Joan Shelley :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Joan Shelley has one of those lovely, water pure voices that can transfix you, whether she is trilling out an ethereal folk melody or getting to the gutsy pith of a blues song.It’s such a lovely voice that it can distract you from the precise poetry of her lyrics, the casual grace of the melodies she constructs or the uncrowded but apt arrangements that encircle her songs.So, like a very pretty woman—which she also is, for whatever that’s worth—she may distract you with obvious beauty from the intelligence and subtle intricacies of her work.But sink deeper into her songs and there’s a lot more to discover.

Shelley’s latest album, The Spur, came out of a challenging period, when, as a tour ended in early 2020, the songwriter found herself in pandemic lockdown in Kentucky. Shelley is now married to folk guitarist and songwriter Nathan Salsburg, and she was living with him then, so she wasn’t completely isolated.However, the casual interchanges that come out of seeing shows, meeting up with other artists, even having random conversations with strangers were missing.When a friend asked her if she wanted to form a songwriting group, she jumped on the idea.Through the group, and through less structured collaborations with artists like Bill Callahan, Max Porter, she continued to write and grow.

Shelley found out that she was pregnant with her first child just as she finished writing the album.Recording had to wait until she’d had her daughter.But even then, in the chaos of early motherhood, Shelley found a way to connect.She called in long-time producer James Elkington, who managed, through virtual collaborations, to bring a bit of Chicago’s vibrant improvisational scene into her work.

We spoke on a summer Friday shortly after the Supreme Court upended Roe Vs. Wade, a weird and unsettled time for everyone, but perhaps particularly for a female artist in Kentucky with a new daughter. We talked about making art in a pandemic, the importance of collaboration and the difficulties of doing anything else when you have a young child, as well as the pleasures of listening to music all the way through, the way it was intended. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: Can you tell me about that stretch of time the music came out of, and what you were feeling and how that ended up shaping the music?

Joan Shelley: The first couple of songs came before the pandemic right at the end of some touring, the winter before. Then a lot of them came fast and furious from a songwriter group that had also started just before, and so it became a kind of, a really well sharpened songwriting tool. It was very active. I completed them all before I got pregnant. Well, maybe I wrote my last song when I probably was pregnant but didn’t know it yet. The album was recorded after my pregnancy. So, it was quite a little journey.

AD: Was this your first child?

Joan Shelley: Yes.

AD: Congratulations, boy or girl?

Joan Shelley: It’s a girl.

AD: I’d love to hear more about this songwriting group.

Joan Shelley: The original formation was to help a friend who had just moved back to town and wanted to start songwriting. He had been involved in all kinds of other arts. But he was like, I really just always wanted to write songs. So, can we do that? I said, yeah, I know some people that we can meet in person and exchange song prompts and just show up and ask each other for something. So about six to ten of us met about every week.

AD: This is in Louisville?

Joan Shelley: It was once in person in Louisville, and the rest was on zoom. It became a really intimate listening group. It made me customize my writing to please my close listeners. I knew that someone was appreciating it when I did a really complicated rhyme scheme or internal rhyme or something like that. It drew things out of me that I otherwise wouldn’t have done.

AD: I think in terms of fostering creativity, you need a certain amount of time to be left alone and also a certain amount of time in contact with other creative people. It sounds like you found an interesting balance between the two.

Joan Shelley: It was. I think you’re right there. The last time I felt this way was when I was in school. An expectation to produce quickly and sometimes in collaboration with others. I’d forgotten how generative it was.

AD: Tell me about where you live in Kentucky. Is it a farm? How far are you from the nearest town?

Joan Shelley: I measure it in how far we have to go to get a stick of butter. It’s about a 15 minute drive. It’s not bad. We’re 30 minutes from Louisville, so if stuff comes through town, we can go see shows. It’s really not so isolated. But out here, it feels really isolated. I can’t walk to a friend’s house, easily. And with a baby, that was heightened. You had to pack everything up for a 30 minute drive. It was hard. But, you know, you can walk outside unguarded and just be under the trees here. It’s a former tree nursery, so it’s a lot of overgrown ornamental trees. I have my garden and my chickens and just a very peaceful rhythm that we’ve established here.

AD: I know you live and work and collaborate with your husband who is Nathan Salsburg. Did you guys meet through music?

