Since his debut Lead Me On in 1994, Kelly Joe Phelps has been known for singularly compelling slide-guitar music. On his new Brother Sinner and The Whale, Phelps shifts to the bottleneck rather than his customary lap slide for a sound that wouldn’t be out of place on a classic John Fahey or a Reverend Gary Davis record. There is a thematic shift too, but one of a more spiritual nature; his lyrics inspired by the poetry from the Book of Jonah and the vintage gospel blues of Mississippi John Hurt, with aspects of the early gospel work of Bill and Charlie Monroe thrown in for good measure.
In recent years, Phelps has been exploring musically, releasing the technically dazzling and experimental Western Bell, as well as an album with Corrine West. As with most artists this included a lot of soul searching—with a journey that wound its way to a 3-day recording session with Steve Dawson in Vancouver. After several years of reaching boundaries with the potential of his slide, Phelps’ attention shifted from instrumental virtuosity towards an emphasis on songwriting. “I began to spend more effort thinking about my songs and not so much about the guitar because ultimately I felt that I had found all I could for myself within that sound.”
He’s not opposed to describing it as a concept record. “It’s like a book. First, there’s ‘Good-Bye to Sorrow’ and it’s like the foreword and all the other songs are like chapters in that book. ‘Hard Times Have Never Gone Away’ says that just because you have a spiritual life, it doesn’t mean that life is going to stop being hard or even change in its intensity. It means that your focus is shifting in how you’re going to handle it or how you’re going to understand it.”
And with song titles like ‘Talking to Jehovah,’ ‘I’ve been Converted’ and ‘The Holy Spirit Flood,’ there’s no escaping that something has grown and changed in his world.
Phelps explains some of the motivation behind the new songs. “I’d arrived at a place where I was sinking. I had to do something or my head was going to blow up or my heart would stop. When I found a way to allow myself to open up to creative impulse, this is what was staring me in the face and I did not want to say no to anything.”
Not saying ‘no’ included slide and finger-style playing. “What I always enjoyed most about playing lap-style slide was the sense of physical freedom in motion, and that so little about playing that way resembles a normal approach. That makes playing the guitar feel as though it’s a completely different instrument, but it also brings with it extreme limitations; a lap-style player is playing the guitar with only one left-hand finger rather than five.”
For those who have followed Kelly Joe’s music, change isn’t too surprising. “This is going to be referred to as a gospel record, I suppose. The music is presented in an ancient form, but it’ll sound contemporary because of the way I play and write … I’m just looking at it really as a Kelly Joe record and a slide and finger style guitar record. It’s a singer’s record fundamentally based in old music forms.”
While it could be that simple, it’s still amazing to consider how three days spent in a recording studio have allowed Phelps to redefine who he is as an artist with a solo record that builds on all of his lyrical, compositional and technical strengths to form the best album of his career. It is, as Phelps says, “the kind of thing that lights a fire under one’s boots and in one’s belly.”