Meet Joan Shelley: Folk’s Rising Star Talks Open Tunings, Influences, and Working with Jeff Tweedy
By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
There’s a kind of clarity and calm in Joan Shelley’s music that feels especially welcome in these fractious times. Her crystalline voice, with just a touch of vibrato, glides over soft fingerstyle guitar, with melodies and imagery that seem to spring from traditional folk yet are her own. “Rest up baby, lay back now / Here the hands, here the mouth,” she sings in the opening track of her new album, Joan Shelley. “If you were made for me . . . then we’d be home.”
In spite of what its self-titling might suggest, the album Joan Shelley, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, is not a debut—it is Shelley’s fourth solo release since 2012. She comes from Louisville, Kentucky, and is deeply connected with the music community there, with regular collaborators including Cheyenne Mize and Julia Purcell, with whom she formed the old-timey trio Maiden Radio; singer-songwriters Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy) and Joe Manning; and guitarist Nathan Salsburg, her main accompanist these days on record and onstage.
On her breakthrough album, Over and Even (2015), and on Joan Shelley, Salsburg’s guitar lines blend so seamlessly with Shelley’s that the collective sound is like one instrument played by four agile hands. One reason they match so well is a shared love of British Isles folk—in her case, particularly singers such as Vashti Bunyan and Sandy Denny, and in his, guitarists such as Dick Gaughan and Nic Jones (see sidebar below: “Joan Shelley’s Right-Hand Guitar Man”).
After a winter concert in Syracuse, New York, I met with Shelley to discuss how she had found her voice as a singer-songwriter. A significant clue came at the opening of her show: an a cappella rendition of the traditional tune “Darling Don’t You Know That’s Wrong,” which she learned while studying fiddle in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Thinking back, is there particular music from your childhood that is clearly present in your style today?
I’m sure. With everything that I do, there’s a vague feeling that, oh, that little Lego came from somewhere. But I’m not good at remembering the lineage, and I think that has something to do with the fact that I listened to the radio never paying attention to the artists when I was a kid. I heard hooks all the time. I just acquired the songs I liked and never followed artists.
Was any variety of folk in the mix?
It was, with my mom. I didn’t really pay attention then, because I pushed away from my mom and wanted to be my own [person]—into Ace of Base or something. But she did play Van Morrison and a lot of Irish folk music, so that was in my early brain. And if you ask me what made me feel the most homey, like Christmastime, what I wanted to put on all the time was the Van Morrison & the Chieftains album [Irish Heartbeat]. That was like homecoming. I can’t explain it, but I felt it strongly.
Did you have a specific awakening to Appalachian mountain music?
It was coming back to Kentucky [after living in Georgia]. I started wanting to learn the banjo because I’d heard [Kentucky banjo legend] Roscoe Holcomb. Then I met two other ladies, Cheyenne Mize and Julia Purcell, just by chance, and we started a trio [Maiden Radio]. Together we started learning more and more of the heritage of that area. After I got into banjo music, I just decided to follow the strain of the ballads. I heard Dillard Chandler, Sheila Kay Adams, a lot of ballads that were so awesome. And that tied in with Sandy Denny and Anne Briggs and June Tabor—those stark, haunting, floating ballads that could last forever.
Could you hear the connections between the Appalachian and British Isles music?
Yeah, same songs, different words, and bent from having been stuck in a holler. Definitely isolation caused the different sounds and the regionalism that makes the music so beautiful and attractive.
You started writing very early, right?
I wasn’t very good at articulating anything, so I went to songwriting early, trying to assert myself in the world. I just wrote melodies and words, and I didn’t think that was strange for whatever reason. I’d even perform them [with only vocals] in high school for talent shows, and people were like, “You’re so brave for doing that!” But that was the only thing I could do. A cappella pop songs—essentially what I was writing then was regurgitated from what I heard on the radio.
When did guitar come into the picture?
