Comes with a Smile # interviews
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Joel RL Phelps
 by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Joel RL Phelps by Paul HeartfieldFor the uninitiated, Good Advice For Dogs, the song Joel Phelps has donated to this issue's covermount is as uncompromising an introduction as one could hope for. This alternate version of a song from his 1997 EP 'The Downer Trio' is as bruised and bloody as anything he's composed. What unites this track with anything from his discography, be it the delicate reworking of Fleetwood Mac's Songbird from the recent mini-album 'Inland Empires' or the early nineties post-punk stylings of his former band Silkworm, is that voice. The night before our meeting Joel had performed solo at The Borderline here in London. Fighting to be heard over the boisterous background of headliners Spoon's partisan following, his songs were at once delicate and devastating. That such anguished, tormented tales should emanate from the soft-spoken, anxious man sat opposite me this cold, breezy Sunday morning is baffling. With a demeanour that projects an air of unease, and a nervous laugh that's as charming as is it unsettling, Phelps continually downplayed his abilities during our lengthy conversation. The sight of two edgy, bespectacled thirty somethings shifting uneasily behind their heavy frames does, with hindsight, have some comedic value - an unarmed battle of wills, if you will, with your interviewer treading carefully when touching on Now You Are Found, Phelps' exceptionally moving tribute to his departed sister, from 'Inland Empires.' Whilst alluding to the song throughout the discourse, this was one of those times when you felt everything that needed to be said had been said in the context of a song, and I was wary of taking on the role of unwitting counsellor. Not that Joel was cagey or defensive, however, and when asked about the problems he'd faced towards the end of his time with Silkworm he was forthcoming and philosophical. "The fact of the matter is it was largely a product of a personal struggle with a profound or a major or a clinical or whatever you might call it, depression. So it was always just a struggle. Just to get up in the morning, just to enjoy the good things or to even know them when you saw them. To just think 'this is nice, right now. I didn't sleep very good and I've been cramped up in a van for several hours but right now I'm having a nice time, and that's good.' I just wasn't able to do that. I just couldn't do it. Eventually it just became overwhelming and one of the biggest regrets in my life is that I managed to almost, if not completely, alienate everyone in Silkworm in the process."

I read an interview where the writer suggested your live performances took on the role of therapy for you. Have you considered that?
"Sure, it's a therapy of a sort. It's occurred to me to think of it those terms but I've no sense of whether or not it's successful or constructive therapy. For instance people have asked about Now You Are Found specifically as a kind of therapy or grief process. And I agree it is. It'll be some time before I could judge a specific song on that basis but when people have asked 'did you write it because it was therapeutic?' or 'did you write it as part of a grieving?' then I did, I guess, but sometimes I think about performing in the same way. Therapy is considered more of a conscious decision - 'I'm going to seek out therapy, I'm going to take this course of action because I think it will be helpful to me,' - and, of course, performing is voluntary but in other ways, to me, it just seems like the logical end product of having these songs. I don't do any kind of visual art but in some ways it just feels like having a bunch of paint around and just painting with it. It may be no different from the therapeutic value of people who go play basketball after work. I think there are lots of ways you can look at it. The experience of performing is unique - I don't do that anywhere else - so there are things that come out because they can come out in those circumstances."

Is Now You Are Found a constant in your set now?
"I don't always play it. It was tough to play it on this trip. It was tough last night and I had tried on Xfm to do was fine but it was harder that I thought. Just because, in my own mind, this trip felt really special to me because it was the first time that I'd ever been here. A silly as it sounds, for me that's a big deal. Until [the label] made arrangements there was never a chance in hell that I would ever get here or somewhere in Europe. And beyond that, for me personally, I may have never come here if I hadn't been able to come and play music. My economics are fairly shaky [laughs] so it wasn't gonna happen. I guess I felt this is a 'special' little time so I'll try to play [Now You Are Found] to make that part of my 'moment.' And it was hard; it maybe wasn't such a good idea to try it. But then, of course, some might argue that it wasn't such a good idea to write that song to start with...[laughs]."

It's the most traditionally narrative of your own songs. Unless I'm being extremely naïve, which is quite possible, then your songs are lyrically not usually so direct, often the words are difficult to make out - particularly the louder songs on Blackbird - and you don't print your lyrics.
"I don't think of myself as a writer, I'm not a poet, I don't write pieces that, at least in my mind, stand up as pieces of writing that somebody who had no idea of the musical aspect of it would look at and think 'this is a good piece of writing.' I'm fairly intimidated by the idea of writing, I feel uncomfortable seeing [my lyrics] outside of their musical context."

A lot of reviewers have called your songs 'confessional' - do you find that annoying, that anytime people have some emotional depth in their songs people call it confessional?
"I don't find it annoying but I think you're right. I think that's the danger when you talk about that kind of music. I have that same problem when people ask me about it because I'm aware of those terms and I try to stay away from them because I don't want to come off as a run of the mill sort of thing."

You've managed to bring a different personality to each of the records. Is that something you set out to do?
"I guess I wouldn't call it conceptual in the kinda classic sense in that we had a fully-formed idea. I think it just comes naturally along with the songs. The songs on the EP or 3, that's just what they were and that's how we were at the time. So I guess there is some thought given to how it fits together but really I think they just kinda captured what we were doing at the time. We're conscious of it at the time, so that when you hear something develop, you then have the choice to either continue letting it develop that way or you can stop it and take a different path or you can throw it in the garbage and do something. So there's that kind of thinking about it, and I guess in that way it can be described as vaguely conceptual. All the songs, after the fact, get fooled around with and maybe changed. To keep it new. 3 was recorded in four days. We went to Chicago, set up in Steve [Albini]'s house and played some songs."

