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Joan shelley Mickie Winters 3

Stillness in Motion

05 July 2022, 09:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Mickie Winters

From her quiet getaway in a remote Kentucky, Joan Shelley unfolds the stories behind her latest album The Spur.

The winter before last, a moose fell through the ice in the small bay where I was living and died.

By morning, sea eagles had pecked out its eyes and begun to eat from its hide, turning the ice around the body a startling reddish brown. Every day from my writing room, I would see the carcass of the moose out the corner of my eye, cankerous and bloated, still trapped. When the ice began to melt, storm winds overnight pushed the moose into the shallows, and for weeks its body lay there by the boat house, rotting in paradise.

It's an image I keep coming back to when listening to Joan Shelley’s seventh and most satisfying record. Already a fine poet of bittersweet harrow and harvest, The Spur proves the Kentuckian singer-songwriter to be a master of the uneasy idyll, of blotted landscapes and agitated, complex emotions. There’s a tension to these twelve unhurried songs, an undertow of steeliness that offsets their surface pastoral sweetness and gives The Spur a compelling ebb and flow. Shelley’s songworld is so much about this tugging — between wanting to savour the life she has created and acknowledging the realities outside it that threaten to poison the water.

Speaking to me from the farm she calls home — in the community of Skylight, a stone’s throw south of the Ohio River — Shelley is enjoying the hazy calm of “a very sweet afternoon”. Talya, her 1-year-old daughter, is out among the wildflowers in the garden, playing with her grandma. Birds chirp wildly in the background as we chat, a pedestal of song on which the joy of country living is built.

Although Shelley and her now-husband Nathan Salsburg (pictured below) bought the farm some years ago, its transformation from house to home was a gradual one. “It was just a place that we would come back to off and on, to wash our clothes and check on the garden to see how wild it had become on its own,” she says. Then, feeling burned out after years of touring, the urge to put down deeper roots became stronger, and the house and its feral garden came to feel like a haven.

“I’ve always had a desire to come home in a big way,” says Shelley, who grew up a short distance downriver, on a saddlebred horse farm where her mother still lives. For a few years she entertained the thought of settling down in some foreign country, but after finishing college (she studied at the University of Georgia in Athens, partly because of the city’s musical legacy) she wound up back in Kentucky, living in Louisville. “There was a point when my career sort of picked up that I could have moved to a city with a more thriving music scene, like Nashville or New York,” she says. “But I saw how so much was happening online that I decided to stay in Kentucky. I kind of doubled down here.”

Shelley credits local hero Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, among his many other names) as a big factor in her deciding to stay in Louisville. She was just a kid when Oldham started finding his way onto album-of-the-year lists, and it wasn’t until she came back to Kentucky after college that she discovered his music and struck up a friendship. “Knowing Will has made Louisville a more fruitful place,” she says. “He brought the world to us, with so many musicians and other friends coming through.”

At the time, Louisville was also home to many of Shelley’s other close collaborators. It’s where she formed her old-timey trio Maiden Radio with Julia Purcell and Cheyenne Marie Mize, who frequently guest on her records. It’s where she recorded her debut album proper, 2012’s Ginko, with singer-songwriter/producer Daniel Martin Moore. It’s also where she and Nathan Salsburg began to fall in love; first with the sound of their unique musical chemistry, and then, cautiously, optimistically, with each other.

Salsburg, who grew up in Louisville, first appeared on Ginko, playing guitar on just one song. By the time Shelley released her third album Over and Even in 2015, the ‘Joan Shelley’ brand was essentially the two of them. Salsburg even appears on the album sleeve with Shelley, the pair silhouetted in a photo of them standing on a bridge. At the time they were living close to each other in the Clifton neighbourhood of Louisville, playing guitar on one another’s porches in between long tours.

Although it was kept secret at the time, much of Shelley’s self-titled 2017 release was about the couple finding their feet in the early days of their romantic relationship (she came clean about it in an Instagram post following the couple’s “Covid courthouse wedding” last year). Longtime fans will know that’s not an unusual approach for Shelley, who prefers not to be too prescriptive with her songs, believing that their meaning is often better left unsaid.

