You Sing, I Write: Q&A with PT Walkley

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Q&A with PT Walkley

Photo Credit: Wendy Hu

A versatile songwriter, PT Walkley has penned scores for numerous Ed Burns films, popular commercials such as MasterCard and GE, as well as his recent debut solo release, Mr. Macy Wakes Alone. An intriguing album, the storyline follows three main characters – Audrey Macy, a spoiled trust fund kid who plots her father’s murder, Calvin the Coroner, an aspiring singer-songwriter infatuated with Audrey, and Mr. Macy, Audrey’s father and evil record executive.

Walkley has said he hopes to bring back cover to cover listening and seemingly does so, as the characters and themes on each track intermingle throughout the album. I met with Walkley at All Points West and learned about his writing process, the tales behind his music and his view on performing: “If the core of the song is good, it’ll translate.”

Do you prepare differently for a festival than your own show?
Well, we definitely wanted to do the most singalong able songs. Anything with a lot of “la-la-la's” and “oh’s and ah's” and one word hooks like “Somebody” has. A lot of times the set can get a little mellow, which works in some environments, but when you’re trying to appeal to a bunch of people you want to rock a little more. We had a bunch more in the set, but today it was running a couple hours late so we only got to do a portion of the set, which was still great. We had a good time.

Do you feel the crowd was receptive?
Yeah. I think the crowd was locked up for hours and hours and were just ready to hear any music they could, so we got the benefit of that. By the time we went on, people were just ready to listen and have a good time.

What’s going through your head while you’re performing onstage?
Usually, it’s “Don’t screw up,” anything from that to really trying to engage with the crowd and getting into the performance and connect back to the song. At this point, you performed it so many times that sometimes you’re just running through the motions and hitting the notes or not. Connecting back to the core of the song is the important thing.

Tell me about your latest release, Mr. Macy Wakes Alone. I read in an interview that you wanted to bring back cover to cover album listening.
I had access to all these great players and I had a lot of bigger ideas floating around in my head with string quartets and crossing the genres of country, pedal steel and all the instrumentation that goes along with all the different styles. I wanted to somehow harness all of that and tie it together with a little storyline so I did that with Audrey Macy, Calvin and the Mr. Macy storyline.

The trick was to try to give it one voice throughout even though it kind of goes all over the place. I’m happy with the way it came out. I think it really worked. We put a little intro and it has the button lift and “Somebody” melody and string arrangement at the end, which was the final cherry on top where I was like, “Okay, now I think it’s a concept record.”

How did you come up with the three main characters throughout the album?
I came up with this Audrey Macy character. I think that was first. She was based on an amalgamation of different people that I’ve met and some fiction too. A spoiled brat kid who hatches the evil plan to kill her rich Daddy. And then it was like, who is the rich Daddy and why would she kill this guy? Calvin the Coroner was just a throwaway line, she pays off Calvin the Coroner to get what she wants and then I elaborated into that. Then it spun into he was infatuated with her as a kid so he’ll do anything. He assumes, “Oh, she’ll come back some day” but she comes back to pay him off. He must be thinking, “Oh, I knew you’d come back,” but it’s really that she wants to bribe him. It’s important for me to tape these things. I’ll just spout out ideas and play and free form songs and take the good stuff and let the garbage go out the window.

You’ve written music for Ed Burns’ films and commercials. How is the process different writing an album vs. a 30-second commercial spot?
The assignments are always a lot easier when there is definite direction. It’s like, “Okay it should have this feel” and the commercials are really fun that way because you get to do a lot of different styles. That learned me the different genres a little bit. Whether it’s dance stuff or orchestral arrangements or mariachi band version of this. Sometimes you get crazy direction from clients. The assignment is usually fairly easy to cover, but figuring out what I really want to do and if it’s something I’m really going to be proud of and make my own sound is sort of hard to land on sometimes. That can take a long time.

How did you originally get into music?
You know, it was kind of late in the game. I think my parents got me a guitar when I was 15 and I took one lesson and was like, “Oh, that’s kind of like homework. I don’t want to do that.” So, I put it under the bed for a few years and then I picked it up again in college and started playing along to old Velvet Underground records and things that are easy enough for a beginner to feel like he actually knows how to play. Then it just spun from there. I started in a band in college just playing guitar and once I moved to New York I had a landslide of ideas and it just never stopped. I try to be as productive as I can. It’s good to have different avenues for all those things because all the ideas need homes, whether they’re goofy, kazoo melodies that I would never release on a record or something deep and meaningful. I feel lucky to have all the different outlets.

Do you feel a song comes out better when it actually happened to you?
Yeah, I think so. I think it has more lasting. Sometimes you can capture a character and you’re happy to sing. It’s always good when it comes from a real place. My life’s not incredibly interesting, so I try to get creative when I can. We’ve all been through some shit, so it’s good to tap into that and when you do you’ve got something really good.

Are you ever afraid to reveal too much because the person you’re singing about might be in the crowd?
I was for a while. I was just having fun with melodies and throwing out words that sounded good together. I have this other band, The Blue Jackets, and that’s fun, it’s more of a rock band and then I put out this Track Rabbit album a couple years ago. But this album, Mr. Macy Wakes Alone, even though it’s mostly character based, there is a lot of me in there. I really wanted to go inside a little more and reach from personal experience. Even in the fictional songs, I would use those characters to speak for, like a ventriloquist dummy. There is some of me in all those songs.

Chris Martin originally heard you sing with your band The Blue Jackets and had you open for Coldplay.
Yeah, through Ed Burns. We had been friends for a while, I had been doing the scores for his movies and I started a side band and it started getting more and more serious. We got offered the spot to open for Coldplay and it was unbelievable. It was at Madison Square Garden. Through that I’ve gotten to know Chris a little bit. He and Eddie are friends. So yeah, that was my first brush with them and tonight I’m looking forward to seeing them again. To see how they’ve come along, I hear they’re doing well [Laughs].

What’s your advice to aspiring musicians?
It sounds so corny at this point, but God, just believe in yourself and keep going. A lot of things come your way and it’s real easy to give up. There’s going to be a lot of crappy days and a lot of things that don’t work out but if you know you’re good, you usually figure that out at some point and just keep going.

For more on PT Walkley, be sure to visit him on MySpace and if you're in New York or D.C., catch one of his shows in the upcoming weeks.

You can also read this interview on

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