Playing with all ten fingers: Brother Sinner and the Whale - a new interview with Kelly Joe Phelps
By Douglas Heselgrave
Over the course of nine albums beginning with his 1994 debut, ‘Lead Me On’ and culminating with his daring 2008 instrumental opus, ‘Western Bell,’ the Pacific Northwest singer and songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps has written and performed some of the most compelling slide guitar based music ever recorded. Moving through the blues, country and folk genres into personal songwriting and finally into John Fahey influenced experimental music, Phelps has always been blessed with an inquisitive mind and restless spirit to carry him into new forms of expression. When ‘Western Bell’ baffled his record company, puzzled some fans and failed to create new audiences for his work, Phelps pulled back from recording in search of a new direction. After touring as a duet for a few years with the California based musician Corinne West, Kelly Joe took some time off to reassess his artistic focus, and through an examination of his Christian roots that resulted in an unexpected flurry of creative activity, came up with a whole new set of songs that represent both a brave step forward and a glorious return to form in terms of his slide guitar work.
I met with Kelly Joe last week while he was in Vancouver recording his new songs with Steve Dawson at his Henhouse studio. Listening to some demos and early recordings from the session, it’s clear that Kelly Joe is on a roll and that the new songs embrace all of his strengths. The lyrics recall the vintage gospel blues of the Mississippi John Hurt variety with aspects of the Monroe Brothers thrown in for good measure while at the same time, Phelps guitar playing continues to broaden its reach as he continues to explore sounds that would not sound out of place on a John Fahey or Reverend Gary David record.
Here are some excerpts from a long conversation that touched on everything from embracing wearing glasses as a concession to age to the poetry of the Bible’s book of Jonah.
DH:I have a confession to make. I recently discovered that you were from Washington State, and even though I’ve been listening to your music for years, in my imagination you have always been from somewhere down south. I guess I formed that preconception because of the kind of music you play. Or, is it that your music reflects something about growing up in a rural community that happened to be in Washington?
KJP:Yeah, I think so. It would have to be that, I think. People have often told me they thought I was from the south because of the way my music sounds. But, I don’t know that that applies very much in contemporary terms. We’ve had recorded music for so long, and I can steep myself in all types of southern music for example without ever going south. So, I don’t know how deep all of the other cultural influences would be other than through the music itself.
DH:Yes, it doesn’t matter where we live anymore. We have access to so much instantly. It still takes a while for me still to wrap my head around that. I think at some level, I still associate certain sounds and expressions with the places they originated.
KJP:It’s not like all of the sudden I became a lost son of the south. It’s a reflection of all the music I loved and steeped myself in. I love to play so many of those songs, but it’s kind of like learning a language. In terms of thinking about my music reflecting some kind of rural experience of living in Washing State, I think it would have to apply because it would account for how come I’ve responded to other types of rural music. There’s a space and openness in that music that makes sense to me.
DH:When I looked into your past a little bit, I was surprised to hear from people that you started out as a free jazz bassist. That’s a bit of a leap from the music most people know you for.
KJP:That’s a hard one to determine even still. It was pretty much through the decade of the eighties, that I was playing mostly jazz music and free music. I went into that music as a student. I was young enough and I started listening to and learning how to play jazz when I was about twenty. But, leading up to that, I had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to play finger style guitar. So, I was listening to a lot of Chet Atkins, Merle Travis as well as some of the newer people like Leo Kottke and John Fahey.
DH:I hear a lot of John Fahey in your work, especially the instrumental record, ‘Western Bell.’ I think that’s my favourite of your recordings.
KJP:That really cut a line. People either really loved that record, or really didn’t like it at all. I sort of expected that to happen, but it didn’t do all that well for me. That record was really the culmination of the period of time we’ve been talking about. I’d spent all this time learning improvisational music combined with some sort of fascination with or attraction to folk based music forms. The melodies that showed up on ‘Western Bell’ were very pure, I think, but the handling of is really skewed.
DH:Like it often is in John Fahey’s music….
KJP:Mmmm Hmmm. That’s definitely a connection to his music.
DH:Have you toured that music? Played it live for people?
KJP:No, it was never something I thought I would do. One way it did manifest was that I began to allow myself more improvisational room within the songs I was singing. I’ve never really played short songs anyways. Songs averaged around five minutes, but around the time of ‘Western Bell’, they started averaging around seven and a half to nine minutes.
DH:Was that a conscious choice, or were you starting to hear more ideas within your music that you wanted to play around with?
