If Shelley Doty is hard to pin down, it's partly because she never stands still for long. Before forming her own Shelley Doty X-tet, the Berkeley-raised singer-songwriter-guitarist fronted the band Jambay for seven years, and has since lent her guitar to projects all over the local musical map, from avant-chamber-rock outfit Bonfire Madigan to world-beaters Pele Juju to rock band Kindness to "pagan lounge" combo Rosin Coven. Whether she's working on an animated-film soundtrack, a jazz tribute gig, or a symphony, Doty is always up to something, though her main squeeze remains her ever-fluctuating X-tet, stocked with an ever-rotating cast of musicians. "X is a variable -- that's the one thing I learned in high school algebra that stuck with me," she says. "That gives me that flexibility to play with so many amazing folks.
"Singer-songwriter-guitarist" is a somewhat generic phrase nowadays, but for Doty, the folk-informed singer-songwriter and the funky, fiery guitarist are two sides of her musical personality so strong they almost constitute a Jekyll-Hyde relationship. "The singer-songwriter-guitarist part of me is an aspect, and then on the other side is the instrumentalist part of me that thrives on interacting musically," she says. "Taking words out of it completely, the music itself is a language, and when you're interacting with another musician who's willing to speak to you in that language, you can say all kinds of things you can never say with words. And in a way that's diametrically opposed to being a singer-songwriter, singing my folk songs. But both of those are integral to who I am and how I relate to music. I play rock with a jazz attitude."
That's a good start toward describing Doty's sound, but it's only the tip of an iceberg that covers a lot of terrain -- hers is a kind of music that leaves you grasping for metaphors simply because it doesn't fit easily, or even with difficulty, into any one box. "It seems like musicians and artists right now are discouraged economically from having a broad foundation," she says. "I mean, I play a lot of different kinds of music, and I wonder if it makes it difficult for audiences to latch on: 'Oh, Shelley Doty's playing. She sounds like x. I want to hear x right now.' I get that. But I learned a long time ago that in order to play the best music I can play, I need to be inspired by it. Trying to think of it in terms of how it can be marketed isn't the inspiring part. I've always been inspired by these artists in the rock world who are defined by the fact that their creation is uniquely their own: David Bowie, Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Suzanne Vega, Kate Bush. When any one of those people puts an album out, you don't know what it's gonna sound like before you buy it. I had a dream that at some point that's how it would be for me, that people would be interested in picking up what I was putting out because they were interested in hearing what I had to say musically, whether it fit into one specific genre or not."
On her newest disc, Over the Line, Doty radiates vast reserves of upbeat creative energy that can easily be heard in the nine dreamy uppers packed onto the album. Her rootsy rock has a deep and soulful groove, with jubilantly jazzy vocals, a folk foundation, and an elasticity that can as easily accommodate Dave Pellicciaro's wailing Hammond B-3 organ or Brian Knave's campfire harmonica as Beth Vandervennet's sleepy cello or Jessica Lurie's plaintive sax. Of course Doty's guitar, electric or acoustic, guides us with a deft and steady hand throughout, but does so in a self-assured and non-showy way, always serving the songs instead of vice versa. "I don't think there's a single guitar solo on there until the fifth track," she says, "which wasn't by design. I love to take guitar solos, and the solos that are on there I'm extremely proud of, but they have their place."
Doty's release party Friday night is bound to differ from the shebang that greeted her last disc, 1999's Possible Reasons for My Insomnia, which came out just in time for her appearance at the Lilith Fair, where she'd been chosen from more than eight hundred applicants for the sole local-artist slot on the bill, and where she wrapped up the fest playing guitar in the final number with Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Sarah MacLachlan, and Chrissie Hynde. "So that was my CD release party, playing the Lilith Fair," she recalls. "We pretty much had carte blanche to run around and hand our CDs out and meet everybody and just be excited about being the only unsigned band around."
My Insomnia was a damn catchy record with plenty of room for Doty's funky guitar work to shine, but it was also recorded over three days at a friend's house, while Over the Line is a more polished, smooth-flowing studio effort focused on crisp and tight songcraft. "As a musician, I put my effort into presenting my music in a coherent fashion," Doty says. "And this CD represents me really well, I think. It doesn't represent all aspects of me -- it doesn't represent the avant-jazz or the avant-punk -- but it's a good chunk out of the middle."
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