Bio : Joan Shelley
JOAN SHELLEY: It was that Lee Hazlewood Cowboy in Sweden record.
It was learning that the Atlantic Ocean spreads by about an inch each year, pushing Europe and America apart.
It was that Iceland sits on top of that bubbling ridge and gains strange new land by its spreading.
It was the desire to drink in that otherworldly landscape and experience its effect on the music, the way different alcohols have different intoxicating effects on a body.
It was those cheap flights advertised.
It was that you had to leave home to see it for what it is, to frame it neatly: to miss a thing was to know its shape.
These songs deal with the nest that is Kentucky. There’s a saying (like so many others, attributed to Mark Twain): “When the world ends, I want to be in Kentucky where it's always five years behind.” The water, they say, is good for distilling bourbon. There is something in the water. And what it produces in its people is alternately Dionysian and Apollonian.
Woven into the melodies and rhythms of these songs are fragments of the traditions that comprise what we now call Kentucky music: Irish, British, and African. The best music would be a conversation with the divine, or the oldest trees, that have witnessed the whole human story. These songs are an attempt at that conversation, at times through the lens of lovers.
They are also a longing cry born of all the dividing; a call across the slowly spreading ocean.
Primarily, Like the River Loves the Sea is built as a haven for overstimulated heads in uncertain times. The title (which comes from a song by Si Kahn) refers to the inevitable and somewhat indifferent nature of love; inevitable and comforting as the course of a river through millennia of rock. Whether it be a physical space or an idea, everyone needs a place of comfort: one where we can look out with a renewed sense of calm and see how to best act in a turbulent world.
JAMES ELKINGTON: I was standing, aimless, in a grocery store when I got a text from Joan Shelley to say that she had booked a week at her friend’s studio in Reykjavik, and that we’d be producing her next record there. This would be my third album with Joan; Over and Even was recorded with us never being in the same room, and for her self-titled album with Jeff Tweedy we were in Chicago and had crappy weather. ‘It’s going to be fun, an adventure, and a vacation at the same time’ she texted. It wasn’t really a vacation, but when I was dancing in an Icelandic disco at 4am in the middle of the week with our drunk studio manager it began to feel like one.
Albert Finnbogason was our engineer, tour guide, and guest-room lender for the whole project. Our shared enthusiasm for strong coffee and Abba string arrangements made us fast friends, and his quiet control of the studio and empathy for what we were trying to achieve helped us in every way. Our mornings would start by meeting at the local coffee shop and discussing what needed to be done that day. Then we would drive to the studio which was located in a quiet residential street about 20 minutes from the center of Reykjavik. Recording Joan and Nathan at the studio would be quick and unlabored, and the careful building of arrangements around the performances would come after.
Principal recording was completed in four or five days and then we moved to Albert’s smaller project studio in the center of the city to add finishing touches and to record strings. The string players that Albert recommended were sisters. Their playing was beautiful and lent so much to the finished songs. Somehow, the fact that Scandinavian techno music was blasting from the room below didn’t hamper our efforts, and the record was done in time for us to have the one day of vacation we asked for - we climbed a mountain and lay in a volcanically heated stream, drinking beer for what seemed like a long time, but maybe not long enough. Then we came home.
About Joan Shelley:
Joan Shelley is a songwriter and singer who lives near Louisville, Ky., not far from where she grew up. Like the River Loves the Sea is her fifth album. She draws inspiration from traditional and traditionally-minded performers from her native Kentucky, as well as those from Ireland, Scotland, and England, but she’s not a folksinger. Her disposition aligns more closely with that of, say, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, or her fellow Kentuckian Tom T. Hall, who once explained—simply, succinctly, in a song—“I Witness Life.”
She’s not so much a confessional songwriter, although Like the River… gets closest to such subjectively emotional impressions as perhaps any album to date, and she sings less of her life and more of her place: of landscapes and watercourses; of flora and fauna; of seasons changing and years departing and the ineluctable attempt of humans to make some small sense of all—or, at best, some—of it. Her perspective and performances both have been described, apparently positively, as “pure,” but there’s no trace of the Pollyanna and there’s little of the pastoral, either: her work instead wrestles with the possibility of reconciling, if only for a moment, the perceived “natural” world with its reflection—sometimes, relatively speaking, clear; other times hopelessly distorted—in the human heart, mind, and footprint.
Since the 2015 release of her album Over and Even, Shelley has crossed the country and toured Europe several times as a headlining artist, typically with guitarist Nathan Salsburg, and sharing shows with the likes of Jake Xerxes Fussell, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Doug Paisley, Daniel Martin Moore, The Other Years, and Michael Hurley. She has opened for Wilco, Chris Smither, Andrew Bird and Richard Thompson. Jeff Tweedy produced her previous record at The Loft in Chicago. She’ll be familiar to readers of guitar-centric magazines for having appeared, in the same season, on the covers of Fretboard Journal and Acoustic Guitar. She’ll be doubtless more familiar to more listeners in the wake of Like the River Loves the Sea.
Produced by James Elkington and Joan Shelley.
Joan Shelley: classical, resonator, and acoustic guitars
Nathan Salsburg: acoustic and electric guitars
James Elkington: drums, bass, percussion, guitars, piano, Wurlitzer, JX3F synth, and harmonium
Sigrún Kristbjörg Jónsdóttir: violin and viola
Þórdís Gerður Jónsdóttir: cello
Albert Finnbogason: Wurlitzer (3)
Harmony vocals: Bonnie “Prince” Billy (2, 6), Cheyenne Mize (7, 8, 11), and Julia Purcell (7, 8, 11)
Recorded at Greenhouse and Iðnó in Reykjavik, Iceland by Albert Finnbogason.
Mixed by Kevin Ratterman at La La Land. Mastered by Joe Lambert.
Additional recording by James Elkington, Daniel Martin Moore, and Kevin Ratterman.
All songs written by Joan Shelley.