Q&A: Joan Shelley On The Louisville Scene, Working With Jeff Tweedy, & Bourbon Cookies
Joan Shelley is looking for a table away from the music. “I don’t like listening to music and having a conversation,” says the Louisville singer-songwriter. “I can’t believe people can do that. When you’re eating, the music in a restaurant can be almost offensive. You can’t have a meal and a conversation because Third Eye Blind is loud in your head, just crushing your experience. I like to have some space around the musical event.”
Fortunately, there is no music — no “Semi-Charmed Life” nor any other annoying ’90s single — playing outside at the Gralehaus, a strange and charming hybrid coffeeshop/bierhaus/restaurant/bar/inn in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville. Especially on a sunny day, the patio has the effect of an oasis, blocking out the street noise and muffling the voices of the patrons huddled at other tables. “I love this place,” she says, setting down her Americano and taking a seat. “We bring all our out-of-town guests to this place. I hope it never goes away.”
Outside at the Gralehaus, you’d never know you were in the middle of a busy urban neighborhood, but Shelley can’t forget she’s in Louisville. For the past few years she’s been closely associated with the river city, not only coming up through the local folk scene but representing it as she tours around the world. Her music is rooted deep in the region — not just Louisville itself but the countryside around Northern Kentucky, the bluegrass plains and Ohio River oxbows. Hushed but never timid, precisely crafted but never stiff, her songs traffic in pristine natural imagery, strong storms of desire and choppy oceans that separate us from one another.
Perhaps because she never drifted down to Nashville or moved out to LA, Shelley seems slightly removed from rootsy singer-songwriters associated with the Americana realm and certainly apart from the acoustic pop stars whose songs show up in movie montages. Instead, she inhabits a more rarified scene, coming across as an outside taking her own route to whatever can be called success these days. Her latest album, simply titled Joan Shelley, continues that trajectory. It has a famous producer behind it: Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, slowly expanding his producing empire. Yet, he sounds more like a passive observer than an active participant: The record never actually sounds produced, but simply and beautifully played.
Shelley and longtime collaborator Nathan Salsburg are both agile pickers with a deep grounding in old-time and bluegrass music, and here they’re backed by members of the Wilco offshoot Tweedy — namely, bass player Jim Elkington and Spencer Tweedy, one of the most intriguing drummers around. Shelley might not sound like Slint or Freakwater or For Carnation or any of the other bands that Louisville has produced, but she’s similarly a product of a certain mindset that has defined so many local artists. It’s more than simply a defiance of coastal bias, but something closer to a pride of place, an insistence that voices from the deeper corners of American have as much to say as those from its big cities and busy scenes.
“I’m from here. I grew up in Oldham County, which is to the east,” she says, pointing to her left, beyond the ivy wall, beyond Bardstown Road, beyond Louisville. “My family had a horse farm, so culturally I would say I moved to Louisville when I was 20 or 21. I wasn’t part of any cool music scene that was going on here. I was way too shy to talk to anybody. I went to the Brick House for an underage punk show, and I was terrified. I was not meant for the city.”
STEREOGUM: There was a huge punk scene here at the time, right?
SHELLEY: There was. It started in the ’70s and there were underage shows for straight-edge kids and all. It was very much influenced by the DC scene, whereas postpunk came out of that: people like Slint and Rachel’s. I’m 31 and a lot of the people I play music with are almost 40 now. They came out of that school. I always hung out with older kids who could give me more knowledge. It was interesting that a lot of them turned to bluegrass and old-time music. I started going to some bluegrass shows and it was like a competition. Everybody is trying to make their solo better than everyone else’s in the group. Old-time always seemed very inclusive and a little less ego-driven: Let’s all learn these songs because we love these songs. Let’s all play these songs together because we love playing them together.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been associated with the city for a few years now. Do you feel any outside pressure to relocate to someplace like Nashville or Brooklyn?
SHELLEY: I’ve never felt that pressure. With Nashville being so close, I’ve thought maybe you did need to do that, maybe you did need to go to a bigger city. I’ve asked people, How do you do this? How do you make a career in this business? And they very politely say, Nobody knows anymore. So I never really felt that pressure to go. I had my band, Maiden Radio, and I had so many people here I loved playing with, and I didn’t want to give that up. I mainly felt pressure to stay because of those relationships. I do love Los Angeles. I never thought I would. And other places, too, especially for art — what it means in other places and how it’s important and just the prouder culture around it in bigger cities. The arts were one of the first things that went under our new governor. Cities are strongholds for art, which is too bad because I love the country.
