Joseph Shipp “Free, for a While”

Independent, 2022

A distinctive voice that tells well-crafted stories that resonate with honesty.

Joseph Shipp it seems, really can enviably do it all: He’s a musician, an award-winning graphic designer, and a photographer so skilled that a book of his work was published in 2018 (the intriguingly titled ‘A Community in Black & White: A Most Unusual Photo Album of One Southern Community’). His latest album, however, was born from surprisingly humble life events; namely, becoming a father, the craziness of the past two and a half years, along with moving back to Nashville after several years living in California.

‘Rest Assured’ is immediate with its impactful full-bodied traditional country sound, but I think Shipp ultimately described it far better than I ever could when he called it “an apocalyptic fever dream played by a Baptist church band”. As obvious a comparison as it may be to make, but Bob Dylan instantly comes to mind the moment Shipp’s vocals hit on that first track, his nasal, sharp delivery imparting his words in a way that offers an implicit assurance of truth. ‘Where You Are’ is decidedly more upbeat than its predecessor with a heavy pop sensibility. “It’s alright / We’re just falling through space / It’s OK / One day you’ll find your place,” Shipp assures anyone with chronic social anxiety who might need reminding there is a place for them out in the world.

‘Green Grows the Laurel’ is a traditional folk song that Shipp discovered, but not wanting to do a straight up cover version, he instead added some of his own lyrics to make up the chorus (“I lied to you / About how I feel”) which helps to give the whole thing a decidedly modern indie rock hue. “When you left here / It was a cold winter / I heard the news / When I was eating dinner,” sings Shipp of a sudden death on ‘Only the Moon’, his vocals providing a hint of Daniel Johnston-style shaky vulnerability, adding even more feeling to a song already heavy with it. ‘Beast in the Attic’ feels even more like a lost Johnston recording, right down to the naivety of the lyrics with their theme of a spooky fairytale (“Beast in the attic / Beast in the house / Don’t close your eyes at night / For there’s something wild around”).

Gentle acoustic guitar picking welcomes you into the folky ‘American Man’, a song that lyrically could fit happily into Nirvana’s back catalogue, American hyper-masculinity being a subject Kurt Cobain returned to writing about time and time again. “I’m an American man / Land of the free / I’m an American man / Should’ve joined the Marines / I’m an American man / Blow it all to smithereens,” he sings, taking aim at the kind of culture that took an even greater hold during Donald Trump’s time as president.

Shipp wrote ‘Turned into Someone Else’ with a clear goal in mind: to make a good driving song, and with the catchy baseline and chorus he produced (“Just wanna be free for a while / Just wanna be / Just wanna be me for a while /Just wanna be”), I think it’s fair to says he achieved it. ‘550 Sq Ft’ is surely the most autobiographical of all the songs on the album, telling the fairly straightforward story of leaving a much-loved apartment in San Francisco to move to Nashville, with Shipp’s young son even getting a mention: “Now our boy’s growing up so sweet / A little bit of you and me / His world’s so big / Take a look through his eyes / Banging on his little drum / Remember how far we’ve come / From that five hundred fifty square feet of love”.

Perfectly titled, ‘Late October Mist’ indeed invokes the mysterious air of change that hangs in the air in the autumn season, while the dour and rock-tinged ‘Dod’ looks at things from an even darker perspective: “Money rots your soul / And leaders lie,” Shipp warns. “All rivers will flood / All in good time / Friends will disappoint you / All babies someday die / And the Devil’s own daughter will / Eat you alive”. On the final track, the gentle ‘Lonely Youth’, Shipp sings sweetly but sadly about the fact he was an only child who longed for siblings (“A brother I never had / A sister too / Nobody’s fault / But it comes up in talk / A simple truth / It was a lonely youth”), although he ultimately, in a way, fulfilled his desire by having child of his own, concluding: “Somewhere down the road a ways / I settled down with someone cool / Made a few kids / It nearly brings me to tears / A simple truth / No more lonely youth”.

Yes, with music, photography and design all as strings for his bow, Shipp may be a jack of all trades, but he’s certainly a master when it comes to songwriting.

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About Helen Jones 132 Articles
North West based lover of country and Americana.
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