Having artistic inclinations can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the impulse to re-contextualize your surroundings into something that provides joy to others can provide you with a life of constant searching and creative drive. But for many, that need for answers can be like being sent up into space for a neverending fact-finding mission. Writer and musician Ryan H. Walsh knows this feeling first-hand and isn’t sure if he wants to come back to Earth yet.
With his long-running Boston indie-rock band Hallelujah the Hills, Walsh has maintained a respectable cult-like following, touring with bands like Titus Andronicus and even Silver Jews over the years. Last year, however, his public profile increased considerably with the release of his critically acclaimed book “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968.” In the book, Walsh paints a portrait of Massachusetts during the time Van Morrison was creating his spiritual and ethereal masterpiece in the Boston area.
Between researching, writing and promoting the book, Walsh’s life began to make less and less sense. While the book was a success, it took a tremendous toll on both his personal life and mental well-being. It was time for him to face these problems head-on in the only way he truly knew how — by writing a new album. After a period of intense soul-searching, Walsh reconvened his band to record their eighth album, “I’m You.” For Walsh, the songs included on this album were like a roadmap away from danger that he was drawing for himself in real-time.
I don’t know how to do anything else and I don’t want to do anything else. That’s just my instinct. It probably sounds nutty, but I stick by it,” – Ryan H. Walsh of Hallelujah the Hills
Ryan H. Walsh of Hallelujah the Hills. Photo: Adam Parshall.
“After the book came out then I started to have — whether this is related to the book or not — I turned out to have a really hard time and you know, depression and panic attacks and needing to live back with my parents for a while,” explains Walsh. “At a certain point in those songs, I was trying to imagine a way back to what I felt was good. Where I felt good. Where I felt like myself. I was trying to write my way back there, which I certainly had never done before. And so that was a very strange, beautiful, surreal experience.”
After working out these new songs with long-time band members David Michael Curry, Ryan Connelly, Brian Rutledge, Joseph Marrett and Nicholas Ward, “I’m You” began to take shape. The resulting album is Hallelujah the Hills’ strongest to date and contains all of the elements longtime fans will love, but with a newfound sense of directness in Walsh’s narratives, a new skill and feeling of urgency he attributes to his time in the trenches writing the interwoven storylines of “Astral Weeks” and the shellshock he felt when the experience was over.
“I felt like I had a new weapon, writing-wise. The book was a narrative story that made sense and so I was inspired. I thought maybe I could apply some of that learning to the songs. And try to be more clear about what I mean or tell stories in the songs more literally. I mean, I’m so proud of all the lyrics to come before this, but they aren’t that linear,” laughs Walsh.
In a spirited verse in the album’s nearly nine-minute title track, Walsh waxes poetic on subjects like creation, the give and take between the artist and their muse and the importance of different genres of music in his journey towards greater understanding. “Rock and roll improved my chemistry, and prog rock got me out of bed,” he sings. “Punk rock made me hate the government, and heavy metal became my friend.” He continues to describe how genres like R&B helped him to “dance with you” and how hip hop helped him to understand the workings of the universe. But the central conclusion he reaches is that music, no matter what style, helps to connect all of us. “Don’t freak out,” he declares as his typically smooth vocals begin to break, “I’m you.”
“That section and that song came so quickly and naturally,” explains Walsh. “I just was like, all right, I want to say one personal thing about every genre that I kind of adore, and there was no editing there was no redos in that order, broke them down and then tried to see if I could sing it. It worked out (laughs).”
The album is being released independently this Friday, Nov. 15 with a local release show scheduled for Dec. 19th at Great Scott. During my conversation with Walsh, we land on a strange catch-22 with living life as a creative person. Even though the goal is to bring those who experience your art closer to each other, and to the artist sometimes, the creating can come with isolation in order to produce the necessary results.
“Music and art have ruined my life and it has also saved my life,” says Walsh, which can certainly be the thesis of “I’m You.”
“You know [it] takes a lot of solitude to make something,” he adds. “Unless you’re one of the lucky top-tier artists in the world you’re probably always shuffling around money. So stability falls by the wayside. And yet, I don’t know how to do anything else and I don’t want to do anything else. That’s just my instinct. It probably sounds nutty, but I stick by it.”