Interview with Kelly Joe Phelps, June 1998
by Peter Karman
All Rights Reserved
P: You grew up in Washington?
K: Yeah, in Sumner, Washington. It's south of Seattle and east of
Tacoma, tucked back in the Pugent Sound valley.
P: What kind of town was it?
K: Typical blue-collar/farming town. I think there were a little
under 5000 people there when I left, which was in 1980. So yeah,
pretty small, though it's grown up quite a bit since then.
P: Then you moved down to the Portland area to do...music?
K: Yeah, and I didn't have much else going on. I'd been out of high
school for a year. I'd gone to community college for a year, just
taking music classes, so it didn't seem like I was taking advantage of
anything. So I left. I had a good friend who was living down here,
working at a music store, and they offered me a job teaching private
lessons, so I moved down to do that. I'd been down here enough times to
know --- well at that time I was interested in playing jazz -- so I
just decided to come down and check out the scene a little bit, teach.
P: I read the interview you did with Acoustic Guitar [magazine], where
it sounded like a kind of "conversion" when you listened to the Fred
McDowell record and radically switched styles, from jazz to country
K: Well yeah, it comes out in print looking differently than the
experience actually was, though it was that kind of experience. ... I
mean.... it sort of equates to the religious conversion, but in no way
was it as pertinent or strong or moving, but it equates to it in that
it meant for me moving forward, not moving to the side or backwards. it
was a continuation of what I had set up. Even though before
I was playing jazz music, I heard THAT music in Fred McDowell. I heard
it in a musical format I didn't expect to hear it , and what I found
was a way of playing music that I was going to be able to combine
everything I had done up to that point. Which I really didn't
P: It sounds like it really focused a lot of the things you wanted to
K: Yeah, yeah.
P: Now the other thing that I read was that the thing that was
attractive to you about jazz was the freedom of spontaneity and
improvisation there. I certainly hear that in the way you play
country blues. It's one of the things I really like about it. I
mean, there's your 3 or 4 chords, but then you go wherever you go with
P: One of the things about that approach that I like, and I told you
this after the show, was that you're not afraid to play a ten minute
K: Right [laughter]
P: It's NICE.
K: Oh good.
P: So much of what I hear it the perfect 3 minute pop song. And it's
nice to go somewhere else for awhile. Takes awhile to get there,
so that's good.
K: Yeah, it's not everybody's cup of tea, but I've never, even as a
listener, like you, I've never had a problem with that. Even
before I was paying jazz music, or even before I thought I would, I was
listening to it. Two of the first records I remember having were Miles
Davis and Led Zeppelin. I mean if there's somebody who's not afraid to
play a 10 minute song it led zeppelin. [laughter]
P: [laughing] Yeah, they didn't shy away from that. Now when you
started playing music, was that something you had in mind as what you
wanted to do with your life?
K: Yeah, but that started really early cause music was around the house
for one thing. My folks played and had a older brother who also played,
and they all played my ear, which meant not having to learn how to
play, just figuring it out. And I found out early on I had that same
ability, although it was more a game than anything else until I was
P: What happened then?
K: Well I didn't start playing guitar till then. I think the first
thing I did was the typical piano lesson thing, around 8 or 9, but
around 10 or 11, the school district I was in, the 5th grade was the
first level were you could play band instruments, and I started playing
drums then. And then I played in the school band clear through high
school, doing drums. So I had those going on, but it wasn't so
much that I respected playing music other than that it was fun.
My dad played guitar, and during that 12th year, I decided I wanted to
do that, so he got me started. Shortly after that, it consumed me
to the point that I didn't stop to think if that was what I wanted to
do, it just came on me.
P: Now I've read before about this 'being consumed' thing. The
story about the first 12-string you tried to play lapstyle. Is this the
one that you took downstairs and smashed to bits?
P: Now when I read that story --I respect the whole being consumed
thing, I mean, I'm consumed by a lot of things--- but that sounded
pretty intense. Did it happen the way you described it?
