Joan Shelley’s “Over and Even”
It was a cold November afternoon when I called Kentucky songwriter Joan Shelley, and she was out walking her dog. I could practically hear the crisp winter air around her, and she was slightly breathless from the cold.
I was tasked with telling “her story,” but in the first few minutes of the interview it became clear that this wouldn’t be happening, not in the typical sense. It’s an artificial constraint, after all, trying to get someone to remember something like the moment in elementary school when they knew they wanted to be a musician. And for a songwriter like Shelley, whose art is governed by being in the moment as much as it is by her keen intuition, looking back on her past doesn’t bear much fruit. These days increasingly, we’re looking at artists who have literally an entire world of music to draw from, so asking about influences becomes a meaningless game. What matters is the music – the songs, how they make you feel, how they touch your life. There, Shelley is a master.
As evidenced on her 2015 album Over and Even (released Sept. 4 on No Quarter Records), Shelley has a hand for light, subtle lyrics that twist her phrases oh so lightly. Her music captures tiny glimpses of moments from our everydays that bring us to something greater when they’re all put together.
Shelley wrote most of the songs on the new album during unexpected downtime in Greece. “I was doing a pilgrimage,” she says, “following around places my father had gone in Greece – nearby where Leonard Cohen was [in the ’60s] – and I was trying to be inspired by the Old World gods that may be lingering around everywhere.”
After the opportunity that took her there had fallen through, Shelley began wandering. She stayed in Airbnbs and tried to connect with a modern Greece that felt radically different from what she had heard of her father’s experience, when he lived there in the ’60s as an American painter.
“The language of painting helps me with the language of music a lot,” Shelley says of her father’s art. “When I make a recording or an album, it’s hard for me to talk to a band about what I want, but I can talk about it through how you would see a painting. If you focus too much time on one small face, then you haven’t really figured out the right corner. Something about gestures … the gestures of brushstrokes, the gestures of melody …”
The thought is there, though not fully formed, and Shelley struggles with the right words to describe it. She was trying to articulate, perhaps, that if you focus too much on the words of her songs, you lose the larger picture. At the same time, the smallness of her stories alludes to something greater and more powerful. It’s a subtle, beautiful idea.
As much as art is about ideas, though, it also requires discipline, and while in Greece, Shelley became attached to the premise of writing one song a day. It’s easy to imagine that some of the cohesiveness of Over and Even emerged from that practice.
Some may have also come from the musical community that thrives in Shelley’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, home to indie folk luminaries
Another frequent Louisville collaborator of Shelley’s brought to the fore on this album is folklorist/guitar experimentalist Nathan Salsburg. His shimmering electric guitar leads the disc. Salsburg crafted deft fingerpicked guitar lines for many songs that are so full of melody, they bring to mind the Celtic fingerstyle guitar of Nic Jones or Davey Graham. In fact, Shelley admits that she got turned on to Jones’ music through Salsburg.
Though she grew up in Louisville, it took Shelley a long time to connect with her Appalachian roots. In this she’s like so many of us in America: uprooted. Our global digital culture has spread our interests across the World Wide Web and moved us away from our physical networks of neighborhood, town, community, culture, and heritage.
Ask Shelley what kind of music she grew up with, for example, and her responses are standard-fare ’60s vinyl names like Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, and Bob Dylan. She didn’t frequent square dances in Louisville or listen to old holler fiddlers. But there’s something deep in her region that still ties it to old Appalachia, and over time she’s pushed herself to discover this, learning clawhammer banjo and forming her side project, Maiden Radio, that mostly performs traditional folk songs.
Then there’s her connection with Nathan Salsburg. For his day job, Salsburg works at the Alan Lomax archives and is a dedicated student of the old, weird America – a passion that Shelley shares as well. Together, they worked on cleaning and repairing old hillbilly 78s found after a collector passed on. The Don Wahl collection, as it’s known, became a touchstone for Shelley’s interest in the stranger edges of her Appalachian roots. Listening to the hillbilly 78s they were cleaning became a window to a lost world of American expression, she says.
