By Chelsea Spear, for Folk Alley
Across a series of albums released in the past 10 years, Joan Shelley has explored the folk tradition and perfected her own approach—one that encompasses standard songwriting formats and the ethereality of the alternative rock she heard at a formative age. Her latest album, The Spur (out June 24 on No Quarter Records), is atmospheric and expands upon her previous work with its more freeform approach to songwriting and the cautious optimism of her lyrics.
“I try to include place in the feeling of the songs I make,” Shelley observes. “I like diversity of expression. I would like for me to cultivate more different-sounding music rather than homogenizing and sounding more similar [every time]. I just like the variation. I’m trying to plug myself in and absorb as much of the current incredible heat and humidity and put it into songs.”
Shelley started writing The Spur after completing her tour to support her 2019 release, Like the River Loves the Sea. “I had written a couple songs that you can tell are part of an album, they go together,” she recalled in a recent phone interview from her home in Kentucky. “I was fishing around for the songs that were coming next and then started our songwriting group with some friends in town, was going to try to write a song a week and then the shutdowns happened.”
The COVID-19 shutdowns gave Shelley the time to work on the songs that would become The Spur. “We had quite a lot of time to work on songs,” she explains. “Some of those songs came first and then there were a bunch of songs written with other people … [who were] helping me experiment with writing.”
The ongoing pandemic also informed the way Shelley and her “core group”—multi-instrumentalist James Elkington and guitarist Nathan Salberg—recorded the album. “Because of the limits on travel and collaboration,” she says, “it was necessary to work with people that I worked with before. There wasn’t a lot of new contacts going on.”
Nonetheless, she added to her trio guitarist Bill Callahan of the Gothic country band Smog and the up- and-coming percussionist Spencer Tweedy, and recorded the album at Earthwave Studios, not far from her home base in Louisville.
Another development in Shelley’s life informed the way she recorded The Spur. “While recording, I was pregnant and I was like, I’m not doing anything unless it’s something that feels good, because I’m not putting my body through a stressful situation. The best way to do that was to look to really trusted friends, with sharper tools than we had the first time. It just felt very natural and healthy.”
That sense of trust and comfort permeates the songs on The Spur. Shelley, who describes her music as “lyric-based, melody-forward,” has the authority and confidence in her songwriting to allow her melodies to bloom and develop at their own pace. Her willingness to stay with them and let us hear them grow gives the album an almost suspenseful quality. The spare arrangements and pillowy, reverb-touched production provides a compelling backdrop for her dusky vocals and the hard-won optimism of her lyrics.
While Shelley is known for her mastery of traditional folk (The Spur’s penultimate track, “Between Rock and Sky,” sounds like a rediscovered Child ballad), she has frequently collaborated with producers and musicians like Callahan, Will Oldham, and Jeff Tweedy, who have an extensive background in experimental music. Their approach to songwriting and recording has informed her own work.
“I have a foot in the traditional folk music world, “she says, “and this foot in the more experimental or just maybe modern, or new kind of world. … I didn’t grow up around fiddles and stuff. I was never a folk musician in that way. As I’ve gotten more familiar with myself, I just kind of realized that putting that on was a face and that the real thing was figuring out what I had to add.”
Will Oldham’s approach to music has particularly influenced her. “I think a lot of what Will does, for example, is [encourage you to] educate yourself. Know the tradition you come from. … Soak [it] up and then make something with it. Add your thing.”
Shelley’s family cultivated an interest in listening to music, and their eclectic taste informed the way she approached songwriting.
“My mom had a lot of folk revival stuff,” she says. “She loved Joan Baez and that crowd. And I really didn’t think that was mine, because I saw her doing that. I was like, well, that’s my mom’s music. But she did play a lot of great world music, a lot of Calypso and stuff. My older brother gave me things like Neil Young and Nick Cave and all these like kind of cooler, darker things.”
Shelley also made note of the alternative music movement, which was waning in popularity as she came of age. “I found Steven Malkmus and Pavement and Big Star and these rocking lyricists that I really loved. That felt like a rich theme to me. I was like, oh, this is it.” Inspired by this diverse array of music, Shelley started teaching herself to play guitar on her mother’s Washburn, which she found in her family’s attic. As she has pursued music professionally, her family has been with her—on a symbolic level—in other ways, too.
“I play my cousin Colleen’s guitar. She passed away and it was left to me. It’s an OEM, small little sweet thing,” she says, adding “At some point I was like, ‘I can’t travel with this guitar. I don’t want anything to ever, ever happen to it.’ But then there was a point [where I realized] she would’ve loved this. She would’ve loved to travel and play music and meet other musicians. Would’ve been a dream for her. I take it with me for her memory.”
Joan Shelley will be embarking on a brief tour with Elkington and Salberg to support The Spur, an album steeped in memories and guided by a pragmatic, but hopeful, inner compass. This album represents a step forward for Shelley as a songwriter and a musician, and it will be interesting to hear how her sound evolves in the coming years.
The Spur, out June 24, is available HERE.