Joe Phelps on finding a world with a "SKY LIKE A BROKEN
Joe Phelps has released three solo albums prior to
his new SKY
LIKE A BROKEN CLOCK .
each of those albums starting in 1994, he has found new
ground to break. This constant challenge within him is
what makes him a true artist and not just a musician.
this new album KJP has put an even higher level of focus
on his colorful image provoking story telling. Let's
listen as KJP takes us through the process of the making
of the album SKY LIKE A BROKEN CLOCK.
those unfamiliar with Kelly Joe Phelps history: Kelly Joe
spent his early guitar playing years as a jazz player. In
the early 90's he made a life-changing discovery in the blues
music of players like Mississippi Fred McDowell. He adopted
a different style of slide guitar playing by laying his acoustic
guitar face-up on his lap. He started singing for the first
time. Those first few years were spent exploring traditional
blues tunes. In 1994, he received national exposure when
he released an album on Burnside records called LEAD
ME ON. The album featured traditional songs and
Kelly Joe Phelps originals all played with just KJP's guitar
and vocal in a blues style. In 1997, he released his second
album called ROLL
AWAY THE STONE for Rykodisc records. This one focused
on original and traditional spiritual songs. On this album
KJP started perfecting his unique slide guitar style as well
as playing the conventional 6-string guitar on some songs.
By this point KJP was attracting a lot of attention in the
music industry specifically as a virtuoso slide guitar player.
It tended to overshadow his conventional guitar playing and
songwriting. On each of KJP's albums, he has found new ground
to break. This constant challenge within him is what makes
him a true artist and not just a musician.
his third album, 1999's SHINE
EYED MR. ZEN, Kelly Joe showed that he had perfected
his lap slide style and as he said, "I took it as far
as I could go, and felt I made it there." More attention
was paid to his lyric writing; telling stories in the tradition
of the old Mountain folk tunes. Musically, his slide and
straight guitar occupy equal ground on the record.
releasing three albums playing and singing solo, he decided
his next album would be very different. In his constant progression,
the next focus would intensify on his story telling lyrics
and rely on musical support from only his conventional guitar
and no slide guitar. In this interview Kelly discusses the
transition into SKY LIKE A BROKEN CLOCK and the making of
Davis (BD): What were
your goals or early plans for the new SKY LIKE A BROKEN
Joe Phelps : My Primary focus after SHINE
EYED MR. ZEN was songwriting with a lyrical focus. I
put out three solo CDs, because I always felt that there
was more guitar work that wanted to get out of me and
on record. With SHINE EYED MR. ZEN, I felt like I had
gotten to the place I was trying to get to. This left
me open to concentrate specifically on the words for
the new album. When I started looking over the songs
I was writing before, I started feeling like the lyric
side was the weakest part of the package. So, my musical
energies turned to trying to figure out a way to write
words that fit me, rather than trying to emulate great
songwriters. I felt like I had involved myself that way
as a guitar player; the kind of guitar player that has
transcended his influences, and ended up finding a particular
voice. I say 'honest' but when I say that, I mean that
- when I play guitar, it sounds like me and not like
any other guitar player. That's what I wanted to do with
the songwriting - to find a way to use words that I could
Were there any songs that were lost in the transition when
you made that decision to change your songwriting? I remember
a song called WHISKEYHEAD that you played
often live, then abandoned and never recorded.
There were a few songs that I left alone because they just
never settled in. I'm not sure they were a good set of lyrics
on that one, but some other songs, I may go back to.
Was there a conscious decision made to leave the lap slide
guitar off this record?
