The New Cue #177 June 27: Joan Shelley
27 June, 2022
Gosh, is it Monday already?! The weekend goes so quickly, doesn’t it, especially as I’m writing this on Friday. Woosh! It’s gone. Depressing. At least I didn’t have to do my stint on the cake stand at the school fair on Saturday, or, if I did, I don’t remember it. Can’t have been that bad. Why am I always moaning?
Listen, we have some good news. First, we’re about to start the week with Joan Shelley, live and direct from her Kentucky homestead. Second, we have another event to announce. Jah Wobble will be joining us in the basement of The Social on July 22nd between 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm for an evening of music and story telling.
The bass titan, famous for his work as a founding member of Public Image Ltd and his own Invaders of the Heart, as well as a high-end bass for hire whose distinctive plucking has informed everyone’s records from Primal Scream and The Orb to Brian Eno and Björk, will be chatting with Ted on stage, as well playing some bass riffs. He’s one of the funniest, most interesting interviews in music so this is not to be missed. He has so many brilliant anecdotes. Tickets can be picked up here.
Oh, and while you’re there, do yourself a favour and buy a ticket for Ted’s book launch on July 15. Go on! It’s only six quid and it’s gonna sell out soon. Don’t worry if you miss out, though. We’ll probably have copies of Paper Cuts for sale at the Wobble event too.
See you Wednesday and enjoy the edition, please,
Ted, Niall and Chris.
Start The Week With… Joan Shelley
Six albums into her career, the elegant American folk singer-songwriter Joan Shelley found herself locked-down and pregnant in her remote Kentucky home in 2020. When would she ever get her seventh album written and recorded? Right there and then, of course. Ably assisted by her husband and guitarist Nathan Salsburg and an array of collaborators that include Bill Callahan, Meg Baird, the English novelist Max Porter and the actress Katie Peabody, Shelley has knocked out her most complete album yet, The Spur, a lush, pastoral reflection on place, longing, nature and the cycles of life that was released last Friday. Ted gave her a ring at home on Wednesday to hear all about it.
Hi Joan, how are you?
I’m good. I’m in a kind of low reception zone, though.
Where are you?
I’m at home, in Kentucky. [suddenly goes extremely metal robot voice] ….may….have…to…upstairs…[line goes dead] [Joan reappears outside]
Let’s see. How are we doing today? Sorry about that.
Don’t worry, that’s the modern world.
Not out here it’s not. I’m going to walk down the driveway and see if that’s better. OK, here we are.
I can hear you now, which is the main thing. You’re at home in Kentucky. I’ve never been, please describe it.
Well, this part of Kentucky is lots of pastures and black fences and horses. Cows, too. My neighbours have bison. It is pretty green. In fact, it’s very green and it’s very hot right now. I am walking down the driveway currently which is full of chicken feathers because we had a huge racoon attack on the chicken coop last night. So that’s a new aesthetic detail.
Wow! Do you do some kind of farming, then?
We sell chicken eggs to our neighbours. That’s pretty lowkey, not sure you could describe that as farming. I have bigger ambitions in that respect, but I also have to remember I am a…musician. Not a farmer. I make records.
OK, let’s investigate that then. Congratulations on The Spur. Beautiful record. Tell us about the place that it comes from.
Thank you so much. Well, yeah. I would say it began as a ‘I was burnt out’ record, then a couple of songs came that were kind of a new chapter in my life. The song-writing happened among a group of friends who are songwriters of all levels who kind of pushed me to open up my song-writing a little more, I guess. To yield to other minds other than my own very confessional state that I tend to write songs in. A lot of dealing with family and everything that came up in the world, and particularly the United States, during Covid. Just dealing with that on a personal level with my family.
There seems to me to be a couple of themes that are in opposition to each other on the album. One is the need to stay grounded, to settle. The other is the need to accept change. Is that fair?
Yeah, and that is why the imagery of The Spur is so appealing to me: staying in motion while also spinning. It’s a state of mind but also the potential to keep moving, being spurred on. What you said was correct.
How do you deal with that paradox?
