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Photo By Paul Moffett
Joan Shelley

What Happens When Joan Shelley Sings

By Kevin Gibson

It was a balmy Wednesday night, and ZaZoo's buzzed with PBR-fueled chatter. From the bar, one could barely see the stage due to the many heads bobbing up and down, flitting back and forth.

My friend and I engaged in a conversation about sports or politics or perhaps shared frustrations about our jobs. The band had taken the stage, because somewhere beneath the clatter, a few stray guitar chords and drum kicks could be heard.

Joan Shelley

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joan Shelley Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joan Shelley Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joan Shelley Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joan Shelley Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joan Shelley Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joan Shelley Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joan Shelley Joan Shelley

Then a voice cut through it all, singing a note that made every voice fall hush. My friend stopped in mid-sentence and looked up. I instinctively turned toward the stage. The band had begun, but all we heard was the voice. Something about the voice made the busy bar filled with one great murmur go completely still.

That's what happens when Joan Shelley sings.

"Joan has a beautiful voice," said Shelley's friend and collaborator Daniel Martin Moore. "It's clear and smooth at the same time. But she also has an arresting presence, that rare thing that you can't quite pinpoint. That is what hushes the crowd."

A few days prior to that show, Shelley sat sipping a beer and talking about songwriting. Her songs tend to be vulnerable and introspective. Shelley says she writes songs most often during times of change in her life sometimes good, sometimes bad.

I mentioned that another local songwriter named Heidi Howe had once said something to the effect that she is most prolific after a breakup. "I'm hoping to have my heart broken again very soon," Howe once quipped. Shelley stopped short of concurring but agreed that change can indeed be a muse.

"It usually comes from cruel dark winters, gray winters, or extreme changes," she said. "That's usually a breakup. But you can also make your own change."

Joan's life must change a lot in the past two-and-a-half years, she's been a major part of five different releases, including her latest release Ginko, which she recorded with friends some of whose names you'll probably recognize: Ben Sollee (bass and cello), Cheyenne Marie Mize (banjo and vocals), Joe Manning (guitar and vocals), along with Daniel Joseph Dorff on drums. Shelley herself sang (of course) and added guitar, banjo, ukulele and more.

Ginko, which is her sophomore solo effort, came out in mid-April. A month later, she released yet another album, collaboration with Moore (who also produced Ginko, and released it on his Ol Kentuck label). That album, Farthest Field, dropped May 8. Moore produced that one as well as collaborating on the arrangements and performances. Both albums were recorded at Ratterman's studio.

In addition to those releases, she also teamed up with Mize and Julia Purcell on a couple of releases under the name Maiden Radio Lullabies in 2011, and an eponymous debut in 2010. Both of these are made up of, for lack of a better term, covers. Lullabies is self-explanatory, while the first album is a collection of re-arranged songs by unknown authors, with the exception of a few, such as "Wildwood Flower" and "Weary Blues" (the latter of which was adapted from a Hank Williams song).

And then, of course, there was Shelley's first solo release By Dawnlight earlier in 2010. That one included a veritable who's who of Louisville music as guest performers: Steve Cooley, Danny Kiely, Mize, and Todd Hildreth, to name a few.

So how on earth does a young woman in her early 20s manage to be so musically prolific and to command such talent around her? Well, that's part of what happens when Joan Shelley sings. But it works both ways.

"It's not so prolific when you add people to your life," Shelley said. She goes back to her writing output being tied to change, and notes, "I write pretty sporadically but in big spurts. But my goal is to defy that."

Sounds like she's doing it.

"The process usually happens with the tune coming into my head as I'm just doing something washing dishes or something repetitive," she said. "Then I sit down and freestyle and talk around the melody. The main thing then is good choruses and melodies coming into my head. I kind of edit from there. Usually have it pretty quick maybe an hour.

"As soon as I told you that, probably the whole process is going to change. If only I could control it, I would write one a day and feel really good."

She said the songs on Ginko all pretty much came to her as a group: "One minute, I was happy as could be, and songs like 'By the Ohio' [were written] it was springtime, you know? Next minute, I was super low. That's what makes them fit together. Thematically the album is extremes. One extreme matches the other."

TO GIVE AND RECEIVE

Before showing up to be interviewed for this story, Shelley's car went kaput apparently the clutch went out, and the car wouldn't move. Luckily, her boyfriend, the aforementioned Manning, came to the rescue.

"He kind of took on my anxiety," she said with a smile.

Indeed, she was surprisingly calm for someone whose car just died, forcing her to scramble. This is one of the many things guaranteed to send most Americans into a stress-induced tizzy, but Shelley remained unfazed, at least outwardly. Apparently this isn't the kind of low that provokes a song. (Of course, a song titled "Dead Clutch Blues" might not fit on a Shelley album.)

Perhaps it's a testament to how she can manage so many projects at a time without losing her sanity. Some have said that being in a band is like being in a marriage except that there are three or four or five other people to consider, rather than just one.

"Before the June Brides [her current live band], I'd never had to manage more than two other people," Shelley said. "Once it got to five, I was understanding why it is such a big step to get to 'band' status. It's like herding cats, you know?"

Still, collaborating seems to be her thing; she surrounds herself with like-minded musicians.

"Louisville's got a lot of good players," she noted. That doesn't hurt.

