During 2022, a lot of good music has come out of JOAN SHELLEY and NATHAN SALSBURG’s remote farm near Louisville, Kentucky – from Shelley’s timeless and vital album The Spur to the latest instalment in Salsburg’s Landwerk series of sound collages. Stephen Deusner heads into the woods to hear about how parenthood, isolation and upheaval have shaped the couple’s past 12 months, in the latest issue of Uncut magazine – in UK shops from Thursday, November 10 and available to buy from our online store.
“I ’m going to test out the acoustics of this place,” says Joan Shelley. Onstage at the Chapel of St Philip Neri, a neighbourhood cathedral in Louisville that now serves as a community arts centre and venue, she has just finished playing “Why Not Live Here A While”, a standout on her new album, The Spur. As she unstraps her acoustic guitar and sets it down gently on the boards, her backing band – including her husband and collaborator Nathan Salsburg – leave the stage through the baptistry door.
Clad in a long, brown dress, Shelley steps out of the apse spotlight and into the darkness
of the rows of intricately carved wooden pews, where she is joined by her keyboard player
for the evening, Lacey Guthrie, and local singer-songwriter Isaac Fosl-Van Wyke. The trio harmonise softly to Shelley’s a cappella song “Between Rock And Sky”, their voices drifting up toward the vaulted ceiling and filling the cathedral: “Over hills and valleys, between rock and sky / Hear the child arriving, heaving heart’s first cry”. As the melody fades into silence, someone in the audience is moved to shout, “Fuck yeah!” adding a bit of profane to the sacred.
Despite that outburst, it’s a quiet, intense moment during what has been billed as both a record release show and a homecoming for her and Salsburg – two musicians whose lives are entangled musically as well as romantically. “June was a long time ago,” Shelley laughs, noting the months-long delay between the release of The Spur and this party. It’s also just the fifth live performance the couple have given in 2022 and the only Louisville show of the year, ending a long absence from local stages.
The Chapel of St Philip Neri is an ideal setting, with its blue-and-white ceiling and bare-bulb lamps giving the impression of candlelight. Ornate tapestries on the walls mimic the iconography of stained-glass windows. Behind Shelley and Salsburg onstage, a banner depicts a massive dove of peace with an eyeball between its upspread wings – a surreal interpretation of scripture. “It’s pretty in here, isn’t it?” she says between songs. “I feel like I’m living in a dream.”
The Spur is a reaction to bad politics and dark times in America and more specifically here in Kentucky. Shelley’s crisp vocals and elegant folk melodies, in tandem with Salsburg’s jazzy, spidery guitar riffs and runs, belie a deep worry haunting these songs: worries about her place as a woman in the world, as an artist, as a wife, and – although she didn’t know it when she wrote them – as a mother. Talya was born just prior to recording, which only deepened their resonance. “My daughter needs a little light”, she says by way of introducing “When The Light Is Dying”.
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