“There have been times when I have been totally under the spell of a song but then listened to an interview where someone explained it, and the meaning wasn’t at all what I had imagined. I would be so disappointed,” she tells me. “When I started to write songs, I remember thinking, ‘You don’t have to claim them for yourself. They can be something that just goes out into the world and people can find what they need in them’.”

Growing up, Shelley says she never saw herself becoming a wife and a mother. Her own parents divorced when she was three years old, leaving her with doubts. “Until the kind of partnership that Nathan and I made, ‘marriage’ and ‘wife’ were just words,” she says. “Those were forms that I thought were running out of energy.”

Similarly, having a child was not something that she had total confidence in. She quotes a friend who told her “Having a kid is like bringing wood to a fire”, which summed up how she’d been feeling. She laughs sardonically. “As it happens, we waited until the absolute worst time with so many things in the world looking absolutely bleak. We just decided to choose hope and choose the experience, rather than plan for the best scenario. As if that was ever going to come.”

Committing to their life in Skylight, Shelley and Salsburg had an idea that they might breed goats and set up a small-scale dairy farm. They were partly inspired by essayist and poet Wendell Berry, a fellow Kentuckian and back-to-the-lander who “writes about place so beautifully.” “He talks about how you can grow something specific to a place based on the air and the weather and the people – the ecosystem of the social and natural,” she explains. “I really wanted to do that with the farm, so I took the opportunity to really see that through in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.“

Of course, what started out as opportunity turned into necessity when the Covid pandemic reached the US. Shelley and Salsburg holed up at the farm, content to just stay home and watch the changing of the seasons. “We were enchanted by it,” she says. “Nathan and I were just so in love with the place, swooning. We honestly had the best weather I can remember having in Kentucky. Nobody was driving anywhere, and the air was much cooler. The spring was even instead of really erratic. It was totally gorgeous.”

Things would not stay this peaceful, however— something Shelley traces back to the spark of the Black Lives Matter protests. In the early hours of Friday, 13 March, Louisville police officers forced their way into the apartment of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor and shot her dead in the hallway. Shelley and Salsburg joined the protests that followed, though it was clear that any meaningful change in the city would be met with huge resistance. “You could see how unwilling to change some of the systems are here,” she says with a heavy sigh. “Tradition isn’t always pretty, you know? Tradition, and the way that it affects our lives, is in need of a big change. From the spirit level up.”

“It feels like I’ve gone through the whole cycle of a love affair with this place in the last few years,” adds Shelley. “With Breonna’s murder came the ugly reminder that our life here was not just some sweet country story.”

As the pandemic worsened and the Black Lives Matter protests grew, so did frictions between Shelley and certain members of her family, and it left her feeling in a rut. “So many things came up,” she says. “The splinteing beliefs of family who are Trumpers and family who are conspiracy theorists, and a lot of the men just turned out not to be for women in a way that I thought they would be.”

Shaken out of her reverie and struggling to make sense of it all, Shelley sought out the company of other local musicians and together they formed a songwriting group that met regularly, mostly over Zoom. “We were all feeling pretty impotent and idle and wondering what was the point of it all,” she says. “I have written a lot of songs based on travel over the years. Songs based on seeing my world against other worlds. This time, I really had a hard look at home. We all did.”

The home that she refers to is a rather broad church: homes past and homes passed by; homes that are hiding places and homes that say too much; homes we make for ourselves in each other and the home we all stand on, still spinning, for now. Shelley leaves no brick unturned, at times using shifting perspective and freeform poetry to examine her ideas from unconventional angles.

One line in the gently loping “Home” plays brilliantly off the homonymic quality of “floored” and “flawed”, enough to wonder whether Shelley is singing as the house itself or as someone who once lived there. In the same song she observes a car stalled in a driveway: “The way in or the way out?” She leaves the question hanging.

