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Kelly Joe Phelps - The Triste Interview

Kelly Joe Phelps Kelly Joe Phelps caused a massive stir among guitar players when he first emerged on the international scene in the mid-nineties. The technical excellence of his lap-style slide guitar playing reflected his jazz background, but the songs often were quite traditional country-blues. Since "Shine Eyed Mr Zen" in 1999 he has slowly moved his focus from improvising on blues structures to more literate songwriting. Recent work has seen him playing conventional six string guitar and ditching his trademark bluesman's woolly hat. Triste caught up with him in Chester in 2003.

Triste: If you take the albums Shine Eyed Mr Zen, through Sky Like A Broken Clock, Beggar's Oil to Slingshot Professionals; it looks quite natural, the way you've gradually changed. Was that kind of evolution naturally brought on, or was it something you had the desire to change from the very start? Was it always in your mind to branch out and develop a bit further?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Not consciously - it's been a very natural process. And I have found myself wanting to move forward, but I don't set things in motion to accomplish that. I let the motion kind of show itself, and then I follow it based on whatever creative impulses happen to be kicking in at the moment. So I do want to move forward, but it's not a conscious effort, the only conscious effort is trying to keep my eyes open, you know, and my ears open!

Triste: Talking about the current album, you don't play any slide guitar on this album, is that correct?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Mmhhmm. Yes.

Triste: Now that obviously was a conscious decision, because you could have over-dubbed yourself later on. Why did you decide consciously to kind move away from you greatest strength - or, your greatest perceived strength?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Thank you for the word 'perceived'! I appreciate that very much! Aah, it just doesn't turn me on at the moment, you know? It just feels foreign, and I'm uninspired by the sound. And I'm concentrating far more on writing than I am on playing, and concerning myself less with what I do with the guitar. So again, it's all part of the process - it's not 'I'm never playing slide again', I could see myself putting a record out next year and it having nothing but slide on it. I say it again, it's just a matter of what I find pushing me forward, I tend to follow and trust, and not worry about it. To play slide would have been out of place, because I didn't hear it, I didn't want to play it, so I figured that the least I could do for people was be honest with them. And if it disappoints them, well, at least I was honest!

Triste: But you did actually use slide on the record - was it Steve Dawson?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah, yeah. Well we recorded the stuff live, you know - I mean, I wanted to hear that sound, but I wanted to hear him, more than the sound.

Triste: So you wanted to bounce off it, rather than create it yourself?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah sure.

Triste: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved with Lee Townsend and how the whole album came about?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Ah, we've known each other for some years. He's been a fan of my stuff for a while, and he got in contact with me maybe five years ago and said, "If you're ever looking for some production help, I would love to do a project with you." But at the time I was still doing my own records, and enjoying that process. But there's actually Jessie Zubott, Steve Dawson and Andrew Downing: they have a band up in British Columbia called Zubott and Dawson, and they were putting a record together prior to mine, and they invited me to come up and sing and play on a couple of songs. And Lee Townsend produced that record, so that was the first time I actually worked with Lee. And it felt so comfortable and so natural that I started thinking then, when it came time to record again, that it was now time to ask Lee to produce it for me.

Triste: And as regards production, I presume he suggested the musicians?

Kelly Joe Phelps: We did it collectively, actually.

Triste: How much of a control freak are you in the studio? Are you quite happy to let somebody else make decisions on arrangements and to let the other musicians have their input?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Oh, absolutely, yes.

Triste: You're not one of these people with tunnel vision who want 'certain' sounds?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Oh no, I mean, that's why I picked those musicians, because I didn't want to have to figure out what they should be playing. I mean, that would be silly - and arrogant! For me to figure out what to tell the drummer to do, I mean that's stupid. If I was lucky enough (which I was) to grab musicians who could play sensitively, you know, along with the music, then I could just put my trust in their taste and abilities. So no, I'm not a control freak at all!

Triste: No, I was just trying to say that obviously, it's got your name on the record, but you're working with a group of talented people. What happens say if some guy comes up with an idea that doesn't really fit in with what you've got in mind. Basically, you're still the boss at the end of the day. Have you ever actually said, "Well, it's a great idea, but..." and then over-ruled them?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Oh sure, oh sure yeah.

Triste: So you've always got the final say. It's not a total democracy, then? More like a benevolent dictatorship! (laughs)

Kelly Joe Phelps: No, no, typically if something like that comes up, you know, the musicians understand. 'Cause typically maybe they'll do something and I'll say, "You know, I liked it better, you know, doing that other little thing," and they say, "Yeah, yeah, you're probably right." So, you know, we're still friends at the end of the day.

Triste: So nobody's toes are stepped on?

Kelly Joe Phelps: No.

Triste: I think the album is basically recorded live, or at least the basic track is, with some later over-dubbing of vocals and "ornamentation".

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah, background, vocals, and the organ parts, accordion and stuff.

