September 15, 2006

Homegrown songwriting genius Kelly Joe Phelps continues his acoustic revolution

Rose City singer and songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps, who came up through coffee-house ranks at joints like Cafe Lena and the Cup and Saucer Cafe, has garnered international acclaim for his earthy blues-folk guitar style and warm-honey baritone voice.

Through seven recordings, including his new Rounder release, "Tunesmith Retrofit," he's evolved, and continues to evolve, a distinct and intimately personal style that is at once refreshingly new yet ancient and eternal.

We caught up with Phelps as he made his way between Midwest cities for yet another show on a tour that on Friday brings him home to Portland and the Aladdin Theater.

How is it being on the road?
There's a lot of upsides and a few downsides, but the downsides are easy to manage. It still feels like I made the right decision in following the path of music. Music is a way to keep some sort of old-fashioned ideal. There's clearly something ancient about music. It's the medicinal. It's the way to spread a little medicine around.

Do you miss Portland when you're away?
Absolutely. It's glaring, the thing about the road. It can be way over-sentimentalized and seen in a romantic light, and there are aspects of that. But like today is a 350-mile drive. Sitting in a car for six hours, I'm clearly thinking about three things: my girlfriend, my daughter and my home. I miss it a lot. I'm home frequently, but never long enough to shake out the dust.
How do you sum all this up? Has it met your expectations? Seems like it's been quite a trip.
It has been. It's exceeded them, certainly, in surprisingly lovely ways. The only thing that ever made sense was continuing to work at the craft, trying to become a better musician, a better writer, more sensitive. I've always had a real high notion of wanting to be a good musician and figuring out what that would take, none of which applies to carving out a career. It's vastly different than figuring out how to "make it." All I ever wanted to do was play music and make a living doing it. That's why I've exceeded my expectations because my expectations were very simple. It's just a very cool thing.

Going from an avant-garde jazz to a folk-blues artist, was it a religious conversion of sorts? What led you to this other path?

That's a tricky one for me to put a finger on. It's been such an organic process. Anyone looking at it from the outside, they see what they consider to be these pretty large shifts. In my mind it's another aspect of just wanting to be a better musician and continuing to grow. The steps themselves are very small. In my teenage years, I was sitting in my room trying to figure out how to play Chet Atkins. Then 10 years later I was a bass player trying to play free jazz music, and 10 years after that I was playing lap-slide and listening to Fred McDowell. Those are the big shifts, but it was the little tiny steps that led me there. It turned into: How do I apply those principles of improvisation in free jazz to folk music? Lyrically I was drawn to these people weaving these big old stories.

How did "Tunesmith Retrofit" come about?

The title is misleading. If I were to do it over I may have changed the title. I wasn't thinking of the word retrofit in the way of going backward. It's more like, in a fuller sense, retrofitting a bridge, taking the existing structure, looking in the corners and taking what's effective and making it stronger or more durable. That's where the title came from. I was just trying to shake things out, little thoughts and roaming things that bounce around my head that I haven't done much with. Being willing to reach that far back and being willing to be that close to what's being deemed as basic folk music.

Who are your literary references?

The obvious is writers, poets. Inspiration can come from a lot of people. I'll read Wallace Stevens, then turn around and read a couple of Stephen Kings. People that are really adept at word usage are going to find combinations of words, create imagery and push the story forward. I read with one eye taking it in and enjoying it, and the other looking for potential inspiration. I'll see a three-word combination in a Stephen King book and say, "Ah, that's it!" All the beat guys, Raymond Carver, Nelson Algren, Charles Bukowski. That's where I get the inspiration and suggestion. Then when I sit down with my own thing, it's about keeping an open eye and ear, and what word combinations I can use to paint as vivid a picture as I need to or want to.

Do you have a set process for songwriting?

I have a general set approach. I don't want to come up with a guitar riff and put words to it. That way I'll have to use a certain number of words to fit the guitar part. That to me seems crazy. At some point the words will have to be sacrificed. I like to start with words first. That being said, I still don't try and write lyrics, I just write. I don't set out to write songs, either. I just write. Sometimes through that process, some lines will show up, or a group of lines, or even one line. Sometimes it'll have some innate rhythm to it. Maybe a melody will kind of attach itself to the line out of nowhere. I usually take those clues and work from there. Because I started letting the words be there first, and create the rhythm, then at least I feel like I start with a stronger framework.

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

I've thought about that a lot. But I've never come up with an answer. There is always that question, No. 1, will I want to keep doing this the rest of my life, and No. 2, will I be given the opportunity to do continue to do it? I haven't thought about doing anything else since I was 14, and I'm 46 now. There a lot of things I'm sure I would enjoy doing, I just don't know what they are because of that goofy guitar.


Other KJP kindred spirits:

Greg Brown: He's the elder statesman of modern American folk, with three decades and more than 20 albums to his name. His erudition is matched only by his musical prowess.
Ana Egge: Egge's voice is silken smoke and mesmerizing. Her 2005 outing, "Out Past the Lights," is a powerful work of country blues.

Gillian Welch: She wanders the traditional country landscape with an easy grace, but she weaves compelling yarns and haunting melodies that keep listeners pinned to every note.

John Hiatt: Before his serious blues outings with the North Mississippi All Stars of late, Hiatt was the consummate troubadour and a beloved singer-songwriter. OK, he still is.

Iris Dement: Discovering Dement is like unearthing a long-forgotten suitcase in the attic, the one that contains all the missing pieces about your lover, your family, your town, your faith.

Stephen Fearing: The Canadian poses expressive, throaty vocals that wrap around his thoughtful poetry and solid guitar chops. He drops with ease lines like, "Arc-weld of the rising sun" and "Drawn to you/Like a tongue to a broken tooth."

Willie Porter: An upbeat, energetic singer and stage performer, he's a keenly aware of the joys found in even the most mundane. His guitar playing rambles and roams, as if he's picking through and remembering the thousands of mile's he's traveled.