Just because Shelley Short has a delicate, sweet voice doesn’t mean the 26-year-old has the sugary personality to match. “I’m sweet sometimes,” she told me, but — as she was a woman of few words — I quickly got the feeling that Short really wanted her gentle, countrified folk music to speak for itself.
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Her new CD, “Captain Wild Horses,” is inspired by sources as varied as Marlon Brando and Edith Piaf, yet still manages to feel completely personal. The sound harkens back to another time — the spare arrangements and beautiful use of upright bass, violin and ukulele, bring pictures of dusty roads to mind, as if you could hear these tunes out of one of those old-time giant radios that families used to gather around on long evenings. There are suggestions of a time of universal poverty in her songs — even though she’s not specifically singing about it — but a general sense of deprivation makes these tunes seem just right for the Depression era. “I’m inspired by people going through hard times,” she said.
It’s probably not surprising that Short counts Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan among her influences — but I did perk up when she mentioned Jimmie Rogers. For a woman originally from Portland, Oregon, Short has certainly embraced her inner country crooner. She wrote most of the songs for the new CD right before and right after a move to Chicago, and the Piaf-inspired “Like Anything, It’s Small” reflects her feelings of being uprooted. Short sings, “By the time I go to pieces you’ll be gone / When the hands detach the leashes / move along.” It’s hard not to ponder the transitory nature of relationships when you’ve just moved all the way across the country.
On “All Eyes on the Skyline,” Short sings, “I’m pointing dear captain towards the cracks in the sky / superstition will lead us ‘till the land hits our eye.” This song, about trying to find your way and trusting yourself, becomes almost mythical and folk tale-esque in the hands of Short. Upright bassist Andy Rader adds to the atmosphere by using his bow to create squeaks that echo what old wooden ship planks might sound like during a long night at sea.
Short saw Rader playing at the Chicago bar, The Hideout, and approached him about joining her band. Soon after that, she was introduced to violinist Tiffany Kowalski, who had previous gigs with Bright Eyes and Mayday. Drummer Jamie Carter not only joined the band but also offered up his own studio space to record the CD. That’s a lot of luck for a woman who seems to thrive on hard times.
Or maybe luck didn’t have anything to do with it. In the song, “On the Sunny Side,” Short sings, “Between the sheets and the sky / somewhere where it won’t hurt to try / that’s the place that I’m goin’/ that’s the place that I know.” I get the sense that that’s exactly how this CD came to be — that she created a place where luck could exist and then just made it happen.
Short and the band are going to hit the road on Feb. 10; they’ll hit the Midwest first and then head to the East Coast. Short told me that she doesn’t listen to much current music, preferring to stay in the past, but she did reveal a love for Joanna Newsom .
“You guys would make a touring pair,” I said.
“Yeah, I would love that,” she said.
Somehow, in her soft-spoken way, I get the feeling that Shelley Short is just the person to make that happen.
For more information on Shelley Short, visit: http://www.shelleyshort.com/.
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