Shelley credits the songwriting group and their brainstormed song prompts with helping her to break out of old thought lines and habits. “I have never written so collaboratively as for this record,” she says. “It takes a lot more trust this way. You have to respect other people’s opinions and not feel threatened by their ideas or feedback. I wouldn't have been able to do that earlier, as I was a little more self-conscious as a writer with less under my belt.”

For Shelley, one particularly useful song prompt was “Come out swinging.” Simple enough to do, she thought, but then why had she never tried it? “A lot of my songs are built around slowly teasing out the meaning and coming at an issue sideways,” she says, “So to get this prompt was such a relief. I didn’t need to sneak out my emotions so as not to scare people away. I could just say what I meant, loudly, and right out in front, and have a little more fun with songwriting in that way.”

I suggest that “Forever Blues” is one of those out-in-front songs. The first words of the song, which are the first words of the album, feel refreshingly direct. Shelley laughs when I say it feels like an invitation. “Like, come on in, I think I’m going insane? Yeah, I thought there might be a note of resonance there.”

For Shelley, including a sense of place is an important part of her songwriting. Not just in her words, but in the melodies, the harmonies, and production choices, too. Conceived as a testimonial of sorts to her home state, her 2019 album Like The River Loves The Sea delved into the lineage of the music of Kentucky and stitched fragments of those traditional melodies and rhythms into its songs. That she chose to record it in Reykjavík with an Icelandic string duo was a real creative coup, reframing the American South in a starkly different context.

The Spur is also about Kentucky – at the macro level at least – with “When The Light Is Dying” a notable exception. Set in that dark week in November 2016 when the world lost Leonard Cohen and Trump began to pack for the White House, the song was inspired by the memory of driving, grief-struck, through “the endless Kansas plains” and listening over and over to You Want It Darker, Cohen’s punishingly bleak final record.

There’s a Cohen-like dark humour to the line “You know I sing of love because it scares you least of all,” but Shelley is not the type to indulge in the kind of weary fatalism that Cohen perfected. She shows her true mettle on “The Spur”, a twangy, country blues-indebted song co-written with Katie Peabody, a member of the songwriting group. Protect me or provoke me, Shelley seems to say, just let us all keep going forward.

Recording for The Spur took place in April 2021 at Earthwave Studios in Shelbyville, Kentucky, less than 30 miles from home. Shelley was seven months pregnant with Talya at the time. Knowing that the baby would radically reshape their daily lives, Shelley and Salsburg were keen to finish the record before she arrived. Because of Covid, they recorded alone with engineer Zak Riles, facing each other as they laid down the guitar tracks, and the unflinching intimacy of the setup seeped into the songs. British expat James Elkington returned on production, working on the album remotely from Chicago, adding sympathetic overdubs of brass, drums, cello and upright bass, and home-recorded vocals from Meg Baird and Bill Callahan.

“When I was writing the record I made a little wishlist and Meg Baird was on it,” says Shelley. “I love her records, and she’s someone who’s in our circle of friends.” Callahan’s involvement came when Shelley got stuck on an idea for a song called “Amberlit Morning” and wrote to him for help. Although they’d met only once, years before, they’d stayed in touch by email. Even so, Shelley says she wasn’t sure if they were on the same level: “He’s like Will Oldham, in that he can seem sort of superhuman when you don’t really know him.”

“Working with Bill was so easy. To me, he has a voice that can seem mythical. It’s so large. I had this idea to have him bring in some more abstract imagery as part of a conversation, almost like the voice of a god or something. I sent him a sketch of the song and he came back with some really beautiful ideas.”

There’s a fable-like quality to “Amberlit Morning”, which blends storybook images of rural life with a sort of magical realism, where gardeners sow tears and headless geese can fly. Oblique and bittersweet, it’s an elegy of sorts to the child’s-eye view that the winding road to adulthood obscures. Full of arresting details, from the gentle momentum of the circular, fingerpicked guitar chords to the duo’s gorgeously off-kilter harmonies, it’s easily Shelley’s least straightforward and strangest song, and among her most sophisticated too.