Triste: It sounds a very clear recording and yet has that vibe, that feel, you only get when good musicians are playing together in the same room. Why don't more people do it like that? Because if you're good enough to cut it live on stage, then why not do it like that in the studio and capture that energy?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Ah, well see it takes a certain kind of musician. I mean there are a lot of people that have to really work things out, and get them in place and know exactly what they're going to do, and that's where they find their comfort and their confidence. But that's the point where I find myself not having confidence. My confidence is in my ability to explode a song - emotionally and passionately. And the only way for that to happen is if you allow room for magic to show up, you know? Like not knowing what this guy's going to play, or what that guy's going to play, and then because he plays something, two other people respond to it and so you end up with this thing that no-one could have conceived of, you know? But you have to be experienced at improvising, and you have to be comfortable with it. There are a lot of musicians that aren't - they're happy to learn something note by note by note, and they work things out playing verbatim every single time. Which is no judgement, or negative comment, it's just that, why more people don't do it, I think is because there's not a lot of musicians in this field comfortable 'letting the wind blow through', you know - they want to control it.

Triste: But you're not, I presume, as extremely liberal as someone like Bob Dylan. His studio habits are pretty extreme. He goes in there, doesn't show the guys the songs beforehand and they more or less pick it up from him as they're recording it. I presume you go in there with demos, or something, or at least you show the guys the chords or the general progression.

Kelly Joe Phelps: Ah, yeah - you gotta have a lot of money to pull that off! Or free studio time. 'Cause you're paying thousand bucks a day!

Triste: How quickly were the actual songs written, themselves, then? Over the period of twelve months, eighteen months, beforehand?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Some go back a couple of years.

Triste: Going back before the last album, was it?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah. It takes a good few years for me to feel like I'm ready to record another record.

Triste: And how much development do they get? You come up with an idea for a song, maybe, and you're playing it and singing it. How much does it develop over time? Or once it's done is it fixed?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Oh God no! No it's never set in stone ever - ever. Even tonight, you know, we'll play songs that I wrote two years ago that aren't going to be played the same way they've ever been played.

Triste: Say for example if you'd recorded this album five years down the line, say you were still playing the songs, it would be different again totally?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Absolutely, yeah. Entirely.

Triste: So, sounds a silly question, this, but what do you see as the purpose of a studio album, then? Is it a snapshot in time of where you were? Because obviously some people come to the concerts expecting to hear a facsimile of the record, and they obviously don't get that?

Kelly Joe Phelps: No, no, the record does serve a purpose in that way, as a snapshot in time - you know it locks the thing down. And you know there's also a part of it that you can't ignore, which is the business side of it. In order for me to live this kind of life - being a musician, travelling around, not having to sling burgers, or whatever - you know, I have to do certain things. And one of those in my mind is making records. Not for monetary reasons, it's because in my mind, when I make records there's a potential that more people are going to find out about what I do, and more people are going to come to the shows - promoters are going to be happier, the record label is going to be happier, you know. I'm allowed then to keep doing what I do. If I didn't put out records, it would be very hard for people to run across my name who didn't know who I was.

Triste: Well obviously it serves an artistic purpose by itself.

Kelly Joe Phelps: Certainly, yeah.

Triste: And somebody said you don't write on the road at all, do you not? So you're on the road and don't you have hours and hours of dead time?

Kelly Joe Phelps: No I don't! That's the first myth to blow out of the water. No, I mean the road thing - you get up, you get up in the morning, you jump in the van and you drive to the gig and maybe you've got an hour to kill. Then you go to sound check, and then you set up and you do sound check, and they you've got maybe an hour to eat, and then an hour to chill out, and then you do your gig. And then, you know you have a couple of drinks, and then it's all of a sudden one in the morning. You gotta go to bed, you gotta get up again at nine in the morning and jump back in the van. So there's no dead time on the road! People that write on the road are writing in the van, not in hotel rooms.

Triste: Because, again, it's another cliché, but some guitarists always seem to have a guitar in their hands. You're talking to them sometimes and they're playing something on the guitar - usually a lick. Do you pick the guitar up between gigs, or does it just stay in the case between gigs?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah, sure, yeah. Not on the road. Again, because there's not any time, and I'm playing every night, but when I get home for two, three, four weeks, certainly I play a lot at home.

Triste: So I presume you can pick up inspiration from the road though? Not writing songs, but obviously soaking up stories, incidents...

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah, my eyes are wide open, my ears are wide open and I'm gaining experiences daily, you know, on the road. And those, when I get back home, that's when I start writing about them.

Triste: Comparing the two types of existence - home-based and on the road - where do most songs come from? Obviously, there's only a certain number of songs you can write about being on the road, I suppose?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah, now I don't write about being on the road, I write about people. You know what I mean? And that's the benefit of travelling, 'cause I get to meet so many different kinds of people. But you're right, there are only two songs anybody could ever write about being on the road. I don't write about the road, you know, but I write about people. Because I'm on the road so much that my friends, and the people I know, the people I talk to on the phone, don't live where I live: they live in Liverpool and they live in Paris, and they live in Chicago, and they live in Tokyo. I mean, that's just what happens from travelling. But nevertheless, I'm still gaining all these experiences. And I'll write about them, I won't write about the road.