Joan Shelley: We did meet through music. We had seen each other playing in the Louisville scene at different venues. We became friends through another musician. I asked him to play on my record. That was the first collaboration. We supported each other for six years before we really got involved. It’s been a nice, long sustainable relationship.

AD: I think it’s difficult for a lot of people to have a relationship. Either you’re with someone who doesn’t understand what you’re doing creatively or you’re with someone who is also doing the same thing and there can be a competitive thing. It sounds like you guys have it right.

Joan Shelley: He’s different. I’ve had relationships with other musicians before. At first I was like “This is great. We get each other. They understand what I’m doing.” But there were different egos. It didn’t match with me. I didn’t know what I needed. And there would be so much competition. Nathan never brought that. He’s always been a great accompanist. And part of me is like, “Come on, Nathan. You’re great, and you can step out and do it.” He just wants to complement people. And that’s one reason he’s so great at the guitar. He just fits in all the spaces.

AD: Right. He did that wonderful album around the Psalms last year.

Joan Shelley: Yes.

AD: How does being married and being parents change things?

Joan Shelley: We just finished the first year being parents, and that did not allow for both of us to pick up the guitar at the same time, for instance. We don’t have childcare, so we’re passing the baby pretty much all the time.

AD: None at all?

Joan Shelley: We have my mom, so that counts. My mom watches the baby. We haven’t figured out how to make space for music. It just takes so much space. It’s not just the time it takes to write. It’s the time it takes to get ready to write. That has been a trick that we haven’t mastered.

AD: I think the first year is the most all-encompassing. It will get easier.

Joan Shelley: I’ve heard that. We’ll see. But the naps, now that she naps I’ve got this window. And I’ve written a couple of songs. It’s really satisfying to know it hasn’t disappeared completely.

AD: It’ll still be there. And eventually she’ll go to preschool and school, and you’ll have more time. I remember when my son started going to school full time, I was like, well, what do I do all day? This used to take forever, and now I’ve finished everything in the first two hours.

Anyway, I know you collaborated with the group, but you also worked with a couple of other artists on specific songs. Could you talk about “Amberlit Morning,” and how you and Bill Callahan worked on that together?

Joan Shelley: Yes, I had kind of plateaued with that song. I wrote the melody and a first draft of the words, and I thought of him immediately when I thought of what it was missing. I wrote him an email and said, this is all that I’m imagining, kind of swirling around. Do you think you can bring the other voice? Because I wanted it to be a conversation between constellations or some kind of mythical space. And he always brought that, in my mind, to his work. Even when it was kind of silly. He always has some kind of humor in his work, which is also kind of mythical. He brought some lyrics, and we exchanged ideas over email during a six months that was pretty busy for both of us. It was nice to have an email pop up during those times and say, “Bill Callahan” and hearing his voice. He recorded his part in Austin. We didn’t get to record it together.

AD: I like the way your voices work together. Yours is so pure and his is so deep.

Joan Shelley: I wasn’t sure if they would blend. In that song particularly, my voice is really high, and his is just so baritone and warm. So, it was pleasant when we got to mixing to fuse them.

AD: Had you ever done it like that before or was that a pandemic thing?

Joan Shelley: Remote recording? I’ve done it before a little bit with some Chicago musicians, some overdubs. Jim Elkington gets a wild hair, he’s like, I’m going to try this. So, he’ll get something sent in. It’s like finding mushrooms or something. That just popped up. That’s cool.

AD: I wanted to ask you about Max Porter. How did that come about and what was it working with him on “Breath for the Boy”?

Joan Shelley: And also “Between Rock and Sky.” Maybe three years ago, he popped up on my Twitter recommending my music, and I was like, oh, who’s this writer? And then I discovered his books, which blew my mind. Grief is a Thing with Feathers, especially.

AD: Oh, yeah, I didn’t realize that was him.

Joan Shelley: Yeah. And then a lot of the books he’s recommended to me over the years. We made a couple of little collaborations. It just brought so much encouragement to collaborate with people who are like-minded and dealing with some of the same issues. He deals a lot with masculinity, its troubles and trials. And that song came up for me, “Breath for the Boy.” I was really dealing with a lot of issues with my family, members of my family during that really tense last couple of years. It was a first-person song, and I really didn’t want it to be. I wanted to see it from a remove. And he helped me with that. To shape it. That was very satisfying.