Growing up, Shelley’s father (an architect turned artist) would try to teach her how to hold on to the clear-eyed vision of childhood, which Shelley says “proved impossible.” I ask if she remembers when those feelings fell away. “I think it was when I became self-aware,” she says. “I had a desire to please from a young age. I really wanted adults to accept me. I think I was around 9 or 10 when I realised I could game the system. Like, if I did this thing or that thing, I’d get the good grades. I figured out how to please others, and that’s when it went away.”

Shelley interrogates the passage of youth again in “Breath For The Boy”, the most modern-sounding production on The Spur. Co-written with English author Max Porter, who has become a close friend, it’s built on stark, five-line vignettes that peer into the lives of angry young men and the reasons for their rage. Erring on the side of empathy, the song sketches its characters almost wholly without judgement, and the listener must fill in the rest.

Musically it gives the impression of a gathering fog, Shelley’s nagging piano line joined by a distant upright bass and vaporous, layered recorders. Similarly, there’s an eerie remove in her vocals, at odds with the tender soprano of “Forever Blues” and dusky alto of “When The Light Is Dying”.

It’s remarkable, in fact, how repeated listens to The Spur really bring home the diversity of expression in the performances. Compare the confident, red-blooded heat of “Like The Thunder” with the febrile incandescence of “Bolt”, for example. Or how Shelley goes from the timeworn English folk ballad stylings of “Between Rock & Sky” to the sweetly soulful “Completely”. (We never got a Dusty In Louisville record, but “Completely” gets us halfway there.)

“Between Rock & Sky” is notable for at least two other reasons. First, it’s the only song on The Spur that directly references childbirth. Second, it’s the only song re-recorded for the album, first released as the B-side to “Blue Skies”, a standalone single from months before Shelley got pregnant. Though it didn’t make it on the album, “Blue Skies” pairs well with many of The Spur’s main themes: processing loss, dealing with family, and finding salvation in stillness.

“Stillness and my creative process definitely go hand in hand,” says Shelley. “I’m not getting much solitude these days with the baby, but she has kind of taught me how to be in the company of others without any objective. I realised that whenever I was in company before she came along, I was expected to talk about something I was interested in, to talk about the world, or to sort something out. But with Talya there’s no talking, so I’ve been able to learn how to be still in company. And I love that, because everything is precious now. And I don’t just mean the baby. Time together with other people in general is precious.”

With Talya on board, Shelley and Salsburg’s plan to start their dairy is on pause. A typical morning on the farm sees them up around 6am with the baby. Any newly laid eggs are gathered while the chickens get their morning feed. Their two young goats, Chaos and Mayhem, are let out of their pen and walked across the lawn to where their favourite foods grow. Their dog Dwight follows, shaggy haired and playful. When the dawn chorus starts, it’s loud, the birds flexing their lungs from the “rows and rows of ornamental trees” left over from the land’s previous life as a tree farm.

“I love thinking about the fact that birds have been imitating each other for so long that some parts of what we hear might be millennia old,” says Shelley. “We’ll never know which notes in there are the oldest parts of birdsong. It’s all embellishments. And in music, it’s the same. There is rarely something novel. It’s something I learned from playing old-time, traditional music for so many years; every melody has already been written, and the rest is just embellishment.”

In Shelley’s case, I’d argue that there’s no such thing as “just” embellishment. She has a rare gift for taking classic ideas and transcribing them over and over into songs that, more often than not, sound equally as classic. Tradition may not always be pretty, but the best bits are there, living in the marrow of her music. Anyone can reference; it takes a discerning voice – an alchemist – like Shelley to do it so affectingly. The Spur doesn’t moralise, doesn’t overexplain, nor is it especially sentimental. It’s the sound of renewal without resolution, of motion without moving.

The Spur is out now via No Quarter Records
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