It’s always the ones who quietly go about their business that you really should keep an eye on. Chances are Joan Shelley is a new name to most.
There have been three albums to date from the Kentucky-born singer-songwriter, each one slowly but surely gaining more attention, each one nudging her gradually a little closer to the limelight.
Her latest album, Electric Ursa, is a good place to start your Shelley explorations. It's soft, calm and masterful, a record of songs which know that they don't have to make a lot of noise or do a lot of hollering to get their point across. The instrumentation stitches the songs gently together while Shelley's pastoral, dusty, folksy voice steers the ship away from the rocks.
She says she started writing songs very early doors back in Louisville.
“I wrote my first horrible, horrible song when I was nine years of age and I entered a competition with it. I wrote the song on the school bus and it had a little military aspect to it. I don’t know where that came from, I was such a little sponge. Someone plucked me out of the entries and I liked being recognised.”
During her teenage years, she kept listening and writing. She’d check out Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, with a sussed older brother providing much of the raw material and a radio locked on to an oldies station providing the rest of the inspiration.
Songwriting became part of her operating system.
“It was something I did in the background and I didn’t realise at first how important it was to me to help me get through the day. Those songs were good first efforts, but none survive.”
The big jump came when she went to the University of Georgia to study anthropology. She admits the move south was more about location than education. Her new base Athens was a music-friendly town with bars and clubs that gave a newcomer like Shelley the stages to shape her songs in public.
“Athens is where I started playing music for real. I was really, really shy in a painful way and it took years for that to break. I don’t know why I had an impulse to perform because it gave me horrible anxiety, but it just got better one day.
“Part of it was adrenaline because you get fired up when you’re in the moment and it’s such a thrill and experience that it becomes something you crave. Part of it was muscle memory from doing it again and again and again.”
After a spell teaching English in Argentina, Shelley returned to Kentucky to find a scene she’d previously not known about in full bloom around her. “I started seeing just how fertile this place is for music and songwriting. I hadn’t known that before. What’s going on here is something which applies to many places now. There’s so much connectivity that people can access everything they want and work on whatever resonates with them in all kinds of towns worldwide.
“Here, though, those people get out a lot to interact. It’s the right size town for a scene like this, it’s not overwhelming and I think the cost of living here contributes hugely too. Catherine Irwin from Freakwater likes to say that there’s something in the water here and I would agree with that.”
The water and environment helped Shelley find musicians to put some skin on her songs.
“I knew that I had some songs which were strong and I got to know the right people who could do those songs well and they knew more people, like fiddle players and drummers, to contribute to the work.”
She also began to realise there were precedents for the music she was making, though these were new names to her.
“People would mention names to me all the time, but I wouldn’t know them. The first time I heard Sandy Denny, I was like ‘oh my god, I love it’. I hadn’t tried to be her because I hadn’t heard her until after the first album. I can’t help the way I am or the way I sing.”
Her reaction to the acclaim that Electric Ursa has received is telling. "I immediately wanted to go make another record because it was unnerving to hear people talking about my music and talking about what they were hearing in their own words."
She may have to get used to this in future years as Kentucky’s best-kept secret finds a bigger fanclub. An upcoming collaboration with Will Oldham will certainly bring more people her way.
“Anytime you get together with a band, everybody wants to play and I think my band are very patient because I keep saying ‘let’s play less’. I want them to play to the size of the songs and a lot of my songs are smaller. There’s a lot of pop ballads out there with full bands playing in full and I just don’t hear a song in that way. It’s an effort, a conscious effort, to rein things in.”
The Certain Three tour kicks off in De Barra’s, Clonakilty on February 22nd, 2014, and then calls to Mick Murphy’s, Ballymore Eustace (23rd); Workman’s Club, Dublin (24th); Errigle Inn, Belfast (25th); Kelly’s, Galway (26th); Greyhound Bar, Kilkee (27th); Leap Castle, Roscrea (28th) and Coughlan’s, Cork (March 1st)