KJP:It was that more so, but consciously that was the direction my creative energies were going. I wanted to really break this thing open. I’ve always wanted to try and work forward musically. I was never looking for a place to land and just live there. I’ve always wanted to continue moving forward, so when I allowed that ‘Western Bell’ music to surface, it wanted to work its way inside of everything I did.
DH:You were having a lot of success. You could have stayed in the groove, the place you’d arrived and kept audiences happy with what you were playing for the rest of your life. There’s no shortage of people who love acoustic slide music…
KJP:Fortunately, somehow, I’ve ended up lucky because I started putting out records in 1994. The first record was an exclusive lap slide album, but even with such a niche kind of recording, somehow I’ve managed to build a fairly solid fan base that has followed me through all the changes I’ve made even into ‘Western Bell’. I’m lucky because I haven’t spent much time making decisions based on what I thought people expected me to do. That ought to be a sure recipe for failure – and in some ways it may have been – but, if I’ve alienated people along the way, it’s only one here and one there rather than everybody leaving me at once. There are definitely people out there who want to hear slide guitar and nothing else, but it’s hard for me to embrace anything about that because it seems to me that it’s not really about the music. It’s more about a sound that they want to hear, but it wouldn’t matter what the music was as long as the sound –
DH:- corresponded to their preconceptions or expectations – as long as you don’t cause any ripples in what they demand to hear. I was talking with Steve Dawson yesterday about his experiences working with you, and how when you first met, he says you’d grown tired of playing the slide and had him play the slide parts on your recordings together.
KJP:I was feeling boxed in by the sound. All I was doing with slide was playing lap slide style. I had spent a lot of time exploring it and looking for all the possibilities I could find. I felt that I had explored it fully. Not for everyone but for me….
DH:You’d gotten what you’d wanted to get out of it.
KJP:Yeah, but even more than that, I felt that I had got all I was going to find, that I was capable of finding. Ultimately, I got bored with it, but not so much with the sound as such, as much as I felt that I had found all I could for myself within that sound. I had found all that was available for me to find and spread that over three records. Then, I started playing that way two years before I first recorded, so we’re looking at an eight year period where I had done this thing – which is a really long time. So, the work felt finished to me. I wanted to keep moving forward, so I had to ask myself what to do next. I told myself that I’d just spent a long period really thinking about the slide guitar and not spending as much effort on my lyric writing. So, I went into a fairly long period of thinking about how to work on my songs and not so much about the guitar. That sort of lead into the ‘Western Bell’ period and I followed that as long as I thought I could follow it before I had to again find something different. I don’t know what that different thing is now, what it will be, but it’s something I‘ve wanted to do for a long time. (laugh)
DH:Before we go any further, I know that a lot of people who read nodepression are musicians and they’re wondering why you’ve switched from the lap-slide to the bottle neck. So, perhaps we should get that out of the way.
KJP: What I always enjoyed most about playing lap-style slide was the sense of physical freedom in motion, and that so little about playing that way resembles a normal "guitaristic" approach. These two elements combined can make playing the guitar feel as though it's a completely different instrument; just enough that's understandable and familiar, yet just enough that is foreign and maybe slightly exotic. But it also brings with it extreme limitations; a lap-style player is playing the guitar with only oneleft-hand finger rather than five, in that the slide bar is the only element outside of the open strings that is causing any music or noise to come out of the guitar. There is no way around this, either - at least not without changing some base structure and consequently relying on that new structure to facilitate something different. Whatever choice one makes is either to decide playing with one finger is enough, or that a trick or gadget is worth the weirdness and price paid for it.
DH:Everything has its limitations, and it sounds like you were trying to find your way around them for a long time.
KJP:Any musical instrument is going to carry its particular limitations within it. However, getting to the point where these finite qualities show up is vastly different one to the next. Any guitar player that has spent countless hours of playing and practicing recognizes that, conceptually, the guitar is indeed a finite journey and study, yet one's life is not long enough to tap every potential, nor would two lifetimes be long enough; the endpoint is far too far away to even imagine a picture of it. And this is still and simply referring to one guitar, one tuning, and ten fingers. Playing bottleneck slide is still a ten finger approach - the slide bar being one of them - which still allows the potential possibilities to seem endless, even if it's understood that they are not. But if a full-lived life is not long enough to find them all, then it might as well be emraced and thought of as endless, because functionally it will be. So...bottleneck playing contains within it the sense of endless possibilities whereas the lap-style approach does not. This is not to say, in no way at all, that playing lap-style can't be completely and thoroughly enjoyable and fun and moving and creative. It can be all these things, for the player and listener both. However; once this conversation makes its way to me personally, I will always say that the lap-style journey started with beautiful seas, favorable winds, a wonderfully seaworthy boat, and a good crew. We sailed those seas for ten solid years; lost but one man, suffered through few devastating hardships. We set out on a journey knowing not what we'd find, and returned home ten years later, older, wearied, happy to have returned alive, enriched and thickened through the experiences and the telling of their stories. Perhaps having returned somewhat wiser as well. Perhaps, not. So now a new journey has started, with a new boat and crew, and I’m sailing from a different port than I've ever sailed. I know nothing about these waters, nor the people that inhabit them, nor the creatures under them. Nor do I know how long it will take; I will only know that once I've returned, it’s the kind of thing that'll light a fire under one's boots, and in one's belly.
