Joan Shelley has a quiet grace that renders her immediately relatable. She seems somehow immune to pretense, replacing that with a sense of polite ease. That’s not to say that she lays it all out, but that every word she chooses is deliberate and well meant.
Boredom had a hand in her relationship to music. Growing up near Louisville on her family farm, Shelley grew to appreciate the solitude that rural life provided. That spare elegance is part and parcel to her sound, which has run the course of multiple records, live performances and even an appearance on the NPR “Tiny Desk” series. Shelley is an accomplished guitarist with experience in banjo, and a penchant for playing her Fun Machine, a lo-fi keyboard.
Shelley’s music is stark and minimalistic in a way that blends folk and classic country, updated to include indie contemporaries like Will Oldham or Low. Describing her art, she says, “Acoustic guitar music. Singer songwriter is the best one. All the people that I aspire to be like are under that label. Leonard Cohen. Bonnie Prince Billy. A smaller sound, quieter music, with a focus on being small. Anti-rock. But folk is the worst, folk as a genre name. It at least tells someone they’re going to like you or not. Either you like folk or not. Either you like punk or not. If you just want to write something off, you would say folk. There are a lot of things in the folk genre.”
By and large, Shelley has performed most often as a solo artist, albeit one prone to collaborations. On parsing that identity between her public and private self she says, “It’s kind of easy to write off somebody with just their name. I don’t know what it is. I’ve always wanted a band name that sounded cool that protected myself from anything, but I never wanted to abstract myself. It’s totally a new thing. It’s part of trying to be immediate. Music that there is nothing in-between. No barriers. It’s kind of a safety net.”
Creating a comfortable relationship between listener and performer is a logical extension of her music, which has a cozy intimacy. Still, engendering that in a public space was an aesthetic decision, and one that she works towards with every show.
“A friend of mine, when I was starting to play out said, ‘You put something in there for everyone,’” she said. “It’s a nice idea, but I don’t always follow that. I don’t want to cater to someone with ADD. That’s a terrible idea. For the kind of music I’m making, I want people to be able to hear the words, and to be able to be as engaged as possible. The whole environment — I would like to make nice. We need to attend to the whole audience.”