Monday night in Nashville, at the end of a draining performance of "Father's Day," a track on his new LP Afraid of Ghosts, Butch Walker winked a teary eye toward his mother, Melissa. The singer was promoting the deeply personal record with a solo performance at Grimey's New & Preloved Music, and his mom had driven up from their native Georgia accompanied by a friend of his father, who died in 2013. Afraid of Ghosts was inspired by this loss, and this brief moment seemed to underscore the notion that the grieving process never truly ends.
"It's the heaviest subject of all for me, so far in my life," Walker says, cooling off in an upstairs office adorned with images of artists like Jason Isbell and Elvis Presley. "Everybody cries and everybody gets sad, and everybody uses music to medicate that, and some of my favorite memories of growing up and listening to music were ones that helped me heal out of a dark space. This was my opportunity to make a record that was honest from that perspective. 'Cause not everything is awesome."
Despite its catchy hooks and melodies — Walker's stock-in-trade — Afraid of Ghosts doesn't bounce along like some of his past releases, particularly 2011's infectious The Spade. Instead, the album, produced by Ryan Adams, is a grower, requiring repeated listens, or at least a certain frame of mind.
"That's understandable," Walker agrees. "It's not an in-your-face record with a lot of bells and whistles. That's the way it is with all my favorite records too. . .I have to digest it one time through and then go back and see if it's going to affect me in a different way. Doing this record, it felt like these songs were going to have some layers. I didn't want anything to get in the way of the songs, production-wise. I made a concerted effort and Ryan made a really concerted effort to make sure nothing got too showboat-y. To me, that was a lesson in walking and not running."
Working with Adams was also an exercise in letting go of the reins. Walker, a sought-after producer himself — he's overseen projects with Fall Out Boy, Pink and Keith Urban and recently recorded Harry Connick Jr. — pledged not to interfere with Adams' recording process. Even when his own approach was critiqued.
"One of the first things Ryan said to me, in his brash, honest, brutal delivery, was, 'You know, sometimes I think your day job rubs off into your own music, which I don't think you should do,'" Walker says. "And at first, I was like, 'Fuck you, man! That's not true.' But it is true. It's hard to work at Starbucks and not go home smelling like coffee. So we had to wash the coffee off on this record."
He also didn't object when Adams suggested having a pal come by to add a guitar solo to the track "21+." The friend turned out to be Johnny Depp, whom Adams had never referred to by name.
"He was calling him 'J. Diggle,'" says Walker. "'My buddy J. Diggle is going to come by and play a guitar solo on this record. He's a really good player.' But he would never say, 'My friend Johnny Depp, who is a fucking big actor.' That's just not Ryan. So when Johnny Depp walked through the door one day, I was like, 'Oh... that's J. Diggle.' He was awesome, gracious and kind — one of those dudes that cruises in with sunglasses and a hat on and sits, plays and complements the song."
Along with Depp, Afraid of Ghosts features guest shots from Bob Mould (on "Father's Day") and Adams. There's also the nostalgic "Chrissie Hynde," which the Pretenders leader personally approved.
"We had talked a couple times about making a record together, and we kind of lost touch," Walker says. "Then I wrote this song and I sent it to her. She called me and left this message, saying, 'Butch, I got the song 'Chrissie Hynde,' uh, my name. . .and it's really good. Let's get in the studio and make music.' I was like, yes! She was one of my idols as a kid."
Given the more rock-based, sing-along nature of his previous efforts, Walker, who will tour behind the album starting in April, is aware that some fans may not get the often-hushed Ghosts. A vocal few may even wish for a return to the radio-ready music Walker made with his band the Marvelous Three. Still, the artist isn't concerned.
"I see people say stuff where they're just so mad that I'm not playing guitar solos and rocking out and sounding like my band from 20 years ago," he says. "That sounds like that person has issues with the fact that they're not happy now, and when they were their happiest was back in a time when that was the music in their CD players. Then they had to go into the real world.
"I don't think about that anymore. I'm just pretty psyched to be able to make a record that makes me happy. There's no way that a record like this is going to appeal to everybody. It's not that kind of a record. It's a bummer of a record."