Joan Shelley with Jake Xerxes Fussell
Wednesday, Oct. 30, 8 p.m., $15–$17
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
The musician Joan Shelley is keen to check on her garden. Midway through a tour for her recent album, Like the River Loves the Sea, she spoke to the INDY about the joy of returning to Kentucky: “Even if we come home in the night, [I] get the flashlight and run out and see what the raccoon has stolen. It’s the drama that I love here: what’s changed and what I’ve been missing. I have to have a garden that can survive.” She’s describing her fall crops—squash, kale, pumpkins, and corn, to be exact—but she could be talking about her music, which charts a tender, resilient course across love’s many undulations.
Shelley, who plays at Cat’s Cradle on October 30, has been recording ruminative folk-rock since 2010. Like the River Loves the Sea is her fifth studio album as a solo artist, although she has taken part in numerous recording projects. A purveyor of traditional Southern music, she keeps time with a handful of close collaborators, including Will Oldham, James Elkington, and Nathan Salsburg, as well as Durham’s Jake Xerxes Fussell and Nathan Bowles. In her bio, Shelley is quick to clarify that she’s not a folk singer; she uses electric instruments, and her music—despite its balladic, centuries-old feeling—is original.
The sounds, sources, and themes of folk traditions, though, have a foothold in each song. Devotion is one of those themes: On previous albums, Shelley has articulated the long-suffering vagaries of loving another person (a low, devastating line from “The Pain for Your Pleasure” sticks like a burr: “I will understand / That will be my curse.”) This new album, which was recorded in Reykjavík, Iceland, at Greenhouse Studios and released in August, is not upbeat—just below the surface, emotional and ecological threats reverberate—but constancy buffers danger.
The album’s title comes from a song by the North Carolina activist and singer Si Kahn.
“[It] resonated to the deepest core, in terms of how I think about love and how I think about loving songwriting,” Shelley says. “I’m kind of over the rockabilly love song. ‘Like the river loves sea’ is such an elemental, natural law way of talking about love. There’s reassurance to letting go of that panicky love that’s like, ‘I need you to be everything I’m missing.’ No, we will gravitate toward each other because of love, big love.”
Midway through the album, on “The Fading,” Shelley paraphrases Mark Twain on wanting to be in Kentucky when the apocalypse arrives: “And, oh, Kentucky stays in my mind / It’s sweet to be five years behind / That’s where I’ll be when the sea rises / Holding my dear friends and drinking wine.”
There’s reassurance there—a glimmer of community in the face of loss—but Shelley says that in everyday life, she feels more uneasy about the state of the world.
“My daily thoughts are more anxious about [climate change] and … whether we are capable of thinking ahead and doing the right thing. And I don’t know if we are, but music is a filter through my system. That’s what music and art can do, I think: help us process things we can’t think about directly.”
Whatever’s in the water in northeastern Kentucky, it does more than just make good bourbon; it reels people back. Joan Shelley and her garden live in Louisville, just six miles down the road from where she was born. The writer and activist Wendell Berry—who also left the area, only to return and write to prolific effect about the value of a local economy—lives thirty miles down the road. Not surprisingly, Shelley is an admirer: “He’s got such a clear voice,” she says. “It makes my compass go back to true north. The way he describes his connection to this place is by inviting you in. That’s everything I aspire to.”
The standout track from Like the River Loves the Sea is the tenebrous “Coming Down for You.” At first, I took the song to be about some kind of rowdy romantic heroism (the cover art for the single is of a woman on a horse). After several listens, though, it became clear that a deeper message was at work, as Shelley sings “I’m saving a part of me / Just to come down for you.” Love—of another person, of a place—seems best defined on this album not as an act of possession or heroism, but by accompaniment and attention, by sticking around.
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