Jason Walker Band
Six months is a long time in music, and music writer, author and musician Jason Walker knows that better than anyone. So why the hell did it take him five years to write, record and then release the dazzling follow-up to Ashes & Wine, the captivating, blurry Ceiling Sun Letters? It turns out he was living in a bleak house.
“It’s been a process of breaking down everything that I’d accomplished musically and personally in the last decade,” says Walker. “Things started to go a little haywire in 2005. I was diagnosed with panic and anxiety disorder, and I’d found a need to let some blood out.” At a show at the Annandale, Walker took his commitment to the art to levels not seen since Iggy Pop took a steak knife to his chest. “I was playing the solo to our last song with a schooner glass and it seemed like the right time to lacerate my forehead with it.”
Eight stitches and some incredulous live reviews of that infamous show later, Walker was attracting odd stares and conjecture about his sanity. “Our rhythm guitarist and harmony singer Worth Wagers went home to the USA and the last show we did with him was our last show. After that, I briefly went mad, was hospitalised with septicemia (blood poisoning) because of – shall we say – unsafe practices, I nearly drowned in the Newcastle flood, battled drug and alcohol problems… the usual nonsense.”
While he managed to avoid rehab or psychiatric care this time around, Walker had nowhere to go to entertain his demons except to write about them and sing them out into the Garage Band program on his laptop. Several of the songs like ‘Hearts Get Hard’ came ‘automatically’ according to Walker. “I was singing some ideas into the computer and ‘Hearts Get Hard’ just… emerged, fully formed. There was no preconception whatsoever. In the past I’d imagined that songwriters who spoke of this sort of occurrence were yanking our chains, but now I understand what it means to be a conduit. It really did just drop out of my mouth, lyrics, melody and all.”
“Ceiling Sun Letters is a drug album – there’s no doubt about that. During the writing and recording of it, I was dominated by a fear of death and the nervous energy that followed my two near-death experiences… I lived on a diet of [anxiety drug] Xanax, anti-depressants, cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, the odd dragon-chasing session and bingeing on food. It’s about trying to communicate the chaos that everyone experiences at various points in their lives, and trying to swim against the logical current to get the word out. I was not at all well during that period.”
Walker’s previous Laughing Outlaw releases mercilessly plundered the past. Ceiling Sun Letters is different. It’s a reflection in a cracked mirror in a dark room, a hazy powerful rock album that recalls the New York Dolls, Grandaddy, Lou Reed, Wilco, the Triffids, Loose Fur and the White Album. From the all-in intro of the storming opener ‘You Will Be Ashes’, through the delicate mandolin splashes on ‘Advice to Beginners’, the psychic folk thunderstorm of ‘Free to Go’ or the frustrating waltz-time rocker ‘Fight This’ which spirals through a maddening key change and uses the little-known marxophone to unusual effect.
Walker’s change of direction was aided by “the two people who are ultimately responsible for how this album sounds”, Brian Crouch and Michael Carpenter. Crouch, who has played with Walker for more than ten years, produced and entirely played the album’s stunning centrepiece ‘Time Poor’. From the delicate piano to the ‘strings’ – which are in fact layers of guitars played pizzicato with the edge of a coin, the song builds to timpani-led crescendo that vanishes into the warm crackle of vinyl noise from Crouch’s old stereo. “The auteur theory is a popular one with your average deluded songwriter but I’m a firm believer in giving the credit where it’s due. Brian turned this album into a work of art. He’s a hell of a producer and I hope he starts getting some work because of this record.”
Producer Michael Carpenter was equally responsible for making the album as wildly eclectic and different as it is. “He’s really got a gift for direction in the studio,” says Walker. “I had to turn this album over to him because I was not in a fit state to direct the action myself. I had ideas overflowing at different times but then I would dry up out of fear and I was bloody grateful to Mick and Brian for transforming it and bringing it to its conclusion. It’s no oversimplification to say it belongs to them as well.”
With the imminent release of Ceiling Sun Letters, Walker is on his heels once more. “I have no idea what this album is going to do for me or anyone. But it’s like the bastard son I kept in a box for 19 years. It’s out and enjoying the sun on its face.”
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