Dayton City Paper: Kelly Joe Phelps

Blending jazz, blues, and folk music, the songs of Kelly Joe Phelps have an emotional undercurrent that transports the listener to another world.  Combining a kind of preciousness with the rough textures of the blues, Phelps carries his audiences along with soulful delivery of well-crafted songs.

“Live performance has an emotional energy to it that no other situation has,” said Phelps.  He went on to explain that when playing a live show, “the primary thing is getting up inside the music and trying to live it.”  Documenting the raw energy of two California shows, he released Tap the Cane Whirlwind last year, his first live album to date.  Though, if all goes as planned, we can expect an exciting new studio album to be released this August.

One of the things that sets Phelps apart from the crowd is his combination of free flowing musicality with a narrative style that creates its own rhythms and patterns. “It started to make a certain kind of sense to me that the way that I wanted to handle words wasn’t in a songwriter way.  It was a (literary) way,” he said.  It’s kind of a simple idea, but I just felt like, if I wanted to better my musical abilities, I needed to listen to musicians, regardless of what style it is.  I just kind of separated that (so) when I wanted to study and work at lyrics, it seemed to make sense to study literary writers, not song writers.”

Through studying literature and poetry, his unique approach to songwriting is evident in the complexity of Phelps’s music.  Even though he can be labeled a singer/songwriter type, this music doesn’t comfortably fit into the mold. His songs give sensations, images, and impression of things.  These songs have lives.

As with any musical snapshot, time changes one’s relationship to that moment the story holds. “Sometimes over the course of a few years, I loose touch with a lyric only because it doesn’t apply like it did,” Phelps said. “Sometimes it never comes back and other times it will.”

When playing songs that he hasn’t written himself, Phelps goes through a bit of a process to make the songs his own.  He embodies them to such a degree, it wouldn’t even occur to you that someone else wrote them.  Talking about this process, Phelps commented, “It has to do with, number one, picking the songs that I can relate to in some degree, whether directly or indirectly. And number two is trying as hard as I can to feel that lyric when I sing it.  So that I can get absorbed into the music enough, so that I’m not thinking about whether or not it’s my own tune or whose tune that it is.”

Summing it all up, Phelps said, “It’s the learning and creating and studying- cause all that stuff is what I enjoy about it.”  All the work and effort is so that “that the thing that I give away musically is honest.”

Kelly Joe Phelps will perform at Canal Street Tavern 308 E. First Street, Dayton on Saturday April 1st.

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