K: Yeah that came out pretty verbatim. That was a stupid
reaction, cause I should have just given the thing away, but what
seemed important at the time seemed to be teaching myself this lesson
to pay more attention to motivations that are coming through naturally
rather than the ones that someone was imposing on you.
P: Right, cause it was someone else who told you that you should add
K: Yeah, so I took it upon my self to do that. I mean the reason
it ended up consuming me was that I did see the potential in it, but...
P: The timing wasn't ready?
K: Yeah. By the time I realized all that, I just came away
feeling like I had wasted a whole lot of time getting nowhere not
paying attention to what I felt I ought to be doing.
P:; Well, it's a great story. I've told it to a good friend of mine,
who's a great guitar player. He's the same way: he'll sit down with a
single song and work on it for days till he gets it the way he wants
it. really focused. I mean, it pays off, in the long run.
K: Yeah, it does. I've done a lot of things that way over the
years. that was one time I busted up a guitar, but there have been
other times when I have gotten rid of every instrument in the house but
one, to make sure that was all I was doing. I've done that twice.
P: What was the first time?
K: The first time was a couple years after I started meeting jazz
players and learning about that music, I was down here at the
time. I knew there was lot of jazz music being played around
here, and when I started meeting the musicians, I realized how many
gigs there were. Portland is music town, at least for blues and jazz.
They approach it very traditionally. No matter who you are, guitarists
are sort of outcast, since it's all centered around piano and horns. So
it became apparent that if I was going to work as much as I wanted to,
I probably ought to be playing one of those instrumentsI it just made
sense if you think of it that way, you know, bass was the obvious,
cause it was a string instrument and I knew how that worked,
there were some players who were willing to let me work that out on the
gig, you know, so I became a bass player. And shortly after
that---well I had several guitars and a banjo and a mandolin, but I saw
that the way to attack that was to focus on that exclusively, so all
the instruments went out of the house except the bass. And I did that
for 6 or 7 years. But then I also put myself in a good position,
cause after that time, me as a bass player...I wasn't painting a
complete enough picture...for the music that was rolling in my head..
but that changes, you know, as the years go by. There wasn't
enough going on, and I couldn't feel the fit anymore as a rhythm
section player, I wasn't willing to force myself to fit the role
because it was shackling up the music. so then I picked up the guitar,
and shortly after that I stopped playing bass, and shortly after that I
got rid of the bass.
P: Is that when you started doing the country blues thing?
K: There's a couple years in there when I started going back and forth.
I started getting few guitar, an electric and an acoustic, but
after the Fred McDowell things happened, I got rid of everything
again and just had one guitar and stopped playing in the
conventional way, played lapstyle.
P: Was the Gibson the first guitar you had for lapstyle?
K: Yeah, I've tried a lot of other ones lapstyle. There's
something odd about a guitar being thrown in your lap like that. And
how a good guitar can wind up sounding horrid. this guitar, it isn't
particularly good, but it's constructed in such a way that when you put
some heavy strings on it and raise them up off the fingerboard and just
play with a slide bar instead of pushing them against the fingerboard,
the tone just opens up.
P: Yeah, I agree. I want to ask about your recordings. There's
something going on with 'Roll Away the Stone' unlike [the first album]
'Lead Me On' that really caught me off guard. Your style has really
K: Right. A handful of different elements that I had been dealing with
musically, coalesced right before 'Lead Me On' was recorded. Because of
that, Lead Me On was kind of a period at the end of a sentence. so as
soon as it was recorded, this other dialogue started, 'Roll Away the
Stone' being somewhere in the middle of it. There was about 2
years between when I started playing gigs till when I recorded Lead Me
On. During that time I was focused on how I wanted to play country
blues, finding out what the things were that I was responding to, and
trying to do them in an honest voice, as opposed to doing them by
rote. But I didn't understand ultimately how that was going to
come out. I was more concerned with holding to what I saw as the
traditional elements that were important to hold on to. Once
'Lead Me On' was done, that seemed not to be a complete picture, there
were too many elements being left out, both musically that I responded
to, not having to do with that specific genre, also the musical history
that I had, which included the pieces, the musical pieces that still
made sense from when I was playing jazz. Leading up to 'Lead Me On' I
was doing everything I could to ignore that, feeling like that wasn't
going to be appropriate and like I was more concerned with trying to
fit more into a traditional mode than I ought to have been.