DH:Thanks. What great metaphors! Speaking of which - I’ve been listening to some of the demos and a few completed tracks from the new record. Do you have a title for it yet?
KJP:It’ll be called ‘Brother Sinner and the Whale’ because a lot of the lyrics were inspired by the book of Jonah. The poetry in that book – especially in the King James version – is so beautiful.
DH:There’s a lot of spirituality in the songs I’ve heard so far. They’re very deep, Christian lyrics that reflect a lot of passion and truth, or search for truth. They’re literary in an old world sense, yet they seem informed by some of the rural music we’ve been talking about. Y’know, Rev. Gary Davis and people like that. Have you undergone a religious transformation or something like that, or is this something that’s been around the edges of your music for a while? Is this something you’re comfortable in talking about?
KJP:Absolutely. Without question. The whole record is going to be referred to as a gospel record, I suppose. The music is presented in an ancient form, but it’ll sound contemporary because of the way I play and write. But, thematically, I’m basing my compositional approach on old styles like the old blues and folk guys played.
DH:A lot of the imagery reminds me of the oldest Monroe Brothers music or early Skip James. A lot of darkness and light. Very compelling really.
KJP:Oh good. That explains a lot of the music, and as far as the theme, it’s not a conversion. But, like a lot of people, I’ve never been far away from religion or spirituality. I was involved with it. My parents were involved with it. When I was eighteen, I voluntarily involved myself with an evangelical group and had what was referred to as a born again experience. I spent a lot of time away from the church. A couple of years ago, through a few different experiences and situations I started reading stuff that made me feel I’d be foolish if I ignored this calling much longer or pretended I knew what I didn’t know.
DH:Did you consciously avoid exploring spiritual issues in your music in the past?
KJP:I did for a while. It’s curious because I’ve spent so much time listening to and studying early music forms – blues, hillbilly and whatever music predates country and western forms – and gospel is always a part of that. There’s always been a bit of gospel on my records, but –
DH:These songs sound personal though. There’s no – uh – anthropological distance or what have you? These songs aren’t exercises in form.
KJP:They are personal. First, all of these songs were composed by me. This is me realizing that I have to do something with this and that I’d be a fool not to number one, and I’d be a coward not to, number two. When I found a way to allow myself to open up to creative impulse, this is what was staring me in the face. Because a period of creation, creation, creation is hard to come by, and I did not want to say no to anything. So, I did whatever I could do to stay open to it. It surprised me. I knew a couple of years ago that when I pointed my life in a certain direction, I’d have to approach it as open-mindedly as possible and go at this in a way that’s real. I wanted to find some things out and find some answers. I didn’t think that I wanted to go to anybody and talk to them, so I went back to the sources and started reading again. Certainly, the music represents me completely honestly, but in terms of thinking about making a record, the decision to make one began when Steve and I began a conversation last December. I agreed to make a solo record and then we talked about a lot of options. One of those was to simply redo a lot of traditional songs and get a solo record out there to get some motivation going again. I thought about that, and then I started writing gospel tunes. (laugh) I loved the process and enjoyed how the songs were turning out. I sent a couple of MP3s to Steve and I asked him if I was onto something. After writing four songs, I was faced with the decision of whether to make a gospel record. I didn’t think I was supposed to be doing that, so I tried to shift things over. But, as soon as I did that, there was nothing and I started to think I didn’t want to go down there because it became depressing very quickly. So, I’d sent Steve six songs and told him, ‘man, it seems like I’m on my way to making a gospel record’
DH:That shouldn’t have fazed Steve. He’s made gospel music with the Sojourners and Jim Byrnes.
KJP:He is really into it, and his response was ‘I love that music. Let’s go!’
DH:I don’t know much about the contemporary gospel scene or the modern Christian music scene. Do you imagine yourself fitting in there with this record?
