Kelly Joe Phelps is helping to keep America in it’s roots. His rustic voice and acoustic tones ring through your heart in a way that only spiritual work songs can. With the release of his latest album, Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind (due for release in January 2005), he is certainly standing on his own in the world of acoustic roots music. SSS sits down with Kelly Joe Phelps to learn more about the man and methods behind the music.
Listen to Kelly Joe Phelps
SSS: As an established musician, do you often look back at the road you traveled and reflect upon how you got to where you are today?
Kelly Joe Phelps: I reflect constantly on the road traveled to where I now find myself and marvel at my good fortune and luck, and the realization of childhood dreams.
SSS: What led your interest/focus toward acoustic music?
Kelly Joe Phelps: Acoustic music has always felt more natural for me to play. I’ve also always felt that there was a broader scope of timelessness involved in acoustic instruments and the music produced by them, and there is something incredibly lovely in feeling the body of an acoustic instrument vibrate against one’s chest.
SSS: Your songs have a very rustic and “rootsy” quality to them. Some songs seem to even be old spirituals/work songs. What had drawn you to this genre of music?
Kelly Joe Phelps: Spirituals and work songs are a perfect place to find something about the true reason for or spirit of music. It’s not about how to sell records, it’s about how to get lost inside something supremely beautiful.
SSS: Who are your influences? Are they mainly older musicians or a combination of both old and new musicians?
Kelly Joe Phelps: Most of my musical influences come from an older generation…Roscoe Holcombe, Skip James, John Coltrane, John Hurt…but there are some more current…Leo Kottke, John Fahey, Bert Jansch, Jimmy Page, Keith Jarrett, and Bill Frisell.
SSS: You have some very good musicians that assist you on your albums, such as Bill Frisell. Any thoughts or comments about your experiences in the studio or live with these musicians?
Kelly Joe Phelps: I’ve been very, very lucky to have found myself in the company of some amazing musicians…Bill Frisell, Scott Amendola, Zubot and Dawson, Larry Taylor and Billy Conway, all with a great passion for and understanding of the importance of improvisation, taste, economy of choice, and grace.
SSS: Do you find yourself leaning toward solo or group performance/recording more these days?
Kelly Joe Phelps: My touring schedule is filled these days with solo gigs, by choice. I had an amazing amount of fun traveling with other musicians for the better part of the 2003 touring period, but since then I have returned to solo performing, with a renewed sense of respect for that very particular medium.
SSS: Every musician has different techniques to capturing their essence on tape. How do you prefer to record your albums? Are there any tricks you use, or recording methods that you’ve found particularly helpful?
Kelly Joe Phelps: No recording tricks, no particular methods…the primary thing is to not pre-plan what may happen musically…the magic is in the improvisation, which holds true whether I’m collaborating or recording solo.
SSS: What’s your method of recording your live material?
Kelly Joe Phelps: For the live recording we used a separate vocal mic apart from the house vocal mic (hooked up to the same stand), two guitar mic’s, one DI guitar signal, and two room microphones.
SSS: You must have a great arsenal of acoustic guitars. Maybe you could give us a peek into your collection?
Kelly Joe Phelps: Guitars…my favorite is a 1947 Gibson J-45. I’ve got a wild “Harmony Broadway”, the 6-and-12-string pair of Leo Kottke Taylors, a National Style-O, Martin HD-28, a couple of Guilds, a number of Gibsons, mostly Gibson guitars in fact.
SSS: Do you carry any other equipment with you to live shows? For example, a preferred vocal mic or a compressor?
Kelly Joe Phelps: I carry a “Shure Beta 87” with me for a vocal mic, and a “BSS-AR 133” direct box that makes the perfect companion for the “Sunrise” guitar pick-up I always use.
SSS: Your recent release, Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind, is a collection of live solo material which you’ve performed this year. Any thoughts or comments on this album?
Kelly Joe Phelps: My passion lies in performing live, in the sense of “no net” string grabbing and “lord knows what” singing and flying by my seat and watching the songs come alive (hopefully) in a way that I could have never predicted beforehand. I’ve wanted to have a recorded representation of that for some time, and now it exists thanks to folks like Lee Townsend and Shawn Pierce and those great audiences that teach me more about music than I could ever learn aside from them.
SSS: Thank you for your time Kelly, and best of luck with the future!
For more on Kelly Joe Phelps, visit his website.