P: Do you think that was living in Portland, with their emphasis on all
K: Uh...it might have been that, and in retrospect that might have had
more to do with it than I thought that it did. What I thought was
happening...again, approaching things with a kind of tunnel vision, a
single vision, but still being ignorant of what that actually means
until some experience had gone by.
P: Sounds like you had great motivation and approach, but the details
hadn't filled themselves in yet.
K: Right. And then after Lead Me On came out -- I'm always trying
to allow the music to develop on its own terms, to breathe its own
breath. Some of the jazz elements seemed to want to come in, some
of the more folkish or hillbillyish elements or whatever, seemed to
want to make themselves known. I think I realized, even during
recording Lead Me On, that I was putting up a fence, and not allowing
those pieces to come in. Some time after Lead Me On, it turned
into a ludicrous concept to put the fence up at all. From then
on, it's been, how many ways can this sense of freedom be allowed to
flourish, in the interest of playing music completely from the world of
the spirit, not being motivated by the considerations of finances, or
specific genre things, or what other people are doing and how I can be
different. I mean, none of those considerations should show up, I don't
think, although they tend to force themselves in at opportune times.
P: Maybe that's why we like it. It seems unencumbered or
unfettered by the demands of what the market should want or what will
pay or what nobody else is doing. I mean, it's you.
K: Yeah. I'm glad to hear that, cause that was certainly what I
set out to get down on tape. The other thing that inspired that
was that I changed labels, and during that time, before I came to
Rykodisc, it turned into one of those classic situations, where it
seemed I was signed up to that label initially because of what I did,
but as it turned out it was because of what they saw as potential and
wanting to manipulate that into something that wasn't me. and
that started a real dark hour, cause I was working on this record and
nothing was being accepted and more and more I was trying to be coerced
into things that weren't me and that weren't natural and after awhile I
got really sucked down into a hole and almost out of the interest of
surviving, emotionally and otherwise, I got to a point where I had to
say, alright, fuck all of this, what I'm going to do now is
record The record that is my voice, boom, I'm gonna do it, and if you
don't take it, I can't do anything about it, cause I don't know what
else to do. so some of that, I don't know, it's not anger, but sort of
hollering at the top of your lungs, this is who I am, and why is it so
hard to allow anybody to be who they are, that way --- I mean, why is
it so hard to do that yourself, for one thing -- and why is it so
unusual to have that be the natural course of things.
P: This brings up something I've been wanting to ask you ,and that is
about learning to trust your voice. I read that you hadn't sung
before you started doing the country blues thing, that you had been an
instrumentalist, but you decided that if you were going to do this
blues style, you were going to have to sing. How did you approach
recording and performing that allowed you to trust your voice?
K: well, I'm trying to figure out whether or not I really do.
P: Do what?
k: Trust it.
P: You don't trust it? You're not sure?
k: Well, I'm pausing because I'm wondering if I actually do.
[long silence] Let me start it this way. When I started doing it, I was
literally scared to death. Well, not literally cause I didn't die
[laughter], but the most frightening thing I'd ever done.
P: Then why did you do it?
K: Cause it had to be done. There was really no other way.
Listening to somebody like Fred McDowell, the guitar and the voice
thing is really where it was at. I mean, it seemed a complete waste of
time to just play the guitar and get someone else to just sing. It
didn't make sense. It was apparent that the passion of that music was
contained in the voice, and the guitar was a way to hold it up. I mean,
there was no other way. I was hoping that the voice didn't have to be
'good' necessarily, if it was passionate and honest. I was trusting in
that I suppose. The more I've done it, of course, the more
comfortable I've gotten. Plus, playing guitar for 20...some
P: --You probably didn't have to think as much about that part--
K: --Yeah, the guitar, you know how that goes, you get to the point
where that pretty much takes care of itself. That was the difference.
