Your humble narrator has mostly stayed out of the Linda Chorney/Americana-Grammy scandal. A Slytherin at heart as well as a fellow musician, it honestly didn't matter to us whether she gamed the system for the nomination or whether her music was worthy of the nod. A Taste of Honey beat Elvis Costello, and the day we read that we swore to never care about the Grammys ever again. Still, we have to agree with our colleague William Michael Smith when he said that Chorney's music was mushy, depthless Oprah fodder.
The opposite of Chorney's lack would be Houston's own Shellee Coley. Coley is part of the Magnolia Red label, which we've mentioned before turns out nothing but records of pure beauty. Her previous release, an EP called The Girl the Stencil Drew, was a somewhat light-hearted outing that nonetheless showed her incredible lyrical skill as well as her trademark longing voice.
It's been far too long since Coley has released anything, and as anyone who bought Chinese Democracy can tell you, waiting does not tend to put your fans in a good mood. However, we've visited Magnolia Red several times over the last year and heard snippets of Where It Began throughout its production, and even the early demos were evidence enough that the album would be one of, if not the best release of 2012 in Houston. Now that it's here, we feel the same way: If you buy only one album in 2012, then Where It Began should be it.
The songs are big people's music, not the frantic energy of the young or the dark plumbings of the tragic artiste. Coley tackles parenthood, the maintenance of a loving marriage, and the struggle to keep afloat in difficult times. Her songwriting is frighteningly mature, full of amazing little twists of phrase that turn every sentiment into a mantra.
It's the slight tinge of darkness, the hint of goth, that lends might to Coley's songs. Opening the album is the haunting "All That I Want." To take the song at its lyrical word, it's a simple song of hope for the love of your spouse to continue forever, a regular theme of Coley's.
However, where other artists might come across desperate, whiny, clingy, or even bitchy, she is able to bring to the forefront the deepest damage done in your heart by such doubts. She makes it into an existential examination of her core being, all the while reaffirming her own faith in love.
Masterfully produced by Jeffery Armstreet, "All I Want" features darkly sparse instrumentation underneath Coley's voice, and the tune echoes and circles around you to whisper affection and madness in your ear. The album closes in a similar manner with "Waiting" bookending Where it Began with brilliant, but uncomfortable prayers.
It's when Coley sings of her family that she sings most eloquently. "Cotton Dress" is the best of these tracks from a strictly musical standpoint, but it's "Conversations With Z" that has us tearing up on every listen. If you're not a parent, we don't know how you'll take it, but if you are it will be physically impossible not to feel trusting, little arms around you as Coley's ode to growing up ends in her bed comforting her daughter from a nightmare.
There is pretending to sincerity, indeed even to reality, and there is the real deal. Shellee Coley is alive in a way most of us can only dream of, and thank your favorite God someone put a guitar in her hands. Where It Began is the finest folk album we've ever heard.
One last point. At our day job, our boss is an amazing musician who has arranged for Hollywood. In general, when he walks past our desk while we're listening to music we're reviewing he stops for a second, shakes his head, and walks past. Where It Began is the only time he has ever asked, "Who is that? She could be a star."
Just for fun, we cued up Linda Chorney the next time he walked by. All we got was another head-shake.
We sat down with Shelley Coley to ask her about Where It Began. Click on over to Page 2 for the interview.
Rocks Off: What do you think has changed the most between now and when you released the Girl the Stencil Drew?
Shellee Coley: Well, I think I grew up musically. I met a group of people who made me love music again. I think the collective energy of writing, playing, producing and dreaming together has made me a more holistic musician, as opposed to a person who could sing and write some songs.
Also, content-wise, I feel like this record kind of picks up where I left off with the song "I Want to Know." I really wanted "to know" and so I write a lot of songs and then just realized it's OK not to know everything.
RO: A lot of your songs seem somewhat darker than before. Does that reflect something in your own life?
SC: Most of the "darkness" was stuff that was hidden there from a long time ago and I have been very busy healing from past life events. These 12 songs were a huge part of that healing process.
