Joan Shelley is Swift and Strong
Singer-songwriter Joan Shelley is still touring behind the terrific 2015 LP Over and Even, her album of tender tunes that the folks at NPR Music and The L.A. Times called “album of the year.” She recorded it over two days with guitarist Nathan Salsburg, and the record features guest appearances from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Rachel Grimes and other Kentuckians. She spoke to us via phone from her Louisville home where she was doing some laundry after a leg of touring had wrapped up.
Your picture on Facebook shows you hugging a dog. Is that your dog?
That’s my dog. That’s Dwight. He’s been with me for seven years. I kind of went crazy with Photoshop with it.
I think you grew up in rural Kentucky. What was that experience like?
My dad is from Louisville. His family grew up in Louisville. My mom moved here just outside of the city. It’s not really rural. She’s bred and raced horses. She’s been a horse person. The Bluegrass Region is what attracted her here. I grew up on a 35-acre hobby horse farm. I didn’t get to dig into the Louisville scene as a young person, but I had a natural environment to grow up in with my siblings.
Louisville has had a great scene.
It’s an intersection. It’s the top of the South and Midwest as well and it’s on the river so it has all the history from the river. It’s the bluegrass state and has the amazing post-rock bands with Slint and Freakwater. There’s a Chicago relationship. It’s a mixing ground which has always benefited music.
You’ve said you weren’t a great singer early on. How’d you develop your vocal abilities?
I think I said maybe not a great writer. I don’t think you can judge a little kid. I always loved to sing and was doing that all the time as a young person. I sang in choirs as soon as I could and petitioned the teacher to let me in as a kid.
At what point did you start writing your own songs?
Really natural and early. At six or seven I was writing songs. I know I had written a song at nine because I entered a contest at age nine.
You wrote the songs for Over and Even while you were in Greece. How do they reflect that experience?
I came over with the intention to write. I talked to this other writer about strategy and how to do it. It was just sit down and do it. I went over there with the intention to collaborate but went out on my own. I was isolated. I would try to sit down and drink tea and write a song until the song was done. I would walk around. The ruins and temples were a big inspiration. I was reading about Aristotle and Socrates. I was trying to put together these old world ideas that I think are universal to all of us. I was getting into all of that. Some of the songs were ones I wrote in Kentucky. They take on a different spirit. “Jenny Come In” was from I came home, things where the place seeped into the songs too.
I don’t think kids learn about Greek myths.
When you get to college, you get to choose what to study and that’s a big influence. The problem with first through twelfth grade is that they don’t get a choice. Without that agency, you don’t take it. It might be covered in history and literature, but I didn’t know about it until I went and chose it.
You recorded the songs live with guitarist Nathan Salsburg. Talk about what the recording experience was like.
I kind of snuck up on Nathan with it. I wanted him to just play some songs we did. And we got our friend Daniel Martin Moore, whom I’ve recorded with in the past. We set up the mics in his house. We just went for it. Sitting across from each other, there wasn’t much isolation. We did a couple of takes on each song. Vocals and guitars were live. There was no overdubbing and we went through them. We tried to not get burdened and bogged down by whether it was right or wrong. It was not a contest. It was just swift. We recorded for two days and had Will Oldham do some harmonies. Piano or organ were overdubs too. It’s very homemade.
How do you know Nathan?
He’s just from the Louisville music scene. I had seen him play and we kept in touch and ran in the same circles and eventually wanted to work with each other more.
What was it like working with Will Oldham, who sings a track on the album?
There’s a picture inside the album. It’s this big living room space with carpet. Will put headphones on and sang while I sat on the floor while he tried a few things. He did a few passes. I’m a huge fan of his albums, especially Master and Everyone. I love that delivering. When he was in that setting, it was so exciting for me to hear it happen. It’s hard to describe. I was just giddy.
He lives in Louisville?
He lives about a mile from me.
The song “My Only Trouble” stems from your desire to be like Dolly. Can you talk about the origins of that tune?
I wanted to write a strong song the way she writes a strong song. I don’t personally want to be like her. She’s such a clever writer and the country format is clear and concise. Her melodies are better than lots of people. She’s as outstanding as a writer. It was a song called “The Bridge” that was on a YouTube video with Porter Wagoner, and I thought it was best. We wanted to do that sort of thing. She can write a sad song. It’s amazing.
Have you started writing songs for your next album yet?
Yeah, we have a bunch of songs. I have some songs that I’ll teach to Nathan and we have plans to record in December.
He’ll be on tour with you?
Yes. He’s the band, as I like to say.