Regarding Maiden Radio, she said, "The girls are really adaptable. Maiden Radio [happens] whenever it falls into place. Julia has a baby now, so we just schedule it around her. Cheyenne and I are busy with our solo projects now."

And then there's Moore, with whom she works extensively.

"I came to Daniel and asked if he wanted to do that project with me," she said of Ginko. "He'll do anything you ask him to, it seems, as long as he can make the time."

Moore said, "I met Joan Shelley at WFPK. Maiden Radio was opening a show for me and Ben Sollee at the Brown Theatre, and we invited them down to sing on "Live Lunch" with us. We had a real big time, and continued to work together over the next year or so here and there. Joan came out on the road with me and the band last year for a run of shows, and we got the idea to make some collaborative recordings."

That's how Farthest Field came to be.

"We both brought songs to that one," she said. Originally, they performed a 1960s song by Vashti Bunyan together on stage. "That's how it started. I was going on tour with Daniel, and we decided to do a cover from that [Bunyan] record. We did 'Trawler Man's Song.' It's the cutest song you can think of; we made up a really tight harmony. Then we started writing songs … And we've been huge successes ever since."

Yes, that last line was a joke, but you never know. Moore remembered that he and Shelley had a "big time" when they went on the road together. The rest, as they say, was history.

Here is how Moore described Farthest Field on the Ol Kentuck label website:

"While we wrote the songs individually, we worked out the harmonies and arrangements and instrumentations together," said Moore. "And we made it ourselves, playing everything and recording it ourselves (which was a first for us both). That was a little intimidating, but it was nice to be limited in that way, too.

"There were several covers we were considering, but as we whittled it down, it was our own compositions that we focused on. A few of the tunes were written just before the sessions. At least one of them is five years old. Most are some age in between."

Shelley also gets involved in more than just her own releases she's apparently a pretty sought-after contributor for a number of musicians around town. She sang on several tracks on Sailing Stones, a new solo effort by Kirk Kiefer, formerly of Yardsale. Kiefer raved about Shelley's contributions.

"She has an excellent ear for harmony," he said. "I had a good chunk of songs I thought would sound good with her on them, and she was able to go into the studio and nail them with only the vaguest mumbles of instruction from me. Her voice improved every recording 100 percent."

THE NEWBIE

When asked about the Louisville music scene, Shelley answers frankly.

"I feel like I'm such a newcomer that I can't really say," she said. "I never really had an awareness of the city. Then I did meet tons of people playing music, but even that is even a small bit of it. … But I know my corner very well."

Shelley grew up in Oldham County and didn't have formal musical training as a child outside requisite school music classes and choir.

Her mother was into "Island music and world music," while her dad was a visual artist, so the artistic influence was a given.

"When I was really little, like before I was 9 years old, my dad's right brain was in overdrive," she said. "He didn't like TV so we had to do something else."

So little Joan Shelley sang instead?

"Yeah, I kind of narrated in song form," she said. "Just weird stuff. It's not coherent. I think I sang about candy I liked I remember a song about gumdrops in the snow."

The first proper song she ever wrote was actually a "nationalist America song about fighting for our country."

When asked if it will haunt her if that appears in print, she deadpanned, "Whether or not you print that, it haunts me."

It didn't hurt that her father was a friend of Kiely, another visual artist. "He's a great bass player, and has a great ear, too," she said.

Rather than pursue music school, however, little Joan grew up to attend the University of Georgia and study anthropology. But she didn't leave music behind in fact, going to Athens was part of her musical plan. "That was my other reason to go down there, so I got into all the little bars and coffee shops down there," she said. "It was a pretty good little cradle to exist in."

After graduation, she taught English in Argentina, and then returned to Louisville in 2010. And that's when the barrage of musical projects started to happen.

' AS DEEP AS HER IMAGINATION'

Starting in September, Shelley will tour Europe, with stops in Ireland, England, France, Germany, Spain and Holland. There won't be much time for resting.

So does this mean Shelley has "made it"? Good question.

When asked what she hopes to get out of all this music she's making, she deadpans, "To pick up dudes. Preferably younger than me."

She later wonders aloud, "I don't know what I want out of it, honestly. Do you want to profit from music? I don't know what my goal could be."

After a Maiden Radio show opening for Abigail Washburn, Washburn told them that music is "a war of attrition. Just hang in. Trust your songs, trust your talent, keep pursuing it."

The talent is certainly there. Said Moore, "It's as deep as her imagination, which is boundless like in all of us, or so we would hope. I think we've only begun to see what Joan will do. Right now her music is something of a secret that only we in this area are lucky enough to know. Once that changes, look out."

Shelley said she likes learning from people like Washburn, people who have been around a while. "They tell me the game is totally changing we don't know what's going to happen," she said. "Watching My Morning Jacket … there's such a line. To cross that line to when you have seven guitar techs running around? I don't know, it's hard to imagine that success."

She continues, "I want to play music as long as I can, and be able to pull it off. I didn't like working 9 to 5, I know that. If I can work out a balance, a full life, I'll just do that, whatever that takes."

As for the limited success she has enjoyed to this point, the touring and all its trappings, she said, "I'm still giddy about it. It feels like you snuck in somewhere. How did I get in here? They're letting me do this?"

As for what's next, it's safe to say we'll find out what happens sometime down the road, when Joan Shelley sings.