Guided by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Joan Shelley amplifies the quiet power of her melodies and voice
By Bliss Bowen
Emmylou Harris has often said, regarding songwriting, that open tunings open up fresh melodies. Reminded of that comment, Joan Shelley agrees. The Kentucky-based singer-songwriter had played around with alternate tunings for her third album, 2015’s dreamy “Over and Even,” but she took “a deeper dive” for her Jeff Tweedy-produced follow-up.
“I had found kind of a favorite alternate tuning to standard, but I really pushed it a little further with this last record and kept changing, and kept moving, and kept challenging my muscle memory,” she says. “So that I didn’t have muscle memory, in other words; I’m kind of trusting melody instead of technical scale memory on an instrument, just following the melodies around.”
The gently flowing folk melodies she follows on the simply titled “Joan Shelley,” released in May, display careful attention to craft. “If you’re really in a good zone and good at what you’re doing, knowing when to stop is the art of it,” she says, “because the frame is everything, as with visual art.”
She shares her less-is-more aesthetic with guitarist Nathan Salsburg, whose John Fahey-style leads tastefully filigree her sturdy fretwork and complement her soprano’s tonal purity. There’s a lot of calming space in the music they make. You can feel the unhurried pace of the natural milieu that inspires Shelley’s creativity in Goshen, about 30 miles outside of Louisville.
“Touring, city to city, there’s just no writing going on,” she says. “There’s ideas and lots of inspiration, but it isn’t until I’m heading home, getting under the trees and being able to breathe and walk and the specific rhythm of being in the country, that creates space enough to do that kind of stuff, for me.”
Tweedy helped preserve that space in the studio, in part by creating an atmosphere that minimized distractions and encouraged simplicity. Shelley had composed some of the new material on banjo (“a great tool for writing”), but when they started recording Tweedy suggested she adjust the tunings for guitar. Listening to the sensual sway of the finished tracks, it’s difficult to imagine them with different instrumentation. Tweedy’s drummer son Spencer and keyboardist/Dobroist James Elkington provide supportive accompaniment to Shelley and Salsburg, in arrangements spare enough to enhance rather than compete with the emotion and imagery in the songs.
“It was the first time I had recorded out of Kentucky,” Shelley says, recalling the recording sessions. “Going up to Chicago, I was a little bit intimidated. Though it’s in the city, I love Chicago; it’s got the lake and the healthy lake breezes. Something like that seems balanced.
“The Loft studio is just an effortless place. The whole thing was about, if you reach for it, it was there; reach for an instrument, it was already miked up. Everything was fluid. That way was even more natural than recording sessions I’d had in Kentucky, because you didn’t have to get clogged with [laughs] ‘Is this cable working? Is this mic buzzing?’”
Graceful as they are, her songs deal with messy tensions in relationships, and searching interior monologues. Shelley’s lyrics are introspective yet, like poetry, not immediately self-revealing.
“What do you think when I say
Isn’t this sweet
When I say isn’t this right
When I say you should be with me this time
And if you’re at all like me
You’ll reach and feel for the edges
Pull at the seams to show the weakness”
— “The Push and Pull”
“Hafiz and Rumi are both really juicy sources of inspiration for me,” she says. “Their words are so passionate, and the symbols are universal, and the experience in the poems is so universal, with characters struggling for enlightenment. I like that vein of poetry. And I really find [essayist] Wendell Berry especially inspiring. He’s a Kentucky writer that I just adore. He’s kind of environmental minded — farming, land, sense of community; all those things are in his work.”
When she isn’t touring with Salsburg, she performs around Kentucky with Maiden Radio, her old-time trio with Cheyenne Mize and Julia Purcell. Their independent music community suits Shelley’s need to prioritize exploration and substance over aesthetic.
“People are really engaged in understanding the music of Kentucky as well as kind of pushing the experimental music scene. There’s a lot of, like, post-punk, the legacy of Slint and For Carnation and all these great punk bands that came out of Louisville. That’s all still mixing. People push themselves more here than I thought they would in a town this size. You know what I mean? It’s easier to live here than it is in L.A. [Laughs.] You don’t have to struggle as hard to be here, which can make somebody a little more complacent or comfortable, but people still push.”
Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg perform at 8 p.m. Friday, July 14, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $16. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit joanshelley.net.