STEREOGUM: I’m beginning to think that some of the most interesting music is being made in slightly out-of-the-way places that aren’t Nashville or Brooklyn.
SHELLEY: “B markets” or whatever we’re called. It seems crazy. Someone was telling me that in Europe booking B-market bands can be tricky. Saying you’re from Brooklyn has a certain cachet. It gets you into certain venues. I was asking one of the promoters at an indie-pop festival in Germany, and he just said that’s how it is. We told him we’re from Louisville. What’s that? Who are you? You must be nobody if you’re not from Brooklyn or wherever. Fortunately, he was open-minded, but he was telling us about this band from Vermont who moved to Brooklyn to make it. Nathan and I just laughed. They were more interesting when they were from Vermont! The world doesn’t need another band from Brooklyn.
STEREOGUM: I hadn’t thought about how Louisville might be perceived outside of the US, although I get the sense that the rest of the world often romanticizes rural America.
SHELLEY: I’ve seen that a lot with Kentucky. I get associated with the Appalachian mountains. I have to tell people Louisville is actually a river town. Where I’m from is the bluegrass region. Horse country. But the word Kentucky went ahead of me and did its own thing. I love mountain music, and it really does resonate with people. But it can be hard to claim as your own. I was doing this festival in Sweden, and one of the restaurants associated with it asked me for a recipe to put on their web site. So I gave them my recipe for chocolate chip cookies with bourbon and rye. They posted the recipe, and in translation it was hilarious: Of course Joan Shelley makes bourbon cookies! How cliché that this Kentucky musician makes cookies with bourbon.
STEREOGUM: Do you cook a lot?
SHELLEY: I like baking lately. That’s my thing. That’s the one downside of touring — no kitchen. That’s why staying at people’s houses is great while we’re on tour. They let us take over the kitchen and get that sense of home back. That sense of control. But I’m starting to figure out that I need a tea kettle and a camping stove.
STEREOGUM: A friend of mine saw you perform at the Cropped Out Festival here in Louisville and told me you gave out homemade cinnamon rolls to the audience.
SHELLEY: That was kind of a joke. It was my hometown. We had been out on tour, and I got back to my kitchen and immediately started baking something that I ate somewhere else that I wanted to figure out how to make. So I baked all these cinnamon rolls, which is a terrible thing to have around your house. It’ll ruin your day every day. So I thought I’d bring them to the show and people will have something to do while we tune. I thought no one would do it because it might have a razor-blades-in-the-apples kind of feel.
STEREOGUM: Place seems like it’s very important to you, especially on an album that you left town to record. At what stage did you decide to record outside of Louisville?
SHELLEY: I don’t really know. It’s all on-the-fly thinking. I had the songs and I knew I wanted to make a record, and I hate waiting. I hate it not being timely. Things can happen very fast and tomorrow it can be on the radio. I also hated the idea of making a really intricate plan and putting it in the future. I’ve got the songs, so let’s do this. It could have been here at La La Land [where she recorded Over and Even]. I love working with Kevin Ratterman and all his people. The idea to work with Jeff Tweedy came from outside. Mike Quinn from my record label No Quarter said: Well, you met Jeff. You know he’s a fan. Should I ask him? I just laughed. Oh, that’ll never happen. Sure, if you feel like asking. I could never ask. And Jeff said yes! That’s what we did. That’s it. It was just luck.
STEREOGUM: So it was more about stars aligning than having songs that demanded a different treatment.
SHELLEY: When I look back on times when I’ve had an idea of what I wanted to do, I realize I was ignoring other opportunities where the stars could have aligned in a different or better way. So I tried to eliminated my really hard and fast concepts. Just be open and try not to create structures that are going to break inevitably. Luck and stars… you just have to go with it a little bit. Nathan tries to tell me: Don’t you think it’s because you worked hard and you did good? No, it still feels lucky. Lots of people I know make amazing music, and nothing happens. They keep doing it and are dedicated. Why does great music go unheard and really terrible music get celebrated? Well, not terrible to everyone…
STEREOGUM: What was it like getting out of that familiar space of La La Land?
