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A Tennessee Native, Joseph Shipp Shares The Creative Journey Home To His New Album, “Free, For A While”

Joshua Black Wilkins
Joseph Shipp

 A Centerville, Tennessee native, Joseph Shipp recently returned to Tennessee after six years in the San Francisco area. He’s an artist who creates in different mediums, including photography, graphic design and making music. Shipp and his wife moved to East Nashville to start a family and this new album, Free, For A While explores some of what he was feeling upon returning to find so much change and how being a new dad, being in a familiar yet completely new setting resulted in this eleven song collection, co-produced with Grammy nominated Andrew Sovine (Ashley McBryde). I’ve played a couple of tracks already on The Local Brew Hour, listen for more after this week’s Halloween episode.

AnaLee: Welcome home! How long have you been back in Tennessee now and did you move to the Bay area from Centerville, or had you been in Nashville before? I can only imagine how much you have seen things change. I hope East Nashville is starting to feel like home for you and your family! Tell us a little about growing up in Centerville and where your musical discovery came from.
Joseph: Thanks, AnaLee! I’ve been back in Tennessee for over seven years, which is kind of crazy to me. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. But I guess nearly half of that time we’ve been in a pandemic, and that just obliviated any sense of time I had. I moved out of the Bay Area in 2010 after ten years in Chattanooga, where I went to college and started my design career. Both San Francisco and Chattanooga have changed so much. I think Nashville has undoubtedly changed, much for good, and we love East Nashville. Growing up in Centerville was pretty great for the most part. As I got a little older, I wished I was in a bigger city with access to cool things like a skatepark and good record stores, but as a young kid, it was kind of heaven. Centerville is a small rural town about an hour SW of Nashville. Its main claim to fame is the hometown of Minnie Pearl, who (fun fact) was my grandmother Shipp’s school teacher before she became Minnie.

My parents owned a photography studio just off the Centerville square, my second home. I spent most of my time in the studio surrounded by photo gear, chemicals, and custom framing materials. Everyone in the county knew them and, therefore, me. They worked a lot, so I had a lot of freedom to be a kid. Centerville was small and safe enough that my parents let me take off on my bike with my friends all day. We got into all kinds of stuff as kids. It was a bit like The Sandlot, minus the baseball. It was a blank canvas on which we could paint all our young kid fantasies. I never quite fit in culturally, though. I wasn’t into football, country music, hunting, big trucks, or any of that stuff. My friends and I were into soccer, skateboarding, alternative music, and art. Haha, we were in the cultural minority. But now that I’m older, I’m really thankful I grew up where I did. It provided me a great foundation and perspective on life. I also spent a lot of time in nature, which I love. The lack of that is something I struggle with while living in the city.

My dad is to blame for my musical taste and aspirations. He was a big music fan and introduced me to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, and Classical and Irish folk music. There weren’t really any musicians in my family—I kind of discovered that myself. Dad always dreamed of learning the guitar one day, and I tried to give him a few lessons, but it never took hold. But he gave me my first vinyl record when I was a toddler. It was Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” and some of my earliest memories are of putting that record on and dancing around the house. He hated country music but loved Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline,” so there’s that. Those early influences like Dylan, Tom Petty, and Neil Young are pretty much in my DNA, but in the mid-90s, when I was in middle school, I started discovering the music of my generation. Bands like Nirvana, Weezer, and The Smashing Pumpkins were hugely significant in my desire to want to play music. And Radiohead is still one of my favorite bands. But, just like my dad, I have broad musical tastes, which I hope comes through on the album.

AnaLee: You have many outlets for creativity between photography, graphic design and music. Before we dive into the album, I wanted to ask about the book project you were working on when you started writing songs the eventually l led to the album Free, For A While. Tell us about it and how it may have factored into what you were writing.
Joseph: Yeah, I don’t know if the album would’ve been possible without doing the book project first. There are so many ideas and themes on the album that were a direct result of making that book—things like making peace with where I grew up, coming to terms with the politics and religion of home, and all the weird and sometimes dark things about the South. It’s called “A Community in Black & White: A Most Unusual Photo Album of One Southern Community” and was published by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. It’s a collection of photographs that my grandpa, Joe Hardy Shipp, took between 1946 and the late ‘60s of the community of and around Centerville. It has some significance because it’s one of the only examples of a white photographer of that period in the South crossing racial lines to photograph the black community. Of course, outsiders were doing it at the time, but not many well-documented Southern photographers, like my granddad, were doing that. The idea for the book came while I was living in San Francisco. At the time, I was discovering old-time music and listening to a lot of field recordings of fiddlers and banjo players around the South. I was uncovering a side of the South that was incredibly rich and new to me. It also provided me a new appreciation of where I grew up. It was all I could think about. I think my soul was homesick. So, I had this romantic idea of going off down some backroad looking for my own field recordings. The book became that for me.

My granddad and dad, Ronnie, were both photographers. Joe, my granddad, was a farmer by trade but took up photography to scratch his artistic and social itch. Joe died before I was born, and my dad died in 2003 when I was 20. I was faintly aware that we still had all of Joe’s negatives, but I had no idea how many, what condition, or if they were any good. I flew back home from SF and found about 16,000 4x5 inch negatives, all in excellent condition and, from the looks of it, all pretty good. While living in San Francisco, I encountered all the stereotypes of the Southerner—good and bad. The good came from folks that had first-hand experience with the South. The bad came from well-to-do people that fell into the trap of lazy thinking. I hoped to change that by showing a side of the South that I knew, a place that was beautiful, complex, and rich in community. I felt that Joe’s photographs were a piece of the puzzle the country needed at the time to start healing. I had pretty big ambitions for it as a project, and many of those themes of a soul journey back home and coming to terms with the culture I grew up in are all within the songs on Free, for a While.

