TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, James Corden, was a star in England but was pretty much unknown in the U.S. when he became the host of CBS's "The Late Late Show" last year. But now the show is nominated for an Emmy, and he's famous for a series of videos he does on the show that go viral on YouTube. They're called Carpool Karaoke. And each one features Corden driving a car with a surprise celebrity or celebrities. And together, they sing along with songs on the radio. Stevie Wonder, Adele, Elton John, One Direction, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Michelle Obama have all done it. Unlike most of the late night hosts, Corden's background is not in stand-up or sketch comedy. He's an actor who co-starred in and co-wrote a couple of popular British TV series and was in the stage and screen version of "The History Boys." In 2012, he won a Tony for his performance in the show "One Man, Two Guvnors." In 2014, he co-starred in the movie adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into The Woods." He loves musicals. And this year, he hosted the Tony Awards. Let's start by listening to a recent Carpool Karaoke. Corden drives to the White House in his SUV. And when he pulls over, the passenger door opens and Michelle Obama steps in. As they drive around the grounds, she gives him a tour.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN")
MICHELLE OBAMA: This is the White House. And we're passing the Rose Garden, as you see here.
JAMES CORDEN: Yeah.
OBAMA: This is the Oval Office. My husband is in there somewhere.
CORDEN: Is he in there right now?
OBAMA: He better be. That's where he said he was.
OBAMA: Do you mind if we listen to some music? I rarely get to listen to music in the car.
CORDEN: Sure. What - I mean, let's see...
OBAMA: What do you got?
CORDEN: I don't know. Let's see what we've got.
OBAMA: Crank it up.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVIE WONDER SONG, "SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED")
CORDEN: Stevie - no way.
OBAMA: Did you know that Stevie Wonder's my favorite?
CORDEN: He's the best.
OBAMA AND CORDEN: (Singing) Like a fool I went and stayed too long.
OBAMA AND CORDEN: (Singing) Now I'm wondering if your love's still strong. Ooh baby, here I am, signed, sealed, delivered. I'm yours. Then that time I went and said goodbye, now I'm back and not ashamed to Ooh baby, here I am, signed, sealed, delivered. I'm yours.
CORDEN: Oh, this is it.
OBAMA AND CORDEN: Here I am, baby, oh, signed, sealed, delivered. I'm yours. Baby - ooh, baby.
CORDEN: Oh, my God. He's your favorite artist, right?
OBAMA: I love Stevie Wonder.
CORDEN: I mean, how can you not?
OBAMA: I think I know every Stevie song on the planet.
CORDEN: When was the last time you got to do this - have a good rock out in a car?
OBAMA: Oh, I've been in a car - maybe it was months ago with my daughter, who learned to drive.
OBAMA: And she rocked out a little. We rocked out with her. But that was the only time in seven and a half years that I've been in the passenger seat...
CORDEN: In the front seat of a car.
OBAMA: ...Listening to music, rocking out like this. So this is a treat.
CORDEN: This is a treat for all of us.
OBAMA: This is very much a treat.
GROSS: James Corden, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, I can't believe that the Secret Service would actually let Michelle Obama in the car while you're driving and doing, like...
GROSS: ...Hand choreography and singing at the same time. So my question is...
CORDEN: But why would you not believe that? Why?
GROSS: Well, I secretly believe that the steering wheel that you're using when you're driving in the Carpool Karaoke bit is actually a fake steering wheel, and there's a real driver in front of you in the car that's navigating.
CORDEN: (Laughter) You could not be more wrong.
GROSS: (Laughter) Prove it. Prove it (laughter).
CORDEN: No because - so basically, I'm in the car. Every camera - except for the cameras that are taking exteriors of the car - every camera is fixed. So it's just a very, very small sort of 2 inch by 2 inch fixed GoPro camera. And there's probably 10 of those dotted around the car.
Normally when we do that, we're obviously out on the normal road, so there's a car in front of me and then me in a car behind and then one car that sort of navigates around us, if you like. So essentially, we're never driving more than 10 or 15, maybe 18 miles an hour. And you're sort of in this cushion of the two cars either side of you. So you're just sort of in an air bubble, if you like, really, is how it feels when you're driving. But the one with the first lady, we just drove around in a circle around the White House lawn. There was no other cars on the road, you know?
GROSS: Right, OK, now I get it (laughter).
CORDEN: So there's no fixed steering wheel. It's genuinely me driving. I think it would lose some authenticity if it wasn't.
GROSS: So was your car your theater when you were young?
CORDEN: No. I was very lucky in that I grew up in a house where my parents knew that I loved the theater, so we would try and go there as much as possible. So the theater was very much the theater when I was young.
GROSS: Going to see shows?
CORDEN: Yeah, that was all I ever wanted to do. As soon as I'd been once or twice, I fell in love with it. So often, all of my birthday presents, my Christmas presents, while my friends were getting soccer cleats or new football strips or Game Boys, I would get tickets to "West Side Story" in the West End or whatever. That was all I ever wanted to do.
GROSS: And cast recordings?
CORDEN: Yeah, always. I had a cassette recording of "Miss Saigon," and I think I listened to it so much that it sort of started to crackle out. All I ever wanted when I was growing up was just to work in the West End, really. That was my only goal. Everything past that has been as sort of thrilling to me as it is to everybody else.
GROSS: So, you know, your show has become famous for videos going viral. And it's just so funny that in, like, the age we live in now, your TV show doesn't get seen nearly as much as the videos do, do you know what I mean? Like, the videos have, like, tens of millions of people who watch them.
CORDEN: Well, yeah. The great thing about the Internet is that it's a completely level playing field. There's no 10:00 drama. There's no football game. There's no basketball playoff. There's nothing. So our show airs at 12:37 a.m., do you know what I mean? Our show doesn't even air on the day that we say that it's on, technically. So there is only ever going to be a small amount of people that are awake at that hour.
So when we came to this show, myself and Ben Winston and Rob Crabbe, the execs of the show, all we ever really talked about was we have this gift here where if we make a show that is good, if we make content that people want to see, we live in a world now where they will find it. So what we do is just try and make the very best show we can knowing that if we make segments that are good, people will find them and people will watch them.
So to be sat here now with - you know, we're like 16 months into our run on the air - to have, like, 7 million subscribers to our YouTube page and 1.5 billion views in 209 shows on the air is incredible. Like, we have the three most-watched clips in the history of late night television ever on YouTube. And so what's great is that we just knew we had to make a show that would embrace that because of the very notion of the time that we're on the air, you know?
GROSS: So you mentioned that you had done the three most-watched videos from all the late night shows. What are those three?
CORDEN: It's the Adele Carpool Karaoke, which I think is 120 million. And then a Justin Bieber carpool, which I think is, like, 85 million and a One Direction Carpool Karaoke, which I think is around 78 or 79 million, something like that.
GROSS: Another bit that you do on your show is called Drop The Mic. And this is like a rap contest you have with guests.
GROSS: And the rap has to be just, like, really insulting. Like, you each insult each other. Sometimes...
CORDEN: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: ...There's three people, and you're all insulting each other. And...
GROSS: ...Like, for instance, you told Kevin Hart in rhyme that he'll always be known as the guy who's not Chris Rock, and he's...
GROSS: He said to you I fill football stadiums. You barely fit in the seat. So...
GROSS: ...I want to play an example of what this bit sounds like. So here you are with David Schwimmer, who, of course, first became famous on "Friends" and was more recently in the O.J. series playing Robert Kardashian. So here's my guest, James Corden, and David Schwimmer doing Drop The Mic.
SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN")
CORDEN: (Rapping) Millennials, let me introduce you to this guy. His name is David. He was famous in '95...
CORDEN: (Rapping) ...'Cause that's when he was hot. He was on TV then. Now it's 2016 and he has no friends.
CORDEN: (Rapping) Get it? No friends - not famous ever again. He was a Kardashian on TV but that was only for pretend.
CORDEN: (Rapping) You played Robert, and that was a great combo. But you were so white you should've probably played the Bronco.
CORDEN: (Rapping) What I'm saying is this battle's a Blockbuster. So I'm sad I know you're going to spit something lackluster. But now you've got the chance to prove you got [expletive] while I ignore you like Jennifer Aniston does your calls.
DAVID SCHWIMMER: (Rapping) A Brit in America's your one claim to fame. We all know as an actor your roles were all the same. The heavy best friend, the humorous sidekick with a belly so big you can't find your own...
SCHWIMMER: (Rapping) ...Dickens, the author we all read as kids, he's British, like you, but people know who he is. You must be a masochist. You want to battle me. This won't end well, mate. It's not "Love Actually."
