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Joan Shelley On Her Musical Love Letter To Kentucky


Joan Shelley is a musician. Musicians write love songs. It comes with the territory.


JOAN SHELLEY: (Singing) Here on this night. Here on this floor. Everything I call mine I want to rot with yours.

I don't know what it is because there's so much else to write about, but it makes me think that, you know, something about music, something even that the birds are doing in the trees has to do with love, you know? It's kind of like you can't get away from it.

SIMON: Joan Shelley's new album is called "Like The River Loves The Sea." And it's a love letter to her home state of Kentucky. She says she had to leave Kentucky to know just how much she loved it.

SHELLEY: I've always, since I was a little girl, wanted to travel a lot. I thought I'd be on a marine biology boat studying, you know, cute sea creatures (laughter). And that was going to be my way to get around the world. So when I figured out I could travel for music, it's like this is an amazing switch in a secret room that I found in the universe that I could do this.

And what no one tells you is that it's exhausting. So I came back home and realized every opportunity for me because I had a safe and steady home to go back to. Everything's there. You can find the whole world in your friends and family and dig deeper and go into different communities. It just - it took a while to realize that you didn't have to go burn, you know, a bunch of gas and get everywhere else and go somewhere exotic to live a full life.


SHELLEY: (Singing) A spring remembered. A taste of gin and a little light upon our skin.

SHELLEY: And this song, "The Fading," is about just the way we - you see a lot of people taking pictures of a, like, broken houses or broken barns. And we frame them and see them as beautiful these days. And I thought that was interesting. And so I applied it kind of all the things in my life that seemed important, you know, when a relationship is great and it breaks down. It shows you so much about what doesn't work.


SHELLEY: (Singing) When it breaks down, babe, let's try to see the beauty in all the fading.

I start from the lovers, and then I go to the river.


SHELLEY: (Singing) I saw the river thick with mud break through the banks and run.

When we get floods and things, it's such a disaster. But it's also so revealing of things that don't work. When we build hard walls, they make rivers go faster and more dangerous. And they jump the banks. And you realize you were relying on the fact that it would never change. But rivers by their nature change.


SHELLEY: (Singing) And, oh, Kentucky stays in my mind. It's sweet to be five years behind. That's where I'll be when the seas rise, holding my dear friends and drinking wine.

In some parts of Kentucky, it's just - it's deeply passionate. You either go, you know, to the prohibition era and you see all the Bible thumping. And there was passion there, you know? Then you go to the opposite. There's the racetracks and the Derby and the Bourbon and all the moonshine. It just seems like we're so extreme here sometimes. But at the same time, there's a humbleness and a sweetness that lives inside of all that (laugher). Those extremes. And sometimes I'm almost afraid of living here. And sometimes I'm just so delighted that it's, like, this beautiful messy lush place that I get to play in and know deeply.


SIMON: Joan Shelley talking about her song "The Fading." It's from her new album, "Like The River Loves The Sea."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN SHELLEY SONG, “THE FADING”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.