KJP:I’m not even looking to attract those listeners. It’ll end up there under its own legs, not mine. I suppose there’s a gospel circuit, but that’s the last thing I’d want to be involved with. The sound of my music and the way I sing, it’s an understandable move into gospel. I assume it’ll reach people who like my sound and may spill off as well. I don’t see that the gospel circuit needs me roaming around in it. I’m sure that they have more than enough people there.
DH:And your music is challenging, and I can’t imagine it falling within most people’s sensibilities.
KJP:No. I’m just looking at it really as a Kelly Joe record and a slide and finger style guitar record. It’s a singer’s record fundamentally based in old music forms. It just happens that thematically it’s about Christianity and about trying to live a life better than I’ve been living it. Again, anybody can understand this.
DH:I think you get to our age and you have some perspective. You’re half way up the mountain and that makes you look around you. You can see the first half of your life and it’s incumbent upon us to ask some questions about how we’d like the second half to go –
KJP:Yes, I wouldn’t have wanted to have kept on the way I was going.
DH:Did you reach a point personally or spiritually where you realized that a change of direction was in order? Was this a gradual change or was there a catalyst that brought on a re-evaluation for you? Maybe that’s a hard question.
KJP:It’s not a hard question to answer, but it heads into more personal stuff that starts to get itchy. But, I can say it has a lot more to do with a catalyst than an organic shift. The general situation of the catalytic moment – is that how you say it? – involved realizing that I’d arrived at a place where I was sinking. It wasn’t just a general, hmmm, maybe I should pay more attention to God. It was more like, man, I had to do something or my head was going to blow up or my heart would stop. I couldn’t live this way, think this way or feel this way any longer. I allowed myself to see how much of it all was of my own doing. That was important.
DH:It’s hard to admit those things to yourself when you’re younger.
KJP:Yes, that is true. So, it was that. There were definitely catalysts. The big one was knowing that if I didn’t do something right, there weren’t going to be many more wrong decisions before it came to the last wrong decision. And, then, that would be that!
DH: Thank goodness that didn’t happen. Sitting here talking with you today, you sound invigorated – like you’ve shed a weight.
KJP:In every way. I feel absolutely lucky.
DH:I’m imagining you going out on the road with all of these new songs. With such a shift in your subject matter, are you going to play any of the old songs or would that not feel right to you somehow?
KJP:It’s mostly going to be new stuff. I’ve already started doing that the last seven or eight shows I’ve done were almost all the new stuff. Any back catalogues stuff I’m going to do will have to be stuff that applies to this place I’m in. I do have five or six songs that will make sense to me.
DH:There’s certainly a rich tradition you can draw from as far as cover songs go.
KJP:For sure, there are also a few songs that I’ve written before these new ones. It’s easy to see they preceded this point, but it’s been such a major fabric in my life that even by writing songs about ‘I want to believe this, but I don’t’, the way I wrote them was obvious that I was experiencing this doubting thing. The thing that sticks out of the ground was ‘I want, I want’ but what was surrounding me was ‘this can’t be, this can’t be.’
DH:That’s a very dynamic place from which to write a song.
KJP:Yes. Those songs fit and apply because of the connection between the doubt and the acceptance.
DH:Let’s talk about a few of the songs themselves. I’ve heard five of them so far.
KJP:I’ve written fourteen new songs that I’ve brought with me to the studio. They’re not all going to make it on the new record, but they were all written very closely together. The first one was written this past June or July, but most of them were written in the last four months.
DH:Did they feel right immediately?
KJP:Yeah, it was really flowing amazingly well. I had a lot of ideas and I was being successful at not getting in my own way and not stopping it. If it felt at any point that I was writing a piece of junk, I just kept on writing
DH:- and pushed through
KJP:- and got it done. If it is junk in the end, it’s junk. It felt good because I was open and allowed myself to get it all done. I accepted I’d write some junk and some good things and I just went with it.
DH:It sounds like you’re on fire. Listen to ‘Holy Spirit Flood’ here. (plays it) Maybe you’re just really relaxed when you’re recording informally, but the guitar in the middle section just opens up and all of these amazing little modulations are going on right in the flow of the song. It still holds to the melody beautifully.
KJP:The feedback has been really positive and I’ve been playing a lot of this stuff at the shows and people have been really digging it. I think to the largest extent, the people who will hear the record will accept it. It will be fine. People will make their own decisions. The slide guitar people will like it for the slide guitar, and they may not even listen to the words. I’m sure some John Fahey fans will like it. You know what I mean? I think a lot of people will like it for a lot of different reasons because there are a lot of different places they can come in.
DH:I think a lot of people will respond to the passion in the music regardless of their cultural or spiritual background. Passion and commitment are very appealing qualities in any music.
