Joan Shelley is a lot like a salmon. The fish, the folk singer-songwriter explains, “spawn in the place they were born” – and so has she.
Having spent most of her adult life touring the world, the 36-year-old spent the pandemic hunkered down in her Kentucky home, just six miles upstream from her mother’s house. A year later, she had a baby with her husband, fellow musician Nathan Salsburg. Their daughter is 11 months old when we speak and is having a well-timed nap while Shelley sits in front of her laptop, apologizing for the potential dodginess of her headphones (“they may have gone through the wash”).
This return to her home town has not been straightforward. Salmon, she observes, aren’t making a logical decision; they will breed in their birthplace even if “the bank is wrecked or there’s pollution in the water”. The musician can identify: she is feeling increasingly conflicted about bringing up her daughter de ella in Kentucky. “Choosing this for her home place – I’m really scratching my head about that one now,” she frowns. She describes the state as a “naturally abrasive place”. Although beautiful and lush, it’s extremely humid – “really hot in summer, hard to breathe” – and “pretty polluted, with the dirtiest river in the country”.
Socially, there are a whole host of other issues: a “mob mentality, an us versus the world” mindset, an air of “volatility” and a tendency towards conservatism. “We can’t get healthcare as self-employed people, and the gun thing is – I just can’t even talk about it right now, it’s so hurtful, so scary,” she says, referring to the horrific mass shooting in Uvalde , Texas that occurred three days before we speak. Near her house, there are “a couple of people who hunt and they practice shooting. We hear guns all day long up here.”
Shelley’s Kentucky farm was where she made her seventh studio album, and The Spur does sound like heartland America: gorgeous, twanging guitars, intricate yet homely melodies that seem familiar after a single listen. Yet this comforting sound is countered by lyrics that interrogate themes of love, masculinity and home in subtle and curious ways (in person, Shelley is thoughtful, but also quick to joke and far less serious than her music suggests). She recorded The Spur while seven months pregnant, which meant that instead of spending endless, caffeine-fueled hours a day in the studio, she focused on making the experience “feel really good – because I’m not going to sacrifice my physical state for this recording”. The result is an album that feels as though it radiates nurturing goodness.
Making and performing music has been Shelley’s job since college. She studied at the University of Georgia, a decision prompted by her admiration of the music scene in Athens (major players included REM). There, she began playing in coffee shops and at open mic nights, and was buoyed by her interest in her music. “I remember a lot of my teachers were like: you wrote this semi-OK paper but oh, you’re a musician, that’s much more interesting!” She spent her 20s touring Europe and the US and in 2012 she released Ginko, her second album and first collaboration with Salsburg, a guitarist whose recent record, Psalms, was inspired by Hebrew Old Testament passages. The pair have been inseparable ever since, both professionally and personally. “It felt like we made a sound, and then I didn’t want to make the solo sound any more,” smiles Shelley. “I was like, we are Joan Shelley, and he was like, I’m cool with that.”
Shelley’s other collaborators on The Spur include Bill Callahan on the exquisitely beautiful Amberlit Morning, and Max Porter, British author of the garlanded 2015 novel Grief Is the Thing With Feathers. On The Spur, he added extra lines to Breath for the Boy, a song Shelley conceived as an exercise in empathy for men displaying signs of toxic masculinity. He helped her get the song to a place that “cut a little deeper for me emotionally,” but she did not feel able to take all of his advice from her. Porter suggested she change one instance of the song’s refrain from “give a breath for the boy” to “take a breath from the boy”. Shelley says: “I just couldn’t do it.” The reason, she adds, is because “there’s a still a fear [in me] of: unless you give all your empathy and kindness to the men in your life that will maybe lash out at you, then something bad will happen. That the only safe place is to totally give yourself to empathy. I think that’s a shame.”
This female instinct to placate – or at least be hyper-aware of male aggression – is something she has even encountered in children’s toys. When her daughter was born, Shelley asked her parents de ella not to give her stereotypically female playthings – but then she read a study explaining that boys actually do prefer cars whereas girls go for dolls. That’s because the latter “watch eyes”, says Shelley. “They found the reason, evolutionarily, was that being in tune with the emotional state of those around you was a survival thing for girls, and to boys it doesn’t matter. We have to care how the group is doing, for weird dynamic reasons.”
Clearly, motherhood is forcing Shelley to think carefully about many things, but one thing it hasn’t altered is her enthusiasm for touring. She is looking forward to getting back on the road with The Spur, and her child from her. “I’m excited to figure out how we’re going to do it logistically, because I really want our daughter to see all of the places and the people we love that we’ve missed for so long.” Her eagerness to travel again chimes with the theme of the album’s title track: a spur is a spike attached to a boot that urges a horse onwards. “Irritating, but also a motivator.” This sense of forward motion is a crucial component of a satisfying life, thinks Shelley. “Keep asking questions, keep feeling, don’t go numb. Momentum is survival,” she muses. It doesn’t sound as if she’ll be in Kentucky for ever.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism