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Big Music Feature

Moments in Time

His new compilation project—hundreds of hours of pure, unrehearsed recordings—might be the only proof that Shelly Blake really exists

Sam Holden

Big Music Issue 2004

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Moments in Time His new compilation project—hundreds of hours of pure, unrehearsed recordings—might be the only proof that Shelly Blake really exists | By Bret McCabe

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By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/21/2004

Shelly Blake can talk. And talk. And talk. About just about anything, only in his own elliptical fashion. Ask the Elkridge-based singer/songwriter about songwriting and his light eyes pause for a moment behind his glasses, he maybe brushes a wisp of his shaggy brown hair aside, and responds with a mini-essay about experiential memory. He outlines a quick précis, tersely bridges that idea to songwriting, and allows the analogy to answer the question. And then he’ll stop speaking, look directly at you, and await the next question. It’s not an evasive maneuver; Shelly Blake knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but Shelly Blake believes efficacy is a poor substitute for saying exactly what he’s thinking.

You see, Shelly Blake knows some things about some stuff, and has his own opinions about almost everything else. The guy earned a bachelor’s degree in classics and classical archeology from Harvard University—“I was profoundly moved by my experience studying Homer,” he says, and miraculously doesn’t sound like a pretentious snob saying it—and makes conversational allusions to cats such as Hephaestus and Cicero, graciously not condescending to explain them along the way. It’s what he knows, and he works with that.

But Shelly Blake isn’t all Latin and Greek, though sitting at a table at Dougherty’s Irish Pub in Mount Vernon in his comfortable work shirt, baggy trousers, hair hanging over his glasses as he hangs his head over a book, you’d be excused for thinking him a young liberal arts professor stealing away from campus for some solitary time with a pint and bowl of crab soup. Shelly Blake also loves trains. Shelly Blake also thinks the best thing that could happen to the Orioles is for Peter Angelos to sell the team to somebody who cares. And the book he’s devouring is Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk.

Since 1995 Shelly Blake has been writing and recording songs by himself, first in Baltimore, then a few years later in Boston, and now at the built-in-1840 house near BWI Airport where the 29-year-old lives with his wife and three kids. Where he’s quite proud of the sunflowers he’s nurtured from seed to 6-foot-plus giants that transfix his kids. Where he plays the guitar or the piano with a tape recorder always nearby.

And Shelly Blake has recently started the most ambitious project of his career. The new Shelly Blake 1995-2005 Vol. 1 is the first installment in a multivolume effort to release on CD the hundreds of hours of songs and music Shelly Blake has recorded since 1995. All of Vol. 1 dates from 1995, recorded in Baltimore by Craig Bowen at the now defunct Jar, by William Schaff and Chris Plummer at the CopyCat Building, and by Blake on his answering machine. Its 10 songs roam from the last-call Paul Westerberg country rock of “I Just Want to Touch Yr Face” to the spirit-rattling backwoods folk of “Death Penalty.”

All around, Shelly Blake is a really good guy. Except that he’s fictitious. Shelly Blake is the artistic invention and vision of the man who shares everything above with Shelly Blake, including the name when he’s performing and recording. But Shelly Blake stops where the man begins, and he really, really wants to keep it that way.

“I have two ground rules I want to point out before we start,” Blake says, putting down his pint and soup spoon. “One, I don’t want any other name mentioned in the piece except Shelly Blake. Two, Shelly Blake’s history starts in 1995 and not before. Other than that, anything else is fine.”

 

“Whether a song is good or bad or whether a recording is good or bad is all subtext,” Blake says, two (three? four? more?) beers into the conversation. “I have this great recording of Howard Finster, and he’s playing banjo and singing his spiritual songs. And he’s all over the map musically. But it’s fabulous. And that’s where I’d love to get at. Good or bad isn’t hitting the notes. Something else has to be there.”

Shelly Blake wasn’t new to music when he sprang Athena-like from his creator’s head in 1995, having played in a local rock outfit of some repute. But solo songwriting was such a new thing—hearing his own voice and guitar come back at him through a boom-box home recording opened his eyes to the unlimited possibilities of musicmaking—that he wanted to do it under a different name. He happened to be sitting near his bookcases, Percy Bysshe Shelley on one shelf, William Blake another. He merely took out the second “e” in Shelley to make it a girl’s name and started calling himself that.

And all through 1995 he recorded, releasing claustrophobic, lo-fi cassettes: The Lonely Ornamental Music of Shelly Blake and Color Notation on the Sociopathway (both ’95), The Kindest Cuts and Secret Breathing Lessons (both ’96). And then he got bored. It was all too easy. “When you get right down to it, writing songs is very, very simple,” Blake says. “It’s very easy to come up with a guitar or piano melody and put a verse-chorus-verse to it, and I just didn’t want to pretend to do it anymore.”

He wasn’t getting out of it what he wanted to get out of it. So he stopped, he and his then-girlfriend moved to Washington, D.C., for a spell, and he didn’t start writing again until he moved to Boston in 1998, when a new boredom set in and he decided to try it once more.

Only this time, he wasn’t going to do what he did last time. He wasn’t going to get an idea and fine-tune it and record it. He wasn’t going to write a melody and then add percussion or something else. He was just going to press record and see what happened. And it freed him from overthinking his own music.

“The idea of producing music has become like producing milk,” Blake says. “There’s a way to do it and it should all come out the same in the end. You can have low-fat or whole or whatever, but it has to be consistent. I don’t want consistency. I’m sick of consistency. I want to hear the flaws and accidents of existence that you can experience from the decision-making process of producing a piece of music.”

Lyrics, sound sources, ideas became a product of where he was and whatever was going on, in the room, in his mind, in his life. “Each recording is its own immediate experience,” Blake says of this process. “And in a way it’s like doing an interview with yourself. Some of my favorite recordings are those [Alan] Lomax recordings with Leadbelly, and the thing I love about those recordings is not just the songs, it’s the conversation. Leadbelly plays music in response to questions. I see that as sort of a type of ideal recording, music and dialogue coming together into some kind of anthropological, documentary event.”

Some of the recordings that date from this period, such as 2003’s This Was Made for You, find Blake in a less dour mood than on his earlier cassettes, as well as more confident in the sound of his own music. He lets the background noise waft through the acoustic guitar and voice lament in “Luftbrucke,” and gently folds a sandpaper rustle and harmonica alongside his guitar and voice in the up-tempo “Left Fighting Ourselves.” The variety of settings encourages Blake to warble his nasal voice in the former and let his tenor turn softly country-tinged in the latter. And they both came from Blake just letting things happen, seeing what kind of song came out of that particular intersection of him and his environment.

“A lot of people write songs and then go into the recording studio and record them,” Blake says. “I guess the thing that sort of makes Shelly Blake Shelly Blake is the fact that I don’t do that. Many of the recordings are done right there—the song and the recording are the same thing.”

 

“Oral tradition and folk music is all about sharing in an experience people had before you,” Blake says. “It’s about taking part in a tradition, a shared history, a shared sense of community. Maybe we have our own folk singers now, but we don’t know them. It’s not something that the writer of a song can plan. Folk music is not created by songwriters. Folk music is created much later by people.”

Blake currently is in the peculiar place of shaping his own history. His recording/songwriting style has produced his most fecund songs yet—and continues to do so—but it also means he’s got much more material than he’s ever going to release. Hence the Volumes project, an effort to bring the available songs of Shelly Blake up to date with the Shelly Blake who is going to be touring and performing this fall. It’s an awkward project that finds Blake listening to things he hasn’t heard in almost 10 years—“Every recording brings something back to me or puts me in a place that I haven’t been at in a long time, and I find that fascinating”—and then making the difficult decision of what to keep.

And thus far, Blake’s self-editing has shifted through his past and concocted a Vol. 1 that feels like an excavated tomb, a precipitate of a time and place lost under the sand, dusted off, and introduced into the world. “I hope that’s something that people understand when they listen to [my albums], that this not a collection of songs that I want to end up on the radio,” Blake says. “What I want is to let people into things that stoke my memory.”

Of course, the man behind Shelly Blake knows that since he created Shelly Blake, he can just as easily destroy him. But it’s a question he doesn’t waste time considering. “I’m not so vain that I think I can predict what’s going to happen to me based on me,” Blake says. “Will I persevere and play music? That question is kind of like will I persevere and continue to see things with my own eyes. I’ll either go blind or I won’t.

“What I’m looking for is I want to live as a person of character. I want to raise my kids, love my wife, and work hard. Everything else is a wash. It’s much more difficult to raise kids than it is to go on tour and play songs.”

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