Joan Shelley on performing via screens, pandemic songwriting and telling the truth

Joel Oliphint
Nathan Salsburg and Joan Shelley

Since the pandemic shut things down in March, Joan Shelley and partner/guitarist Nathan Salsburg have been regularly paying tribute to other artists, covering songs byBillie Holiday,Link Wray,Elephant Micah and more. Most of them are songs they’ve been playing for years, just not publicly, and the recent downtime has provided an opportunity to not only revisit songs they love, but also share those beloved tunes with others.

“The nice part about so many people doing covers during quarantine is the turning outward,” Shelley said recently by phone from her home outside of Louisville, Kentucky. “Instead of the Internet being more about what I do, you get to see what people love, and that has been more encouraging for finding new music.”

The social media posts and livestream shows also have the ability to reach global audiences (such as Shelley’s set tonight at the Virtual Nelsonville Music Festival), rather than the fixed, physical limitations of a typical in-person concert. Still, a performance mediated by pixels isn’t quite the same.

“There's something about putting things on screens where, instead of all going to one place and deciding to dedicate your hour or evening to something, you throw it into the mix of what's going on in the whole world, and lay it out next to everything else that's on the screen right next to you,” she said. “When you hold something with your focus and your attention, it becomes special and different than the mindset you were in before. But in the screen, it's not special. It's not disruptive of our routines and our bad habits or our bad thoughts. So in that way, I miss dedicated events so much.”

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Shelley’s most recent release,Live at The Bomhard, documents one particular night onstage — the very last stop on Shelley’s tour with the Best Hands band from December of 2019, featuring Shelley and Salsburg on guitar, bassist Jake Fussell, drummer Nathan Bowles and guest vocalists Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Anna Krippenstapel (also on fiddle) and Julia Purcell at the Louisville theater. The 16 tracks spanning Shelley’s rich catalog would sound magical regardless of the times, but to have a live album that so ably captures the musical chemistry of such a talented group feels like a particularly meaningful collection in 2020.

“It's such a gift to have a recording of it, because when we're all playing together there's so many parts that I'm trying to hold on to, making sure I don't mess up. And then hearing the recording, I heard things Anna played on violin that I didn't hear before, and it's so gorgeous,” Shelley said. “In the beginning of the shutdown, I was like, well, I know that all my band members are solo artists of their own, and we all had tours planned as our income, so we just sped up [the release of the live album] so I could pass something good along to them as a thank-you for all the work they put into that tour.”

Still, the time away from the road has also been a nice break after about six years of consistent touring. “I've always been into farming and gardening. My jobs before [music] were always soil-based jobs,” she said. “I'm very healed by this break because I finally got to have chickens again. And we've got goats for the first time, which I've been wanting for a while. And the garden is bursting with food. It’s rewarding to do things with my hands that were just impossible before.”

It’s been a creatively fruitful time, too. Every week, Shelley shares a song with a community of songwriters she assembled, which has been “a good way to keep the machinery running,” she said. The current political and social unrest have also provided plenty of fodder for excavating issues that have bubbled up to the surface in recent months.

"As a society, we’re processing so much right now that we could be too busy to deal with before, so that has combined to make a pretty potent cocktail of songwriting lately,” said Shelley, who recently posted a touching tribute to Breonna Taylor. “I've gone down to the protests, and I really admire the painful moments we're all digging up — stuff that's been there; it’s not like it wasn't there. But that's something I try to do in my songwriting practice, too. Your job is to tell the truth and to not try to fool yourself about what's going on. That could be in a love relationship or some family dynamics or friendships, and it's on a societal level, too: Don't fool yourself about who you are in this.”

“Thankfully, I have a process where I can work through that in a way that doesn't just cripple me, because it's so sad to come and face these facts,” she continued. “You gotta have a way to not shut down and still engage, and music is that for me. … It makes me wish arts in school was never a thing that was questioned: Have a thing that [enables you to] cope with this and still be a helpful member of society.”

Virtual Nelsonville Music Festival

8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21 and Saturday, Aug. 22