t tend to play many cover songs – I had done that for the best part of 30+ years but about 10-12 years ago I pulled away from all of that to follow my own muse and record my own work. It wasn’t that I wasn’t creative before, I was and I had recorded many albums, but it’s just that I arrived at a point where I thought I should put the session work and deps, touring with other bands etc to one side and concentrate on my own vision. I still do production work for bands and artists that I admire though. I work constantly - from the time I get up to when I eventually crash I am thinking ‘music, melodies, lyrics, arrangements, production, shows…’ My ‘drive’, if you like, is that it is the very air that I breathe (to coin a cliché)…

"To follow your own path and not concern yourself with fads and trends, I think was the major breakthrough for me. Not to follow others styles and successes. (AND quit playing cover songs – haha!!!)" (Wily Bo Walker / Photo by John Bull)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Ha! Many memories that can’t be repeated – there have been some wild shows over the years! Loads of big venues etc but it’s the smaller ones that have their place in my heart. In recent years, I went on tour to Portugal with ‘Rattlin Bone’, a precursor to ‘The Rattlin Bone Theatre Show’ (think New Orléans, Dr John with a healthy dash of voodoo blues) which I am producing, and it was with a bunch of friends and like-minded people so it was just an amazing time, audiences can pick up on that energy and become, for that hour and half or so, part of the family experience too. I love working on stage with E D Brayshaw. He is such a talented musician and one of the best I have worked with over the years. We have that telepathic connection on stage – any musician who gigs will get that. It’s that quick glance across the stage and you just instinctively know where the music is going.

Oh, and I have to mention a mad tour I did in what was East Germany just after the Wall came down. It was another band of brothers, people I had known, and still meet up with socially, and we played all over Germany from Art galleries in East Berlin down to Leipzig over to Weisswasser and a wonderful place called Bautzen! The Bautzen gig was in a kind of town hall but it was run by an alternative crowd (we all fitted right in). The applause we got that night was absolutely deafening, I’ll always remember that - ear-bleeding calls for encores! A fabulous memory. The band all seriously considered just staying in Germany at that time – we had such a great reception.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I don’t miss anything from the music of the past. It’s all out there to still be enjoyed and my record collection is over-flowing with classic albums. The music coming out nowadays is amazing too – you have just to look for it. There is no Record Company financing original artists or releasing new music so it is a question of trawling independent releases. Mainstream radio is also tied up with those same old Record Companies and won’t play new music any more (well they will but at a price – I have learned all about that aspect of the industry over the years) but independent and internet radio is a fantastic way to discover new artists. I am constantly looking for that special artist that has it all going on; well-formed songs, good lyrics and genuine emotion. On the occasion you strike lucky and find such an artist it’s like finding gold! Wonderful. And I will travel far and wide to catch these artists ‘live’...

My fears at present, and must be for any performing artist in these days of Covid-19 and lockdowns etc, is that there will be no venues left to play, gigs will become scarce and a sterile parody of what has been before. I think a lot of artists are currently soul-searching as to whether they can continue. Sales are down of course and with no gig income it’s been a very difficult time. Streaming has taken the place of sales and there are the arguments for and against that but it’s here and a fact of life so to continue as an independent artist we must embrace that too. I like to look for positives and the one good thing about streaming is that you have access to a much wider audience (I get played in 89 countries around the world!) and you can see from the streaming stats where you get played and which songs are favoured etc so it’s useable information. And when I see sales coming in from halfway around the world I know they will have heard me either on a streaming service or internet radio which is cool!

"I don’t miss anything from the music of the past. It’s all out there to still be enjoyed and my record collection is over-flowing with classic albums. The music coming out nowadays is amazing too – you have just to look for it. There is no Record Company financing original artists or releasing new music so it is a question of trawling independent releases." (Wily Bo Walker / Photo by John Bull)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Simple! Government funded grass root venues. There is a massive demand for ‘live’ music and so few venues. The Arts should be invested in, they are a very important part of the quality of our lives.

