Joan Shelley on Recording in Iceland, Leonard Cohen’s Wisdom
Depending on how you do the math, Joan Shelley has made around 10 LPs with various collaborators, including the trio Maiden Radio. She was a shared secret until 2015, when she released the evanescent Over and Even under her own name, but her most recent LP — a self-titled set produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, with drum colors by Spencer Tweedy — spread the word of her talent out yonder. Her new record, Like the River Loves the Sea, one the year’s most beautiful, finds the Kentucky-rooted singer-songwriter ranging further afield. She recorded the songs in Reykjavik, Iceland, at Greenhouse Studios and the Iðnó cultural center, subtly broadening her palette with strings and synths. But her hushed folk-rock remains grounded in banjo, guitar (virtuosos James Elkington and frequent foil Nathan Salsburg contribute), and her alternately dusky, phosphorescent alto, sometimes accompanied by pal and Louisville scene neighbor Will Oldham/Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
In New York City this month, she sat for a chat in Bryant Park, between the carousel and the Gertrude Stein statue, behind the New York Public Library on 42nd Street.
I understand that your dad, David Shelley Musselman, is a painter with a connection to New York and Andy Warhol’s Factory.
He was at the Factory a lot when he was here in the Sixties. He painted these large abstracts. Actually, he started in plastics, working for an architect building models — the guy who did the Glass House [Philip Johnson]. He was building those out of plastics, before anyone knew they were really toxic, then started making jewelry out of plastics. He got toxic, was sick for like six months, left the city and lived upstate, painted more, then came back to Kentucky in the Eighties.
Did you ever think of moving here?
You grow up hearing that playing music is not a legitimate lifestyle especially. But it finally kind of clicked that there were people doing this. So probably 10 years ago, I started thinking “I should maybe move to one of those cities, where this can work.” But it was just when everyone was starting to make albums over the internet, and you could collaborate through exchanging emails and stuff. And it just became like, why would I pay that rent? So I didn’t leave, and it’s turned out to be very fruitful. Do you know the writer Wendell Berry? He lives 30 miles from my house, in Port Royal, Kentucky. He writes a lot about being from a place. I think it makes us stronger.
Being rooted somewhere.
Yet these last two albums you went elsewhere to record. First Chicago, then Iceland.
If I didn’t get to leave and tour, and to record, and meet different people, I probably would’ve moved. I want to be around people who are excited with music at that level, building interesting studios, different ways of thinking. If I didn’t have that perspective, I probably wouldn’t get tired of the place. Being able to go to Iceland, and figure out Iceland has, like, no banjos — I’m like, alright, I like Kentucky! But if I had stayed, I’d want to go somewhere else, not knowing what other places lacked.
Like Nashville. They have all kinds of music. But they also have this jadedness that really spooked me when I went down there. The way people talk about the business so cynically. It’s just like, oof — they put you through the ringer down there. That’s not what it’s about. The singers and songwriters … I don’t know. I don’t want to judge it. Maybe it’s great there, in their view.
How did the sessions go in Iceland? Did you have everything mapped out beforehand?
No, we very much worked it out when we got there. I like that. If we went to Chicago again — Jim [Elkington] lives there — we could have worked with all his friends, people he knows. There’d be no limits. I like to work with limits. They didn’t have a banjo for us [in Iceland], so we used a resonator guitar and tuned it like a banjo. And they didn’t have, like, the drum kit of Jim’s dreams, or the tambourine sound, and it forced people to come up with something different. It’s more right-brain, more felt. You have to look around, and have the feeling again. Especially with good musicians like Jim and Nathan — it’s really nice to hear them searching again, you know? And Iceland was, like, literally, an island in the middle of the ocean between Europe and us. And something about that was really poetic to me. It’s the newest country on earth — like, the actual rock of the place is some of the newest.
How does the writing process work for you? You’re very particular in your lyrics. Do you read a lot of poetry?
Not just poetry, essays, too. Essays and poetry both have this sweet spot for me. I like essays that are humorous, and also really earnest: David Foster Wallace, Wendell Berry, different nature writers. People who are trying to say something very directly. I’m kind of over the ironic thing. And poetry that’s like: “This is how my heart is” — big, spiritually tied, honest feelings from people. I try to read as much as I can in the morning, get kind of saturated in thoughts, challenged by things. Then I’ll sit down with a guitar and fiddle around, hear a melody and follow it, kind of speaking in tongues. I don’t like to know what I’m going to write about. And I’m really interested in that process, because it’s always surprising, and not something I’ve thought before. After the song comes out, then I’m like, “Oh, that makes a lot of sense.” Or maybe it takes a year. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s what I was talking about.” [Laughs]
Sometimes I’ll be outside and try to come up with a melody. I like the ones that come up when I don’t have a guitar; sometimes they’re really bird-like. For “Teal” on this album, I came up with a kind of wild melody line, then tried to figure out what the chord changes were. Jim was like, “Why don’t we just make this kind of regular, cause this is all over the place.” I was like, “No, it’s got to follow this melody.” When we make a band to make these songs, it’s gotta be tight enough to follow the voice around.
