ON LAST YEAR'S Over and Even, Joan Shelley stitches together a vivid patchwork of distant memories and melancholy daydreams, of anger, longing, and loneliness, and love both poisonous and understated.
Intertwined with these deeply human emotions are fragments of the natural world: falling leaves and glowing stars, singing birds and rotten fruit, the smell of split wood, a patch of grass bent and warm from the weight of a human body.
For Shelley, a rising folk singer from Louisville, Kentucky, the art of songwriting and a keen awareness of the surrounding world go hand in hand.
"It's something I've worked on as a practice for just enjoying this life. It's something that amplifies my experience of the world: 'What kind of tree is that?' and 'What kind of clouds are those?' and 'What does that mean about the way the world is changing around me?'" she asks. "I just like learning the names and appreciating those things because if I forget to do that, I go through the days and don't remember them. They mean less to me."
Shelley finds herself edging toward a sort of woo-woo new-age sentiment, before pausing to clarify: "It's not that I feel a totally hippie inclination. It's just a universal experience. The stars have been our thing forever."
If there's one word that best describes Over and Even, it's "timeless." Sparsely arranged and simply recorded, the album leaves acres of space for Shelley's gorgeous songs to shine. "Stay on My Shore" (a duet with Will Oldham) floats and flutters like a love letter caught in the breeze. The yearning title track follows a dusky groove and pulses in circadian time. The album closes with "Subtle Love," a gentle waltz with a wordless coda that rattles around your head long after the record is over. Along the way, Shelley's accompanied by highly skilled guitarist Nathan Salsburg, who lives a block away from her in Louisville.
Shelley's father was a painter and her mother played music in college, though not around the house, she says. But it was her mom's abandoned guitar in the attic that first found its way to Shelley, who grew up listening to pop songs, Enya, and oldies on the radio. It wasn't until later that she discovered folk music through local jams.
"I was in my own bubble. I really wrote stuff even before [I started playing] the guitar. I wrote melodies and songs and things without any contact, it feels like," she says. "I mean, I listened to whatever was around, but the first traditional music I fell in love with was old-time music, pre-Civil War stuff... that just sounded alien but also so natural and human and good for the soul."
Shelley's show Friday at the Old Church will be her first in Portland proper (she played Pickathon last year), and the tour that brings her here will be her first run up the West Coast. She's looking forward to it—"I love it out there," she says—but in the meantime, there's music to be made while the weather's still reasonable in Kentucky.
"Porches are very important, especially right now," she says in a quiet drawl, always in tune with the Earth. "There's no mosquitos."