The songs of Kentucky singer-songwriter Joan Shelley start small. She writes, almost exclusively, by herself—"in my own little room," she says—stitching together atmospheres of feeling from poignant little scenes that seem cut from the yellowing pages of collected journals. But then, as she's done on a string of sterling albums during the last half-decade, she shares those songs with a trusted coterie of collaborators, like the refined guitarist Nathan Salsburg or the modern folk treasure Will Oldham. Tucking their sounds behind a clarion croon, Shelley captures both the bell-like purity of the British folk revival and the comfort and warmth of classic country music. Still, the songs remain intimate, more focused on the finesse of a feeling than its force. In this quiet way, Shelley, who performs at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse on Wednesday, March 22, as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook, has become one of America's most alluring new songwriters, steeped in tradition but not limited by it.
Grayson Haver Currin: You contributed in some way to Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard, a pretty monumental compilation of Depression-era songs culled from the archives of a Kentucky record collector. That project was led by your collaborator and guitarist Nathan Salsburg, but what was your specific role?
Joan Shelley: I did a very tiny bit of the work of what was an incredible story. After finding a bunch of music in a dumpster, I had the task of cleaning the mold off. I was in that part of the story. But for me, it was important because, while helping to digitize those 78s that Nathan found, I got to hear so much music.
GHC: What did you take away from hearing all of that old American music?
JS: There's so much music out in the world that I've never been one to have extreme focus. But there was something about listening to music that was so much older, like going back into the seed stock. You're going back to this bank of knowledge about what a song could be, what it is to have a good voice. You found out it wasn't about sounding slick. These people, the great ones, conveyed all that feeling through being terrible at singing, according to today’s standards.
GHC: Is that a more honest approach to making music, you think?
JS: They were scrappier for sure. You can tell certain ones where they messed up. There's a little bit of nerves in the song, because they'd never fit what they did into three minutes. Because they played for people, in rooms, that didn't have mics. There's so much to be said about playing dynamically to a group of people rather than separating it out through microphones and then someone combining it again through speakers and pumping it out into a room that's a weird box shape. That's going to educate a musician so much differently than playing in a circle toward some people who are dancing. They're watching the dancing, and the dancers are informing their rhythms.
GHC: You maintain that dynamic on your records and live, too—relatively spartan and clean arrangements that communicate the songs' intentions rather than overpower the audience. How important is that approach for you?
JS: I guess it's everything. When Over and Even came out, there were people who said it's nothing big, nothing new in music. I thought, "Oh, my God, are we really measuring things that way? I have to blow your mind with some new approach to recorded music?" It’s not who I am, and I am never going to make that. I'll never make the list of whatever that is. I appreciate new music and pushing people out of their comfort zones. There are people who do that work, and I don't do that work in terms of experimental songwriting. I just want to make a really good song.
GHC: Your music does certainly depend on old influences, from the British folk revival to shape-note singing. When you're writing, how much do you pay attention to those traces showing up in your own music?
JS: There will be times when I'm in the middle of working, and something will come out and I'll say, "That sounds like that." I'd rather avoid those things. I take note of it and continue working on it. Everything's borrowed, and I know that. But I'm trying to will away things that aren't me. That's the part of editing that's important—seeing where I'm impersonating something. What is my version of that? Or what would it be?
"I started writing songs before I knew I needed it. That was just my way, and only now do I look back and see that this mode of working is how I stay alive and how I stay functioning. Answers come through songs."
GHC: Something that's always struck me about your songs is how you stitch together these poignant, precise little moments to create a bigger atmosphere of feeling. It seems like the product of very carefully kept journals. Does that play a role in your songwriting?
JS: I do keep notebooks of things. A lot of it is authors I'm reading. I ran into the Lorca essay "On Lullabies." At the same time I ran into a certain essay by David Foster Wallace, I was reading a book on animal imagery. Things would pop out to me at the same time, so I'd write them down in the same place and try to figure out why I'm interested in those things. A lot of my journals are about me trying to learn more about humans and love and loneliness and myths and the interesting things that they reveal—how we're human and that we're meaning-makers constantly monitoring the making of meaning in the process.
Those are my nodes. Those are things that come up in my songs if I've been writing about them recently. There are common themes, like a cabinet full of my imagery that I see reoccur. A lot of authors will have something like that—a tiger, the color red, and granite. I notice that certain natural images are how I tell stories: "Here comes the moon again." It’s like Hafez, this Persian poet, a mystical poet. The Sun was a capital letter to him. He was obviously talking about his God most of the time. I appreciate how it doesn't have to be God. Instead, let's talk about a feeling that is common to all people, though it comes through for different people in different ways.
GHC: So, for you, is songwriting a way of answering, once and for all, these questions you have about the world? Or getting closer to an answer, at least?
JS: It even comes before that intention. I started writing songs before I knew I needed it. That was just my way, and only now do I look back and see that this mode of working is how I stay alive and how I stay functioning. Answers come through songs, and I sound way more articulate, at least to myself: "Oh, that's what this means."
GHC: When did it occur to you that songwriting served such a crucial role in your well-being and in your understanding of the world?
JS: Maybe 20 years into it? Culture tells you it's a hobby, a side thing, that you better find another way to land. I kept doing it, thankfully. If you dedicate yourself to any task, you're improving that lens for seeing the world. To be able to push through this part and come out with this answer, to have that deep understanding of anything, will help you to be able to be a healthy, functional human. Songwriting just happened to be mine.
Grayson Haver Currin is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork Media, The Washington Post, and The Village Voice. He is the former managing editor of The Independent Weekly, where he worked for a dozen years, and is the executive director of the nonprofit Come Out & Show Them.