AD: Is that something new for you, writing from someone else’s perspective?

Joan Shelley: Not really, because of traditional music. There’s so much remove in traditional songs. There’s this sense of an omniscient narrator. And so, I had toyed with that. I have a traditional group that I play with sometimes. I would save it for that, and then when it came time for my own stuff, it would always be about how I related to the world.

AD: That song has a really different sound to it. It’s kind of a cool, drone-y tone to it. How did that happen?

Joan Shelley: The piano is part of that. I haven’t played piano on records past, even though I’ve written songs on piano. I just wasn’t comfortable recording. I kind of thought I had to be a piano player, and then I said, oh, no, this is the only way this can be played. A lot of the stuff that I play on the piano is a bit more drone-y and modal. That song is a mood. I like songs like that take you from one place to another. Like to complete an album, I feel like there’s a depth in that one that a brighter one can lift you out of. It’s a little journey through the emotions.

AD: All of these songs are in this folk/country/blues spectrum, but there’s quite a bit of variation in them. Some of them are super quiet, and then you have “Like the Thunder,” which really sounds like it could turn into a rocker live. Did you think a lot about the shape of the album and the sequencing and how the songs fit together?

Joan Shelley: Yes, that’s one of my favorite parts, and I think a lot of people, everybody says, “Oh, let me try to sequence.” Everyone wants to try it. This one was a satisfying one to assemble because it took that journey.

AD: The title track has some really great blues guitar on it. Is that you?

Joan Shelley: That’s both Nathan and me. I play a low-end part, like a bass part that has a lot of those blue notes in it on a resonator guitar. And then Nathan came in and did the Nathan thing, which is so distinct. I think you can hear us separately, if you have headphones.

AD: Where do you come from in terms of the guitar? How did you get started? What kind of music?

Joan Shelley: As a kid, I learned guitar when I was 14 as a support to singing. Then I really became interested in guitar for its own sake. I got more guitar obsessed through the stuff that Nathan was passing along to me. Nic Jones and a lot of the British guitar players who were translating American blues and British pipe tunes. I loved Mississippi John Hurt, and a lot of stuff like that, but I never thought it was for me, because I wasn’t one of those obsessive practicers on guitar. But as I got drawn further and further into the songwriting journey, it became part of it. Like, oh, this is a harmony voice. It can express just as much as the voice.

AD: How do you feel about this album as it relates to all your others? Do you feel like you got better at certain things? Were you trying something new? Is it a continuation?

Joan Shelley: I would always like to be more and more precise. Emotionally precise and instantly communicable. There’s a pursuit of clarity or immediacy. I want someone who comes in contact with a song to feel immediately what the song has to say there. I feel like there’s a process of uncovering the cobwebs and making more immediate vignettes and things people can see.

AD: So, clarity?

Joan Shelley: Yeah. Without being cliché or without being artless. It’s easy to say exactly what you mean, but that doesn’t always communicate exactly what you mean.

AD: Right. I think simplicity is hard. It can dumb. It can sound too simple.

Joan Shelley: Yeah, and that’s why a happy song is so much harder. It can sound dumb.

AD: Do you have any favorite bits or lines or sounds on this album?

Joan Shelley: For me, it’s hearing Jim Elkington’s horn arrangements and string arrangements. It’s hard for me to be like, my part, that was brilliant. But there is a brilliance in those arrangements. I could just float in them like a pool.

AD: He’s really good at whatever he does. I really the Jake Xerxes Fussell album, too, which has the same beautiful subtle touches that make it sounds so much better than the ones he isn’t on.

I know you’re doing some shows, including one that looks especially cool at the Ox Bow School of Art in Michigan. What’s your connection with that?

Joan Shelley: That’s a friend of ours who lives near there and has booked shows. He’s worked with friends of ours like Steve Gunn, as tour manager. He’s just been around for a while, and we’ve played his region before, but he got all those people together, who are all great and friends of ours. I haven’t been to Oxbow, but it sounds like a great organization.

AD: Where is it?

Joan Shelley: Saugatuck, Michigan.

AD: Is that a nice place? Is it on the water? [It is.]

Joan Shelley: I don’t know. We’ll see.

