WTF is Being an Adult? A Conversation with Walker Lukens

by Carter Delloro

Spring was finally arriving to Boston when The Bright Light Social Hour and Walker Lukens came to town last month. Winter is still winter even when it’s mild, and spring overtakes you like an afternoon drunk, gradually warming you up until you realize you’re too far along to turn back. It’s the perfect time to trek across town for some live music.

I had never been to the Great Scott, a dive bar on the corner of the train tracks in a bustling part of the city. In May, they also hosted artists like Bayonne, Damien Jurado and Jessica Pratt, high profile indie musicians who have hiked up to this northeastern corner of the country to serve at most a couple hundred fans for an hour or so.

On this particular Saturday night, about 200 Bostonians had congregated for the Bright Light Social Hour’s return. Almost none of them were familiar with Walker Lukens. But by the end of his set, he had undoubtedly won over some new fans. After his second song, I heard a BLSH fan behind me remark, “Wow! They got a really good opener this time!”

Lukens released his first EP in 2012 and had just released his third album, Adult, a week before this concert. It was his third time playing Boston and remarked on the reliably good crowds he encounters here. I was able to catch up with him after his set to talk about his influences, the new record, and what the 2010’s have been like for him personally and professionally.

On influences and labels:

“[At the start of the decade] I was still playing acoustic guitar, a solo one man thing. I was really obsessed with traditional folk and blues music. I was obsessed with the Alan Lomax compilation, Sounds of the South. I was really drawn to the intimacy of the recordings. It felt very ‘found sound.’ On those recordings you get the musicians’ excitement at getting to hear themselves recorded at all. That feels like a lifetime ago.

“I am definitely a student of old R&B and soul and some 70s singer songwriter stuff. But ‘Every Night’ [which is on Spotify’s New Retro playlist] has backing vocals that are a loop. It’s a four second loop. That’s not very retro. We’re making some kind of pop music but it does sit between a lot of genres. This guy last night at our show came up and was really enthusiastic. He said, ‘I don’t know what that was!’ I was like, ‘Was it good?’ And he just said, ‘Yeah!’”

On the beginnings of his music career:

“With my first full-length record [Devoted], I was letting go of the idea that I needed to make an album that sounded like the show I could do alone. I had been so into the folk thing. The real folk thing. I was very offended by Mumford and Sons. Now I could care less, but at the time I was very offended on behalf of all white guys with guitars.

“I think that some songwriters get really lucky in that they make an album and then they go play it and they [quickly] find the audience that wants to hear it. I think the more common thing, and definitely my experience, is that you make this record and maybe get some good reviews but then your life is actually going to play in bars late at night for people who are maybe not even there to see you. Maybe they’re annoyed that a band is there and you have to really work for their attention. Early on I would make recordings and songs that I was really pleased with but I’ve had to contend with writing songs that I’m satisfied with that I also want to go play in public.

“I was such a self-loathing creative ten years ago. I gave myself all these limits. ‘I’ll do this until I’m this age.’ ‘I’ll do this but I have to make this much money.’ Over the last ten years, none of the criteria I had for myself matters to me at all anymore. I feel really lucky and really happy most of the time with my lifestyle. It’s such a good time. I love my band and I also love getting to tour with Bright Light. Maybe this is my upbringing but it’s just a different reality than I thought it was going to be ten years ago. It’s a good one! But it’s a lot more tinkering with the perspective than I expected.

“I remember talking to my brother in 2010, 2011. He’s older than me and does real estate. It’s a good profession for someone who’s type A and he was like, ‘What are your five year goals? What are your ten year goals?’ I honestly had never thought about it in terms of music and so I wrote them out. The thing I realized five years later was I reached all of the goals I wanted, but the thing that didn’t come along with it was the ability to just do music. I was going on tour, I was putting out records, I was doing all these things. I’m just not only doing this. And that’s true for literally everyone I know.

On the new record, Adult:

“Part of the reason that I latched onto the idea of calling the album Adult is that ostensibly I can’t avoid that title any more. But I feel so similar to how I did six or seven years ago. My lifestyle’s the same. I’ve definitely had some ‘adult’ experiences, but in retrospect I had a lot of those when I was a teenager too. I think that especially for people who do this kind of creative stuff, I feel like so much of being an adult is just getting your philosophy of life straight more than the other stuff. You have to think about your perspective and what makes life meaningful.

“This morning we were listening to Esther Perel. She’s a psychologist with a podcast called Where Are We Now. It’s fucking crazy. She was saying how people used to say ‘parenthood’ like it was a job and now people say ‘parenting’ like it’s a verb, like it’s one activity people do. It’s the same thing with ‘adult.’ It used to be a job. You entered ‘adulthood.’ And now people use that stupid, terrible term ‘adulting.’ Because on some fundamental level, everyone I know our age does not feel like the same kind of adult our parents were.

“Then other times I think about how I feel about Mckenzie [Griffin, vocalist/keyboardist with Lukens’ backing band, the Side Arms] and it’s so much more mature than what I felt ten years ago. I was not even capable of that. So in that way, I don’t at all feel like a fake. In some aspects, it feels super authentic. And then other times, it’s such a hilarious joke.

“I had a college professor say this thing that’s haunted me my whole adult life. ‘We make such a big deal of adolescence in our culture, but if I look at any ten year period in my life, I change just as much as any other ten year period.’ You kind of think you’re going to do all this growing as a teen and in your early twenties and then you’re static. She was like, ‘That hasn’t been my experience whatsoever and I’m 50.’ And now that’s totally been my experience too. So then what the fuck is being an adult?”

Walker Lukens is currently on tour and his next Austin performance will be at The Long Center for Sound & Vision: 10 Things I Hate About You on August 14th