When Joan Shelley performed with Wilco at New York’s Beacon Theatre this March, she stood huddled on the corner of the massive stage alongside collaborator Nathan Salsburg. Beneath Wilco’s elaborate backdrop of trees and foliage, the pair might have even appeared, from certain angles, as one body, their instruments (Salsburg on guitar, Shelley alternating between guitar and banjo), overlapping both physically and sonically. And if their tightknit music and cozy positioning on stage didn’t already indicate a sense of intimacy, Shelley closed the set—which highlighted tracks from her extraordinary new self-titled album—with a traditional folk song, sans accompaniment and sans microphone. As Shelley stepped to the front of the stage to sing “Darling Don’t You Know That’s Wrong,” the audience became a part of her small circle.
It was a fitting gesture from an artist who describes her music as “the quickest way from me to another person,” whose every word seems to be chosen as a way to cut through the chaos of daily life. “It’s coming to the people instead of people coming to you,” she says of the a capella performance: “As a singer, it’s asking more from my body in order to physically do it—to turn up what you’re doing, and step outside the barrier of technology.” It makes sense that Shelley sees technology as a hurdle and not a tool. As she’s evolved as a songwriter, her songs have become more unadorned and powerful. Her two previous records on Philadelphia label No Quarter—2014’s Electric Ursa and the following year’s Over and Even—each represented massive steps forward through the deeper refinement of her craft. If you carve out a place to listen, her music fills the space around you.
Shelley’s latest record is no different. Produced by Jeff Tweedy at his Loft Studio in Chicago, Joan Shelley widens her scope, focusing on more spacious songcraft. The first single, “Wild Indifference,” is built on a series of sustained, open chords that sound like sighs of relief. But the album also marks Shelley’s starkest, simplest work to date. Early in the writing process, she found herself inspired by the most primitive of folk tunes: recordings in which performers simply sang in unison with their instrument. “I started trying to be a more playful guitarist,” she says, citing the jokey songs of cult favorite folk artist Michael Hurley as a guiding light.