The North Shore News
They spend a lot of years on the road, meandering here, there and everywhere, letting the music be their guide.
Such is the life of a touring musician -- the long days, the excitement of the unknown and the relief of being able to take the stage nightly and do what one does best.
For artist Kelly Joe Phelps, a lot of those times it was just him and his guitar. To pay homage to that experience, as well as take steps forward, the newest record from the acclaimed singer and guitarist, Western Bell, features 11 solo guitar improvised pieces.
A sense of place is a common thread that runs through Kelly Joe Phelps new album Western Bell. The guitarist will perform his improvised pieces next Thursday, July 2 at Capilano University.
"This particular record is something I've thought about doing for a long time because so much of my early musical years were spent playing instrumental guitar and not singing or anything," says Phelps, from the road Monday while in Newark, NJ. "I think it was a natural thing for me to find myself doing at some point."
In addition to allowing him to do something he loves, Western Bell, his eighth full-length album, also represents a way for Phelps to explore his fascination with improvised music.
"Rather than the record being a collection of compositions, it's more so a collection of improvisations," he says.
Just like the last 15 years he's spent on the road, Western Bell is intended to be a journey, taking the listener across a portion of the country the Pacific Northwest native (who's currently based in Vancouver, Wash.), knows all too well. Songs like "Sovereign Wyoming" and "East to Kansas" together represent the adventure.
"I was able to recognize things within each piece that reminded me of something or some place or some experience," he says. "And the constant thread was always something about the west. And that's why, in the end, I guess I feel like the record needs every one of the pieces and not one of them should be taken individually because it's almost like driving from somewhere -- from Tuscon, Ariz., up to Vancouver or something. I needed every one of those miles to get home."
With no lyrics, it was definitely a challenge; nonetheless, Phelps feels like he succeeded. To bring the journey to life, he played a combination of six- and 12-string guitars, a lap-slide guitar and bells. He spent a few months on more than 30 songs, before whittling it down. "I really had a good time with it and I really like the result," he says.
Phelps also chose to record Western Bell in his own studio.
"That was part of the process that made it work for me I think because I was able to concentrate completely on what I was attempting or trying or wanting to do musically," he says. "I wasn't sleeping in a hotel and I wasn't having to watch the studio clock to figure out how much money I had left. And there wasn't anyone else hearing anything or the process, which was also really important. So I was able to experiment with a lot of things and I was completely comfortable to sound as bad as I could possibly sound so there was just no worry about it. And, I could work on it at whatever time of the day or night that seemed right at the time. So all that stuff played a large part in how I was able, I think, in the end to capture what I was trying to get hold of."
While Western Bell is definitely a retrospective, it's also a step forward in Phelps' career.
"To me, it's a really clear image or representation or picture of what it feels like to have done and have been doing this as well as what it's like for me to try to put myself into the future musically," he says.