SCHWIMMER: (Rapping) To be clear, I love the English. I married your kind. But why your wife chose you - my bad, she blind?
SCHWIMMER: Is she blind? (Rapping) Rap was born in this country. You're a tourist here. Do us a favor, James? Just change your career.
GROSS: So, James Corden, who writes these?
CORDEN: We have some brilliant writers on our team who - I mean, the truth is, how that one with David Schwimmer came about was we had done it on the Monday with Anne Hathaway, and that was the first time we'd ever done it. And then our segment producer had a call in with David, like a pre-interview to just find out some talking points and things like that. And he said, oh, I saw that Drop The Mic thing. I want to do it. And we sort of said, well, we'd very rarely ever do the same bit in a week. We rarely do the same bit in a month, you know?
And then he was flying from New York to L.A. and had Wi-Fi on the plane. And whilst we were sort of going, I don't know if we should, these lyrics from David Schwimmer arrived of his, like, raps to me. And I read them and was like, right. Game on. This is going to be a bloodbath. And that was it. And it was great, you know? So it's all a sense of all of us together to all sit with the writers and go, oh, we should talk about this and we should talk about that. And then we'll find a way, organically, to make it all work. But we're very, very fortunate that we have some brilliant writers on our staff who are very good at this.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Corden, the host of the CBS "Late Late Show." We're going to take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is James Corden, the host of CBS's "Late Late Show." Well, when you hosted the Tonys this year, one of the things you did was talk about how as a kid you used to watch shows and think, like, one day it could be me. And then you did a whole medley of songs from Broadway shows in which it actually was you, 'cause there you were on stage singing them. And I thought we could play that medley.
And what makes this even more fun, if you're actually seeing it, is that for each song, like, you're changing costumes. So you're not only singing these, like, really quick excerpts of songs, you're getting in and out of clothes. And it's, you know, a very funny bit. So this is James Corden singing a medley of Broadway songs from the Tonys.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE 70TH ANNUAL TONY AWARDS)
CORDEN: Oh, there's no limit to the parts I could play tonight. I could be any role I want, and no one can stop me.
(Singing) The hills are alive with the sound of - trouble, right here in River City, with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for - people, people who need people. Oh, luck, be a lady tonight. Luck, be a lady tonight, tonight - tomorrow, tomorrow...
CORDEN: ...Midnight, not a sound from the pavement. I really need this job. How many people does he need? How many boys how many - don't cry for me, Argentina. And if I were a rich man, da-da-da da-da-da da-da-da da-da-da da-da-da.
CORDEN: Don't tell me not to live, I simply got to. Life's candy and the sun's a ball of butter. And I am telling you...
CORDEN: ...That I'm not going. You're the best man I've ever known. Mama's talking loud. Mama's doing fine.
CORDEN: All the time - and how did it get here? Ten more years, I'm stuck in the background. Here I am, hosting the Tonys. This time tomorrow, I'm back at 12:30.
CORDEN: Sorry, I'm not entirely sure what happened there. I just...
CORDEN: ...I blacked out a little bit. Have I ruined it? I've ruined it, haven't I? I've ruined the Tonys.
GROSS: That's James Corden when he hosted the Tonys this year. That was quite a workout. Was it your idea to do that medley?
CORDEN: Yeah, I was just thinking, well, what is it we want to do, and what is it we want to say? And I said, let's try and do a song that will recognize that this is the 70th year of the Tonys, and all of the shows that have been part of that. And mostly, let's make an opening for the kid in Nebraska or in Ohio who dreams of being on a stage, who dreams of one day working on Broadway, and to whom this night signifies the center of their year because I was that kid, you know? If you grow up in Ohio or Michigan, the chances of you going to Broadway to see shows are going to be very slim. And yet, here for one night, on network television, is a celebration of the best of that year. And let's make a song that speaks to them in their bedroom or on their couch.
And it ended with me singing a bit that said to every future leading man who's making his debut in his fifth grade class's "Peter Pan" as pirate number two, to the theater kids from any place with stardust in your eyes, of every color, class and race and face and shape and size, to the boys and girls, transgenders, too, to every Broadway would-be, don't wonder if this could be you. It absolutely could be. And we had a - lots of children on the stage, and then in a blackout, they transformed into all of the best actor and actress, best musical nominees on the stage that time which is the first time the opening of the Tonys has ever had the nominees on a stage. And I'm very, very proud of it, you know. It's a difficult thing to do live. And yeah, I really enjoyed being part of it.
