I was admittedly a little late getting to the Kelly Joe Phelps party when I first heard his third record, 1999’s Shine Eyed Mister Zen. With his acoustic guitar flat in his lap, Phelps was able to carve out a style of folk blues with his bar slide that seemed to be as much about free jazz as Fred McDowell. Though most people still regard Phelps as a lap steel player, he has managed to prove himself multifaceted by letting go of the slide and mastering alternate tunings with a sound that continues to grow. On his current record and ninth release, Western Bell, Phelps continues to marvel and challenge with an all-instrumental solo record of mainly improvisational pieces. The Mirror talked to Phelps at a tour stop in Hamilton, Ontario.
Mirror: Was intentionally not coming at this record with a handful of compositions done as an exercise, to continue to challenge yourself?
Kelly Joe Phelps: That and just having an all-instrumental record was really a challenge for me. Just improvising became a daily ritual for six or seven weeks before I even recorded. In the ’80s, I played a lot of free music with other players and I just felt like I wanted to get back in touch with that kind of musical experience. Even with compositions, I try and keep open to improvisational moments, but I guess part of my brain just wanted to go deeper.
M: After not using your lap steel approach over your past couple of records, you picked it up again on this new record. Why the return?
KJP: I really didn’t want to limit myself at all on this record and that just kind of led me back to the slide.
M: Was your original vision for the record to keep it instrumental or was it more of an organic idea?
KJP: There were really no intentions at all. I just thought I was involving myself in kind of a self-study and the only way I would be able to study it is to have some sort of documentation