in the spotlight – ALLI WALKER – Islander brings her Pipes to Music City

Alli Walker is a Prince Edward Island-born and raised, now Tennessee-based country music singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. This self-professed tomboy and bagpiper didn’t start singing until she auditioned for ‘Footloose” in high school.  Alli sat down with Spotlight on Business in Nashville, sharing her incredible journey, from small-town Prince Edward Island, finding her voice in high school, moving to Toronto on her own to develop as an artist before taking her pipes, talent, and big dreams to Music City and signing her first record deal. 


Spotlight on Business: Tell us a little about yourself and your ties to PEI. What do you like to do in your spare time? 

Alli Walker: I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island and I spent a lot of time playing instruments and playing sports as a child. I started with the drums and piano and then I discovered bagpiping. Playing the bagpipes was a huge part of my life! There’s a place called the College of Piping in Summerside, and my mom worked there. I grew to love playing the pipes. I did the Highland Games Band competitions; and the North American Championships in Scotland, and for a while, I thought I was going to be a professional bagpiper. 

I was offered a scholarship to the University of Arkansas after high school, but I didn’t take it because I found my love for singing and country music. I always loved country music as well as other genres, but when Taylor Swift rose to fame, I related to her and her songwriting. We’re the same age. She inspired me to get involved in the industry. 

I’d never done any singing in public before but, in grade 12, I auditioned for my school musical, and I was cast as the lead female role in “Footloose.” That one decision and opportunity changed the entire trajectory of my life. I got the singing and performing “bug” and took lessons from a professor at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI).  I then went to UPEI as a vocal major for one year but, because it was more classical, it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. So, at 19, I packed up and moved to Toronto by myself and started my artistic journey that led me to Nashville. 

Photo Credit PJ Brown

SoB: Wow, and you played at Cavendish Country Music Festival a few years back, correct? 

AW: Yes! I have a whole history with Cavendish, so it felt very full circle to be on stage there a few years ago. I went to the first few festivals when they started years ago, and I was very inspired by the artists and wanted to be up there on the stage in front of the crowds at Cavy. When I moved to Toronto, I applied to be a server for the Cavendish Beach Music Festival in their VIP Sections because Taylor Swift was performing, and I was sure I could meet the right person and get a chance to go backstage and meet her. I got the job, I talked to the right person, and I got to go backstage and meet Taylor Swift in person. And then it was like, “ok, now I want to get on that stage.” 

Fast forward several years and I found the right contacts and was able to play at the Cavendish Beach Music Festival on the side stages.  I was the first act on the smallest side stage, but it was such a cool moment for me because it was my first time playing on stage at home. It’s tough to be the first act but lots of people came out and it was an awesome experience, but then I knew I wanted to get back to Cavy and play the mainstage. So, this past summer, I got the opportunity to come back and play on the big stage at the Cavendish Beach Music Festival which was so awesome. Now the next goal is to have a better slot on the main stage because I was the first person to take the stage last year at Cavy but it was still so cool to be there and live that moment. 

Photo Credit PJ Brown

SoB: You mentioned Taylor Swift having a huge impact on your career and also, playing the lead role in Footloose in high school as changing your life. Is there any particular person or people who have influenced you to get into songwriting? 

AW: I think one of the best songwriters and most successful women in the entire music industry is Taylor Swift, so I think I would just keep falling back on her as a major influence for me. I love so many other artists, too: Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Brooks and Dunn, Alan Jackson, Gretchen Wilson – they’re all artists who I have loved and related to over the years. I’m also inspired by Kacey Musgraves; she has such a unique and fresh perspective on songwriting that I find so interesting. Maren Morris brings a totally badass approach to things, so I’m inspired by her. 

Probably my favourite artist right now is Morgan Wallen. He is a great songwriter, but he also cuts outside songs from incredible songwriters too, because there are just so many amazing songwriters in Nashville that send millions of songs that never get heard. So, I guess you could say I’m inspired by artists, but I’m also really inspired by songs. Sometimes, I’ll hear a song and I think, “Wow, that was so well written”. It’s special when a song hits you a certain way. 

SoB: It sounds like you’ve had quite a journey of inspiration so far. Can you tell us a bit about what your journey has looked like from Summerside to Toronto and now, Nashville? What was that process like? 

AW: I went to Toronto, and I didn’t know a single person in the music industry. Within a year, I was working in a bar, and I was introduced to my now-husband, who at the time was retiring from being a touring drummer. The person who introduced us told him I needed help, so he took me under his wing and started co-writing with me (he’s a songwriter, too) and working with different people to co-write.  He saw that I was pretty green and needed a lot of development and experience within the industry so we formed a cover band, and we played every little dive bar in Ontario, at Legions, weddings, Ribfests – wherever we could get on stage. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that experience was invaluable. It’s not fun playing in front of a bunch of drunken people or people who really aren’t listening to you as you are just the background noise. 

That being said, I learned hours of material, I learned how other people wrote, how to co-write songs, how to perform, what to do when no one is listening, what to do when the mic stops working, and so on. We did that for ten years until I started playing my own, original music.  My husband knew one guy in Nashville so I went down when I was 20 or 21 and started working with him, cowriting, and he would hook me up with other writers to work with to develop my writing skills. I learned how to record in a studio. And he gave me great advice: “You only get one first impression.” I’ve taken that advice seriously. I had a lot of development to do that I didn’t want to do in the public eye of Nashville. Once you build these relationships, they remember you at that level. At 20, I was inexperienced, I wasn’t necessarily the best singer, and so I wanted to do all of that development under a cover band name, not putting myself out there until I was ready, but at the same time as I was performing under the cover band, I was coming to Nashville to write. 

It was a different experience in Nashville for me back then – I would go down for two weeks at a time, get hotels and drive or fly down and have all of these writing sessions booked and literally every one of them would be canceled because those writers weren’t interested in spending their time writing with someone who wasn’t putting music out. I was a “nobody” then. I got a lot of “nos” and “not yets”. But now, getting to come down and write with incredible people who have so much experience, and who’ve written Number One songs is so amazing. It was hard back then to always hear “no” but it’s also so cool to have gone from that experience to where I am now. 

SoB: It says a lot about you, as an individual, to have recognized the need to put in that work and take the long road but you’ve done it and you’ve been so successful. Now that we’re on memory lane, take us back to the first time you heard your song on the radio. What were your thoughts when you heard your song on the radio or Spotify? 

AW: There have been a lot of moments like that. One thing people don’t always realize is that your song might get played on the radio as a little feature, but they might only spin it once. One of the coolest experiences for me is with my current single, ‘I Like Big Trucks.’ A radio station in Houston, TX, which is one of the top two stations in America for consumption started spinning my song. That can move the needle on having other stations be interested in playing it. My mind was blown when it happened and I’m so grateful for that. And then, the first spin of that single in Canada was on Country 104 in Woodstock in Southern Ontario. I’ve gotten videos from people when it’s playing. And I’ve heard it’s playing on the radio in PEI, too, which is so special.

And, you know, these days Spotify and Apple Music are huge. Getting those opportunities, getting on the radio stations, that’s the equivalent of getting on someone’s playlist and people are automatically listening to those playlists every day. A really cool moment for me was when Spotify put me on a billboard in downtown Toronto. When I first moved to Toronto, I got a job at Jack Astor’s and there were all these billboards in that area around Dundas Square and I said, “I’m going to be on that billboard for music one day.” I didn’t know it was going to take 13 years to get there, but Spotify put me on that exact billboard in front of my first job in Toronto. It was such a cool moment for me to have support from such a big company. 

Photo Credit PJ Brown

SoB: Talking about moments, tell me about going from being an independent artist to signing a record deal in Nashville. 

AW: I’ve been an independent artist for 15 years and I look back with so much gratitude that I waited, that I’d been patient to sign on with the right team because I could have signed with others, but they would want to try and mold me into somebody that I didn’t want to be. I’m very grateful that I got to make my own mistakes and discover who I am as a human.  Plus, it gave me the opportunity to what my brand was and what I wanted to represent as an artist which is important.  Some artists are signed young or inexperienced and they become a puppet.  Well, what I mean is that they have little to no control and are just doing what they’re told to do, and while that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or it’s not what they want as an artist, it just wasn’t what I wanted to do or be part of my journey.

I think it’s important to be true to yourself and put music out that is true to who you are, that you can sing for the rest of your life. For me, getting a record deal now means so much more because I’ve worked so hard to get here. RECORDS was the best team for me, hands down. They’re small but they’re still under Sony Nashville. My marketing team is out of New York City. It’s a massive team but it feels small and intimate – I can chat with them all. It’s not like I’m one of 50 artists on a massive major label. It’s cool to have the support and expertise of this team – I’m not trying to do it all anymore so I can focus on creating music and being creative. 

Photo Credit PJ Brown

SoB: Congratulations, again, on the record deal. Fun fact time: What was the first festival you ever attended as a fan? 