GROSS: So I don't know if you consider this part of your roots in show business, but I know your father was a musician in the Royal Air Force. What did he play?
CORDEN: He played saxophone, clarinet and flute, yeah.
GROSS: And was this mostly in jazz bands?
CORDEN: Well, he would be in the Central Band, the marching band. But then he also would be in The Squadronaires, which was a big sort of 42-piece swing band where he would also act as the compere. When they would play on the QE2 or they would do various events, my father would be the the compere in between and would introduce people up on stage and stuff like that. So he's very funny, my dad. We've used him quite a few times on the show, and the more I watch him do bits for our show, the more I see where I get it from really.
GROSS: Did you play an instrument, too?
CORDEN: No, I always sung, and then I used to play. We grew up in The Salvation Army, so I used to play the cornet and the trumpet. And I started learning the piano, and it's my greatest regret that I never saw that through. I don't know anyone who can play the piano who regrets being able to play the piano.
GROSS: When you say you...
CORDEN: So I'm trying to teach my son right now.
GROSS: So when you say you grew up in The Salvation Army, what does that mean?
CORDEN: Well, we went to - the church we would go to at the weekend was the Salvation Army. So The Salvation Army is a church and a charity where you would wear a uniform and march through the town, yeah.
GROSS: To a lot of us, The Salvation Army are the people with the bells when you're Christmas shopping and...
GROSS: ...The buckets for money. And a lot of us don't know much about The Salvation Army beyond that except in "Guys And Dolls" (laughter) Sister Sarah was a mission babe and she probably worked for The Salvation Army.
CORDEN: Well, she did. She was. She was in The Salvation Army, yeah, for sure, and that was the same. I mean, I have very, very mixed feelings about my time growing up in The Salvation Army. But it was, you know, it gave me a good, solid sort of rock. But predominately, it's a church and then would also be - is also a charity.
GROSS: When you were growing up in The Salvation Army, did you play on the streets with your father?
CORDEN: Yeah, we'd march through the town.
CORDEN: So it's like busking for a cause (laughter).
CORDEN: Basically - I mean, it's so weird because whatever house you grow up in, for a very long time in your life you just think, well, this is normal. This is completely normal because it's all you know. It's only now, you know, since I met my wife and she goes, so hang on. Let me get this straight. On a Sunday, you would put a uniform on. You'd go into the town. You'd get your instruments out and you would march through the town and then someone would do, like, his sermon in the town square. And I'd go yeah. And she'd go, do you realize that that is not normal? And I would say, do you realize that nothing is normal? Everything's extraordinary. There's nothing ordinary anywhere, you know? And no one's upbringing is normal, and if it is, it's probably pretty boring.
GROSS: So did you, like - since you're so into theater, did you like the idea of having, like, a costume to put on, a uniform and to march around playing?
CORDEN: Not really, I did not enjoy - I did not enjoy The Salvation Army uniform, no, because at that age you just want to be - you're trying to impress girls around that age. And nothing's going to impress a girl less than a Salvation Army uniform. Let me tell you that right now.
GROSS: (Laughter) I think that's probably true (laughter).
CORDEN: There's a very real reason - there's a very real reason why Sky Masterson is attracted to a woman in a Salvation Army and it's not the other way around. No one's written a big hit show about the hot girl in town who sees a guy walking in The Salvation Army uniform and goes, wow, luck be a lady tonight, you know?
GROSS: (Laughter) My guest is James Corden. We'll talk more after we take a short break. And singer-songwriter Joan Shelley will perform in our studio with guitarist Nathan Salsburg. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. And here's James Corden with Stevie Wonder in a Carpool Karaoke video.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "STEVIE WONDER CARPOOL KARAOKE")
CORDEN: Thank you so much for helping me get to work, man. It's just the traffic in this city is a nightmare.
STEVIE WONDER: It's my pleasure, man.
CORDEN: Just to be able to go down the carpool lane, it makes such a difference. It really does.
WONDER: When you need a friend to drive along, you know, with you to work...
WONDER: ...Give me a holler.
CORDEN: Are you sure?
WONDER: Give me a holler.
WONDER: Give me a holler.