Make an account of the case of Blues in Scotland. Why the UK always was the centre of European Blues researches?

I guess Blues in Scotland is much like the world over now and there are some fine artists who are developing their sound and releasing their work independently. There were some mighty fine Scottish bands skirting the world of blues over the years with some fabulous vocalists all of whom I love dearly - Maggie Bell with Stone the Crows, Frankie Miller, Big George, Alex Harvey and my own personal favourite singer, Jimmy Dewar. The UK, I guess, had it’s own take on ‘blues’ from the sixties and seventies – those bands I mention above in your Question 1 (early Stones, Cream, Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall through the blues-rockers of Free, Zeppelin etc) had a heavier ‘UK sound’ than the blues coming out of America at that time.

(And I must clarify that I’m talking about ‘electric blues-rock’ of course and not the original and true ‘blues’ artists).

That U.K. sound was ‘new’ at the time and hugely influential the world over. So, a lot of bands will tend to emulate those heroes from that era and there is that whole ‘pub’ circuit of ‘blues’ players and bands out there to scratch that itch. There is an audience demand for that – much like the tourist venues in New Orléans or Nashville where bands ‘have’ to play covers of audience favourites.

However, these days I feel that there is a wonderful mix of what the ‘blues’ has now become and I feel there is a refreshing artistry evoked by artists the world over who aren’t afraid to mix influences but who still operate in the realms of what we understand as a modern ‘blues’ genre. I find that exciting. New sounds and new ways to express your own ‘blues’; that very essence of human emotion.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?                                         (Wily Bo Walker / Photo by John Bull)

To follow your own path and not concern yourself with fads and trends, I think was the major breakthrough for me. Not to follow others styles and successes. (AND quit playing cover songs – haha!!!)

I guess when I was starting to hone my songwriting skills way back, I wanted to write what I thought was the flavour of the time, aiming for some success or recognition on the back of it. I would be looking to impress faceless Record Company execs etc and change my work to their bidding. I learnt quite quickly that that was not for me and I needed to express my own true self. So I followed my own muse, learnt my chops from working with great players and writers, creating my own work and producing it in exactly the way I want it heard/read or visualised.

What is the impact of music to the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I can only speak for myself in that occasionally things cross over in to my world and I have to comment. I am in no way a political or protest songwriter but songs like my ‘For The Children’ and ‘Walk in Chinese Footsteps’ have a political statement underpinning the stories within.... The legends that can truly influence and affect people, heroes of mine like Gil Scott-Heron, Curtis etc, have a focus and drive which reaches beyond the music itself. Their work and voices in turn can be heard through a new generation of wordsmiths and artists. It’s important, for those who can, to speak up against all the injustices out there. Music does break down barriers so it was always a platform of choice and some artists have of course sparked change. However, I think that what is allowed to be heard on the radio and TV has become somewhat sanitised in the mainstream. But there are still artists out there who have voices that need to be heard…

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Difficult one. Here’s a couple. First one not specifically music related. But my love of the written word would draw me to ‘Les Deux Magots’ and other haunts of the ‘lost generation’ of writers and thinkers in Paris pre World War II where we could drink and exchange thoughts (and where Ernest Hemingway would punch you in the mouth! Ha!)

Or, perhaps more appropriate for your readers as it is both literary and music related – to spend a day in the car driving with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy on the way to watch Slim Gaillard play in that little Frisco nightclub. That night, of course described in Kerouac’s book ‘On the Road’…

To finish and as an aside to that, I was friends with Slim Gaillard towards the end of his life. He lived in London and we would chat about his past and the music. I was at his wake in Ronnie Scott’s where people flew in from all over the world to pay respects. I also have Slim’s last keyboards which his family gave me after his death. Another journey and memory that has had a profound effect upon me, to reflect again upon your first question!

Wily Bo Walker - Home

(Wily Bo Walker / Photo by John Bull)

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