SHELLEY: I believe it’s like Narnia. You can’t go in the same way twice. I really do think I get that now. Narnia taught me that very important lesson. You can’t get up the same people in the same situation and get the same results. It’s never going to happen. You should never force it. And I wouldn’t want to go back and do exactly the same thing. Comfort would be discomfort in that cause.
STEREOGUM: It sounds like vice versa would hold, too. The discomfort of a new place might be comfortable. What was that experience at the Loft like?
SHELLEY: The Tweedys were awesome. Tom Schick, engineer, was amazing. It was like they’ve worked so hard together for so long that they got over the hump of work looking like work. It seemed effortless to them because they had done it so much. We got to benefit from their years of work and just be amateurs. It’s the first time I’ve had every guitar in the room miked at once. All the lines are run so the pianos are all miked and lined out. If you want to play it, it’s ready to go straight to the board. It’s very freeing. The studio becomes a toy chest and you’re a little kid running around and you can do no wrong. I felt like I couldn’t do anything wrong, but I only played two guitars in the whole place. I felt a deep shame for not taking advantage of that kind of freedom. It was almost too much.
One other cool thing about that room was all the guitar hanging on the walls. He’s collected all these pre-war Martins and crazy electrics and basss and amps that have history. And they’re all just sitting on the wall. I couldn’t help but think: Everything you’re doing is vibrating back to you through these boxes and instruments. It had such a spirit that way. The walls are made of hundreds of years of musicians. Have you ever been to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix? It has instruments from every part of the world. It’s so beautiful. I was in tears when I visited. But everything’s in a box, never to be played. I’m sure someone gets to play them. But the Loft was the opposite of that. There’s all the joy, plus you get to touch everything.
STEREOGUM: Were you recording live in the studio?
SHELLEY: It wasn’t my intention to do everything live. That was just what happened because it was so laidback. Nathan and I worked up the songs to a certain point, although I tried not to get tired of them. We’d only do a song until we knew how it goes. He has a very good memory. So we learned the songs, and then we took them to James Elkington, who wanted to dig in and do a few arrangements and make some suggestions. He had a little bit of a pre-producer role. When we went into the studio, Jeff would sit back really casual and say, Just play them. We’ll see. As if it was just a practice run. That was all. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we were tricking ourselves into playing the actual tracks. We’d do maybe three takes, but it was always the first or second one that we ended up uses. Those usually felt the most present and turned on.
STEREOGUM: It’s a very minimalist album, right down to its lack of a title. There’s as little there as possible, yet it sounds like there’s something big there.
SHELLEY: That’s the hope. I think that was what visual art showed me. You can’t have busy wall. The space is the most important thing. The space in between the words, the timing of the words: that space is the thing that will allow you to reach someone. There’s a Lorca essay called “On Lullabies” that I read once, and I thought, That’s it! He’s talking about this thing! He found all these really dark and spooky lullabies that mothers were singing to their children. You’re going to fall in a deep dark ravine, there’ll be a dark monster. What is going on? He collected all of them and started to analyze them. This is your most intimate audience. How do you quiet this creature? This one knows when you’re faking it. You can’t fool a baby. You can’t always be funny, because the baby thinks you’re frivolous. You have to do it right or they won’t quiet down. It’s an incredibly intimate performance. The essay talks about why we tell boogeyman stories and why’re they’re so grounding.
STEREOGUM: Does that play into how you sequence an album? These songs all fit together so well, but they’re about people who don’t fit together very well.
SHELLEY: Nobody does. I think that’s my hypothesis. The deep hard truth is maybe you are yourself and you have to deal with that no matter who you’re with. You’re never going to perfectly pair up and solve your problems. It’s all about attraction and desire and the inevitable failure of a certain kind of love. I’m interested less in the love-story part and more in what makes love last a long time. When I wrote this collection of songs, I was looking at my relationships and my families’ relationships, what they wanted and where they wanted to live versus where they are now and what they have.