WONDER AND CORDEN: (Singing) For once in my life I have someone who needs me, someone I've needed so long. For once I'm unafraid I can go where life leads me. Somehow I know I'll be strong. For once I can touch what my heart use to dream of long before I knew someone warm like you would make my dreams come true. For once in my life I won't let sorrow hurt me, not like it hurt me before. For once I have something I know won't desert me. I'm not along anymore...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with James Corden. He took over as the host of CBS' "The Late Late Show" last year. The show is nominated for an Emmy award. The most popular segment, Carpool Karaoke, features guest celebrities joining Corden in his car to sing along with the radio, people like Stevie Wonder, Adele and Michelle Obama. Carpool Karaoke features guest celebrities joining Corden in his car to sing along with the radio, people like Stevie Wonder, Adele and Michelle Obama. This year, Corden hosted the Tony Awards. He's British, and few Americans had heard of him when he became a late night host here.
So in England, you are on some sitcoms before coming to the United States and getting - you know, getting to host "The Late Late Show." And one of the sitcoms was called "Fat Friends." And you played one of the friends...
CORDEN: That was a drama, yeah.
GROSS: It was a drama?
CORDEN: That was a long time...
GROSS: Oh, I thought it was a sitcom.
CORDEN: That was a drama, yeah.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
GROSS: No, that was a drama, yeah.
GROSS: And it was about a group of people trying to lose weight. And then you...
CORDEN: Yeah, it was a six-part, hour-long drama following six characters who all went to a slimming club in Leeds. And each episode would focus on one particular person. So I played the character called Jamie, who was being incredibly bullied and had a mother who was a victim of depression and then, in the end, ended up committing suicide.
GROSS: Oh, oh.
And then after that, you co-created a series...
GROSS: ...Called "Gavin And Stacey." And I did see the first episode of this. And you're best friends with a guy who is much slimmer and more conventionally attractive. And he - you know, your first time out together in this series, he's going to meet the girlfriend which he's only had a long-distance correspondence with. And they actually meet for the first time.
And you're kind of set up with her friend who is, like you, very overweight. And at first, you aren't at all attracted to each other because you both, I think, have your own stereotypes about what it means to be heavy. And then you kind of hit it off, and then things don't go quite right (laughter). I won't get into the details. But anyways, did you fear that your career was going to be defined by being heavy and...
CORDEN: Well - ah - no - maybe. I don't know. I mean...
GROSS: And I should say - at that point in time, you weighed more than you do now. So...
CORDEN: For sure, a lot more. Mostly, I felt like - yes, I felt like the industry is at. I mean, the biggest time was not when we were doing Gavin and - the reason for writing "Gavin & Stacey" was we were in - I was in a play called "The History Boys," which ran at the National Theatre. And then we went on a world tour, and then we finished on Broadway for sort of six and a half months. And the play won six Tony Awards and was - you couldn't get a ticket. It was incredible.
And whilst we were doing that show in London, there's eight boys of a similar age - would come in every day with these film scripts under their arm, which would say, you know, Dominic would be meeting with Steven Spielberg. And this person would be talking about this big drama they've been offered. And this person had two meetings the next day for something else. And the parts that would come my way, at that point, would be like the guy who drops off a TV to Hugh Grant - do you know what I mean? - or, like, the guy who runs a newsstand in a film.
And I was like - oh. It felt like the industry was looking at me and thinking your talent is not important. We believe that you will only play these parts because this is what people want to see. And so it was very much a notion of going, well, we'll take our career into our own hands here and write a show where you can show people that the chubby best friend, if you like, can be absolutely as interesting, as beloved as any other character that you should wish to focus on in a show, you know.
GROSS: And it must have worked because, I mean, you you became very famous in England. And the show got a lot of awards.
CORDEN: Yeah. It was the biggest comedy in the United Kingdom for a few years, no question of that, yeah.
GROSS: It's so weird that, you know, you were so famous in England. And you came here and took over "The Late Late Show," and Americans didn't know you. But it must have been weird for you to go from being, like, really well-known from your TV appearances in England and stage appearances and then come here and you take over this, you know, important show. And no one here knows who you are.
CORDEN: I found it rather liberating actually. The only thing that was frustrating was not being able to get good tables in a restaurant (laughter) at a certain time. That was the only real benefit of anybody knowing who you are. Your life is a lot easier if they don't. But the hardest thing is having 11 weeks to launch a show with a host that no one knows. So you don't have that sort of benefit of time with an audience, you know.
