Few people have done more to keep the spirit of country blues alive than Kelly Joe Phelps, and any one who’s ever heard the 53 year-old Oregon native play the guitar, will surely agree that his abillities equal even those of the ancient blues legends that light the path he follows. With his new album Brother Sinner And The Whale out now, and a tour of the UK coming up later this month, Americana UK talks to Kelly Joe Phelps about finding faith, playing with people like Townes Van Zandt and Jay Farrar, and getting out of his own comfort zone.
Brother Sinner And The Whale album was recorded in three days with Steve Dawson. That sounds like a relatively short period of time?
It does sound short. However, I made absolutely sure I was prepared and ready to go, had all the music in my head and hands before I set out for the studio. And because we recorded the music live, in that there were no overdubs that made the process less time consuming as well. I had a great engineer that needed very little time to get the right sound up; that also kept things running smooth and easy. We didn’t have any time left over, mind you; we definitely used up the full three days.
How come you work so well with Steve Dawson?
Steve and I are very good friends above all else, and have been for quite some time. He’s also a great musician while at the same time being an incredibly savvy engineer. He knows me as a person and consequently knows how the music ought to sound in representation of that person. He can feel and hear when the spirit of the music has been successfully recorded or when it hasn’t, and when I ought to try it again. We trust one another thru and thru and listen to each other thoughts. Steve releases my potential anxieties about recording thereby making the process far more easy than it might typically be.
Compared to albums like Slingshot Professionals and Sky Like A Broken Clock, it's basically just you playing on this record. How do you decide whether to invite others in or not?
That decision has always been made far ahead of the studio. In fact, it’s made far ahead of the compositions themselves in most cases. I knew at least a year before I made Brother Sinner And The Whale that I was on my way to recording solo again, before any of these new songs had been written. With Slingshot and Sky I composed the songs with other musicians and other instruments in mind.
From listening to the songs, it stands pretty clear that you've found some sort of spirituality during the writing of these songs. That must be a very powerful experience for an artist?
It’s been a couple of years, now, that I’ve been working at regaining personal ground and reclaiming space for my soul to be healthy and upright, looking to the light and the word of the God of creation, truth be told. It’s been a profound and moving time, rife with imagery and inspiration. Far better than staring at the ground wondering where the next breath was going to come from, which is where I had landed prior to the start of this journey.
Finding a sense of spirituality, faith must be like a well of inspiration that never runs dry when it comes to writing lyrics?
Embracing the spiritual life in it’s fullness is indeed a well that never runs dry. The same sense applies when writing lyrics describing parts of the journey and struggle, the failures and the victories, the windless, dark seas or the calm, star-filled skies. It’s a much bigger world in there than the one our boots clomp around on.
I might have some of the exact dates wrong here, but it looks like you went straight from the instrumental Western Bell to recording Magnetic Skyline with Corinne West. Could you tell me about some of the thoughts that lay behind recording not only a strictly instrumental record, but a duet record as well? Did that ever push you out of your comfort zone?
Western Bell was a record I was bound to make at least once in my life. Prior to becoming a solo acoustic blues/folk musician I had spent most of my time playing and studying jazz music, and had found a deep-rooted passion for the free or avant garde players, Ornette Coleman in particular (along with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden). Most of my creative ideas and output since then have had to do with trying to understand the possible marriage between American folk music and avant garde music. I’ve always allowed plenty of room for improvisation in the music I play, which is why the songs played live are handled differently at each show, and different from the recording as well.
In the case of Western Bell the time finally came where I wanted to stop thinking about the complexities of trying to wed these two kinds of music, place my trust fully in my own musical instincts, throw a prayer up to the sky, bow down my head and let the music come out from wherever inside me it found itself living. I’m very proud of that record, you know. And it was probably the most relaxing thing I’ve ever done in a studio.
Magnetic Skyline, on the other hand, is definitely an example of placing myself outside of my normal comfort zone and attempting to learn something I had no other way to learn. Every note critical, very little room for improvisation, playing someone elses music, singing harmony, flat-picking rather than finger-picking. Yes, indeed; that’s as far away from a comfort zone as I’ve ever been. I enjoyed the process very much, learned how to fit into context foreign to me, and I’m a much better musician today for it. That’s the reward for being willing to step outside, I believe.
Even on Lead Me On, your first record, it was evident to anyone that you were a fantastic musician, one of the best guitarists out in this corner of folk and blues music. From your own perspective, how much has your playing evolved? Do you ever listen to Lead Me On and the other early records and think "wow, I've grown so much as a musician since then"?
Listening to my early records is the same as seeing a photo of that same musician at the age the record was made. I know it’s me, I know everything he knows, but he doesn’t know what happened to us between then and now. As an improviser I’ve turned what has happened into music, I’ve funnelled it thru my hands and onto the fingerboard, or planted it squarely in my chest for notes I’d never sung until now. The music is in constant flux, it grows and ages as I grow and age. That’s where its life comes from. That’s why the joy of playing appears inexhaustible and the possibilities infinite. I’ve grown as a musician and I’ve changed as a musician, yes, but the younger man that played on those early records was no less bent on finding the truth, nor less honest with the notes he chose to play.
The list of the artists you've played with over the years is pretty impressive - from Townes Van Zandt and Gregg Brown to Tim O'Brien and Jay Farrar. What's your creative angle when it comes to doing studio session work? Have people usually already written your part, or do they want you to, you know, do your thing?
I’ve been very fortunate in that when I’ve been invited to be a part of someone’s record I’ve been invited to bring my own thing to it, and have always been asked to invent or improvise in relation to the songs, to give them the Kelly Joe Phelps stamp. That being said (and in relation to a creative angle), it still takes a lot of sensitivity, intuition, hard-listening, and trust in the other musician along with their trust in me to pull it off, to come out with a music that makes sense in its partnership, in its union. The trick being to seamlessly blend in while yet being noticeable. Tiny little place to find, but necessary.
Looking forward, where do you feel your musical journey is taking you?
I can’t honestly say where the journey is headed. The only part of it that’s ever made sense, the only part I’ve ever been able to see with any sort of clarity is just a few feet ahead of where I’m walking at the moment. But I do know that as long as I keep moving I’ll keep finding, and what it is I find eventually turns itself into music, then turns into the past as something new is found. The journey is taking me on a journey, you could say.