Triste: So to keep going on about song writing, and we'll stop at lyrics: your lyrics are quite opaque? Sometimes it's quite hard to pick out what's the song's about. They're almost impressionistic, splashing little bits and pieces of information here and there and you get a general sense of the song. That's obviously your intention?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yes.

Triste: But the songs you were doing before, the more traditional songs, tend to have a kind of strongly defined structure. So where did the change happen from the blues and folk ballads and narratives to your kind of free flowing song-forms..

Kelly Joe Phelps: It's a matter of finding a space of my personality that I wasn't yet incorporating in the musical personality? And my theory - yeah, my theory is that at some given point in time everything that I am as a person is going to come out as a musician and as the years go by, little pieces tend to make sense. A few years ago, three or four years ago, I found a tiny sort of door that opened up, that said, "Why don't you try bringing in your love of reading and your love of operas and of poets and stuff, you know, into this creative process, and see what happens?" So I said, "Okay, I'll give it a try", and one thing led to another to another to another to another - and now I've got this process of writing that fits me and I like the fact that I figured out how to paint pictures like that, you know? I mean I'm certainly not trying to be misunderstood, but I'm certainly not trying to be direct, either. I'm trying to create an emotional impact with the words. And you know, it's a bit of a challenge perhaps to sort of 'break the code', or whatever, and get inside it. But it also leaves a lot of room, just like those paintings, it leaves a lot of room to have it feel personal to you, you know what I mean? Like a painting is going to feel different to you than it is to me, and I think that music stands that chance as well.

Triste: You were talking about a 'code', but I take it there's not really a 'key' to each of your songs. I presume some songs are just vague impressions or feelings sometimes?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah, sure.

Triste: Because sometimes a songwriter will say that a song's written from a certain view point and - then all of a sudden it all slots into place, what all seemed separate before.

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah - it varies with me. Sometimes I'm trying to paint a character, but in an abstract way. Other times I'm trying to use words to paint a portrait of an emotion that I've experienced.

Triste: Initially you were a reluctant song-writer. Was the problem that you were a little self-conscious about it?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Always, absolutely -still am.

Triste: You still are?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah, sure.

Triste: So what persuaded you to kind of submit yourself to being tested or judged by people?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Because I decided that I wasn't going to let fear take the best of me, man. I mean I want to do it, and I love doing it, right? But it's a scary proposition, right? But I'm just not willing to give in to the fear.

Triste: So what was the difference which led you into thinking like a guitarist, and thinking like a song writer? Or isn't there a difference at all, they're just different aspects of the same character?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yeah, there is a big difference, I mean, emotionally, not necessarily. But the song-writer thing made me decide that I was going to stop thinking of words as music, and start thinking of words as words themselves.

Triste: Can you explain that?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Well, I do a lot of writing - poetry and short stories and stuff - and I have a big file at home of all this stuff. And once in a while, one of those - maybe one out of twenty pieces, one out of ten pieces - will kind of jump out, and I'll start thinking maybe this would make a good song topic, or song idea. And then I'll start re-writing it with that in mind. So that's all - like, I don't think about music, like when I'm writing I don't think about melody lines, I don't think about rhymes, I don't think about anything like that. You know I don't come up with a guitar lick and then try to write words for that guitar lick. I decided years ago that when I write, music doesn't exist.

Triste: So do you write with a guitar in your hand or do you do it in your head?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Oh no.

Triste: You write melodies in your head first of all to get the melody, and then work around it afterwards.

Kelly Joe Phelps: Yes.

Triste: Right - because the temptation would be obviously to get a nice little lick, "Oh that's a nice little lick..." And then build the song around a lick or a riff, or a chord pattern.

Kelly Joe Phelps: Nah, that's too easy!

Triste: Fair enough!

Kelly Joe Phelps: No, you know what I mean.

Triste: Yeah, I think I know what you mean. Would you mind explaining to me a little bit what the phrase Slingshot Professionalsmeans, exactly?

Kelly Joe Phelps: It means lots of things, it's not a concrete term. It means adults being able to still see the world with 'kid' eyes and indulging in curiosity, and doing whacked out things like you did when you were ten, you know? It also means kids who think they're older than they are and try to act older than they are, and they're just idiots. And it also means a group of people enjoying the shit out of each other's company because of something absurd. There probably are slingshot professionals but it's a little bit whacked, you know what I mean? For somebody to spend that much time in their life learning to be a slingshot professional is a bit whacked! It's like musicians, you know? They're a seriously whacked lot!

Triste: So, the obvious final question: where do you go from here, now?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Well, it's touring, touring, touring... I'm over here 'til the first of July, and then home for a couple of weeks. I've got a few weeks, I think, of dates in Canada; festivals and things. Then I'll be bouncing around there, Canada, States, July, August, September And then October, November I'll be back over in Europe touring again. So that's all that's up - I don't look too far ahead. It's quite frightening!

Triste: And there's another album looming, what, 2004, 2005?

Kelly Joe Phelps: Probably 2005, I would guess.

Triste: Which will be a departure again, probably?

Kelly Joe Phelps: I hope so!



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