By Alexander Varty,
August 9, 2012

Spiritual crisis lies behind Kelly Joe Phelps's song

Maybe I should have just asked the easy questions.

After all, it’s definitely newsworthy that local guitarist Steve Dawson produced Kelly Joe Phelps’s new Brother Sinner & the Whale, the Vancouver, Washington–based singer-guitarist’s second release on his Canadian friend’s Black Hen imprint.

“What Steve does for me is show me that he believes in what I’m doing, and that he believes in it 100 percent,” says the reclusive Phelps, on the line from his home. “And he understands it to the point that we can accomplish a lot of things without even having to talk about it. As an example, he understands completely that capturing the spirit is vastly more important than getting all the notes right.”

It’s also interesting that Brother Sinner & the Whale’s two instrumentals, “Spit Me Outta the Whale” and “Brother Pilgrim”, owe a marked debt to fingerstyle guitar pioneer Leo Kottke, who’s gone relatively unnoticed of late, despite his colleague John Fahey’s posthumous canonization.

“Leo and John, both of their musics live fairly deep inside of me,” Phelps says. “I’ll start off something and I’ll think ‘Okay, this is original and unique and cool.’ And then I’ll say ‘But if it wasn’t for this Fahey tune and that Kottke thing, I don’t know if this would have even entered into my imagination.’ It’s nearly impossible, and I mean this in the best of ways, to leap aside of that influence.”

More important, though, is that with Brother Sinner & the Whale Phelps has made a deeply religious record, and the simple question “Why?” sparks a half-hour-long discussion of faith and art that’s difficult to condense into capsule form. In part, Phelps admits, that’s because “with some of this stuff, a person has to talk around it in order to frame it, to give you the sides and the top and the bottom of it, because what’s actually in the centre is very hard to describe.”

The 52-year-old musician does allow, however, that a spiritual crisis lies behind songs such as “Talkin’ to Jehova”, “The Holy Spirit Flood”, and “Down to the Praying Ground”. “Through a series of choices—life choices and lifestyle choices and outlook choices—I ended up at a point where it seemed I had boxed myself in,” he explains. “Whether I fell from grace, I don’t know, but I certainly found myself looking upward from a very dark spot.”

Given two possible escape routes—the “completely and totally existential” option of suicide, versus a return to his Christian faith—Phelps decided to live, and Brother Sinner & the Whale is, in part, a record of his struggle to regain the light. From this godless heathen’s perspective, some of its language is mystifying, but the story it tells is as powerful as the great gospel songs of Blind Willie Johnson or the Staple Singers—songs that transcend their religious content to speak directly to the human soul.