AnaLee: The songs on the album go from Tom Petty rock vibes to some beautiful acoustic moments and lyrics that tackle some of that stranger in a not so strange, but rather familiar land. Talk about the recording experience, where you made the record, working with Andrew Sovine and the band you assembled for the album
Joseph: The album's story begins in 2020 during peak lockdown. I had been saving money for a nice family vacation, and when it was evident that that wouldn’t be happening, I decided to invest in some home recording gear. The plan was to do everything myself. In the beginning, it was just something to do and keep my sanity, but as I started making these fuller band-sounding demos, the more I started wanting to do a whole project out of it. The demos sounded good, but they were all over the place sonically. And that’s where Andrew comes in. I’ve known Andrew for most of my life. He grew up in Hickman County. In fact, my dad took his portrait on at least one occasion. So I reached out to him to see if he’d be interested in producing the album, which at the time was half-formed at best. Collaborating with someone who got where I was coming from was essential, and Andrew definitely gets it. I consider him a good friend; we see eye-to-eye on many things. Andrew added a lot to this project. He helped tighten some songs up lyrically and compositionally and provided a sonic identity. We had several options but ultimately decided to record in his home studio in Savannah, Georgia. I loved the idea of not recording in Nashville and especially the idea of recording in Savannah. Savannah is full of ghosts, and I feel like this is a bit of a haunted album. In fact, Andrew’s studio is near the Bonaventure Cemetary, made famous by the book and film adaptation Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. There was a whole day after recording that I spent walking around that cemetery taking photos. He suggested working with drummer Dan Bailey, who has a studio in Los Angeles. Dan is best known as Father John Misty’s drummer and is just incredible. Most of the drums on the album are Dan, except for a few tracks. Jalen Reyes played on Rest Assured, and Andrew played on Turned into Someone Else. Everything else was Andrew and me. Andrew provided most of the electric guitar and bass, and I was on the acoustic.

Most everything was recorded during a week in Savannah. We spent another six months on overdubs and getting all the arrangements dialed in. Knowing we didn’t have an actual deadline or label breathing down our backs was nice. Our only focus was to make a good record. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I wanted to make sure everything felt really good. There was a lot of putting it down and returning to it after a week or two to ensure we were on the right path. I mixed everything myself at my home studio, which was a challenge, but I’m pleased I did it. It was mastered by Philip Marsden, who lives in England.


AnaLee: I’ve included links to the songs, “Green Grows the Laurel” and “Turned into Someone Else”. Can you tell us a little about those two songs?
Joseph: Yeah, those are one of the first and last songs I wrote for the album. “Green Grows the Laurel” is one of the last songs I wrote and came about when Andrew suggested that I find a public-domain folk song to record for the album, given my background in old-time music. I found that song in the book “Folksongs of Britain and Ireland,” which I had purchased because I had read that several of the songs from Bonny Light Horseman’s debut album came from. I was really digging that album and loved what they were doing creatively with those old folk songs. I was immediately drawn to “Green Grows the Laurel.” I had actually never heard the traditional versions before, which I think really helped me rework it. I made some lyric adjustments: I changed it from a female to a male perspective and updated some of the dated words and added the refrain “I lied to you about how I feel.” I had written that refrain, as well as the melody, a year or so earlier and it, was just lying around the scrap pile. I’m happy it found a home.

“Turned into Someone Else” was one of the first songs I wrote that I thought was actually pretty good. I wrote it soon after we moved to Nashville, so it’s one of the older songs on the record. I was definitely going for those big Tom Petty vibes—something you’d want to put on during a good road trip. Most of the songs on the album are pretty personal and autobiographical. This is not really one of those songs, but it definitely resonates emotionally for me. When I moved back to Nashville, it was an isolating time. I was feeling lonely and a little trapped. So, this song is an escape, well, kind of. It’s the feeling of wanting to escape but realizing you can’t really escape yourself. But I also loved this idea of no going back, like physically impossible. The narrator in the song makes this selfish decision to call it off with his girl, and at that moment, she turns into a different person, independent of me and the versions of who we were together. I’ve definitely felt like that was true at certain moments in my life.

AnaLee: Do you have any shows locally and will you be touring at all?
Joseph: Playing these songs live has sparked new joy within me. I’ve lived with them so long as recordings, which starts to get stale, for me at least. Also, since the album wasn’t recorded live per se, playing them with a band feels super good and fresh. Hopefully, a mini-tour will be in the cards.

AnaLee: What’s next for you? More songs, another book project, any subjects you want to photograph?
Joseph: I’m eager to start writing more songs again. I’m not a very prolific writer, and it’s usually a space I need to create for myself and exist in for a while. The process of recording, mixing, promoting, and now performing takes up much of that space right now, as well as my design career and raising a family. I probably need to rest a little after this, but I’m already thinking about the next music project. It’s hard for me to sit still. I have a handful of exciting ideas that I’m eager to work on, and I hope to push myself to experiment as a songwriter and composer. Also, in early 2020, before the pandemic, I was working with The Bitter Southerner to do a second edition of the book, which has been sold out since 2019. I worked with the Hickman County Historical Society to identify all the people in the book, which we would add in an appendix and improve the book's printing quality. I’m really hoping to see that through.

“Green Grows the Laurel”

 “Turned Into Someone Else”


Ana Lee is the host and producer of "The Local Brew," a weekly radio show plus a live showcase for Nashville based artists. She hosts mid-days on 89.5 WMOT Roots Radio, Nashville, is a voice over artist and curator of musical experiences for events.
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