All the Inputs
An interview with Joan Shelley
Joan Shelley lets her music speak for itself. Ask her to draw any grand conclusions about the real-life inspiration behind her songs, and she’ll politely avoid the question. Ask her if she sees any common threads running through her latest album, Joan Shelley, a gorgeous, sparsely-produced acoustic collection populated half by gently-lilting country-folk lullabies and half by tense minor-chord ruminations, and she’ll offer only that it was a “snapshot of a time period and a mindset.”
Try, then, to interrogate that mindset, to figure out a bit more about that snapshot of Shelley’s period during the Spring of 2015, when she wrote the bulk of her new album while living in Louisville, and she’ll tell you this:
“My family is definitely a theme throughout, so not to get too personal, but I have two brothers and my dad and my mom, and watching your family, you recognize patterns in your family first, so I was watching them go through certain patterns. I also saw friends around me, and I was interested in their relationship with their sense of place. People have desires to leave, and they have grand visions, but they also have dedication and a sense of community with one certain place, so I was interested in how that both helps and hurts us. It can be both.”
That’s as much as Shelley will share about her own life, and the lives of those around her, but it’s more than enough. No biographical context is necessary to be drawn in by the 11 songs on Joan Shelley, all of which are deep explorations of the inner-workings and intricate complexities of the human heart. In her songs, which are ripe with subtle conflict and interpersonal drama, Shelley’s characters ask each other the types of tough, necessary questions we’re often too scared to bring up: “Have I lingered too long?” “Isn’t that enough to see/that you were meant to be free?” “What do you think when I say/You should be with me this time?”
Or, as one narrator puts it, most profoundly: “Ain’t it lonely?”
Shelley’s new album was recorded during a brief five-day session last December at Jeff Tweedy’s famous loft in Chicago. Working with Tweedy, who produced the album, was a natural, effortless fit. “Jeff really reinforced the best instincts in us,” she says. “We didn’t get bogged down with ideas, and it was really laid back.”
One of the great joys of Joan Shelley is hearing the dynamic acoustic interplay between Shelley and her virtuoso musical partner, Nathan Salsburg. For her new batch of songs, Shelley pushed her own playing, trying her best to imitate Salsburg. “He’s such a fascinating player, and seeing how he plays harmony to my vocals on his guitar was new to me. He approaches his guitar as another human voice that can have equal weight. That’s not a new idea to other players, but it was new to me.”
Shelley insists her new album was not self-titled as any sort of grand statement about what the album represents, but rather, the exact opposite. “People keep asking me, but for me, titling it that was really just the absence of any thought or statement,” she says. Most likely, she keeps getting asked that question because of the intensely intimate nature of her stunning new batch of songs, which interrogate the “push and pull,” as one song puts it, of freedom versus stability, independence versus companionship, adventure versus community.
The album’s opening song, "We'd Be Home," states that very tension plainly in its chorus: “If you were made for me/Then we’d be home,” Shelley sings, phrasing those first six words in a near-operatic melody that transforms that simple, attainable-enough conditional into the type of life-long challenge it often ends up proving to be.
Where do the ideas for Joan Shelley’s songs come from? Observations? Notes jotted down in a journal? Conversations in her own life? “All of the inputs,” she says. “I try to keep a lot of different inputs coming in: a reaction to some performance, something I might have read, some new way of looking at the world. I would never sit down with the intention to write about anything in particular. I just sit down and see what bubbles up from all of that in a natural flow of seeing what strikes my subconscious.”
That sort of practiced intuition guides almost all aspects of Shelley’s artistry, even down to the album sequencing. Joan Shelley is a carefully crafted record, full of dynamic interplay of tempos, keys and melodies that change abruptly between tracks. The breezy shuffle of “Where I’ll Find You” segues into the stormy drama of “I Got What I Wanted.” The laconic balladry of “Even Though” abruptly shifts into the pulsing backbeat on “I Didn’t Know.”
“Other people will say, ‘oh, it's better when a key goes up from one song to the next,’ and I probably instinctively do that kind of thing because that’s the type of experience I would want to have as a listener,” says Shelley, before adding an all-important caveat. “I don’t like to explain it to myself. I don’t like to know why I choose these things.”