maybe after I'm singing for 25 years it won't be. but chances are that
it will. To sing takes such a different kind of focus and
concentration. You got to pay a kind of attention to it. Another thing
that's happened for me, and I know this is one way I've become less
self-conscious about is in the way it's become a part of the overall
sound, as another timbre that weaves with the guitar. when I'm singing,
I don't actually think of it as 'I'm singing now', it most often feels
like an extra string on the guitar. Maybe that's just the way I've
learned to cope with the sense of being naked, you know. When you open
up your mouth, you know, and there's nothing between you and the
P: That's what impresses me, I think. It was only after I saw you and
Greg play, that I finally started to play out in front of people. There
was something about...I'm not sure. like, it had to be done, like you
said. And what you wrote on the liner notes in Roll Away the Stone,
about letting your song fly, cause the rest of us need it. That's been
really important to me.
K: Oh, good.
P: I guess I'm interested too in how you practically overcame your
fears. Lately I've found myself getting up on stage and in my mind,
telling the crowd to just fuck off, I'm gonna sing what I'm gonna sing,
and we'll see what happens.
K: Yeah, I do that to an extent as well. It's not so much wanting to
tell the audience to disappear, but more of where you're going to
project the focus. Are you gonna project toward them or where the
creativity is coming from. To play and/or sing for me is disappearing
into that. Not that the audience is disappearing, but that I'm actually
P: I'm sure the 10-minute song helps that.
K: No, I think the 10 minute song is a result of that.
P: Yeah, I mean, I see how it would reciprocate itself.
K: Yeah, and that alleviates some of that performance anxiety too. It's
sort of like watching it happen rather than making it happen. There's
an innate, I guess it would be trust, but it's an innate sensation to
let the music play as opposed to playing it. I mean, playing for all
these years helps that, and being the kind of musician that didn't
learn it through schools and things, but having it be a natural
expression of your person or spirit, creates an environment where music
can take care of itself.
P: You're trusting the music, it sounds like, to be what it is.
K: Yeah, that's, speaking of religion, that's one of those time honored
concepts, in eastern religions through Christianity through all kinds
of things, that--whatever it is, not necessarily trust, but maybe
that's closer to faith or grace, it has all of those things, cause part
of that is being used a vessel -- do you know what I mean by that?
P: I think so.
K: The music is there. anything creative, where does it come from?
Nobody knows. I'm certainly not of the mind that I do that on my own.
I've been given, for whatever reason, to understand, and to whatever
degree that I do, I'm not saying that it's a high degree, but if
there's one thing I trust, it's that I have had those experiences in
the past where I have no idea where something came from, or why, yet I
know that it's there.
P: It's sorta like waving your hands and then getting out of the way.
Letting it do its thing and trying to not get too much in the way.
K: Right. And it's always a struggle. It's a puzzle, because
ultimately, I suppose, that's where all the work is, and all the ease
is, in learning how to get out of the way. I mean, you have to fight to
P: It reminds of the Buddhist saying: quit trying, quit trying to quit,
P: That sense of inviting and then standing aside. Well, let me
ask you about religion, since you brought it up. Did you have any kind
of religious contact growing up?
K: Yeah, I was brought up in the 7th day Adventist church, primarily.
P: Were your parents active in the church?
K: [Pause] No. We went every week, and did all that stuff. and I was
baptized at age 9, although when I was 18 I did again on my own, at
another church entirely. The thing about my folks, I see now,
about growing up around them, was they approached religion on what they
considered its own terms. I imagine they went as much to church for
their childrens' benefit as much as their own. when I was 13 or 14 and
started throwing my weight around, saying 'I don't want to go' they
didn't have too much trouble with that, and by then they weren't going
too much either. They spent so much time hanging around reading the
bible, or doing lots of praying and things, which I don't think I paid
any attention to that at the time, as I got older and started feeling
out what religion meant to me, looking back I could see that what I
came away with more than anything, is that you ought to make some
connection to this on your own. Not have it be fed to you or pushed on
you. you don't need to be guided through this necessarily. you can be
guided through to learn more -
P: But you have to appropriate it on your own terms?
