Catherine Irwin, of the legendary Louisville band Freakwater, says Joan Shelley’s voice “flows out like a river.” It never goes in a straight line, she says, but rather it follows the curves that are carved by history.
So what exactly does that mean? Take a listen to this new song of Shelley’s, sung with another Kentuckian of a similarly poetic bent, Will Oldham:
Shelley, a Louisville native, started writing songs at an early age, winning a songwriting contest in the fourth grade. But she said it wasn’t until much later, when she discovered the work of Leonard Cohen, that her lyrical voice began to take shape.
“I didn’t really start thinking of myself as a songwriter until recently, when I went to college,” she said. “I kinda got inspired to get in the game. I saw other people doing it … I wanted to play with words.”
In addition to her solo work and many collaborations with folks like Will Oldham and Daniel Martin Moore, Shelley is one-third of the band Maiden Radio, which explores traditional Appalachian and Kentucky music. That’s a project that gives her a chance to reflect on what it means to be a Kentucky artist.
“We do a lot of traditional music, but not through our own traditions,” she said. “We didn’t learn these songs from fiddle players in eastern Kentucky. Those people, they developed a [regional] sound. Now, everybody is exposed to everything … it’s hard to say what makes a person of a place.”
“I write a lot about natural things. The images that I mine are from here. I think the beauty of this place, the environment … they make me express place, maybe.”
Joan Shelley’s new album, “Over and Even,” is in stores and available for download now. Listen to her interview with WFPL here:
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