Singer-songwriter Joan Shelley grew up on a 35-acre hobby horse farm just outside Louisville. She admits that didn’t get to dig into the Louisville scene while growing up. But that has changed since she’s become one of the city’s best-known musical exports. Last year’s Over and Even
, an album of tender tunes that the folks at NPR Music and The L.A. Times
called “album of the year,” established her as an indie artist on the rise.
“Louisville is an intersection of sorts,” she says via phone from her home there. “It’s the top of the South and Midwest as well and it’s on the river so it has all the history from the river. It’s the bluegrass state and has the amazing post-rock bands with Slint and Freakwater. There’s a Chicago relationship. It’s a mixing ground, which has always benefited music.”
Growing up, Shelley admits she wasn’t initially a great writer, but she always loved to sing.
“I sang in choirs as soon as I could and petitioned the teacher to let me in as a kid,” she says. “There was a period where I got into vibrato. That would be a questionable singing stage.”
She entered a songwriting contest age nine and then continued to nurture her craft. When it came time to write the tunes for Over and Even
, she went to a Greek island so she could concentrate without distractions.
“I came over to Greece with the intention to write,” she says. “I talked to this other writer about strategy and how to do it. It was just sit down and do it. I went over there with the intention to collaborate but went out on my own. I was isolated. I would try to sit down and drink tea and write a song until the song was done. I would walk around. The ruins and temples were a big inspiration. I was reading about Aristotle and Socrates. I was trying to put together these old world ideas that I think are universal to all of us.”
She returned to Louisville to cut the album, which she recorded over two days with guitarist Nathan Salsburg. It features guest appearances from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Rachel Grimes and other Kentuckians from the underground and indie scenes.
“I kind of snuck up on Nathan with it,” she says when asked about the recording experience. “I wanted him to just play some songs we did. And we got our friend Daniel Martin Moore, whom I’ve recorded with in the past. We set up the mics in his house. We just went for it. Sitting across from each other, there wasn’t much isolation. We did a couple of takes on each song. Vocals and guitars were live. There was no overdubbing and we went through them. We tried to not get burdened and bogged down by whether it was right or wrong. It was not a contest. It was just swift. We recorded for two days and had Will Oldham, who lives down the road from me, do some harmonies. Piano or organ were overdubs too. It’s very homemade.”
Oldham adds his distinctively woodsy vocals to “Stay On My Shore”; the two harmonize perfectly as Oldham sounds like an echo to Shelley’s upper-register vocals.
“There’s a picture inside the album,” says Shelley. “It’s this big living room space with carpet. Will put headphones on and sang while I sat on the floor while he tried a few things. He did a few passes. I’m a huge fan of his albums, especially Master and Everyone. I love that delivery. When he was in that setting, it was so exciting for me to hear it happen. It’s hard to describe. I was just giddy.”
“My Only Trouble” stems from Shelley’s desire to write like bluegrass/country singer Dolly Parton.
“I wanted to write a strong song the way she writes a strong song,” she says. “I don’t personally want to be like her, but she’s such a clever writer and the country format is clear and concise. Her melodies are better than lots of people. She’s as outstanding as a writer. It was a song called ‘The Bridge’ that was on a YouTube video with Porter Wagoner, and I thought it was best. We wanted to do that sort of thing. She can write a sad song. It’s amazing.”
Shelley says she’s started writing the songs for a follow-up album, which she intends to record in December again with Salsburg at her side. The current tour will also feature her and him.
“He’s the band, as I like to say,” she says with a laugh.
Joan Shelley, 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, The Kent Stage, 175 E. Main St., 330-677-5005. Tickets: $10, thekentstage.com.