KJP: That’s true enough, isn’t it. I wouldn’t think I’d alienate anyone. It should make for some interesting conversations after shows. Hmmm.
DH:To me, this record really achieves the perfect melding of your guitar playing and your song writing. They’re out in equal force. It reminds me of the early Munroe Brothers records with the equal parts joy and struggle. There’s a dark side to this music, but move a little and you’re standing in direct sunlight. I’m thinking of ‘Goodbye to Sorrow’ that we’ve been listening to here. That’s my favourite of the new tunes.
KJP:Oh cool man. That’s good to hear. That’s right down the line with what you’re talking about. That’s one of the early ones that I wrote. I had the general lyric thought and knew what I wanted to do with the song, but I also heard the musical thing simultaneously. Not in the way where I just had a couple of chords and needed to find some words, but it was as if an idea came through and the line ‘in the eyes of the Lord I am redeemed’ made me think of a Bill Munroe kind of thing. More specifically in my case, I was drawn back to the music of Mississippi John Hurt.
DH:I just finished reading his biography, so I’ve been listening to him a lot again recently.
KJP:Yes, isn’t he wonderful. I liked the idea that was starting to come to me about playing that kind of lopy, almost ragtime-y John Hurt thing and so I started right there. As I started building the lyrics, that allowed me to see what was underneath the thinking. I think the sentiment or the point that’s made in ‘Good-Bye to Sorrow’ is really quite straightforward. It’s that idea of accepting that you’re being helped greatly because of divine benevolence and because I’m asking for and embracing the help.
DH:Were you scared to surrender like that?
KJP:Oh yeah, yeah.
DH:Because that song has a lot of darkness swirling around it. It has all that imagery where I see someone walking down a really turbulent, lonely road by themselves with all these choices swirling above his head. It’s gripping stuff.
KJP:It’s a very transformative song. You’re completely accurate there. You just nailed it really because it reminds me of sitting in a chair and realizing it was a turning point song. Specifically related to our conversation, I think maybe a big turning point to saying ‘yes’ to the whole record because that set of lyrics I always felt was the most naked statement. Y’know. This is it! I realized if I said ‘yes’ to that set of lyrics, I’d be saying ‘yes’ to this whole new project and direction. I’m also going to need to understand that everyone who hears it is going to hear that ‘yes’ and I have to be ready for that, too. Oh man!
DH:There are some tough crowds out there.
KJP:Oh man! You know, but you can’t sing about girlfriends and things like that forever.
DH:Oh, but you can.
KJP:Oh yeah! But –
DH:One of your new songs is called ‘Hard Times Have Never Gone Away.’ Is that a realization that life is always hard and that ‘believing’ isn’t a guarantee.
KJP: First, there’s ‘Good-Bye to Sorrow’ and it’s like the foreword to the book and all the other songs are like chapters in that book. ‘Hard Times Have Never Gone Away’ , generally speaking is one of the songs within which I am talking about building a relationship with God. It doesn’t mean that life being hard is going to stop or even change in its intensity. It means that your focus is shifting in how you’re going to handle it or how you’re going to understand it. How you’re going to move through it, whether it’s going to beat you down or be a hard slog – Do you understand what I’m getting at?
DH:I think so. What I hear in some of the songs with reference to my own sets of meanings is that whether a person has a specific faith or not, as we get older the value we attach to certain things changes. I mean, in our twenties we think our problems are the most important things in the universe. We get older and we realize our individual insignificance in time and the tiny speck any of us occupies in history – that kind of thing.
KJP:That’s exactly what I’m getting at. First, as you said, as individuals we change in relationship to other people, the community around us and with reference to our bloodlines. Second, it’s also an alignment with God essentially, and knowing that you are a part of that. Being able to understand life for what it is, is a part of that. Simply saying, ‘Yes God, I believe’ doesn’t have a lot to do with what you’ll experience in your life.
DH:Struggle doesn’t disappear.
KJH:Absolutely not. That’s the kind of stuff we’ve been discussing - where faith and grace are allowed to show themselves. That’s where you get the strength to get through life. I’m not talking about the kind of thing where magically you reach into your pocket and there’s five bucks you didn’t have before. It’s really much more amazing and subtle than that.
DH:I think you’re talking about a kind of divine acceptance. That’s where the songs I’ve heard seem to come from.
KJP: I am talking about divine acceptance. But, it’s not all work. It’s sure been a lot of fun.
DH:Yeah, I hope so. ‘Brother Sinner and the Whale.’ If the rest of the songs are as good as what I’ve heard so far, it’s going to be a great record.
KJP:Thank you very much. I’m looking forward to having you hear the rest of it.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.
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