AW: I think it was The Rolling Stones in Halifax at Citadel Hill with The Tragically Hip and Our Lady Peace. I remember going there with friends and their mom. It was this massive rock show, and we of course wanted to be in the front row for the show. It was so wild, but it came at a price as I remember getting peed on numerous times because the guys behind us didn’t want to lose their spots! I also got to experience crowding which was another first. 

SoB: And what about your first festival as a performer? 

AW: Cavendish! When I was playing on the side stages there that first time. I mean, I had done other small festivals as a cover band, but I held off so long on doing original music. The process is sort of like, you put your original music out and then you start booking gigs but it’s so far out – festivals often book a year in advance. 

SoB: What is your favourite part of being an artist – what aspect would you say you enjoy the most? 

AW: It changes all the time. I used to hate performing. My only experience was as a cover band for so long and my husband, who had been touring for years, kept telling me I was going to love performing when I played my original music. I used to get so anxious before performing my own music on stage.  It wasn’t until I was opening for Luke Bryan in Texas at the American Rodeo that I didn’t have an ounce of nerves before that show. It was this moment when I felt like I was finally where I was supposed to be and since then I have loved performing live. It’s incredible. 

SoB: That’s exciting! Thinking back over the last 15 years as an artist, what do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned on this journey? 

AW: It sounds simple, but I think the biggest lesson I learned is that you can’t give up. I’ve seen so many of my fellow musicians and artists give up because it was taking so long but the opportunities could be right around the corner. 

The other big lesson I’ve learned is that your priorities change and that’s OK. Maybe you want a family, or your passion has changed. But mostly, I think what helped me get here is that I didn’t give up. I had said if I didn’t have a record deal by 30, I’d quit but then I turned 30 and I thought, dang – I’ve already put in 11 years. I can’t give up now! So, I kept going and it took me to 33 to get my first record deal. 

SoB: Perseverance! That’s really what it’s all about. What would you say is the biggest surprise along the way so far? 

AW: Honestly? It’s the same answer. 

Although many think it does, it truly doesn’t happen overnight. You must be the hardest worker in the room, and no one can want it for you more than you want it for yourself. There was a time when I questioned if this was what I wanted for myself and my husband said, “I can’t want this for you more than you want it for yourself,” and that stuck with me. It almost rewired my brain, and I worked harder than ever to make it happen. 

We sometimes see artists shoot to big fame and they’re called “overnight successes”, but no one sees the years of work it took to achieve that so-called overnight success. 

SoB: What advice would you give someone who wants to get into the music industry, what would it be? 

AW: Live life first. You need to make mistakes and figure out who you are as a person and an artist. If you don’t, you’ll sound like everyone else. You need to have life experience to have something to write about! 

Whether you’re a male or female artist, you need to stand out and find something about you that’s different. The music business is so saturated. Anyone can record a song at home, pop it up on Spotify, and they could go viral on TikTok. There’s just so much competition. I think the key is learning who you are and what makes you unique is the best advice I could give anyone. 

It’s so important to market yourself and be your biggest promoter. As an artist, you are your brand, and your reputation is a part of that. You also need to hold your tongue sometimes, even when you don’t want to.  But if it is important to you as a person and artist then by all means speak your mind, but it is important to remain professional. It is also important to be nice, remain humble, and help other artists who are trying to make it in the industry – that attitude pays off. You don’t want to piss someone off along the way and find out, ten years down the line that they’re the gatekeeper to something you want.

SoB: Alli, we wanted to finish off with a few Rapid-Fire questions if you are okay with that.

AW: Yes, let’s go!

SoB: Indoor or Outdoor Concert?

AW: Indoor because you can control the sound a bit better. And I hate sweating and freezing.

SoB: Red Wine or Whiskey?

AW: Red wine, I am a big J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon gal!

SoB: You like big trucks, so Dodge or Ford?

AW: Obviously, Dodge 

SoB: Idaho or PEI Potatoes?

AW: Well, I’ve never had an Idaho potato, that I know of. And, obviously being from PEI, it’s PEI potatoes but specifically, new potatoes from PEI in July and August. They are just the best potatoes in the world, trust me!

Photo Credit PJ Brown

SoB: Ben & Jerry’s or Cow’s Ice Cream?

AW: Obviously Cows, and either Wowie Cowie or Gooey Mooey.  One of my first jobs was working at Cows as an ice cream scooper.  I loved it. I went home with a pint of ice cream every single night.

You can find Alli’s music and her latest singles, “I Like Big Trucks” and “Creek” on all streaming platforms.  You can find all of Alli’s upcoming tour dates and her music on her website  Be sure to follow all of Alli’s socials to stay updated with her latest music and performance dates.

by Ashley MacInnis