AD: That looks like a very cool bill. I wish I lived closer. I would try to go. You have quite a connection to Chicago, don’t you?

Joan Shelley: I think that’s something I inherited as a person starting in music in Louisville, because of Slint and different Louisville musicians from the punk scene started making all these ties to Chicago and still are here. That’s a real gift. Like Rachel Grimes from Rachel’s played piano on Over and Even, and she lives down the road. It’s nice to have things continue like that.

AD: Are you from Louisville originally? Is that where you grew up?

Joan Shelley: Yeah, but outside Louisville. I didn’t have access to the youth scene there. My family goes back in Louisville on my dad’s side.

AD: Were you ever a punk rocker? Were you involved in any of that?

Joan Shelley: It was too late. I was too young. By the time I remember becoming aware of that scene, it had turned into pop emo. It didn’t have as much of an edge. Whereas now when I hear stuff that’s a little bit older, I love that. I don’t know accessible that would have been to a little rural girl. I can imagine thinking these people are scary. I was an outsider, but I wish I had more knowledge at the time.

AD: There’s a pretty interesting scene in Louisville now, though, isn’t there?

Joan Shelley: There’s a lot going on. I can’t honestly say I know the whole scope of it. Will Oldham has stayed, and I think that has given me something I can anchor to. Because he brings a lot of music through, and there are so many like-minded folks that stay on from bands. There’s a lot here still thriving despite it all.

AD: I know you’re getting ready for the tour, and you have a little baby, so the answer to this may be no, but are you working on anything else?

Joan Shelley: The main thing is working on the tour, seeing how we can start moving in the world, and writing songs, but really no agenda to record now. And letting a lot of thoughts marinate. We’re seeing so much new. The world is shifting and I think I’m still in a very watching phase.

AD: Do you think you can stay in Kentucky with the way things are going?

Joan Shelley:That’s a question. I’m sure I could, but I don’t know if I want my daughter to. The guns are a real fear. There are a lot of issues, but there are a lot of issues everywhere.

AD: I grew up in Indiana and there’s no way I would live there anymore.

Joan Shelley: Where in Indiana?

AD: Fort Wayne. My mother still lives there.

Joan Shelley: Where do you live?

AD: New Hampshire. About five miles from Vermont.

Joan Shelley: We think about that part of the world. It’s funny, there’s a lot of good weather for sustainable farming here, but there’s really more of it in the northeast. There’s more of a village imprint.

AD: There are a lot of small farms here, for sure, making artisanal this and that. Vermont is the best state because there are no big companies there. It’s really run more for the people that live there than for the big companies, because there aren’t any. And that’s just not true anywhere else. It’s a nice place. It’s on the expensive side, because there are a lot of people from New York and Boston that have second homes here. In the summer it’s great. The winter can get pretty isolated. I like it. We have a yard and a garden, and a really good library. It’s a balance.

Joan Shelley: You may see us soon.

AD: Western Mass has a lot of artists, especially in your vein.

Joan Shelley: We have friends there. We’ve been looking. It’s so cheap to live in Kentucky.

AD: It would be more expensive. Have you been listening to anything good lately?

Joan Shelley: I can’t say enough how much The Weather Station has been a companion to me.

AD: That’s a really good album.

Joan Shelley: They just left here this morning and toasted orange juice to our record release. But that Ignorance record is really worth everyone’s time.

AD: What do you think makes a great song a great song?

Joan Shelley: Well, I know that my tastes are much different than most people. You look at something that’s very popular being popular just because of the lyrics. I don’t think there’s a lot of people are listening to lyrics. But the avoidance of cliches is really important. It’s filler. You’re not adding depth. You’re not making people connect to the real thought you had. That’s a characteristic of commercial, mass-produced music. So, a great song avoids a cliché but points you towards the real meaning that we no longer feel but is universally true. That’s why it’s a cliché.

AD: That’s a great answer. Is there anything else you want to talk about?

Joan Shelley: I hope people can find the space to listen to the whole record. Because the way we release records now, they’re so fragmented and pieced apart by the internet. So, I just recommend people take it away from their phones, off of their devices that also tell them when their bills are due, to have that actual experience. Not just for my record. It’s a gift for all of us. To have that time away but still have music to listen to…all the way through.

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