It wasn't a conscious decision. Most of these songs started
off as three to five page short stories. I had to edit them
down. As I was going through this new songwriting process,
I was ignoring the guitar and music completely. I was doing
that for a number of reasons; I enjoyed it very much just
sitting down and writing - A way to be creative. Playing
around with words was great fun for me and there was a certain
way I could handle them that I thought was different. Once
I started taking some of these characters out of the stories
and editing them into songs - all of the musical ideas kept
showing up on the regular guitar and not on the slide. It
seemed like the straight guitar was better supporting the
lyrics. The only time I consciously thought about it was
when the songs were written and I asked myself if I could
potentially do this record without slide and was that a good
idea or not? But I had to throw out worrying about it. If
I would have said, 'I need a slide song,' then I would have
lost all the ground I gained. I would be going back to starting
with the guitar on songwriting and there wouldn't be any
continuity there. I wanted to stay with the way the impulse
This new album centers on a Trio sound with you on guitar
and vocals, Larry Taylor on string bass,
and Billy Conway on drums. Were you writing
any songs with the band situation in mind?
No. They were all written as solo pieces. I started talking
to producer George Howard about using other
musicians, but I wasn't sure how much solo stuff was gonna
be on the record. I was still gonna tour as a solo artist.
What influenced your more lyrically focused songwriting?
When I decided that it probably wasn't going to be good or
effective to study songwriters, I started going to literary
sources for ideas and inspiration. I was reading Nelson Algren,
whose most famous book is THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM. I
read almost everything he has ever written, but at the time
of my songwriting, I only read two of his books. They were
really inspirational. He has a really unique way of dealing
with characters in situations. It has a combination of beautiful
poetry and a strong dark street sense about it too, which
is a great combination of things. Then this Norwegian writer
called Knut Hamsun from the early part of the 1900's. He
paints very stark landscapes and populates them with only
a few Characters. He takes a hot needle or sharp knife and
cuts every piece out of these characters. There are a lot
of great writers who do things with characters, but Knut
Hamsun's gift was that he was intensely critical - meaning
- how minute his details would be. He was a big inspiration.
Then there are poets like Wallace Stevens and Dylan Thomas,
who I love so much. They have such 'a music' and 'a strength'
in their words. They use so much color, that sometimes you
don't understand what they are getting at but there is an
atmosphere that you are getting pulled into and your having
an experience that you cant explain through the way that
the words are reacting to each other.
What did you expect musicians could bring to your songs and
It wasn't a matter of wanting musicians to cover territory
that I wasn't gonna cover. It was a matter of wanting other
musical textures to broaden the experience for someone listening.
To give the songs more voices. But in the studio, the musicians
did a lot for me as well. Because we recorded the record
live, we were responding to each other. That's why we had
much fun making the record. We were involved intensely in
each other as musicians, which is something I hoped would
happen. Because of them, I was able to get farther inside
What did producer George Howard contribute to an album that
was mostly recorded live?
Because our trio of musicians was in the studio so immersed
in the music, he was able to listen and notice things going
in a wrong direction or changing the character of the song.
George would come and offer up a lot of suggestions and ideas
to keeping us in line. He was able to come in objectively,
but there wasn't much of that. His role was important and
he even said when the record was finished, "I wish all records
were this easy to make." It's because we were all on the
right page. It was a nice company because everybody was throwing
ideas around including Larry, and Billy, as well as the engineer.
It was very organic.
Give us a quick overview of what was covered each day of
the three-day recording process?
The first day we all showed up at the studio on a big farmland
called Long View Farms at noon. It's the kind of studio that
you stay there for the duration. They have cooks; you have
your own room, phone, and the whole deal. There is a big
soundstage studio for rock bands and then a smaller studio
for mixing where people like myself can record. We all introduced
ourselves because we had never met, then George Howard sat
us down and talked about the musical approach. We were to
record from 3 Pm until whenever we drop. In the morning we
listen to tracks recorded the previous day. We planned to
spend the first couple of days rehearsing stuff - figuring
out how to approach it. That was cool, because we had two
weeks scheduled. So that first day we headed into what would
be a tow day rehearsal time. David Henry, the engineer was
setting up the studio and we started checking sounds. I wish
I could remember what the first song was; it could have been FLASHCARDS or TAYLOR
JOHN . We started rehearsing it and George ran in
and said, "I think were gonna start taping." Because those
guys are great improvisers, we started taping immediately.