I think if anything, I have found more light in the past few years and the light has sort of blanketed over the pain and woven together to create these songs. They are heavier for sure, but I feel like they are heavy with hope and the promise of healing.
RO: How does your family deal with the fact that they turn into so many of your songs?
SC: Well, I play each song for them before anyone else hears them and I just flat out ask, "How does this make you feel?" I was really worried when I played "Still" for Kent the first time because I said something about the grey in his beard, but he was OK with it.
I blogged for a few years before I started writing songs again, so he and I went through a time where we talked a lot about what we wanted to share of our personal lives with the outside world. But one of the things I am most passionate about is that a very large majority of music tends to leave out the "everyday-ness" of life, the very vulnerable things like getting your electricity shut off or feeling old and fat, and only focuses on the very good or very bad.
So I like any opportunity to shine light on mundane things and kind of glorify those things, because that little stuff really is the beauty of life. I hope by writing songs about our lives, that I am teaching my kids that it's OK to be honest and vulnerable with the stuff that feels the hardest... but truth be told, they will probably hate me for it at some point in their lives.
RO: You teach songwriting... what is the most important lesson that you can impart to someone who wants to write a song?
SC: I want my students to tell a story that is honest to themselves and that they can deliver with integrity. Of course, structure is important, but if they are interested in writing, it's because there are voices and stories inside of them that want to be heard, so I want them to deliver those stories truthfully and passionately.
RO: The album is called Where it Began, but it feels much more like Where It Is Now. Most of your subjects are grown-people things. Why did you call it that?
SC: It got named Where it Began at the very last hour. We had so many other names and we would live with them for a while, but they just never connected deeply for me. The song "Where it Began" was actually called "Bloodline" for a while or "the rock song on the record," but I finally settled on calling it "Where it Began" and then I was like..."Hey, that's the name of the record!" and it felt right immediately.
That song is about my relationship with my Dad and is essentially about us becoming friends in adulthood. As I started peeling through the layers of this record, I realized that my family, both blood related and not, was the core of what I wrote about on this record. Ironically, the art work of the house and the tree had already been designed and it felt very much like that represented sort of like my family tree...the beginning of where I get my life from. So it all just started fitting together as if the record knew it was always supposed to be named that, it just took me a while to catch up.
RO: You're a working parent, and it's not like you're going to suddenly run out on the road and live in a van for three months playing in bars. What exactly do you want out of your music career?
SC: What I want and what I am capable of change all the time. I remember a couple of years ago when you said, "This girl needs a good PR person" and I was like "NOOOOOO" I'm not ready for that! I am always changing and growing as a person and as an artist. Nothing I have done has been typical and I am twice the age of most people starting careers in this industry. But I just don't care anymore.
I make music and I sing it wherever people will let me. I didn't even think I would ever make another record, so who says I won't get in a van and tour for three months. The difference is, I will have to be more creative and think of three other people and two dogs before I make my decisions.
But way before I was making music again, we were fairly gypsy-minded, so my kids don't have any false sense of normalcy. My mom calls us "The Crazy Coley's" and we gladly accept the title. We are crazy! We just live life as it comes to us and make a lot of mistakes and get back everyday up and do it all again. It would be that way whether music was a part of the equation or not.
RO: Our favorite lyric on the album is "We made resolutions to live grand delusions." Did you? Live grand delusions, we mean?
SC: I think you have to have a certain sense of delusion to live life with passion. And you definitely have to have a good amount of crazy to push past all the crap that society tells you and actually live your dreams and not have it all figured out. I know a man that quit his career as a lawyer to start a chocolate company!
And my producer, Jeffery Armstreet, quit his career as a pro golfer to build a recording studio and record label of sorts. And after 11 years of being a stay at home mom, I worked at a toy company and a pet sitting company so that I could make records. I have most definitely lived a lot of delusions, many of which have turned into reality.
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And that is why I love surrounding myself with people who are a little bit delusional... I think it may be the only true way to find your own reality.