Kelly Joe Phelps has been making records for some 20 years and jokes that when he started, the label (Rykodisc) had a team of people, in-house publicity, the works. Er, actually, that’s no joke. That’s how it was. And now he’s more a lone wolf, allowing his songs to prowl the stage as he still follows something of a tour/album cycle, though it’s at his call entirely. The songs come to him, he shapes them, makes them, then takes them for a walk around the world. His blues and country and gospel and folk finger style guitar work might not come -entirely – from Ry Cooder, but he’s happy at the comparison (“flattered”) and sees a connection in the way the two have hunted for songs, working as preservationists in fact; serving, protecting. Gatherers, more so than hunters actually.
Other influences on his playing include “Leo Kottke, Marc Ribot and John Fahey, but in terms of the creative process and finding musicians that respect the art of music as an expression, a process, a vehicle I’ve always looked to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and so many of the great jazz players”.
Phelps fell “deep in love with music” by way of jazz first. Foremost. And says he’s “listened to so much” that he can “hear whole albums in his head”; he goes long spells between actually sitting down and playing his favourite jazz records now but they spin in his head and encircle his heart. He’s no doubt they “inform” his playing, his approach.
He moved to what you would have to still call blues music and worked up a solo act, originals, covers, folk and blues standards - though he doesn’t so much like the term cover, his work is in “reimagining” the song, recasting it, reshaping it. “Sometimes”, he adds, “it’s not all that recognisable to what people know as the original”.
All of this – these ideas, these ideals, come from jazz and Phelps’ practical training as well as his listening. He started out a bass player working with jazz.
“What I do now really is rooted in improvisation – which comes from the jazz. Improvising is the crucial aspect to what I do, and that really came about when I started to figure out the right direction for me. I decided I would teach myself how to play folk blues as an improviser and that’s still – largely how it happens for me on the stage. The songs are played but they’re different every time, sometimes – often – I have no idea quite where they’re going to go, how they might ends. Or even start. And that’s exciting. For me. And hopefully for the audience. It’s the journey that fascinates me.
The spiritual journey – as much as the musical one – accounts for Phelps’ most recent album, Brother Sinner and The Whale (see here for the Off The Tracks review).
“My last album, in 2009, Western Bell, was a bit more, well, experimental [the album is entirely instrumental] and though it was what I wanted to do at the time by the end of my last tour I realised I had been somewhat wandering musically and it was time to get back to what I had started to do, to make an album that tied everything I had done before. Western Bell was well enough received I think and I was happy with it at the time but it didn’t line up with the others I’d made. And so with Brother Sinner I realised I needed – and wanted – to tie things back together. The writing came about from what was happening in my life at the time, that’s usually the way. And with Brother Sinner what was happening in my life was a long spiritual journey, er, pertaining to Christianity…”
Phelps isn’t quite apologetic about this but he’s treading carefully – I have to relieve him and tell him that the album’s profound spirituality works for heathens like myself. So I can only imagine it to be a comfort for those actively interested in pursuing and understanding religion.
There’s a chuckle down the line, I’m going to insist it’s a slight sense of relief.
“It was a smooth creative process”, Phelps picks up. “Once I decided it was going to work in a folk music form, there’s really not a lot of things you can sing about. And so the search was internal. It’s a very spiritual album I think but with a warm, welcoming punch to it”.
Words come first for Phelps, his fluid guitar style allows him to knock songs into whatever shape after he’s thought of something to say. “The words are crucial, they dictate how the song will be made, and the colours of the words and rhythms and rhymes help to create the colours in the music”.
It’s the same with covers. “I definitely hear the words first – that’s what will attract me to a song, something in it to say and maybe I can say it another way, twist it to sound different, a new emphasis, possibly even a new meaning, these are the challenges you can put to a song if you like something in it, if you think you can take something from it or add something to it”.
The solo approach allows “the songs to move around a lot” and with Brother Sinner Kelly Joe Phelps took this very old style of musical playing – just one man and his guitar, his vocals too – and applied modern technology to it in the sense that every performance from Brother Sinner and The Whale was captured and loaded to YouTube. You can watch the songs being recorded, you can see them as they’re sounded out, the dress-rehearsal-as-definitive-take – sometimes with a short interview snippet from Phelps, some context around the songs.
“I’m not sure if there’ll be a DVD of them, collected up for another edition of the album but I think we’re gonna do that, I’d like to do that”.
With 20 years of his own material to draw from and some 100 years of folk and gospel-inspired country-blues to pick from (and pick at) Phelps is excited about his first visit to New Zealand. He’s played Australia a few times, but “I never quite made it down there, so this is a real buzz for me, I’m really looking forward to it”.
Bringing one of his very best albums, one of his best sets of songs, and the lifetime of music that he’s gathered around that, Kelly Joe Phelps is in New Zealand for a handful of shows. See here for details.
And then it’s off home via “a couple of other places”. And then “a short break for Christmas”. He’s booked up for most of the first half of 2014 with shows around the world, “and then it will be to another album I guess, starting to think about that now in as much as I can on the road. But there’ll be a new album, hopefully, towards the summer of next year”.
You can catch Kelly Joe Phelps in Auckland tonight at the Kings Arms. Tomorrow (Thursday November 21) he’ll be at the Tauranga Art Gallery. Friday November 22 he plays 4th Wall Theatre in New Plymouth. Saturday November 23 it’s to King Street Live in Masterton. Sunday November 24 he performs in Wellington at the San Francisco Bath House and then next week it’s to the South Island for shows in Wairau Valley, Nelson, Lyttelton, Dunedin and Wanaka – once again full details here.