deep into song
As a creative soul, Kelly Joe Phelps says that, "you're attempting to find your own voice, constantly. If you feel that you've tapped into it, you owe it to yourself to follow that."
Different aspects of the real Kelly Joe Phelps keep on standing up, depending on when and where you catch him. Among the various personae the highly gifted guitarist-singer-songwriter has taken on over his career are: an ace guitar player, with special flair in the technically challenging area of slide guitar; a singer with an almost gothic, gravel and velvet voice; and a songwriter whose literate, cliché-dodging way with lyrics mixes art and grit in a distinctive way.
Arguably, it is the latter quality that most rises to the surface of his wonderful new album, "Slingshot Professionals," on Rykodisc. Portland-based, when he's home, Phelps is a road dog from way back and he has a recording that deserves to nudge him upward in the ranks of important American songsmiths. And did we mention that he's a mean guitar player?
A thoughtful musician with self-effacing humor, Phelps was interviewed by telephone from Nyack, N.Y. He was reveling in the fact that it was a toasty 40 degrees that day, on an especially cold East Coast tour. Phelps, 42, explained that he doesn't take his musical life lightly, but is always searching for new areas to refine.
"I'm always trying to identify parts that could use improving," he says, "and figuring out what it might take to accomplish that. As the years go by, I do feel like I get closer and closer to a balance between all the various parts. Ten years ago, it was all about the guitar. I was trying to figure out how to sing. After awhile, I decided that my songwriting needed to be licked, so I started pounding on that."
In fact, the selective slide guitar parts you do hear on "Slingshot Professionals" are not by Phelps, but his band member Steve Dawson. Phelps, wanting to record with his musicians in a live way, resisted the temptation to overdub his own slide guitar parts. A charming surprise on the new record is the cameo appearance of humble guitar hero Bill Frisell (who also sprinkles his unique sound on Norah Jones' albums, to cite another recent singer recording of note). On the tune "Cardboard Boxes of Batteries," Frisell mirrors the loopy spin of Phelps' lyrics with Frisell's organic, tapestry-like touch with digital loops. "It was incredible to watch," Phelps recalls. "He's a master of that stuff. He would play a note or two and then start pushing buttons and turning knobs. I couldn't believe it."
Like Frisell, Phelps has spent time studying and playing a variety of genres, from jazz to rootsier turf. "Back in the late '70s and through the '80s," Phelps says, "I played mostly jazz stuff myself. I started playing Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke and all that jazz, but then spent a long time playing bebop and straight ahead stuff. I got into the country blues players and found myself heading, again, toward a kind of folk music form that was improvised to a large degree. That puts Bill and I in a very close place."
Stop to listen closely to Phelps' lyrics - or better yet, read them - and you quickly realize that he takes words seriously. These are not glib, cliché reliant tunes, but carefully considered and often picturesque, poetic miniatures. Not surprisingly, he doesn't claim to have been influenced primarily by songwriters.
"Maybe four years ago," he says, "I decided that lyric writing was the weakest part of my game. Like with every study I've taken on, I started thinking about sources for educating myself on that. The only ones I felt comfortable with were writers--novelists and poets and short-story writers. My theory was that if I'm going to learn to play acoustic guitar, I'm going to listen to acoustic guitar players. If I'm going to learn to handle words, I'm going to study with wordsmiths and not songwriters." Asked for favorite writers, he mentions Faulkner and says he finds Dylan Thomas "crushing. Some of his stuff makes me sweat."
In explaining his working process as a songsmith, Phelps describes a long, intuitive process of sketching out characters and building up a catalog of ideas to be expanded on somewhere down the line. He waits for the songwriting inspiration to hit and gets to work matching musical and literate minds. He admits that many of the resulting songs aren't "straight-forward or clear, but that's also something that I purposely do. With a lot of poets that you read, part of the fun in reading that stuff is trying to figure out the code. Maybe you don't figure it out, which is also cool."
As a creative soul, Phelps says that, "you're attempting to find your own voice, constantly. If you feel that you've tapped into it, you owe it to yourself to follow that. I have always felt that I was horrible at trying to write straightforward lyrics. I've never felt comfortable with it. I've never felt comfortable playing electric guitar, either. Acoustic guitar always felt like home to me.
"And once I stumbled on this approach to lyric writing, I had that same sensation. I felt like I had to be responsible to that more than whether anybody was going to think they were good songs or not. It was more important to me to get my own picture out."
Despite bushels of good reviews and several strong albums over the past several years, Phelps remains something of a fringe dweller, at least in terms of general public acclaim. But his day may yet come. If not, it seems safe to say that his muse will keep nudging him along.
As to the question of where Phelps fits into the big picture of the current music scene, the answer is up for grabs, and that's the way he likes it. "I'm not trying to fit into anything, certainly, for me, it's all about moving forward and enjoying moments of creativity, fleeting as they are. It's that moving forward thing that I love the most, and knowing that as a surety makes it impossible for me to think of where I might fit in.
"Wherever it was I did fit in five years ago isn't the same place today, and it won't be in two or five or 10 years. That would be a hope of mine."