Joan Shelley on Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and More
The beauty of Joan Shelley’s voice and music cascades like an ever-flowing mountain waterfall.
Sprinkle in her poetic lyrics, and it’s easy to understand why the Kentucky-based singer-songwriter, who begins a 17-date tour with Patty Griffin on Oct. 30 at New York’s City Winery, can quickly mesmerize listeners.
“I am a singer and, passionately, a songwriter,” Shelley says. “It’s too bad so many crimes have been committed under the singer-songwriter label — or else I’d say that. I sing with finger-picked acoustic and electric guitars, and I try to channel the same muses as those that showed up for old-time mountain ballad singers, Leonard Cohen and Billie Holiday.”
Shelley’s most recent album, Over and Even, was released last year and featured Nathan Salsbury’s sweet and prolific acoustic guitar. The album was Shelley’s third, following her 2012 debut album, Ginko, and 2014’s Electric Ursa.
“Over and Even was a much more swift and charmed recording process in a homemade studio, while Electric Ursa took a little more blood, sweat and tears,” she says. “Electric Ursa was recorded in a proper studio setting with the band that had just been out on the road playing arrangements of the songs. We put a lot down and then edited out a lot. So, the next time, with Over and Even, I wanted to do it simply. Nathan and I went in and recorded the vocals and guitars live, and then only added to it minimally.”
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the monicker of Will Oldham, lends his vocals to three songs.
“Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and his album Master and Everyone taught me that it was okay — actually more powerful and wild — to sing quietly if your lyrics were strong and sharp,” Shelley says about the 13-year-old album.
Leonard Cohen was another artist who influenced Shelley.
“’Songs of Leonard Cohen was a record I listened to countless times,” she says about Cohen’s highly praised 1967 debut album. “It had the kind of sadness that wasn’t melodramatic or overemotional, but necessary and soulful.”
Shelley also credits Salsbury and others for playing an important role in her development as a musician.
“As a guitar player, playing with and watching Nathan Salsburg’s guitar style has influenced me probably more than anyone else. I also learned from Maiden Radio [Shelley’s Louisville, Kentucky, trio with Cheyenne Mize and Julia Purcell] the modal tunings of the five-string banjo for playing traditional old-time music. Listening to the Carter Family had a huge influence on my approach to harmony singing with that band.”
Shelley says the best concert she has attended as a spectator was a Tinariwen performance in August 2015 at Pickathon on the Pendarvis farm in Happy Valley, Oregon. The Grammy-winning band hails from the Sahara desert in northern Mali.
“I was standing just to the right of the bass player in the back stage area, and he may be the best bass player ever,” she says. “The band emanated a rooted, driving power. The rhythm of their music was so perfectly harnessed, restrained and then let open. Though they sang in a language I don’t understand, the sound of their voices in unison with this low and even desert ache, it almost split me open.”
Shelley cites another concert — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Palace in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 16 2014 — as the most influential. It was a night when Cave and the Bad Seeds “delivered a show that was stunning as both art and entertainment,” the Louisville Courier-Journal said.
“Nick had these incredible gestures of his hands,” Shelley recalls, “that made all the people in the front rows filming put down their phones and lean in. I watched an entire row of little blue screens drop at once. He pulled the audience into him and went out into the audience — not in the cheesy, cliched or embarrassing ways you often see. He seemed to be a great performer doing his show but creating a genuine connection. I wonder how someone can do that night after night without putting up a wall. I’d like to be as generous a performer as he was.”