P: Like Kierkegaard said, that every generation has to discover it all
over again for it self.
K: Right. so that's what it's come down to for me, and using them as an
example, and I think a good one, which is you can do all the church
going you want, but it has to become something intrinsic or something.
P: You mentioned that you got baptized again at age 18. What was that
K: Well when I stopped going at age 13 or 14, that was that way for
about 4 years, then a couple friends of mine...well, the short of it
was that I got caught up in the late 70s evangelical charismatic...
P: The whole Jesus movement? Yeah, I've been there.
K: Yeah? [chuckles] So I got involved in that, and had my conversion
experience, and had another baptism, felt like I was doing it on my own.
P: Was that before or after you moved to Portland?
K: That was before. You know, it's interesting, that that first baptism
P: Yeah, you know, when I was a kid, they used to tell us we were going
to hell unless we got saved. I don't know how many times I got saved.
[laughter] It was like it didn't take. And every time they got up
there, man, I just knew I hadn't done it right the first time, I gotta
do it all over again.
K: Yeah, those damn churches, a lotta times do that to ya. I mean,
they--I don't know if I know why they do this yet, but they build you
up to the point where you want to accept that and take it on and go
through the whole baptism and all that, but then as soon as that's
done, they start hammering on your head about what a shit you are, and
then you want to do it again.
P: It's sorta like the institution exists only to perpetuate itself.
It's a perfect system, really, from a marketing standpoint. It seems to
work anyway, for some folks, for awhile. You know, Kelly Joe, in some
ways it doesn't surprise me to hear your story. I mean, it's a real
story, and I'm that you're comfortable enough to share it. I was
talking to Doug Frank, the publisher, awhile ago. We were doing a
work day, raking pine needles, and he started singing 'When the Roll is
called up Yonder.' "Let us labor for the master, from dawn till setting
sun." And we were singing along. And I told him that I'd read where you
don't identify with any particular religious tradition, and I said,
'well that's cool, but hell, no body can sing those songs without
having been there themselves. I know something's going on. This guy had
to have spent some quality time in a pew.'
K: Oh yeah, I certainly have. Whew. Talk about a tangled web.
P: Yeah, it's real tangled. Real tangled. I'm down here in Atlanta
going to school at Emory, and I'm studying, I guess in a certain sense,
K: Oh yeah?
P: Yeah. Maybe not how to untangle it, but how to loosen it enough to
live with it. So, how did you reappropriate this religious imagery into
your own songwriting?
K: The most obvious one would be living with it, living through it,
having it occupy such a large part of existence, you know, for you and
I. One fortunate thing about country blues is that it is part of the
tradition, and more to the point, it's apparent that it's an important
part of the fabric, but having more to do with experiencing it in the
full context of life, as opposed to apart from it, or pretending that
it's the only thing. You know what I mean by that?
P: Oh yeah, totally. You got, 'my woman left me, I'm drunk, and I'm
down on my knees praying my heart out about it.'
K: Yeah, it seems like a real life kinda thing. The other example
that comes to mind is John Coltrane, you know, in his own way searching
for it. And maybe ideas like, everybody is searching around for it, and
looking in different corners, every individual is most definitely
unique and peculiar and special in that they are the ones...any person
will find a corner that no one else can.
P: Cause it's their own corner.
K: Yeah, and that's where the importance of everyone's ideas come in,
including your own. Respecting that in yourself. that's what I
meant by 'let your song fly, the rest of us need it'. At many points,
to really understand what I'm trying to understand, it's gonna take you
telling me what you see. You see?
P: I think so.
K: There's sort of a twofold journey for me. I have to look for this
stuff on my own, since I'm an individual, with everyday experiences,
just as you are, and it ultimately means something to me that it
doesn't mean to anyone else. There will be similarities, and some
things that are definitely the same, but overall, there will be things
peculiar to my experience. But it's important to approach that
with humility as well, because there are things that I will learn from
sources outside myself, that don't come from anybody in particular,
that perhaps come from God, you know, and then there are ways that God
can use other people to teach me things as well. So it's a matter of
letting all those things exist.