Like, most people that take on these shows have either been on "Saturday Night Live" for 10 years or they've come off a big sitcom or they've come off huge Comedy Central shows. And so there is already a history and a relationship with an audience that means you will have a benefit of time. People will give you more time if they already know you and like the work that you've done. We were painfully aware of the fact that we had 11 weeks to launch a show, and we had to hit the ground running.
We didn't have time to find our feet because it was hard enough to book guests to come on our show anyway because people would go, well, I've never heard of this guy. I'll wait and see what it's like. And so we really had to - I mean, I spent probably a good eight or nine days just driving around to publicists' offices in Los Angeles and trying to tell them that the show was going to be a safe and good place and that, honestly, we would love to have their clients on our shows, you know.
That's where it was difficult, just trying to launch something. You know, I don't even know if I realized how, sort of, below-zero we were. You know, we weren't even starting at zero. We were - I couldn't get in the building at CBS without my pass. That's how unknown I was, you know.
GROSS: Is it like a dream come true for you to be in a car singing along with some of the people who, I assume, are people who you have great admiration for musically?
CORDEN: Of course. I mean, look, I never even thought I'd ever get to meet Stevie Wonder, let alone sit in a car with him and him call my wife and sing I just called to say James loved you down the phone. You know, so much of my life right now I sort of think if this was an auction prize, it would go for hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know? And yet for some reason I'm afforded the chance to do these things.
And every single day I sit and I think I don't know what I've done to deserve so many incredible memories in my life, you know? Like, at this point right now, at 37 years of age, to have been part of so many sort of different things, whether that be theater or writing a sitcom or hosting a show like this or driving around in a car with incredible people, I really - I don't know what I've done to deserve such a existence right now.
And all I'm set on doing is just trying to enjoy it because that would be the greatest waste. If I were to look back on this at any point and go, God, I didn't enjoy that enough, I would really kick myself for it. So I just want to try and enjoy every second of it. And particularly those moments because just to sit in a car with Elton John and sing "Rocket Man," "Tiny Dancer," it's ridiculous that that would be one's life, you know?
GROSS: Well, good luck with the show, and thank you for being...
CORDEN: Thanks very much.
GROSS: ...Part of our show. Thank you so much.
CORDEN: What a pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: James Corden hosts "The Late Late Show" on CBS. It's nominated for an Emmy. After we take a short break, singer-songwriter Joan Shelley will perform in our studio with guitarist Nathan Salsburg. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest is singer-songwriter Joan Shelley. You can hear the influence of Appalachian folk music in her songs while her clear bell-like voice may remind you of '60s British folk singers like Sandy Denny. New York Times music critic John Pareles wrote, there's a rare stillness in Ms. Shelley's tunes. Her lyrics don't tell stories. They contemplate places and situations, landscapes that can be geographical, psychological and sometimes both.
While she was on tour for her album "Over And Even," Shelley stopped by our studio to talk with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger and to perform some of her songs with guitarist Nathan Salsburg. Salsburg has his own albums of guitar instrumentals and is the curator of the Alan Lomax Archive. Here's Shelley and Salsburg in our studio playing Shelley's song "No More Shelter."
JOAN SHELLEY: (Singing) Pull up the horses and carry me back behind the lines. Back to the water, back with the gardens and the vines, where two hands of ash and gold chase down my fever and wash me with soap. And half of us were losing and half of us were wrong. Well, a rose you planted. Leather and rope, fire inside the rock. The heavens open, I am like a child on the spot. Asking God why'd you come? Was it all for some glory, was it all for a song?
And my eyes are still searching for a light in the fog, a sweetheart to sing for me. I was thrown from the center, where I once so bravely spun. I was pulled through the colors, through the colors did I run. And my eyes were wide and gleaming, though wind-whipped by the storm. There is no more shelter for the broken. There is no more shelter for the broken.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That was terrific. Thanks so much for playing that. That's Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg "No More Shelter" from Joan Shelley's album "Over And Even." Thank you so much for coming in today.
SHELLEY: Thanks for having us.
BRIGER: So Joan, you wrote these songs when you were spending time in Greece before a European tour. It sounds like it was, like, both a beautiful time and also maybe a little bit of a lonely time, like you were traveling alone maybe.
BRIGER: You didn't speak the language. Maybe you were missing human interaction but finding that natural world kind of compelling. I mean, that feeling, there's like a wistfulness that seems to come through a lot of these songs which you wrote there - while you were there, right?
