Kelly Joe Phelps - 2001 reviews and press articles:

Kelly Joe Phelps on finding a world with a "SKY LIKE A BROKEN CLOCK".

Kelly Joe Phelps has released three solo albums prior to his new SKY LIKE A BROKEN CLOCK .

On 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.

On 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.

Interview: October 2001

For 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.

On 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.

After 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 the album.

Billy Davis (BD): What were your goals or early plans for the new SKY LIKE A BROKEN CLOCK album?
Kelly 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 stand behind.
BD : 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.
KJP : 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.
BD: Was there a conscious decision made to leave the lap slide guitar off this record?
KJP: 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 was going.
BD: 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?
KJP: 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.
BD: What influenced your more lyrically focused songwriting?
KJP: 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.
BD: What did you expect musicians could bring to your songs and the recordings?
KJP: 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 a song.
BD: What did producer George Howard contribute to an album that was mostly recorded live?
KJP: 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.
BD: Give us a quick overview of what was covered each day of the three-day recording process?
KJP: 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.
BD: So when were the solo versions done without the band like on TOMMY and BEGGERS OIL?
KJP: 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.
BD: What equipment did you use in the studio of interest?
KJP: 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.
BD: How did you come about having a Cello player on the album?
KJP : 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.
BD: I see a liner note credit to a Harmonica player named Jim Fitting. What track is that on?
KJP: 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.
BD: How did the BEGGER'S OIL EP idea happen?
KJP: 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.
BD: Lets go through the new songs on the EP. DON QUIXOTE'S WINDMILL is a great song. How did it not make full-length record?
KJP: 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 good."
BD: 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 driving you.
KJP: 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 completely spontaneously.
BD: There is one live song on there where you play lap slide guitar?
KJP: 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.
BD: We have heard that you have some gigs scheduled with the Trio.

KJP: 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 it.