Published Aug 29, 2019Joan Shelley might seem like an easy artist to understand; she's a folkie from Louisville whom, for close to a decade, has crafted thoughtful, introspective and personal songs — the same kind you'll find on her new album, Like the River Loves the Sea. But the deeper you delve into her music, her process and her craft, the more you realize that you really don't know Joan Shelley.
Like the River finds the genteel Kentuckian laying down waves of glassy guitar-folk that focuses on the singular singer/songwriter's whispery vocals and personal lyrics. But Shelley's fifth proper full-length is also a paradoxically dark album, recorded 5000 kilometres away from her home amid a whirlwind weeklong session in Iceland that included disco dancing and a load of collaboration.
Speaking with Exclaim! in an interview, Shelley talks about how the idea to record her latest album in Reykjavik came about: "It was an Irish friend of mine who had been working in a studio where he recorded part of the time with an Icelandic engineer, Albert Finnbogason. He knew that the studio was open and the owners were going out of town. We had a place to stay, we had a place to record for free and an engineer who would work with us. It was an opportunity… and I try to say yes whenever I get them."
Shelley brought long-time collaborators, Kentucky musician Nathan Salsburg and UK singer/songwriter James Elkington, along to the recording sessions.
"[Nathan and James] like to say that I know what I want and I really have songs completed by the time it gets to them," she says about the guitarists' contributions. "But they do introduce new chords. Nathan decides the arrangement of the chords, so he's involved in the structure of the songs and Jim [Elkington] wrote all these great arrangements and kind of coached me on some harmonies."
After recording 2017's self-titled LP in Chicago with Wilco mastermind Jeff Tweedy, Shelley ventured into the unknown, putting her trust behind Icelandic engineer Finnbogason, who has engineered and produced over a dozen records but has never recorded a North American artist.
"I really depended on him for a lot of what we ended up putting together sonically. He brought in these Icelandic sisters on viola (Sigrún Kristbjörg Jónsdóttir) and cello (Þórdís Gerður Jónsdóttir). It's alive and brighter than any of my other records."
Although the Icelandic studio was only available for a week, Shelley insists that the tight timelines did not necessarily contribute to the swiftness of the recording.
"That's how I like to work. The people who spend a whole year tweaking, I don't think people are going to hear that tone they worked so hard on, or that adjustment they made. Perfection has never been my goal, perfection has never awestruck me. I'm more into these impressions, these moments and experiences."
It's the impressions, moments and experiences that she amassed through the foreign sights, sounds and personalities that help make Like the River Loves the Sea sound equally like a musical adventure and musical surrender. "
It was a big point of learning for me after the last record," admits Shelley. "I was having such a crisis in the recording process because you give up a lot of control. Once I let go of it and only showed it to people who I could work with and trust in their taste… I knew no matter what happened, we're all going to hold it together, we're all going to check each other and be a mirror and it's going to work out because we're all letting go. That was a huge lesson for me in the studio and in life, and it's been such a gift to have learned it."
Like the River Loves the Sea is out August 30 on No Quarter Records.