Planes of Existence: Karima Walker

Karima Walker infuses folk traditions with surrealism on Hands in Our Names

A sullen wind howls. It skips and starts again. It whispers softly as if only to remind you that it does exist, building a landscape highly connected to place—that place being Tucson. A subtle, indiscernible chanting weaves in, though the howling and chanting is soon silenced by the earnest, gentle power of Karima Walker's vocals. Her guitar functions primarily for rhythm at first, keeping the pace like a slow march through the desert. Intensity builds and pulls back, like the wind itself, thus establishing Walker's intent for the rest of her new album, Hands in Our Names.

Walker spent time recording sounds around the city and in the desert; on her phone, on a tape recorder and with a Zoom recorder. She would record her vocals on analog equipment and transfer it to digital formats; she would take the digital and turn it into analog. She recorded the wind, and she manipulated her own vocal tracks, extending them over two-minute spans, reversing and/or layering them, to transform them into otherworldly sonic accents.

Walker headed into Fivethirteen Recording in Tempe with, essentially, a box of tapes and some files, seeking to quilt and collage the bits and pieces together to create something completely new. She says she spent an entire day in the studio just organizing what she had. While her songs still have moments of more traditional folk songwriting, Walker joins those pieces together with ambient, experimental pieces, which gave her the inspiration to keep pursuing her own music.

"There were about two years where I was really dissatisfied with what I was doing. I kept writing songs like I had always been writing," she says. "I rejected that for a little while and was down on it. I feel more okay with that part of my creative process now...I didn't want to deny my history in a way."

She harmonizes with her own backing vocals to create beautiful gospel moments, like on the album's title track, that are as uplifting as the meditative, chanting folk tunes can be somber. But even that bright duet devolves into a more disorganized round of several voices, who are all eventually taken over by a growing, electronic humming. That progression of sweetly spiritual Americana being scattered and then completely drowned out by an ominous, inorganic tone seems to say more than a little about the current state of things, whether it intends to.

"In a way, I'm taking my experience of the world and saying that it's important by turning it into music," Walker says.

Though Walker's talents have been used to accentuate the sound of local acts like Human Behavior and the Wanda Junes, the scope of her multi-instrumental experimentation is expressed more clearly on her own album. On the new record, which will be released on tape by the new local Baby Tooth label, Walker plays guitar, glock, keyboard, chord organ and monotron. The most interesting interplay, though, comes from the blend of Walker's vocals, some distorted and others unadulterated, with the ambient sounds.

"I am a very interior, internalizing person and I just sort of shamelessly use myself as kind of a measure for my own experience," Walker says. "It's a way of trusting yourself in your own environment to use your body to create a sonic landscape."

The freedom of using a more experimental process to songwriting presented new challenges, but largely, the different focus allowed her to add in texture and, as she puts it, a "pervasiveness" and "heaviness." Overall, the distorted landscape she presents on the record shifts into surreal territory—it's a place where things can feel completely familiar, only to be turned around or shifted.

"I think there are ways [that] different pieces present themselves as something and then become something else," she says. "I would say maybe dreamlike or cinematic."

It's in those moments where things seem to breakdown or morph, where her more linear storytelling is stripped away, that her new work distinguishes itself. Though she doesn't consider herself a strictly ambient or experimental artist by any means, the attitude is there, and it's one Walker has grown to respect.

"What's really interesting about ambient music is that it can ask a lot of you or it can ask nothing of you. I like that something can inhabit this space...You don't have to know what's happening. It just makes you feel good and you can focus and all the evil voices go away," she says. "But there's also this really rich thing available to you if you want to dive into it."

Experimental music may always exist on the fringes, but pulling it in as a reference and as inspiration, blended with more typical song structures, seems to be becoming more common.

"What they're doing is crafting new ways of making sound. Experiencing that can make you really uncomfortable and that's not really how the market works," she says. "I think it's great there are people out in the wilderness doing something degenerative. I think they're tapped into something dynamic. I love going to a show and not knowing what the rules are."

Bound to less rules in her own right, Walker found a way to express herself that felt more satisfying to what she wanted to offer audiences.

"I think there are a lot of ways in which I'm not offering myself to people, and in other ways I think I'm making myself very vulnerable and that really works for me right now," Walker says. "It feels good to push back against a clean aesthetic."

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