SHELLEY: Yeah. I had been trying to catch up a little bit on my Greek myths and also philosophy and stuff. So I was reading about Ariadne and that whole story the Minotaur. And so I was on the island of Naxos, where she supposedly was left. And, like you said, without a lot of personal relationships and friendships at night, I was just reading and then imagining these - Dionysus supposedly comes and marries her after Theseus leaves her on Naxos. And so I was just having these relationships with the imagined abandoned gods, you know? We're at this next stage where we don't really believe in our gods anymore and just thinking they may be still lingering there and writing little stories about them.
BRIGER: Your voice is very - it's a very clear voice, and it sounds - I mean, it's hard to describe voices, but it sounds sort of clean. You're not doing a lot of different pyrotechnics with your voice. You're kind of letting it come across straight, and it's very beautiful. But have you always sung like that?
SHELLEY: No. I remember I was maybe 9 years old, my parents told me I had figured out vibrato. And they thought it would never end. Like - they were like I hope she grows out of this phase. And we can't tell her that it's bad because they were just so - they accepted anything that I did and told me it was great, which was awesome. But, yeah, they were right to let that one just go.
But I think I heard - you know shape-note singing, the sacred harp and all that. They were talking about in order to blend, you have to have straight tone. That's part of it. You can't all have vibrato. So it's something I learned when I was trying to work with other voices that you have to get out of the way sometimes. And then when I would sing by myself, too, it seemed like getting out of the way of myself or some kind of need to demonstrate ability...
SHELLEY: ...And just make that note very simple.
BRIGER: Well, let's hear another song. Would you guys be willing to do "Not Over By Half"?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT OVER BY HALF")
SHELLEY: (Singing) You've torn your shirt. You've outgrown this town. Your friends are all scatter, and you're lonesome. But you're still searching for music in the sounds. It's a tame world will leave you unbroken.
When that day comes and the lights go dim, the weight off your shoulders, the sun off your skin. And the ones who have known you, your lovers and friends will be marked by the spark that was taken. But it's not over by half. There's a gold in your eyes blooming out through the black. And you're still standing and your hand on your lap. No, it's not over, not over by half.
BRIGER: That's beautiful. That's John Shelley, Nathan Salsburg singing "Not Over By Half," which is from Joan Shelley's album "Over And Even." So you grew up on a horse farm in Kentucky. Can you tell us something about your childhood, and did your parents run the farm? What was your childhood like?
SHELLEY: My mom kept horses. Not that many - it's not turning them out probably the way that implies. But I was about 30 acres outside of Louisville, Ky., with a little stream. And my dad was a visual artist, and they split up when I was young. So my mom was, like, really the center of our family. I have a couple brothers, and she loves trees and taking care of them and growing specimen - you know, like, keeping that one ash tree alive is, like, her whole focus right now.
We had tons of dogs, always. We had cats. And just a lot of my memories as a child are of, like, playing in mud puddles, being allowed to kind of wander and have, you know, contact with amazing fuzzy creatures.
BRIGER: Well, you started writing songs at an early age. And you won a competition at school for a song you wrote. Do you remember some of the lines of that song, and would you share them with us?
SHELLEY: I can't, I can't, I can't (laughter).
BRIGER: You're a little embarrassed about the song. Can you...
SHELLEY: I know. I still haven't gotten over it, apparently.
BRIGER: Well, what was the song about?
SHELLEY: It was very patriotic. It was called "Fight For Our Country." I can't believe I'm saying this because I am such a pacifist right now and as a human. But I was, like, 9 years old and in an elementary school where kids were - like, you could tell pretty conservative. But I was a sponge, and I was trying to, like, write something that my friends also thought. It was just - it's hilarious to look back on it.
BRIGER: And then so you won a competition. Did you have to then sing it in front of everyone?
SHELLEY: Yes. Yeah, it was the first time I'd ever sung in front of people. It was an auditorium of kids at my school, and I was in the choir. And I remember that very, very well just, like, staring into the lights on the floor because I was overwhelmed. I used to be very shy, so that was...
SHELLEY: ...A big accomplishment for me.
BRIGER: So did you continue to write songs after that?
SHELLEY: And I think I thought I'd had my market figured out. I wrote another, like, kind of historically based thing about Christopher Columbus - didn't win.
BRIGER: (Laughter) But you did say that you were a shy kid and actually wrote before that you hardly spoke in high school and you had stage fright. So how did you get over that? I mean, you perform all the time now, all over the place.