I was a freshman in high school, and my mom had a guitar up in the attic and a chord chart on the wall. I sat up there and tried to learn, and immediately I wrote a song that first day when I figured out C, G, and D. It was just a way to write more stuff, another vehicle. Until I started to work with Nathan [Salsburg], I didn’t really try to get better at guitar. He’s such a force with guitar that it’s kind of contagious. I’d pick up his guitar tunings and experiment more with mine. So the guitar became part of my machine.
It makes sense that you started off just singing, because melody feels like the heart of your songs. I’d guess that your writing process starts with melody. Is that right?
That’s correct, at least up to now. Arrangement follows melody and words slide into the melody.
Your guitar parts are melodic, too, especially on the new album. Is that because you’ve taken a vocal melody and adapted it for guitar?
Lately I’ve been trying to play what’s in my imagination—not singing at first, but finding melodies on guitar that are attractive. And then I’ll sing on top of that with some words. I needed a new way to write songs, because all my other ways had escaped me. You know, you have to have tricks.
Do your new songs use a lot of alternate tunings? Onstage your National sounded like it was in open D.
Open D, or actually it’s open Db—I tune everything a half step down, because I just want to mess with the fiddle player [laughs]. I like singing in a lot of flat keys, so that just works. Nathan actually tunes a half step down, too, for a different reason. He likes the feel of tuning down and capoing. So this last chunk of songs, since Over and Even, I’ve pretty much had a wacky tuning for every one [see sidebar “Shelley’s Tunings”]. Preparing to go into the studio was wild, because I had to relearn. I’d listen to demos and go, “what tuning am I in?” It would be so counterintuitive. I have no idea how I’m going to tour the songs, because I don’t know if I can sit up there and tell enough jokes to tune the whole time. I might have to adapt them a little bit—or take six guitars on the road.
When did you start playing a resonator guitar?
The National is a recent acquisition inspired by the [new album] recording sessions. I was using a cello banjo I had brought, but we couldn’t get it to make the sounds that I wanted. I said, “It sounds dull, doesn’t it?” Jeff [Tweedy] plucked [a National] off a wall and put it in my hands and said, “Try this”—and it was perfect. What’s really fascinating is when you play it quietly, it has all these overtones. The National guitar is just a dream instrument.
You wrote many of the songs on Over and Even in Greece, trying to finish a song a day. What was that experience like?
I’d heard the sharp one-liner “Inspiration is for amateurs.” I thought Leonard Cohen said it, but he was actually quoting a painter [Chuck Close]. And that kind of jolted me—he’s right, you don’t just wait for it to come when you’re washing dishes. So I tried, with the help of Robert Lewis, who co-wrote some songs with Vashti Bunyan when she did Just Another Diamond Day. He had a great analogy: There’s a line of songs out the door—you just have to open the door. In my head I was like, “Oh, so I should open the door every day. If it’s a bad one, at least it’s out of the line and I get the next one coming.”
So that was the thought going in, and then my travel plans changed so I was like, “Where am I going to stay, I don’t know anyone here, and it’s cold in March in Greece—there’s no swimming.” So I thought, “You have nothing to do—just try to stay indoors and write until the song is done. And then you get to go outside.”
What did Jeff Tweedy bring to the new album sessions that was different from what you’d done before?
Well, I think with the kind of stuff that I do, framing is everything. If you have a tiny dot and the frame is five by five, that’s a lot different than if the frame is ten by ten. I think he helped us know when to stop, and he chose to highlight only certain things. We’d try some stuff and he’d say, “I think my job here is to not let you mess this up.” Some of the songs he kept very small, which I thought would be the opposite going in, because I didn’t know better about Jeff. I thought, “OK, producer—this sounds intimidating.” But in fact he was guarding songs.
Your lyrics are often reminiscent of traditional songs, where the words seem like they’ve been distilled down to their essence. Do you shoot for that quality?
I think I shoot to not make myself cringe, more than shooting for trying to sound any other way. I’m so picky about words now, and I can’t undo that. I have a lot of opinions. What I’m trying to do is just walk that fine line of what’s essential about this feeling—trying to not overdo it. I think a lot of the lyrics that I consider bad are too conceptual. I mean I love some country music clever lines that are puzzles, but I’m trying to make a new way of saying something that we’ve probably said in what we consider a cliché now.
