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Singer-Songwriter Joan Shelley On Sky Diving And Stage Fright


This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest is singer-songwriter Joan Shelley. You can hear the influence of Appalachian folk music in her songs while her clear bell-like voice may remind you of '60s British folk singers like Sandy Denny. New York Times music critic John Pareles wrote, there's a rare stillness in Ms. Shelley's tunes. Her lyrics don't tell stories. They contemplate places and situations, landscapes that can be geographical, psychological and sometimes both.

While she was on tour for her album "Over And Even," Shelley stopped by our studio to talk with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger and to perform some of her songs with guitarist Nathan Salsburg. Salsburg has his own albums of guitar instrumentals and is the curator of the Alan Lomax Archive. Here's Shelley and Salsburg in our studio playing Shelley's song "No More Shelter."

JOAN SHELLEY: (Singing) Pull up the horses and carry me back behind the lines. Back to the water, back with the gardens and the vines, where two hands of ash and gold chase down my fever and wash me with soap. And half of us were losing and half of us were wrong. Well, a rose you planted. Leather and rope, fire inside the rock. The heavens open, I am like a child on the spot. Asking God why'd you come? Was it all for some glory, was it all for a song?

And my eyes are still searching for a light in the fog, a sweetheart to sing for me. I was thrown from the center, where I once so bravely spun. I was pulled through the colors, through the colors did I run. And my eyes were wide and gleaming, though wind-whipped by the storm. There is no more shelter for the broken. There is no more shelter for the broken.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That was terrific. Thanks so much for playing that. That's Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg "No More Shelter" from Joan Shelley's album "Over And Even." Thank you so much for coming in today.

SHELLEY: Thanks for having us.

BRIGER: So Joan, you wrote these songs when you were spending time in Greece before a European tour. It sounds like it was, like, both a beautiful time and also maybe a little bit of a lonely time, like you were traveling alone maybe.


BRIGER: You didn't speak the language. Maybe you were missing human interaction but finding that natural world kind of compelling. I mean, that feeling, there's like a wistfulness that seems to come through a lot of these songs which you wrote there - while you were there, right?

SHELLEY: Yeah. I had been trying to catch up a little bit on my Greek myths and also philosophy and stuff. So I was reading about Ariadne and that whole story the Minotaur. And so I was on the island of Naxos, where she supposedly was left. And, like you said, without a lot of personal relationships and friendships at night, I was just reading and then imagining these - Dionysus supposedly comes and marries her after Theseus leaves her on Naxos. And so I was just having these relationships with the imagined abandoned gods, you know? We're at this next stage where we don't really believe in our gods anymore and just thinking they may be still lingering there and writing little stories about them.

BRIGER: Your voice is very - it's a very clear voice, and it sounds - I mean, it's hard to describe voices, but it sounds sort of clean. You're not doing a lot of different pyrotechnics with your voice. You're kind of letting it come across straight, and it's very beautiful. But have you always sung like that?

SHELLEY: No. I remember I was maybe 9 years old, my parents told me I had figured out vibrato. And they thought it would never end. Like - they were like I hope she grows out of this phase. And we can't tell her that it's bad because they were just so - they accepted anything that I did and told me it was great, which was awesome. But, yeah, they were right to let that one just go.

But I think I heard - you know shape-note singing, the sacred harp and all that. They were talking about in order to blend, you have to have straight tone. That's part of it. You can't all have vibrato. So it's something I learned when I was trying to work with other voices that you have to get out of the way sometimes. And then when I would sing by myself, too, it seemed like getting out of the way of myself or some kind of need to demonstrate ability...

BRIGER: Right.

SHELLEY: ...And just make that note very simple.

BRIGER: Well, let's hear another song. Would you guys be willing to do "Not Over By Half"?



SHELLEY: (Singing) You've torn your shirt. You've outgrown this town. Your friends are all scatter, and you're lonesome. But you're still searching for music in the sounds. It's a tame world will leave you unbroken.

When that day comes and the lights go dim, the weight off your shoulders, the sun off your skin. And the ones who have known you, your lovers and friends will be marked by the spark that was taken. But it's not over by half. There's a gold in your eyes blooming out through the black. And you're still standing and your hand on your lap. No, it's not over, not over by half.

BRIGER: That's beautiful. That's John Shelley, Nathan Salsburg singing "Not Over By Half," which is from Joan Shelley's album "Over And Even." So you grew up on a horse farm in Kentucky. Can you tell us something about your childhood, and did your parents run the farm? What was your childhood like?

SHELLEY: My mom kept horses. Not that many - it's not turning them out probably the way that implies. But I was about 30 acres outside of Louisville, Ky., with a little stream. And my dad was a visual artist, and they split up when I was young. So my mom was, like, really the center of our family. I have a couple brothers, and she loves trees and taking care of them and growing specimen - you know, like, keeping that one ash tree alive is, like, her whole focus right now.

We had tons of dogs, always. We had cats. And just a lot of my memories as a child are of, like, playing in mud puddles, being allowed to kind of wander and have, you know, contact with amazing fuzzy creatures.


BRIGER: Well, you started writing songs at an early age. And you won a competition at school for a song you wrote. Do you remember some of the lines of that song, and would you share them with us?

SHELLEY: I can't, I can't, I can't (laughter).

BRIGER: You're a little embarrassed about the song. Can you...

SHELLEY: I know. I still haven't gotten over it, apparently.

BRIGER: Well, what was the song about?

