Joshua Ray Walker Doesn't Give a Crap About Your Speculation on His Gender or Sexuality | Dallas Observer

Joshua Ray Walker Reclaims His Narrative With a New Album of Female Pop Covers

Dallas native singer Joshua Ray Walker releases "What Is It Even?" a collection of covers by female singers. And he's reclaiming his confidence.
Joshua Ray Walker is owning his love of female musicians with his cover album What Is It Even?
Joshua Ray Walker is owning his love of female musicians with his cover album What Is It Even? David McClister
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On the surface, the new Joshua Ray Walker album, What Is It Even?, is a light-hearted and fun-loving collection of pop songs. But behind the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pink-fur-wrapped portrait that adorns the album’s cover is a story that has been ubiquitous for generations, now more than ever: the universal struggle and desire to be seen for who you are.

The idea behind the fourth studio release from the Dallas native country crooner came as a surprise to many fans, with a concept that didn’t sit well with some: a cover album composed exclusively of pop songs by female artists.

When the first single hit the market in June 2023, new fans and faithful veterans got to gush to Walker’s voice belting out “Cuz I Love You,” the Lizzo banger from her first full-length album.

Magic happened at Modern Electric Studio in Dallas when Walker and his team turned the tune into a sultry, down-tempo track, loaded with a stacked horn section and a king-size bed of a Hammond organ. Walker made it clear that performing Lizzo, live or in the studio, is a powerful experience that requires him to draw upon a huge amount of confidence to be “loud and in your face,” saying, “if you don’t perform a Lizzo song that way, it won’t feel real.”

Confidence didn’t come overnight for the East Dallas native. At the age of 13, Walker already stood 6 feet tall and towered over his peers. Even then, he was thought of as different. Around the same time, he began growing his hair long and would often get mistaken for a woman or addressed as “ma’am,” something that caused the young musician to feel embarrassed and disheartened.

It was in the quiet spaces, between thrashing around in punk and metal bands and trying to find footing in the societal norms of adolescence, that Walker sought reprieve in the works of Cat Power, Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor. Up to that point, Walker had interpreted the voice as a melodic instrument but had never considered lyrical content as an artform. It’s why Regina Spektor’s song “Samson,” made the cut.

“It was one of the first songs that touched me lyrically,” Walker says.

When recording the track, Walker had to “go to another place,” he says, to evoke the delicate and vulnerable candor of Spektor’s raw, heartfelt lyrics.

“Giving that kind of performance in front of your peers is a weird experience,” the singer says, referring to bandmates Chad Stockslager on piano and producer John Pedigo in the sound booth.

Uncomfortable as it may have been, it was essential for Walker to record some of his all-time favorite lyrics, found in Spektor’s phrase, “the Bible didn’t mention us.” Walker sounded starry-eyed and hopeful when he recounted his interpretation of the lines, “Every love that you are in feels like an epic story that will stand the test of time but very rarely are you actually in a love story that would require being written into history books.”

The transformations that have taken place in Walker’s ongoing journey of creating authentic art and refusing to give way completely to the traditional country music genre or to compromise his stylistic choices to become anyone’s torch bearer have been well documented. And that’s one of the reasons for the concept album, to see how far he could push himself.

“I still don’t really consider myself a vocalist or a singer,” Walker says.

That sentiment is hard to sympathize with after hearing his barn-burning bluegrass rendition of Beyoncé's “Halo,” a song that Walker finds to be a perfect pre-show warm-up because of its wide vocal range, starting low and getting higher throughout. The masterful crooning Walker pulls off in the cover of LeAnn Rimes’ “Blue” is a testament to the dedication he’s put into his voice over the years, complemented perfectly by Stockslager’s honky tonk piano and the pedal steel of Adam Kurtz. The album also includes an epic adventure of a recorder solo in the song “Linger,” performed by Kyle Gass of Tenacious D, a new friend the Walker camp made while on tour.

Other highlights include Cher’s “Believe,” a common time shuffle that is destined to be a two-step favorite in honky tonks far and wide. The dark country ballad of “Joshua” by Dolly Parton is an excellent balance to the upbeat cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and the timely tribute to Sinéad O’Connor in “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

One way to tell if a song is well-written is when it can be “reinterpreted in a number of ways and still be good,” Walker says.

This is what the team was looking for when they narrowed a list from 50 songs down to the 11 that made the record, songs that could cross over and work with the band. A perfect example is the Latin groove used for Sia’s “Cheap Thrills,” a tune that propels Walker right into the first-person narrative of putting on makeup and high heels before hitting the dance floor.

Walker isn’t new to singing songs as a character in the first-person. His first three original albums offer plenty of character studies, a handful of which are from the female perspective. Writing autobiographical songs intimidated the songwriter in the past, and he found it far less vulnerable to analyze and explore things about himself by creating a narrative centered around an external persona, a practice which may have paved the way for the album of female-fronted songs to confidently come to fruition.

But Walker acknowledges that it's taken him a long time to address the insecurities of his youth around being seen by others as feminine and how, for a long time, they carried over into adulthood. Some of that was highlighted after Walker’s performance of the national anthem at Formula 1, in October 2021, which took place in front of a live audience of 400,000 and an international television viewing audience of 90 million people. Walker expected the usual criticisms that large-scale events tend to attach to singers’ performances, usually about the quality of their voice, weight or appearance.

What Walker didn’t expect was a comment about, “America being so woke it would have a trans woman singing the national anthem.” After the comment went viral, a string of anti-trans rhetoric surrounded the performance and further, the trans community came to the defense of the singer.

“I didn’t really know how to handle it. I’m a cisgender heterosexual male and this is something that has been happening to me my whole life,” Walker says about being misgendered.

Walker’s response to the debacle felt akin to the Anderson Cooper interview with Lady Gaga in which Cooper asked if there were any truth to the rumor that Gaga has a “male appendage” and is a “hermaphrodite.” While sucking on a diamond, Gaga replied, “Why the hell am I going to waste my time and give a press release about whether or not I have a penis? My fans don’t care and neither do I.”

The traditional and outlaw country music fans who make up a bulk of Walker’s fanbase might feel differently from Gaga's fans about that “issue,” but Walker doesn’t seem to care.

“I am very comfortable with who I am as a person and with who I am in my gender and sexuality,” he says.

Ultimately, Walker believes the more important story is the one about trans youth wanting to be acknowledged as a gender that society says they aren’t allowed to be.

“I’m an ally and that’s the story that matters," Walker says. "I don’t want my struggle to be seen as equal to the much more difficult struggle that trans kids are having to go through.”

Shortly after Walker’s performance broke the internet, someone commented on the national anthem video with four little words: “What is it even?” Walker confessed that people were so confused about “whether he was a man or woman” that he decided to name the record after the comment, lean into the visuals and what society views as feminine tropes, throw on feathers, fur and sparkles, and reclaim the conversation around his own gender and the misgendering that hurt him so much in the past.

“It took a lot of time," Walker says. "That’s really the reason for the record and the message I wanted to share.”
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