The beautifully rooted songs of Joan Shelley

Julia Oller
Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley is steady.

Like a longstanding tree, the singer has learned to trust in her roots — geographically and musically — to stabilize her growth.

Shelley, who will perform Thursday, Nov. 7, at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, has built her career on gentle and gorgeous folk-inflected songs. Each of her six albums leans heavily on banjos, fiddles and her lilting vocals. Even her loudest record, 2014’s Electric Ursa, is only a whisper more dynamic than the other five.

Sameness in music is often seen as a creativity killer. If bands don’t significantly branch out at some point, they are often labeled as tired or uninspired. Shelley, though, prefers to stay tethered to her interests and to her sound, growing into it rather than out of it.

“I grew up thinking a true artist is someone who buys new outfits every album and makes different sounds, but that wasn’t true,” she said. “There’s something about that that seems kind of sick to me in terms of the scatteredness. It’s good to incorporate new things and grow, but sometimes people just do it to make more records sell, which is sad."

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As she settled deeper into the things and places she loved, Shelley realized that she had no need for total reinvention.

Raised on 30 acres outside of Louisville, Kentucky, she moved to Athens, Georgia, for college and spent a few years in Argentina before moving home. Purposefully avoiding the allure of Nashville, Tennessee, New York City or Los Angeles may have cost Shelley some measure of exposure, but she has made up for it in creative and personal fulfillment.

“A lot of my favorite records are the artist’s first and second, and I wondered why that was,” she said. “I think it was writing where they came from and what they knew, their first impressions of the world before it calcified. Staying in my home, with all its troubles and beauties, helps me stay in that original place.”

Even though she traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland, to record latest album Like the River Loves the Sea, Shelley brought much of Kentucky with her. Songs such as “The Fading” offer descriptive pastoral imagery. Rivers are thick with mud. Vines grow long. Roads run into the distance. 

Greenhouse Studios, where she recorded, had a plethora of synthesizers but no banjos to capture Shelley’s style, which merges Scottish, Irish and Appalachian folk music with her own birdlike voice. Her band made do with a resonator guitar instead.

Shelley called the album’s songs — rich with the natural world and her measured delivery — “not really about a breakup but a breaking up of ideas.” She examines how she relates to (presumably) a romantic partner, or maybe to her home state, exploring the give and take of maintaining the connection.

“The songs are always a process, not the gleaned fruit,” she said. “I always go into writing and get the pieces of my mind reflected back at me.”

Several songs stack into emotionally opposing pairs. “Awake” followed by “Stay All Night.” “High on the Mountain” preceded by “Coming Down for You.” Shelley thinks in dualities. Balancing light and dark, community and wanderlust and personal and communal responsibility remains in the front of her brain.

“Maybe we need to get out there and save the world, or maybe we need to stick with what we’ve got,” she said.

The singer, whose steady force is evident on each of her recordings, can’t ever decide which route to take. Stay or go? But, like a tumbling seedling, she is learning to fully accept wherever she lands.

Stuart’s Opera House

8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7

52 Public Square, Nelsonville

Joan Shelley