“I could see the strangeness being weeded out of music as records got later and later,” she tells me. “The early stuff is like, ‘Wow! That song is very wild, unruly wild.’ Or … ‘That voice is so rough and not what we would traditionally call a good voice,’ but it had so much going on that is lost now.”
I ask if that kind of strangeness has made its way into her music, and she starts talking about the crookedness of Appalachian music. “I would say it’s more that I would be okay not stringing out a song. Let’s say a melody with humming had an extra beat in it; it wasn’t 4/4. It was crooked. I would lean into that instead of [how I approached it] before, [when] I would say, ‘To make this appeal to people, I’ll need to straighten this out and make it an even 4/4, so people could follow along.’” The lesson, in other words, is to “embrace whatever weirdness you come up with naturally instead of trying to flatten it out.”
“It’s hard to argue that [Appalachian tradition is] in my blood,” she adds, “but you get that when you get really passionate about music and you don’t know why a certain region of the world should resonate so well in you. I think it’s easy to say, ‘It’s in us, part of the programming.’ I have Irish family ancestors and, around here, the traditional music scene has educated me. I found old-time music and dove head-first and felt like the banjo, the modal banjo, was something very vital to what I needed to hear. It was a relief to find it and it was really something healing and good. So, that’s come into my music for sure.”
Some of this interest in Appalachian roots comes into Over and Even, but you hear it more in Maiden Radio’s new album Wolvering. The trio – Shelley, Cheyenne Mize, and Julia Purcell – recorded the disc in Louisville one week after Shelley completed Over and Even, and she has said that she feels that Wolvering is deeply connected to Over and Even.
“We formed Maiden Radio around harmony singing and arranging stuff for three-part harmony in not just the traditional bluegrass triad,” Shelley says. “We try to find weirder harmonies through modal tunings, which are more open to different chords and spooky stuff than rich music for harmony singing.”
As a result, there is a kind of haunting trance atmosphere to Wolvering, mostly borne on the backs of the unusual harmonies they’re selecting. It calls to mind the Black Twig Pickers, another group that plumbs the depths of haunted Appalachia.
Color and Water
But it’s Over and Even that keeps drawing me back to Joan Shelley. I can hear that Appalachian vocal sound in the album, as well as the influence of the British folk revival. I hear so many things, and I can’t help but wonder where Shelley’s floating gossamer of a voice really comes from.
On “Not Over By Half,” her voice hovers over the music like a kingfisher, hunting for the right moment to swoop in on a lyric, bringing her force to bear on verses like:
Don your shirt, you’ve outgrown this town,
Your friends are all scattered and you’re lonesome.
You’re still searching for music in the sounds,
It’s a tame world would leave you unbroken.
I think of water when listening to this album, as Shelley’s voice swirls in eddies and flows through currents, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that the album cover features a photo of Shelley and Salsburg on a bridge over a small Kentucky stream. Metaphors of nature are rife in her songwriting, references to cedar and holly, ocean waves, rain and rivers, wood and coffee; each of these metaphors references movement in nature, whether it’s Mother Nature or human nature. There’s a waxing nostalgia in some ways, or perhaps a gentle comfort in proximity to something beautiful. Shelley spells this out in the opening track, “Brighter Than the Blues”:
Well the leaves have fallen and the seasons passed,
I’ll go West or someplace new,
Where the lights are low so the stars can glow,
Brighter than the blues.
It’s a subtle turn of phrase using blues in the last line, as it brings to mind the musical genre as much as the color of a clear sky before the stars come out. Though she references moments of natural beauty, there’s a deeper undercurrent as well that looks to the heavens, and I can’t help but wonder if she’s looking for those ancient Greek gods in the firmament. On the album’s title track, she sings:
How can the stars design it
To pull and move us.
We crave their waning light
An ancient chorus.
Over and Even was recorded just a few miles away from where Shelley grew up, in the woods, on the south side of Louisville, in the more rural parts outside the city. Whether you’ve been there or not, you can feel the grounding in her voice, as if she’s coming back home for this one. Though she may struggle to find her place, Kentucky will always be her home.