Led by her rich and dusky alto, Shellee Coley's songs effortlessly blend elements of folk, country and pop into a seamless whole reminiscent of Amy Grant, Patty Griffin, Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris. Yet it’s always been her lyrical acumen that's held my attention. Over the course of two full-length records, an EP and a smattering of singles, she’s openly discussed her faith, beliefs, love life, parenting skills — or the lack thereof — with an openness and honesty that’s proved refreshing and relatable. Call it “confessional folk.”
But with the release of her newest musical project, Coley brings a new skill to the fore: musical innovation. Starting with the release of last November's “The Knowing," she plans to issue each of the five tracks from her latest EP individually, complete with accompanying material like a lyric video and blog posts chronicling the assorted hows, whens and whys that fueled the song.
“I see this project as a five-song ‘Book of Musical Meditations’ of sorts,” says Coley. “Each song/chapter will be released one at a time in hopes that the listener will be invited into a process, rather than just hearing songs. My desire is that the listener will see this release as a journey that very closely aligns with what I experienced while writing — the slow moments of 'a-ha!' that birthed the seeds of healing and transformation.”
Sure, the disparate elements of Coley’s tactics aren’t anything new in and of themselves. The music industry has been slowly upended and turned inside-out throughout the 21st century, leading even the biggest artists on the planet to seek out inventive ways to release their music in hopes of making some semblance of an impact upon our digital psyches. Beyoncé surprised the world in late 2013 with her self-titled record and its matching videos. More recently, Frank Ocean filmed himself in a woodworking shop while the entirety of Endless played in the background. And crowdfunding advocates like Amanda Palmer give their supporters sneak peeks into the recording and writing process.
In my opinion, what sets Coley’s ideas apart from these other artists’ is a curious combination of unassuming intimacy and abject transparency. She seems unconcerned with bringing people behind the curtain — she’d rather remove it entirely and welcome people into one of her Circle Sessions so people can just trade stories.
“We are planning to put out film and imagery content between each release that further evokes the emotions and transformation I experienced during the creative process,” affirmed Coley. “Those who’ve been a fan of my music know that I’ve always been about the slow, messy movement of life, and that’s something I’m not apologetic about anymore.”
Still, I wondered whether or not there wasn’t an economic reason for Coley’s release schedule. Certainly, Red Tree Music Group is one of the most independent record labels out there, but I initially thought it would have made more sense to have all the elements of the project ready all at the same time, even in the postmodern musical industry.
“I wouldn’t say that my particular motive is economic, but I agree that the industry is in a transitional state of sorts, and I think your label 'postmodern' is pretty accurate,” explains Coley. “While I would agree that the state of the industry has contributed to my decision to do this release differently, I think the primary reason is much more personal.
"As a listener and fan of music myself, I think we’re in an age where it’s more difficult to dedicate the time a five- to ten-song album deserves," she adds. "I also think the vast amount of great music being released today is unprecedented, but can make it harder than ever for a song or record to rise above the fray.”
In terms of the music we can expect across this five-song project, it represents the culmination of everything Coley has created over the past few years — especially in terms of what she shares and why. If 2009’s Girl the Stencil Drew could represent an artist getting her feet wet (complete with its poppy ditties about the less glamorous parts of married life), then Where It Began in 2012 marks her willingness to muse about faith and doubt in regards to her Christian upbringing.
And when you consider the musical minimalism in Songs Without Bridges from 2014, you’re graced with an artist who’s willing to lay out all the pieces of her life before you — though she’s not quite sure what to do with them.
“Songs Without Bridges was quite literally a brain and soul dump that I had to get out in order to move on,” states Coley. “I had just divorced and moved my family in with my parents. I needed to make music, but didn't have the money or the time to soothe the creative process.”
This then brings us to the searching yet contemplative tones on display in this new project, complete with its fuller production aesthetic.
“This new record has been three to four years in the making from the point of conception to production, “ says Coley, “so a lot of time and evaluation has gone into it. I didn't make it just to finish a record. I made it to represent every step of the way in my spiritual journey, so it could not be released until I was ready to close certain chapters.”
In fact, “The Knowing” might contain the most personal and intimate sentence Coley has ever penned: "But I don't need your voice to hear the whispers through the dark/ 'cause they lie safely in the silence, between our hearts.” The song will appear in the upcoming independent film Shotgun Honey, while the video was created with online liturgical library The Work of the People, an ecumenical organization that uses visual media as the foundation of its curriculum.
"From a lyric standpoint, I'd say there is less of a protagonist/antagonist undertone, because there is less of a struggle in these songs," Coley says. "There is a definite element of ‘letting go’ in both the songs and my life over the past several years. From a musical standpoint, these songs sit somewhere between fully produced and stripped-down acoustic, which also could be a representation of an internal struggle coming into balance and a consistent search for peace.”
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This year stands to be a banner year for Coley. Not only will she release a new batch of tunes into the world, but they promise to be the best of her career. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s exploring new ways to share those songs with fans new and old, as well as share more of herself both as an artist and as a person in fantastical and refreshing ways.
Each new track will be scheduled for release every couple of months, while its attendant content — film, imagery and story — will be released in the days between song releases. And once each tune comes out individually, the complete EP will be made available as one cumulative track.
“My intent with this is to give listeners the option of taking this meditative journey from start to finish, should they choose to,” says Coley. “I’ve recently been invited to perform and participate in several meditative and contemplative-type conferences and services. This has influenced me greatly and certainly contributed to my decision to give the listeners this option.”