They had heard demos of me playing solo. I brought in loosely
sketched charts, lyric sheets, and basic chord motions if
they wanted to follow it. They are such good musicians so
it came together rather quickly.
So when were the solo versions done without the band like
on TOMMY and BEGGERS OIL?
Those were done after the fact, but BEGGER'S OIL was a song
I decided to record solo even before everyone left the studio.
There are recorded band versions also of both of those tunes.
I thought they weren't working well with the band, so I thought
I should do them solo. So, I recorded them after all the
other tracks were done. On BEGGER'S OIL, I didn't like the
way the rhythm aspect of the song was coming out. It was
turning out totally different than what I intended. I realized
that it had to be handled like a mountain banjo tune, which
is why I played it on the National Steel guitar. That was
a three-in-the-morning idea. I couldn't sleep, and I was
listening to it on headphones and it occurred to me that
it should be like an old time banjo tune. So I got up early
that morning and David was up so we threw up and mike and
went for it. TOMMY was sort of the same felling, but I now
go back and forth on whether the band or solo version should
have been on the record. But both of those band versions
are coming out on the BEGGER'S OIL EP that
Rykodisc is putting out in January 2002.
What equipment did you use in the studio of interest?
I played a Gibson 1947 that I bought just for the recording
of this album. I loved the sound of it but right now it needs
its neck reset, so its sitting at home waiting to go to the
guitar repair shop. And Beggars Oil was recorded with a National
Steel guitar. All the guitars were recorded with microphones
- no direct lines at all.
How did you come about having a Cello player on the album?
The Cello player was David Henry, the engineer. He's a real
good cello player and does lots of session work. He listened
and could hear where some great cello parts would fit so
he overdubbed some great stuff just by ear. It's on CLEMINTINE,
TAYLOR JOHN, and FLEASHINE.
I see a liner note credit to a Harmonica player named Jim
Fitting. What track is that on?
It's on GOLDTOOTH and its just one note.
There is a spot where the band breaks down and you hear this
warble sound thing. He was a great player, but the sound
didn't fit. So, in the end we kept just that one note.
How did the BEGGER'S OIL EP idea happen?
I'm touring Europe in January. The record originally came
out in June, so the European office of Rykodisc came up with
the idea of putting the EP together to send to press and
radio - to re-interest everyone in the record. Knowing that
we had these unreleased tracks gave us a good chance to get
them out. The US office thought it was a great idea as a
companion to the record.
Lets go through the new songs on the EP. DON QUIXOTE'S
WINDMILL is a great song. How did it not make full-length
I thought it made a good solo piece but not a good band piece.
I didn't do a solo version because I had done enough solo
songs already on the record. There is a lot of stuff that
I record that I think its terrible, but other people say
is great. So what I am doing with this EP is essentially
(saying), "I have hated so much of my stuff in the past,
now I'm just gonna leave it up to you guys to decide if it's
Another song is FRANKENSTEIN PARTY OF THREE YOUR
TABLE IS NOW READY. This song is very different
than any song you have ever done. Here the backing band is
We were hanging out late after recording and we started goofing
off and improvised what ever came to mind. While I was on
tour preceding the recording session, I had picked up a little
typewriter along the way and I was writing things. The lyric
to FRANKENSTEIN was a loose poem I had written, and I had
it in my bag so we spun it into a tune. The melody came out
There is one live song on there where you play lap slide
Yes, That's THE LASSE OF LOCHE ROYAL, a
traditional tune that I play in my shows. A lot of people
have asked for that one.
We have heard that you have some gigs scheduled with the
Yes, Larry Taylor and Billy Conway will join me for some
shows on the west coast and the east coast of the US in 2002.
I expect some songs will be me solo, and some with the band
in the show. There are a lot of things I do on the slide
that they could fall right into - it will light a fire under
them. They are such great players it should be easy, but
ultimately I'm not sure what will happen on those band dates,
which to me is the exciting part. I'm looking forward to