Delta blues and gospel the genesis of Phelps's new work
The folk-blues musician's soon-to-be released Brother Sinner And The Whale is steeped in biblical lore and language but is not a Christian record outright. It has as much to do with the Delta blues of Charlie Patton or Son House as it does God's teaching.
In the 1930s, Patton, House and other Delta blues musicians drew heavily on the parables and religious symbolism for their songs.
Phelps might take a more sophisticated approach - it's a very articulate, literate album - but his spirituality dominates.
"The old blues guys and the mountain guys drew from the language of the Bible," Phelps observes.
"It's close to me; I really know it. "Boy, they really are," he says of the potency of the Bible's parables, which are the foundation for Brother Sinner And The Whale, "because I was brought up in a strict church and a really religious household, I always was exposed to the gospel."
Phelps was born in Washington and initially embraced jazz. Sub-sequent exposure to acoustic blues brought his attention to the Mississippi Delta and a music he's refined during the course of about 10 recordings and several labels.
The new one is Phelps's second with Vancouver musician/producer Steve Dawson and first on Daw-son's Black Hen label.
Where Phelps' previous label, Rounder, balked at what it must have interpreted as eccentricity, Dawson had no such reservation. "
Steve Dawson was 100 per cent for it from the start," Phelps claims. "He was, 'C'mon, let's do it.'
"I'm completely comfortable with Steve. As a testament to him, we did the record just he and I in his small studio."
Phelps hasn't been adopted by the Christian music sector where an act either is branded for preaching to the converted or not preaching enough. The album might bear such titles as Talkin' To Jehova, Spit Me Outta The Whale, I've Been Converted, The Holy Spirit Flood or Brother Pilgrim but it isn't conventional Christian pop.
"I was compelled to do it," Phelps says. "I felt it was a really good time to do it. It's a record I imagined I was going to make anyway."
As Phelps has grown more evangelical, he also has become better-known. Obviously, his fans under-stand and accept him. "
Fortunately, we're talking about music rather than a book," he says. "You can sing in a foreign language and people will still listen. That's the beauty of music."