Jeff Tweedy once told me that as a lyricist he’s not interested in making rational sense. His main goal is creating a picture in a listener’s mind. Do you feel similarly?
The analogy of fishing has been used before. You’re just trying to be there at the right time, when your brain is in the right state for catching new images, new ways for words to come together. That’s what I think he’s speaking to. If you’re consciously trying to make it fit your form, you’re going to scare away the fish. You’re not going to get anything. That open mind of witnessing whatever comes out—and maybe it’s not going to make any sense—is an important part of it.
What Joan Shelley Plays
Joan Shelley’s touring guitars are a Collings OM2H, amplified with a K&K Pure Mini through an L.R. Baggs Para DI; a 2006 National Style 0; and a Gold Tone OT-6 six-string cello banjo. She uses Martin medium bronze strings on the steel-string guitars, and D’Addario medium nickel strings on the banjo. She uses Kyser capos and plays with her fingers.
When accompanying Shelley, Nathan Salsburg fingerpicks a Bourgeois JOM-V with an unknown pickup (installed before he got the guitar) through an L.R. Baggs Venue DI; a second Bourgeois OM; and a ’73 Gibson ES-335 electric through a reissue Fender Princeton amp. He uses D’Addario phosphor bronze medium strings and Kyser capos.
Here’s a sampler of tunings used on Over and Even and Joan Shelley. The actual pitches are all a half step lower than listed.
D A D F# B E: “Lure and Line,” “Brighter Than the Blues”
D A D F# A D: “We’d Be Home,” “Pull Me Up One More Time,” “If the Storms Never Came” (capo IV with the lowered tuning), “The Push and Pull” (capo V with the lowered tuning)
E A C# F# C# E: “Go Wild” (capo II with the lowered tuning)
E A D F# B E: “Even Though”
Joan Shelley’s Right-Hand Guitar Man
Central to the sound of Joan Shelley’s last several albums, as well as her live shows, is the elegant fingerstyle guitar of Nathan Salsburg. Playing in drop-D or double-drop-D tuning, Salsburg braids guitar lines around Shelley’s soft picking and voice, an approach inspired by British Isles guitar masters such as Dick Gaughan, Nic Jones, Archie Fisher, and Martin Carthy.
“I really love what a number of the Anglo-Irish-Scots players did with traditional material in adapting the guitar—it’s like a second voice,” Salsburg says. “They developed such a narrative approach. The guitar is helping tell parts of those stories.”
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Salsburg discovered John Fahey in high school and calls Peter Lang’s 1973 Takoma debut, The Thing at the Nursery Room Window, a “massive influence.” In addition to his love of British Isles folk guitar, Salsburg has immersed himself in African guitar music, from Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo to the Algerian ensemble Tinariwen, and a wide range of American traditional music. His love for old-time music led to a dream gig as curator for the Alan Lomax Archive, a vast collection of recordings, films, and photos made by the world-traveling musicologist between 1946 and 1991. Lomax’s daughter Anna oversaw the digitizing of these materials after his death in 2002, and Salsburg now maintains the digital archive (the originals are housed in the Library of Congress).
Salsburg’s work with the archive has been an influence on Shelley’s music, too. In 2010 Salsburg rescued several thousand 78s that had been gathered by record collector Don Wahle and were headed for the dumpster after his death. Shelley was among the friends who helped Salsburg clean the 78s for digitizing, and along the way was exposed to a wealth of ’20s and ’30s hillbilly music—some of which was released on the 2012 Tompkins Square box set Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard.
In addition to his work with Shelley, Salsburg has released an array of solo-guitar music and several albums of guitar duets with Chicago multi-instrumentalist James Elkington (see Acoustic Guitar magazine, February 2016), who also plays piano, Dobro, and organ on Shelley’s new album.
Though clearly a sophisticated player, Salsburg is self effacing about his chops—and clear that he plays a supporting role with Shelley. “I feel like my role is as an accompanist, as a foil to help bring out what she’s doing,” he says. “What I’m doing is not essential to what are fundamentally pretty perfect songs.”