Kelly Joe Phelps (2007)

Interview by Joyce Peters

April 2007
Reprinted courtesy of Taconic Press

I spoke with Kelly Joe Phelps by phone during a break in his tour schedule in support of his Tunesmith Retrofit release.

JP: You said you had a need to retrofit new elements into your songwriting. Can you explain that?
KJP: The term retrofit is somewhat misleading. If retro is taken out of context it sounds like I’m going backward. It actually is adding onto a structure that already exists, like how bridges are retrofitted. It¹s a move forward, looking at the structure, my musicianship, and trying to identify parts that can use strengthening. It’s constantly trying to find the balance point between my abilities as a musician and what a song may need to make it as strong as it can be. It’s like trying to understand how not to overplay or overwrite. There¹s not a big shift going on. It’s constantly changing. It’s one of things I love about music.

JP: The mournful banjo on Tunesmith Retrofit is a surprise. How did you pick up the banjo again after 20 years?
KJP: It was very organic. I played it years ago but not at all in a personal way. I never felt a connection to it necessarily. I put it aside, then sold it, then went for 20 years without one. I found myself thinking about it again. An occupational hazard of being a guitar player is when I get off the road, I don’t want to pick up a guitar. I thought a banjo would give me something to play that is completely removed from my career. It stayed in that “just for fun” camp for about a week [laughs]. I found myself able to approach it from a fresh perspective. I felt a connection to it that I never felt before. The mournful quality you described, the sounds about that instrument that aren’t tapped into — I allowed myself to follow that impulse. I didn’t set out to put a banjo tune [Handful of Arrows] together as a tribute to Chris [Whitley]. I was working on a set of lyrics for awhile. The banjo made the song come to life for me. It matched the spirit of the lyric and the sentiment behind it and I liked the rhythmic propulsion, as well. Chris’ thing was so rhythmic.

JP: People often sense spirituality in your performances, almost as if you’re transported elsewhere. Does it feel that way to you?
KJP: Yeah, it does. That’s one of the biggest joys that I get from playing music; it acts as some kind of weird portal out of here into another place [laughs]. I love performing because of the potential for that to happen.

JP: How aware are you of the audience during live performances?
KJP: I’m not fully conscious of the audience listening and watching although I know full well they’re there. When there’s an audience, music is elevated to a place where I can¹t do it on my own.

JP: How do you find solace during a grueling tour schedule?
KJP: That doesn’t exist. In a car when there’s no conversation or interaction, driving from one town to the next. I don’t listen to music. I like the quiet. I let my mind wander. That’s when I come closest to solace on the road. At home, the closest I get to solace is reading. I love the way a book will take me away from everything for an hour or two. It’s incredibly rejuvenating.

JP: What can we expect at your upcoming Towne Crier Café performance?
KJP: I don’t know! Whatever is in store is only going to happen there so I have to get there to find. That sounds evasive and it probably is [laughs].