Songwriter and singer Joan Shelley prefers to make music in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky rather than the industry centers of Nashville and New York City. She’s recorded a series of well-crafted contemplative albums with guitarist Nathan Salsburg at home in Louisville, at Jeff Tweedy’s Loft in Chicago, and even in Iceland. You’ll find references to rivers, waterways, and oceans in her songs and albums. We began asking her what the Ohio River means to her.
Joan Shelley: We’re at the Falls of the Ohio, and that’s why Louisville exists. It’s the break where they couldn’t get boats any further so they had to take them out and drag them around the Falls, which were an ancient place for buffalo to gather. They had a salt lick here, so a lot of the roads are following the trace of buffalo, which is amazing. So this point in the river for me is like this romantic notion of pause. A pause in the way water flows, in the way people flowed, and animals’ gathering place. And I like that.
Nick Spitzer: Your recording, Like the River Loves the Sea, which is a nice way of thinking about bodies of water, you do deal with Kentucky and the river, and metaphorically it’s pretty strong.
JS: Yeah, I love that kind of analogy because so many of our songs have worn out analogies for love and relationships, and I liked the inevitability of that line, “like the river loves the sea.” It’s just this law, and sometimes we think we’re these great actors deciding our destinies and our relationships and working everything out in our minds, but really, there’s just climatic, atmospheric, gravitational laws that rule us and make us attracted to certain things, and that’s how I imagine, you know, the river just flows to the sea. You have some choice.
NS: Well I was reading some of your neighbor, Wendell Berry’s work, and reminded of his sense of things moving that you don’t even really know. You know, you move with a flow of things, and then you adapt. At one level it doesn’t sound very much like people have agency, on the other hand it’s sort of an acceptance of people’s place, I guess, in time, space, nature.
JS: Yeah, and isn’t that acceptance so important? It’s good to get away from home. Wendell Berry certainly did, but he came back home, and I like the way he sees the world, and accepting it means also participating in it. It’s one thing to go, you know, to New York and be like, “I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna climb this pyramid and rule the top of it,” or something, but going back to the place you came from and sharing what you’ve learned is a richer experience, to him certainly, and to me as I’m finding my way.
NS: How’d you first know that you wanted to write songs, play guitar, be part of expressing yourself and the world? What gave you that sense you could and should do that?
JS: I was doing that, I was writing songs before I knew what I could and couldn’t do. One of the first moments I thought about writing songs as something I would do, I was sitting under this ash tree in my mom’s house, and it was a beautiful, sunny day, and I’m looking up through the leaves, and I remember thinking–and I was pretty young, I must have been six or seven–and I was thinking, “I hope when I grow up, all of the songs won’t be written, so that I can have time to write songs.” I remember that so distinctly, and I kind of made an oath, looking around at this beautiful world I was a part of and just like, “If you save some for me, I’m gonna write some!”
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