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Kelly Joe Phelps (2000)

Interview by Joyce Peters

May 2000
Reprinted courtesy of Taconic Press

I caught up with Kelly Joe Phelps by telephone from his home in Vancouver, WA.

JP: Your music defies description and categorization. How do you describe your music?
KJP: The essence is folk music. Country blues is a form of folk music. Music labels mutate but the music stays constant. Bluegrass was labeled hillbilly. Bluegrass and country split. Country is now an offshoot of pop. And blues is closer to rock & roll then where blues originally came from. In my mind, I am nothing more or less than a folk musician. I’m referring to folk music in the most general sense. I don’t consider myself a blues musician in a strict sense of the word. I’m carrying on the process of absorbing this chain of musical events before me and trying to propel it forward instead of only representing what is behind–

JP: You’ve said your songwriting is a “twisted kind of folk.” What did you mean by that?
KJP: That has to do with the unfortunate concept of labels. That phrase showed up in my trying to answer that question. I felt like I needed to say it’s another twisted branch on the folk music tree.

JP: I read that you are “surreally funny between songs.” Is that true?
KJP: [Laughs]. That sounds like a description of certain nights. Everything about what I do is dependent on spontaneous creativity. I don’t work from set lists–I don’t play songs verbatim. I’ve gotten more comfortable letting more of myself show up. I tend to let my mouth and mind wander.

JP: Describe your shift from playing jazz bass to what you’re doing now.
KJP: I wanted to move forward as a musician. Prior to discovering jazz music, I played any kind of music I could get my hands on. Then discovering fingerstyle guitar was the biggest development. Jazz was the first music that I was aware of that was improvised. That alone was enough to make me do literally nothing else for nearly 10 years. Music to most of these people was as religion might be. It was very inspirational. I needed a way to combine all these things about music that I enjoy–wanted to devote myself to music. I have that kind of jazz passion. I started paying attention to country blues players– felt they offered me the ending example. I had to stop everything else and pay attention to it, learn to play it and use it effectively and honestly.

JP: You’ve said music is like a prayer language. Tell me more about that.
KJP: The reference is to the biblical notion about speaking in tongues. It also refers to how music expresses emotions in ways that can’t be expressed any other way. That’s one of the beautiful things about the arts.

JP: What can we expect from your performance at The Towne Crier?
KJP: It will just be me and my guitar [laughs]. Everything I do is an attempt at spontaneous creation. The songs are blueprints and when I play, I am building the house that isn’t built yet. Sometimes the color of the paint is different and the windows are in different places. I like that about living and certainly about music.