I’ve always been a fan of Wendell Berry’s writing, he’s a Kentucky writer. He really pushed me to think about the idea that moving in the world doesn’t necessarily make you worldly. You can stay in a place and learn as much as someone who is a world traveller but never really absorbed a place. The project was absorbing place and translating it to other people, relating to place in a new deep-rooted way, which I had never really thought of before. As a young person I wanted to travel, endlessly. The shutdowns happened and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really going to be a time to get used to being in one place.’ It’s time.
How did you cope with the pandemic out there?
I felt like it was the first time I’d let my body rest in a while, at the beginning. I think that’s true of a lot of people. So there was this initial release. You really could melt and not be this hardened thing that sleeps in different beds all the time. So I opened myself to that. That was really restorative and I think what made having a kid possible. On a very basic physical level, there was a lot of resting going on, a lot of healing. Then it changed, because it kept going on.
The resting became wearying.
You are a year into motherhood now. How has it affected your relationship to music, to song writing?
There’s definitely not as much time. But I prepared for that, which is why I went to the trouble of recording the record when I was pregnant because I knew this was going to be a crazy year. It’s really cool to have this new brain around and to witness what sounds are interesting. The basics of language are astounding. I love the way words sound. She’s a little poet! In a funny way, not intellectually, but it’s fun to explore sound with her. And rhythm. She’s got such a great sense of rhythm, if a new song comes on the playlist she physically will move to the rhythm. It’s great, I’m her personal DJ.
OK, I need some parental counselling that you may well be able to help with. Both my kids want to move to the country. I am extremely city-based. What would you recommend about rural life?
There’s a lot of things that humans need that they don’t realise they need. The country gives you the space to realise that. Especially having a new born, I was able to walk outside with her, totally dishevelled, let her stop crying outside, listening to the world. It was instantly soothing for her, you know? If I was living in the city I wouldn’t have been able to relieve her that way. Then thinking about that for all of us. What are we losing by not being able to go outside with our guard down, not made up, and be under a tree, in the quiet. So that’s what it gives, but I also see what we lack out here. When you go through such social upheaval you need to be with people! You need to remember that you are not alone because when you are kind of isolated it can be wrecking. I wish there were little villages that had both.
How far are you from the nearest village?
I guess the way I measure it here is where can you get a stick of butter and that’s about a fifteen, twenty minute drive.
Man! I’ve never lived anywhere like that.
Ha! There’s a strip mall about twenty minutes away. I know, it’s something. We had dairy goats and before I got pregnant I was, like, we’re going to breed them and have our own dairy here, because that was such a goal. But they didn’t get pregnant, I did.
Let me ask you about Like The Thunder, which is a song on your album I really like. You sing ‘you can’t buy it, you can’t own it, can’t label it or save it…’: are you describing a philosophy about life, about love?
I have songwriter voices, there are like three distinct people. That’s my most optimistic. I was just pouring some optimism into the void of all that was going on. It’s about a kind of love, but I don’t want to explain it away. If I write a love song, that’s absolutely the theme. I don’t believe in pinning it down because love is shifting. You just celebrate what is in front of you at the time.
Well, you have both your musical foil and your life-partner with you all the time. Is that a double-edged sword?
Yeah, well now we have a small kid we can’t play at the same time - which is unforeseen. You see all these little baby devices that lock them into place and they’re sitting in a swing or bouncing in a chair, but our child does not want to sit still. I do a lot of listening to Nathan play guitar because he plays guitar for her to go to sleep and stuff. He’s a gentle motivator for me to keep on playing and making me take the space to keep on making music, which is obscenely complicated now for me suddenly. It’s like trying to assemble a wagon from wood.
Are you trying to assemble that wagon again?
A few new songs have come together, yes. I was thinking that I wasn’t going to do a record for a while, because of this year, but then I just have something. I had a song recently and I was immediately ‘Oh well, this is a record.’ Things start changing and the songs start arriving.
Will you be able to tour soon in this new parental era?
We’re doing some trips to the North East in the US. Just feeling it out. Seeing how we can do it, because we are both in the band. Once we figure it out then we’ll start booking some stuff further afield, in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world, perhaps in the spring.
I hope so.
Well, we will definitely be in London. Hopefully see you then.
Thanks for your time, Joan, enjoy your day.
Will do. Thank you.