Kelly Joe Phelps
ABC2, Glasgow, Thu 30 Nov
Whether they like it or not, any musician will admit that reinvention is the mother of longevity. Tempting as it can be to plough on head down when an idea sticks, as the best will testify - not least Dylan and Springsteen - it pays to step back and freshen things up from time to time.
This process is one that American singer/songwriter/guitar man extraordinaire Kelly Joe Phelps is going through again, so openly in fact that his sixth and latest studio album is titled Tunesmith Retrofit. ‘It’s a reference, as a musician or songwriter, to taking the structure - which is relatively sound - but figuring out what it could use or benefit from,’ he says down the phone from his Portland Oregon home. ‘It might make it last longer, or able to withstand more abuse or something.’
Heavily inspired by jazz in his early days, Phelps was initially recognised in his youth as a guitarist, being possessed of a uniquely idiosyncratic and emotional guitar style. Once turned onto the sounds of the Delta blues however, in the early 90s his recording career took off as he began a transition into a raw, broody six-stringer, renowned for his fierce, lap pedal steel-playing on a modified Gibson acoustic.
In his current modification, Phelps says he’s more concerned with stripping back and making the songs themselves more the heart of his craft. ‘It’s something that’s been going on over the last number of years,’ he says. ‘Kind of retrospectively looking at my songwriting and playing, and continuing to try and understand simplicity and subtlety - what’s necessary and what isn’t.’
As roots orientated music enjoys a popular resurgence care of The White Stripes, Ryan Adams et al’s lead, how much has this influenced his ‘retrofit’? ‘I don’t pay much attention to newer stuff which goes on around me,’ he replies. ‘But I am conscious of that happening, and that makes me happy. There are new bands round here in Portland that are just killing old time music - playing it with so much zest. But I still spend a lot of time with old folk music and stuff. That’s a lifelong study. Or, at least, I’ve made it one.’