The newest record, Inland Empires, contains five cover versions of which four could be considered 'country' songs. Previously you'd covered Dramarama, The Clash, Joy Division, Comsat Angels. It's a very diverse bunch; does it reflect your record collection or are their different factors that draw you to these songs?
"Both of those things. There's plenty of times [when] some of the aspects of the song 'fit' - like the song is very dear to you or moves you. And, gosh, you wish you could play it but you just can't [laughs]. There's just some things, though in your mind you want them to work, just aren't going to. And usually you can tell that off the bat and other times you just have to play through it and realise that you shouldn't have tried. Sometimes you just luck out and songs seem like something suitable to make your own."

That would seem to be your agenda.
"For us the idea of doing a cover has always been to literally 'steal' it in the sense that you make it your own song and you try to give it a life that wasn't there before - you try to make it new."

There's been a trend lately, coincidental or otherwise, of covers records. A cynical viewpoint would be to say that people aren't writing good songs anymore, but the general consensus seems to be, in regard to Inland Empires, that the strongest song is your original, Now You Are Found. Certainly the Iris De Ment song, My Life, that follows it takes on an added poignancy and I wondered whether you'd chosen the songs you did to fit around the one original.
"If they have a relevance I guess it's a larger one. Something like Someday becomes more of a background to the whole. Someday and Now You Are Found were recorded at the same time. I went back later and did My Life by myself. Songbird was recorded quite late one night during the recording of Blackbird. The idea of doing a little covers record was one we thought we could do at some time. In some ways it was a bit of a happy accident that we ended up with something that seems like it makes a whole. But on the other hand it was purposeful in that we had a selection and we picked those partially for that reason and partially for technical reasons. For instance there were about four different versions of Townes Van Zandt's Flyin' Shoes done that I just kept screwing up. Something like that just didn't pan out. In the end I think we picked a nice one [Our Mother The Mountain]."

Live, I'd expected you to be this nervous character, hunched over an acoustic guitar. Yet there you were, standing tall, oblivious to the chatter from the bar. Is this a case of being in your 'comfort zone' when you're performing?
"There is that element of comfort in it. It's strange because I feel so self-conscious about it before and self-conscious after. It feels very threatening to me but there are a lot of times during it - it feels funny to say 'I feel strong' but I do sometimes. It's a bit short-lived but why not? It's an interesting moment. Besides a little voice in your head that might say 'you didn't sing that very well' it's a moment that is about as free of judgement as there is. It makes the moment yours before you or anyone else can say 'that was terrible!' or 'that was nice.' Or 'your voice is screechy and it hurts my ears.' I guess it's like a birth or something y'know "here it is, I'm here'."

I guess your voice is the thing that people will either love or hate about your sound. I can't imagine too many people saying 'his voice is okay.'
"It irritates a lot of people. Well a lot of times it irritates me, there's times when I think 'I wish I hadn't done that.'"

You were raised in Montana and there's a sense of space in your music, and references to the south-west, is landscape something that inspires you?
"One of the things that I find striking about Montana, particularly since I've left and when I go back, are the spaces, just the physical surroundings. Growing up I was never much of an outdoorsman, I didn't hunt, I didn't fish. I didn't have much of what you could call an outdoor life or a sporting life. But I was always fascinated by the outdoors, by the spacial sense. It's really something."

Do you imagine living in America all your life or have you considered living elsewhere?
"I have a very strong interest in emigrating to Canada lately but I have no doubt I'd live out the rest of my days in the States, which is not to say it wouldn't be a thrill to me to consider living somewhere else."

I presume that there is a romantic interest that could inspire the move north?
"Yeah, we've been talking, I guess like couples will about what we're going to do - 'what's the future for this?' - clearly we can't live out the rest of our lives with me getting on a Greyhound bus every other week. I think It would be nice for me to have a change. But could I ask somebody to change their life in such a substantial way in order to pursue this relationship? I guess I don't feel I can ask someone that just to be a couple hours closer to me. I'd feel like a doting parent or something - 'are you happy, are you okay, are you making friends?' It has proven a little difficult for me to get in because of immigration concerns on the part of Canada. Which is 'are you educated? Do you have a job skill to offer the nation of Canada that Canadians don't have? Because, if you don't, we have plenty of Canadians who could probably use a job.'"

That's when you should give them your records and say 'here's my skill. You gave us Bryan Adams; we're giving you this.'
"Well that does not appear on their list. Computer programmers appear on their list. In terms of the official policy of Canada, Canada doesn't want me!"

The benefit of not being a huge-selling, marketable act is that the music doesn't become a job to you and you can dictate when you deliver an album. Is that something you'd give up if the offers were there?
"Well, only in the sense that the grass is always greener. That's never happened but, sure, I'd be interested to see what that would bring. I have lots of moments, sometimes it's embarrassing, sometimes not, that I wish we were better received or could somehow be busier. Just have some other opportunities to do more of the things that we normally do. But it hasn't worked out that way. I feel that nearly everyone has to work and, in that way, I'm lucky to have a job and I'm lucky that it's just my work and there's another thing that I get to do that's different and kind of special. It poses some problems because of some choices I've made in life in that my work is so disposable; sometimes it's hard to go, it's hard to slug it out just to pay the rent. And, because it's not a particularly special kind of work it doesn't pay very well. So when I think of prospects, things I'd like to do with my life, like having a family - that seems a remote possibility and that bothers me sometimes because I feel like a lot of times, out of my own choice I have been distracted enough by playing music that I have not made some better choices in my education for my future and how I'm going to pay the rent when I'm sixty. I have a lot of moments when I get extra whiney about it [laughs] and I get worried. I'm 35 years old and what am I doing? What am I going to do for the rest of my life?"

CWAS #8 - Summer 2001