SHELLEY: It was very patriotic. It was called "Fight For Our Country." I can't believe I'm saying this because I am such a pacifist right now and as a human. But I was, like, 9 years old and in an elementary school where kids were - like, you could tell pretty conservative. But I was a sponge, and I was trying to, like, write something that my friends also thought. It was just - it's hilarious to look back on it.

BRIGER: And then so you won a competition. Did you have to then sing it in front of everyone?

SHELLEY: Yes. Yeah, it was the first time I'd ever sung in front of people. It was an auditorium of kids at my school, and I was in the choir. And I remember that very, very well just, like, staring into the lights on the floor because I was overwhelmed. I used to be very shy, so that was...

BRIGER: Right.

SHELLEY: ...A big accomplishment for me.

BRIGER: So did you continue to write songs after that?

SHELLEY: And I think I thought I'd had my market figured out. I wrote another, like, kind of historically based thing about Christopher Columbus - didn't win.

BRIGER: (Laughter) But you did say that you were a shy kid and actually wrote before that you hardly spoke in high school and you had stage fright. So how did you get over that? I mean, you perform all the time now, all over the place.

SHELLEY: I don't know. I wonder how many other people say this stuff, too, of just like I was horribly afraid. But for some reason I wanted to be performing. Like, I wanted to be in the choir as soon as I could get in there, so that's one of many. That's not really a lot of pressure and focus. But I was the youngest kid of my family. I think I was used to getting that kind of, like - make everyone laugh, get out there. And that's the comfort zone for me.

BRIGER: Right.

SHELLEY: So there was a mix of that. But I started playing out in Athens, Ga., when I was about 18...

BRIGER: Like, at just coffee shops or open mics or something?

SHELLEY: Sneaking in little bars and coffee shops.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with singer-songwriter Joan Shelley. Her latest album is called "Over And Even." She and guitarist Nathan Salsburg will perform another song after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with singer-songwriter Joan Shelley and guitarist Nathan Salsburg, who are also performing some of Shelly's songs.

BRIGER: Well, I have to ask you about this. I read that in college you were on the skydiving team.


BRIGER: So, first of all, I didn't know there were skydiving teams in college. But how on earth and in the sky did you get involved in that?

SHELLEY: We did competitions. We did formation skydiving. And every other school that was in there was military. So we were one of the few schools that had just - were doing formation skydiving. And I just saw a rack of the clubs around campus and I was trying to find friends. I'd gone to Georgia thinking, big school, away from home, different community. But everyone at that school knew each other. So I really had to make an effort to make connections. And I think that was the most extreme - I was like, if these people like doing this, maybe we can bond. This is so far out from everything else.

BRIGER: Did you like doing it? I mean...

SHELLEY: I loved it.

BRIGER: ...Did you like leaping from a plane?

SHELLEY: I don't remember the first time. I think I blacked out the first time I did it. I don't remember it at all.

BRIGER: Yeah. Were you attached to someone that first time, or...

SHELLEY: Yeah, there's two people holding you like a piece of luggage the first time, yeah. But if you pull your parachute and you're by yourself, now, thinking about it, it's terrifying.

BRIGER: So you don't do it anymore.

SHELLEY: I don't do it anymore, yeah. It's a little expensive. And I started not liking the smell of tons of gas being burned for my skydives, you know?

BRIGER: Right, right. How do you guys work together in terms of how you're going to collaborate and meld?

SHELLEY: There are different songs with different approaches. "Over And Even," and then the song on the previous album, "Electric Ursa," the two title tracks of the two last albums, actually, were kind of little guitar riffs or guitar melodies that Nathan had written that I took away and wrote a melody on top of. And then we arranged something together. Though, the rest of the songs are songs I wrote on my own and then I brought to Nathan and he kind of fit in. He plays harmony with his guitar as well as a lot of the rhythm weaving in there and changing the arrangement a little bit for parts he comes up with.

BRIGER: Would you guys mind playing one more song before we end? Would you be willing to do "My Only Trouble"?


BRIGER: Could you tell us a little bit about that song?

SHELLEY: The idea for the song came from my desire to be like Dolly Parton. She wrote a song called "The Bridge." And I saw a video of her playing on "The Porter Wagoner Show,". And I wanted to write a song as simple and heart-piercing as that one and tried to whittle it down. I wanted it to be short. I wanted to be concise in a story. So this is the song that came out.

BRIGER: Great. Well, it's a beautiful song. Thanks so much for being here, Joan Shelley, thank you. Thank you, Nathan Salsburg, for being here.


SHELLEY: Thanks for having us.

SHELLEY: (Singing) Once we stretched out so fair, my hand here, your mouth there. As the fog stacked around us, there was hay in your hair. And the salt of our skin - grind the clay there within - it was mine that would harden and then cease to bend, when my only trouble, when my only trouble, when my only trouble is you. Now, I stand at the wood where the wind bends the pines. And the place where you loved me wears the marks of our spines. But when spring still shows, brings the tulip and the rose, whether no one will pity the girl in the throes. When my only trouble, when my only trouble, when my only trouble is you. Now, I won't scorn the god who had thickened the fog. He's the one that brings the thunder when that's all I've got. When my only trouble, when my only trouble, when my only trouble is you.

GROSS: Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg performing in our studio. They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Brigger. Shelley's latest album is called "Over And Even." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with writer Jay McInerney, actor Michael K. Williams and comic Ali Wong, check out our podcast. You'll find those and other interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner who is busy today preparing for her wedding. Congratulations, Thea. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.