I like how your lyrics generally feel unmoored, time-wise. “The Fading” has a couple of signposts, though.
What do you consider signposts?
Well there’s a car in it — that’s sort of modern! And rising oceans, which feels timely.
When I started writing it, I was like, “I’m not going to keep this song, but I’m going to finish it.” Like Leonard Cohen said: Don’t throw out anything until you finish it. I hesitate to sing about things I hear people sing about too often, like trucks, and your best buddy, or beer, ’cause I’ve heard it so much. And when you omit the things that are cliché, suddenly you’re, like, in no place [laughs].
I’ve written a few songs recently with cars in them, because we just have done so much driving; it’s got to come out. And I’ve absorbed so much about what’s going on with the climate, there’s no way to not sing about that. A lot of my friends’ albums lately are talking about it — one of the songs we worked on for Will [Oldham]’s new album. It’s in the consciousness, in the cloud we’re all pulling from. So I just pulled it down, looked at it, and was like, “Well, it’s a catchy tune about things that are real. So I have to do it.”
Will’s vocals are great on that. He sings a lot with you on your records. What do you like about working with him?
Some of my favorite albums of his are ones where he’s almost whispering. He can be loud and dramatic and very theatrical sometimes, too, and raw. But he can also bring it down to this whisper that I think is the strongest. It calls out the most to me. So the best part of working with Will, and living around the corner from Will, is I can just call him over, and when he sings with me, he sings really low, because you can’t really sing that loud next to me! And I get to sit there with the headphones on and listen to him sing, and it’s just the most beautiful thing. Something about his maw — it’s like his face is just so wonderfully resonant, with his big old teeth!
It’s become kind of a village, really — the Louisville cast. When I pull in Maiden Radio, it’s like, “Here are the angels that live in the village!” These two women that are so strong, and both music therapists, incredibly intuitive and sensitive, Cheyenne [Marie Mize] and Julia [Purcell]. They have this one role in the play, and Will has a pretty strong one. And Nathan’s their bouncy neighbor in the village.
Is there a Maiden Radio project down the road?
I hope so. Cheyenne’s actually going to go to Ireland for a year to study music therapy; she got a fellowship. But hopefully she’ll learn a lot of great Irish tunes and come back and we’ll play those.
Tell me about this Max Porter poem that’s in the physical album. Is it something he’s published before?
He wrote it just for the album. He had written his last book, Lanny, while listening to my records: Over and Even and the self-titled one. I saw him tweet about it and was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I read some of his stuff, and it was hitting all the marks for me — the cross between poetry and story, the shape of his lines. The way they actually move on the page is very melodic and … not earnest, but almost transparent, bare. Anyway, I got in touch with him and was like, “I’ve got a new album. Why don’t you try to write something to it.” And he wrote this after listening to it. I think he was in, like, Dubai at the airport, traveling for his new book. It’s this really sweet thing.
Any other current writers that you enjoy?
I really like Rebecca Gail Howell; she writes a lot for Oxford American, and has a book of poetry called Render. She’s excellent. Martin Dyar, he wrote a great poem “Death and the Post Office.” Graywolf Press, who puts out Max’s stuff, puts out a lot of great other things. Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic — I just started reading that. Outstanding. But I just follow little trails. There’s so much in the world now.
How about singer-songwriters? You’ve mentioned Vic Chesnutt in the past as an influence.
I was very lucky to be in Athens [Georgia]. I knew I had to go to school to please my parents, who didn’t finish college. So I picked the music town. I saw his show and that changed a lot. Because, as a singer-songwriter, you get lumped in with a lot of overly confessional stuff. There’s not a lot of critical thinking. But Vic Chesnutt, yeah — lyrically, you don’t get a lot of people who can do that. And I just ran into people there. I saw traditional bands, funny little bands, who absorbed some of the folk tradition, and some of the rock tradition, and made these cool things. And the R.E.M. guys were still around, helping other musicians do things. There was something about it, just like the dignity of it, knowing musicians who made a life of it, and they’re helping out the community there. That was important.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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