I misread something the other day. It was a Thomas Merton poem that I thought meant one thing, but it didn’t. I was so disappointed, but that’s why poetry is so great. You can have your meaning; maybe you as the poet didn’t intend for it to mean that, but it has this new meaning. I read it to mean, if only we could forget all the things we eventually hope to be and just see what we’ve got. Something about the size of our hopes vs. the size of who we are and maybe only will ever be. Oh, this poor sweet child doesn’t know that they won’t be an astronaut. There’s something about turning back on the littleness — that we’re all probably only going to be the little things. Something about that to me is wild and revolutionary.
STEREOGUM: At least on the album that comes across as… maybe not hopeful, but not cynical either.
SHELLEY: I don’t think it’s sad to say you’re not going to be an astronaut or you’re not going to have a Romeo And Juliet kind of romance. I do believe that the less perfect unions are the ones we learn the most from and are ultimately more beautiful and exciting and strange and full of life. The ones that are in the movies are sterile and dead. So I guess it’s hopeful. I do think our culture is strangely lost. The happiness I was told about growing up — it isn’t there. So the job of finding what really makes people happy has become very important to me, especially at a time when so many people have so much and are totally unhappy. That’s cliché, but I guess that’s why it’s important to me.
STEREOGUM: Maybe that’s why making art of any kind, but especially music, seems like a radical act lately. You’re asking that question about happiness in a way that isn’t answered by advertising or consumerism, which seems like a subversive endeavor at the moment.
SHELLEY: I was very hopeless for a minute. I was playing a lot of shows, but I wasn’t seeing a lot of music. I wasn’t experiencing it the other way around. And I started thinking, what does it all mean? But I finally got to see a show and oh right, this is radical.
STEREOGUM: What was the show?
SHELLEY: Doug Paisley in Toronto. Just recently. He played a solo show, and it was awesome. In the way that his music allows him to show his posture about life, you could just see this whole person in there. There was tenderness in his songs, and a sense of humor. We’re gonna be okay! That was something I needed to know. I didn’t get it by performing. I haven’t figured out how to make that experience on my own. I had to see someone give it to me. When I perform, I don’t really put on a show. A lot of times it’s like, Where is this voice coming from? Who is this person? It sounds crazy, but this voice sounds sure of itself and reflects on these experiences, but a lot of times it doesn’t feel like my mind did that. That voice has a piece that I don’t always have. It’s a mystery.
STEREOGUM: When I drove down to meet you, I drove through this flooded section of road, which was very strange and a little scary. But it seemed appropriate listening to an album full of storms and rain.
SHELLEY: Natural systems are the best human teachers that way. You don’t understand cycles? We’ll show you cycles! Mother Nature’s going to remind us over and over again. That’s why I use so many storms and waters and rain and oceans. They’re good metaphors.
STEREOGUM: There’s a lot of natural imagery on your albums. Some of your songs remind me of landscape paintings.
SHELLEY: My dad’s a visual artist. He’s an abstract painter. I’ve always absorbed his opinions. What does my dad think? He always had a very strong opinion about decorative painting versus meaningful painting. Certain ones are decorative and certain ones are very meaningful. Okay, what about landscape painting? That brings you to the sublime. It brings you to the transcendental. He would be like, yeah but it’s not about just making your living room look nice. He said you can paint a mountain with no meaning or you can paint it with meaning. It’s all in the gestures of the brush and the gestures of the painter. I took a lot of my lessons about making music and art from his brushes. My education has been from a painter, not from a musical family. But you can learn a lot from that crossover between the visual and the musical. You get the juicier stuff in that intersection.
STEREOGUM: A lot of folk music these days can be extremely decorous and very passive — something you’d put on very softly over dinner. How do you make folk music that demands an active listener?
SHELLEY: That’s how I listen to music a lot of the time. I have my category of music: While I’m doing this particular thing, I’ll put this music on. But listening is a different activity. I was learning about teahouses and Japanese tea ceremonies, and I like that analogy. You don’t have flowers and a painting for the ceremony. Either you have flowers as the centerpiece or you have one painting. When you don’t want to look at that painting anymore, you put it away until the ceremony is done. That’s how I think about presenting music. You want to spend time and put your mind in this state? Then let’s pull out this music and let’s do it all the way.
Joan Shelley is out 5/5 via No Quarter.