SHELLEY: I don't know. I wonder how many other people say this stuff, too, of just like I was horribly afraid. But for some reason I wanted to be performing. Like, I wanted to be in the choir as soon as I could get in there, so that's one of many. That's not really a lot of pressure and focus. But I was the youngest kid of my family. I think I was used to getting that kind of, like - make everyone laugh, get out there. And that's the comfort zone for me.
SHELLEY: So there was a mix of that. But I started playing out in Athens, Ga., when I was about 18...
BRIGER: Like, at just coffee shops or open mics or something?
SHELLEY: Sneaking in little bars and coffee shops.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with singer-songwriter Joan Shelley. Her latest album is called "Over And Even." She and guitarist Nathan Salsburg will perform another song after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with singer-songwriter Joan Shelley and guitarist Nathan Salsburg, who are also performing some of Shelly's songs.
BRIGER: Well, I have to ask you about this. I read that in college you were on the skydiving team.
BRIGER: So, first of all, I didn't know there were skydiving teams in college. But how on earth and in the sky did you get involved in that?
SHELLEY: We did competitions. We did formation skydiving. And every other school that was in there was military. So we were one of the few schools that had just - were doing formation skydiving. And I just saw a rack of the clubs around campus and I was trying to find friends. I'd gone to Georgia thinking, big school, away from home, different community. But everyone at that school knew each other. So I really had to make an effort to make connections. And I think that was the most extreme - I was like, if these people like doing this, maybe we can bond. This is so far out from everything else.
BRIGER: Did you like doing it? I mean...
SHELLEY: I loved it.
BRIGER: ...Did you like leaping from a plane?
SHELLEY: I don't remember the first time. I think I blacked out the first time I did it. I don't remember it at all.
BRIGER: Yeah. Were you attached to someone that first time, or...
SHELLEY: Yeah, there's two people holding you like a piece of luggage the first time, yeah. But if you pull your parachute and you're by yourself, now, thinking about it, it's terrifying.
BRIGER: So you don't do it anymore.
SHELLEY: I don't do it anymore, yeah. It's a little expensive. And I started not liking the smell of tons of gas being burned for my skydives, you know?
BRIGER: Right, right. How do you guys work together in terms of how you're going to collaborate and meld?
SHELLEY: There are different songs with different approaches. "Over And Even," and then the song on the previous album, "Electric Ursa," the two title tracks of the two last albums, actually, were kind of little guitar riffs or guitar melodies that Nathan had written that I took away and wrote a melody on top of. And then we arranged something together. Though, the rest of the songs are songs I wrote on my own and then I brought to Nathan and he kind of fit in. He plays harmony with his guitar as well as a lot of the rhythm weaving in there and changing the arrangement a little bit for parts he comes up with.
BRIGER: Would you guys mind playing one more song before we end? Would you be willing to do "My Only Trouble"?
BRIGER: Could you tell us a little bit about that song?
SHELLEY: The idea for the song came from my desire to be like Dolly Parton. She wrote a song called "The Bridge." And I saw a video of her playing on "The Porter Wagoner Show,". And I wanted to write a song as simple and heart-piercing as that one and tried to whittle it down. I wanted it to be short. I wanted to be concise in a story. So this is the song that came out.
BRIGER: Great. Well, it's a beautiful song. Thanks so much for being here, Joan Shelley, thank you. Thank you, Nathan Salsburg, for being here.
NATHAN SALSBURG: Thank you.
SHELLEY: Thanks for having us.
SHELLEY: (Singing) Once we stretched out so fair, my hand here, your mouth there. As the fog stacked around us, there was hay in your hair. And the salt of our skin - grind the clay there within - it was mine that would harden and then cease to bend, when my only trouble, when my only trouble, when my only trouble is you. Now, I stand at the wood where the wind bends the pines. And the place where you loved me wears the marks of our spines. But when spring still shows, brings the tulip and the rose, whether no one will pity the girl in the throes. When my only trouble, when my only trouble, when my only trouble is you. Now, I won't scorn the god who had thickened the fog. He's the one that brings the thunder when that's all I've got. When my only trouble, when my only trouble, when my only trouble is you.
GROSS: Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg performing in our studio. They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Brigger. Shelley's latest album is called "Over And Even." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with writer Jay McInerney, actor Michael K. Williams and comic Ali Wong, check out our podcast. You'll find those and other interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner who is busy today preparing for her wedding. Congratulations, Thea. I'm Terry Gross.
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