ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 13, 2001
By Steve Newton
After releasing three albums that showcased his superior skill on slide guitar, Kelly Joe Phelps did a complete about-face. His new CD, Sky Like a Broken Clock, contains no slide at all. Nada. Not even a little tweak. It makes you wonder if he worried at all about alienating the slide-guitar freaks who make up a sizeable portion of his fanbase.
“Yeah, I have been concerned about that,” notes the singer-songwriter-guitarist from his home in Vancouver, Washington. “But as I was writing the songs I realized that so much of it was coming out more naturally on the regular guitar than it was on the slide. At that point I kept thinking that I needed to sit down and write some songs for the slide guitar, but then that felt like a bad motivation for songwriting, you know. I wanted to let the songs come out as naturally as possible, and every time I thought about using the slide it felt forced to me.”
The slithery sound of slide may be absent from Phelps’s new CD, but it has been replaced by some deft fingerpicking. And the powerful songwriting that has typified the music on his previous albums is intact. His vivid poetry yields evocative portraits of the folks whose lives are laid bare in tunes such as “Tommy”, “Taylor John”, “Clementine”, and “Sally Ruby”.
“As the songs were coming together, the angle of the writing involved trying to sketch these characters out,” relates Phelps. “I certainly take advantage of fictional licence to flesh out bits and parts, but it’s all motivated by memories and experiences, which helps me get down inside them a little deeper.”
A core band consisting of Morphine drummer Billy Conway and string bassist Larry Taylor—a longtime sideman of Tom Waits—accompanies Phelps on the new album. Considering how his darkish studies of the human condition have a distinctly Waitsian flavour, one might think Phelps would cite the grizzled social commentator as a major influence. But he’s not about to.
“I decided some time back that I wanted to approach songwriting in a way that fit my personality,” he says, “which made me feel like I needed to avoid songwriting influences, and get it more from reading and looking in my head to see how the words might play out. That said, I think Tom Waits is fantastic, absolutely wonderful. It’s fun for me to read through his lyrics and see how he plays with the words and creates the images.”
Phelps—who performs a solo show at Richard’s on Richards on Wednesday (September 19) that will include lots of slide guitar—likes a little wordplay himself. You need only look so far as the album’s title, which mirrors the idea of someone pleading to the heavens for the answers to life’s big questions.
“They’re probably not gonna be there,” states Phelps. “It’s like trying to tell time by looking at a broken clock. Usually you find answers by moving forward.”