P: Waving your hands and then getting out of the way?
P: I'm with you all the way on this one, for sure. Let me ask you, what
happened after the whole Jesus Movement period for you?
K: Well, that worked well for me for 5 or 6 years, but like anything
you get passionate about, I wasn't willing to have other people
constantly tell me what it was. I needed to find out on my own what it
was. The more attention I paid to that, typically of course, the
more things I found out were bothering me, and consequently were
bothering other people about me. It ended up being this weird rub
that doesn't get anybody anywhere, and divides people, and that didn't
seem right either. It felt like the best way to take care of that was
to get out of their space, to keep from messing with them, and allowing
me to take a course that someone else would be uncomfortable with in
order to figure out what religion means to me. So from then to now,
it's been that. I wouldn't suggest that to anyone or say that's a good
way to go. I won't know that it is or isn't until it either plays out
or proves fatal. [laughter]
P: Right. But it's your way. It's the way you did it.
K: If there's one thing I have to trust, it's that. I can't imagine
something as grand, and powerful and beautiful as religion is gonna
take me being subservient to people who may or may not have the proper
motivation. I can't afford that. It seems a better approach to trust
what comes along and trust that I will be given whatever understanding
it takes to make sense of it. And also, I would very much like to
see myself, and other people, not be put off by the bigness of it.
P: The bigness of what?
P: You mean the breadth of it?
P: I think I know what you mean. I had this experience recently where I
ran into these guys I knew in high school, who hadn't been into church
or religion at all, whereas I was really into it in high school. I've
really moved away from it, whereas they got swept into the whole
evangelical movement. So eight years later I run into these guys, and
we're all saying, 'what the hell happened to you?' And what I
realized is that religion, and Christianity specifically, is an awfully
big place. A really big place. And there's room there for people.
It's only been in the last couple years that I've been willing to say,
yeah, 'I'm a Christian'.
K: Yeah, there is room. and if there's anything to be approached with
humility, it's that. it certainly borders on precociousness to assume
that you can put in enough work to have it make sense. it's not a
computer manual. as you as run into words like trust or faith or grace,
it's obvious you can only go so far, in your own mind.
P: Intellectually, yeah. You gotta experience some of that. what
about your song 'ever stumble.' "The world ever stumbles on a saviour"
- is that where that refrain is coming from? This whole humility thing?
K: Yeah, just what we talked about. How common it is to be tripped up
by it all, rather than to be a joyful part of living. For many many
many reasons. Everybody's got their own. Confusing.
P: Yeah, it is. Very confusing. Another song that moves me, in a
way that makes it all less confusing, is the song 'Without the
Light.' "I can see clearer without the light." Tell me about
where that song comes from.
K: Well let me run through some of the words...
P: 'Where my sorrow goes..."
K: "There I'll be/ water runs up through my door/ and washed me clean/
of my childhood/ dirt on the floor a reminder." That's trying to...how
do I want to say that?...that's a way of saying that, like, I think it
was Pirsig, the guy who wrote "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance": "The only zen you find at the top of the mountain is the
zen you bring up there." That's the dirt on the floor
thing. You don't get away from who you are, so just...
P: Be it?
K: Yeah, and that leads into the next part, "I can't tell you/ I'm not
afraid/ of crossing the river again/ in a boat that takes in more/ than
it floats on above..." -- that's just talking about the down
side. "no where can I draw shadows/I can see better without the
light.' That is like the sensation of looking at the sky and
being able to see more stars out of the corner of your eye than you can
looking directly at them, which is another way of saying that the
tighter you grab onto it, the more it tends to fall out of your hands.
P: Wave your hands and get out of the way?
K: [Laughter] Yeah, same theme. Yeah, that's about what that
P: Hmmm. Well, I can't say enough good things about that album.
Any idea when the next one's coming out?
K: Everybody including me is aiming for February or March.
P: I'll look for it. Kelly Joe, it's been good to talk with you.
K: Yeah, thanks Peter, it's been fun.