Kentucky-based folk singer taps into a tradition of pastoral simplicity and nostalgia | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Kentucky-based folk singer taps into a tradition of pastoral simplicity and nostalgia

“I have a drive to write when there is that kind of longing present.”

Call it comfort, call it home: Joan Shelley
Call it comfort, call it home: Joan Shelley
Go back to a time when you felt serene in the present, but were already looking to the future when you’d be longing for this past. Now go back further. Go back to the passenger side of your mother’s boxy station wagon, a light drizzle falling outside its safe embrace, and a voice on the tape player, bell-like and sparse, over an acoustic guitar. It could be Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree” or Judy Collins’ “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” — songs that reflect a previous generation’s revolution, and amplify the stillness within.

It is in this tradition — Appalachian and Celtic folk, pastoral simplicity, an almost pathological nostalgia — that Kentucky singer-songwriter Joan Shelley operates.

“I have a drive to write when there is that kind of longing present,” says Shelley, on the phone from somewhere between Salt Lake City and Boise, just back from a U.K. tour and embarking on a handful of dates opening for Wilco. “The world is getting bigger and bigger, and I think that some people are reaching across that and getting nostalgic, and wanting their world to be intimate when it seems kind of blown open.”

Shelley’s 2015 album Over and Even ripples with that very intimacy. Her songwriting is oblique without being heady, with references to blue shadows and glowing stars, the scent of wood and coffee, and pines that bend in the wind. It’s the opposite of confessional folk. “There’s something beautiful about not filling it all in for the listener,” says Shelley of songwriting. And her vocals? Instead of vibrato-heavy histrionics that often get defined as talent, it’s more like Shelley is articulating her inner world, and we’re just the lucky ones, privy to such grace.

Over and Even is Shelley’s first album that’s landed her “any success,” she says, though she’s been writing and performing for years, both as a solo artist and in her band Maiden Radio. The album was written while Shelley spent time in Greece before a European tour. It was recorded one January weekend in a cold Kentucky farmhouse, with friends such as longtime collaborator Nathan Salsburg, as well as Will Oldham, who lent his vocals to the lovely, tender “Stay on My Shore.”

Shelley is excited to play in Pittsburgh at The Andy Warhol Museum, which she hears has great acoustics — her favorite kind of venue. She’s interested, too, in how her music fits into the world of Warhol, which she calls “high high-concept art,” so different from what she creates. “This is not conceptual stuff,” says Shelley of her music. “This is trying to be as direct as possible.”

Shelley’s music is direct, yes — a straight vocal tone, unobtrusive instrumentation, unfussy lyrics — but out of all that directness, something very complicated emerges. Call it comfort; call it home. It’s a place to rest your head, and breathe awhile.

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