Singer-songwriter Joan Shelley describes her latest self-titled album as being like an oil painting with minimal brush strokes. “I think of it as doing the most with the least,” says Shelley. “It’s trying to do something subtly, but by being able to see the gestures. I don’t like to overwork it.”
The album, released in May, is a follow-up to 2015’s Over and Even. It is also an exploration of new musical terrain for Shelley, who performs at the Southern on October 7.
Following a 2014 tour with the quirky folk singer Michael Hurley, and after many listens to the song “Hog of the Forsaken” from his Long Journey album, Shelley decided to pick up the fiddle. She wanted her voice to cling to the fiddle the way Hurley’s does. The alternative to her usual guitar medium required her to take a week’s worth of fiddle classes. But in the end, Shelley went back to her comfort zone.
The Southern Cafe and Music Hall
“I had to perform a few times with the fiddle and it was so new and so hard. Also, the more nervous you are, the worse it is,” she says.- “When I picked up the guitar again it was a huge liberation just to be familiar with it again.”
To shake things up, Shelley pushed herself to tinker with new tuning techniques, and continued to pursue complementary elements between her voice and the guitar.
She and longtime collaborator/guitarist Nathan Salsburg approached Jeff Tweedy, frontman for Wilco, to see if he’d be interested in producing the album. Along with guitarist James Elkington, they headed to The Loft, Wilco’s studio in Chicago, to begin recording in December of last year.
During that time, Tweedy’s son, Spencer, was introduced to the group and offered to play drums on some of the songs. All of the songs on the album that contain drums, with the exception of “Pull Me Up One More Time,” were recorded on the first take—partly due to limited time and partly due to luck.
“The first take where everyone was a little bit unfamiliar was the most magical because everyone was on the edge of their seat,” says Shelley, who was both captivated and challenged while working with a producer for the first time.
Jeff Tweedy, best known as Wilco’s frontman and the co-founder of Uncle Tupelo, has put his studio expertise behind several successful acts including Mavis Staples, Richard Thompson, White Denim and Bob Dylan. Tweedy won a Best Americana Grammy for You Are Not Alone, his 2010 collaboration with Staples.
“I’m used to working with an immediate circle of friends, but for this I was in a new city and a new environment, working with new professionals,” says Shelley, admitting she had to face her vulnerabilities. “Sometimes it felt like a pop quiz and I didn’t want to mess up.”
The album opens with “We’d Be Home,” a solemn track that sets the scene with subtle acoustics that glisten on the folk canvas. Much of the album addresses love, relationships and expectations.
“It’s about new love and watching yourself in that moment when you feel like you can change everything about yourself, but suddenly being self-aware of that chemical dose of love.” Shelley says.
But there’s a different influence on the album’s final track, “Isn’t That Enough.” For this song, Shelley, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, with a mother who cared for several horses, looked to her childhood backyard. She sings “I’ve watched the foal roll in clover and steam in cold.”
“[That line] is about seeing an animal come into life and leave,” says Shelley. “It’s a blessing for me being raised that way because it helps you understand the world. We only get one shot at it. Horses are so beautiful and such noble creatures.”
On the same song she also addresses the pageantry of the Kentucky Derby. “Getting ready is more intense and more about identity and presentation,” says Shelley. “The meaning comes in getting ready for this thing because the actual race is 60 seconds or whatever and then it’s finished.” Shelley, by contrast, is just getting started.