Shellee Coley is a blessing. Finding Shellee Coley performing at a local pub last year was one of those little gifts of grace you receive when you frequent venues that promote that local music. I’ve gone out to hear Shellee a number of times since that night and one of the reasons I love her is that Shellee Coley is soul singer. Although right at home in the neo-folk movement with its attendant country, americana, and singer-songwriter vibe, Shellee’s music goes right to that place where your heart meets your being. It’s soul music.
She begins her new Songs without Bridges CD with an acapella version of the hymn It is Well with my Soul. It’s a powerfully haunting rendition that feels even more sparse than her solitary voice sitting alone in the front pew of an empty church. You’ll recognize the emotional space she sings from if you’ve ever walked alone in prayer on the edge of the water or knelt by yourself in front of the votive candles in an empty cathedral. Coley’s voice is the soul in those places. She sings only the first verse and the refrain, leaving out the lyrics about sin and Satan, using her voice to evoke the heart in the place of both sorrow and joy, the resting-in-God space of the acceptance of things.
Coley frequently tells stories about her songs while performing and many of those include growing up in a strict Christian home where she was only allowed to listen to religious music. Like many artists who grew up in a strict conservative Christian religious culture, Shellee’s work is permeated by Christian and biblical images. The religious references and allusions are authentic and prayerful, never self-righteous, contrived, or overly pious. They are artistic references from someone who has made peace with her spiritual journey, keeping the good and soul-enlivening, and leaving the rest behind. The tune Open Skies is an example:
“I will stand here singing under open skies.
I don’t need no shelter, I just need to feel the rain.
So I will walk through the valley of my shadows
and I will wade through the water of my death
and I will drink from cup that flows with mercy and love
and I will sing, I’ll keep singing the same old song
till they lay me in the yard. And even though I’ll keep on singing,
Lord, keep on singing my song forever more.”
Coley has written a couple songs about parenting and motherhood, including Conversations with Z from her last CD, which she co-wrote with her daughter. Continuing her mother’s journal on this recording, Free is a prayer that every parent has prayed in his or her own way.
“Sometime I wish I got paid by the hour to do this job.
I can leave at five o’clock and have martinis in my downtown loft.
Sometimes I wish I could find a damn bathroom to myself.
Ten minutes alone without someone knocking on the door
and needing my help, and I’d be free.
Free from a red head jumping all over my bed
on Saturday morning, demanding donuts
and to turn the TV on.
Free from a boy turning into a man before my eyes
and free from a breaking heart
as I watch him try to figure out this life.”
To the Water could have been written purposefully for a baptism or UU water communion liturgy. Coley credits the song to her discovery of the work Anam Cara (Celtic: Soul Friend) by spiritual writer John O’Donohue.
I’m going down to the water today.
I ‘m going down cuz it’s whispering my name,
and I don’t know if I’ll have much to say,
but I ‘ll listen for you and I’ll wait
for the deep to call out to me,
and I’ll wait for your voice to come set me free.”
Songs without Bridges is another page in the prayerbook for all of us for whom music is a spiritual practice. Amen.