Joan Shelley's new album, Over and Even, comes out next month on No Quarter, the storied indie label that has been home, lately, to a number of killer folk songwriters. Recorded with guitarist Nathan Salsburg in a freaky Louisville house just across the creek from where she grew up, the album draws on the pair's easy back-and-forth and hones in on the calm beauty of Shelley's excellent 2014 effort Electric Ursa. It's another stellar, smooth-going release, as you'll surely note with today's FADER premiere of its title track. Hear the song below, then read a conversation with Shelley about life in Louisville, her songwriting sessions in Greece, and her surprising, sequin-heavy side-project.
I just interviewed another band from Louisville, and like yourself, their album was accompanied by a letter from Freakwater's Catherine Irwin. Louisville just seems like a great place.
It is; you're right. I've been a Freakwater fan for a while. She opened for me when I released Ginko, two albums ago. We've just been kinda friends since then. It's a small town for that kind of thing.
Are you from there?
Yeah, I grew up in Louisville. The south side, so I wasn't really a city kid and didn't really know the scene until later. Then I went to Athens, Georgia for college. I guess I had to get out to come back. I think I'd be crazy if that weren't the case.
Your first album was recored in a funeral home. Where’d you do this one?
This one we recorded about a half a mile from where I grew up, across the creek. It was at this actually really funky ’70s-style house. Somehow the wires got crossed and it was called a Kentucky farmhouse, but it was not a Kentucky farmhouse. It was like a ’70s spaceship, in my mind. All the ceilings are pitched, big windows. There were, like, no right angles.
There’s a great live quality to the record. Was it done in single takes?
It was the guitarist Nathan Salsburg and I. We’d play the song maybe three times and hope we got it. Some kind of magic was in the air, cause we just kind of got em pretty fast. Which is amazing to me, because Nathan—his parts are so complicated, but he can get it every time.
What do you remember about the title track in particular?
"Over and Even" is actually the first song that I released that is a co-write. It's the only song so far. The way we did it was Nathan and I actually live close to each other in this little neighborhood of Clifton, Louisville. We were sitting on this porch just playing, and he found some little guitar part that he liked, and I started humming into that little recorder. I went and took it back home and wrote some notes and melodies and lyrics and things, and took it back to him, like, "Hey I got this song." I didn't remind him of the part, because Nathan has guitar parts come and go. He kind of forgets parts and gets mad at himself for forgetting them, so I just reintroduced the song as if it were new, and he wrote a new part. And then it became a new thing and I was like, "Guess what, you wrote the whole beginning and I didn't tell you about it." So that one very much carries his style, more so than the others.
In the press release Catherine Irwin wrote for the new record, she's talks about you writing on a Greek island. Was that just her impression of the music, or was it real?
Well, yeah. I actually wrote a lot of the songs on an island in Greece. I went over there. Someone had offered me this opportunity to write some songs and was like, "There might be a publishing deal, come over here." It was an off-season; it was cold. Once I got there it was obvious that it was not gonna work out for various reasons, so I kinda took off and sat and decided to write as many songs as I could. So those are all these songs, pretty much.
You also just released an album with your band Maiden Radio. Were you working on both at the same time?
Yeah, we actually recorded the Maiden Radio album the week after we recorded Over and Even. They're very intertwined. I don't know if I can tell yet how, but it was very much the same type of fever. The same kind of forces were influencing my musical choices and songwriting at the time.
Maiden Radio is more traditional songs, though.
Yeah, we stick to traditionals—that's the main thing. But there are three originals on that album that I was writing for. And I'm trying to write songs for other people at the moment, too. Tere's just all kinds of different voices coming out. That's why it's great to have Maiden Radio, because these more story-songs or universal-theme songs can go to that project. Or I have a honky-tonk band in town, and we can play those songs that are more country-danceable. I want as many outlets as I can find and to see what kind of weird stuff comes out. If it can pick up somewhere or resonate somewhere else, that's the best.
You gotta follow that honky-tonk rabbit hole.
Well, I will say it's the only band where I get to wear tons of sequins and fringe. And that is extremely fun.