Shelley Short performs well under pressure. Not only that, but making a record in almost no time at all is almost her default mode of operation. The native Portlander's new album, Pacific City, is equal parts impromptu collaboration, destination album and, ultimately, a latent masterpiece. And it only took a week to make.
"I didn't have an album written or anything," she says, smiling almost constantly between sips from her cappuccino in Portland Roasting's Cupping Room Café. "It was really just an opportunity to hang out."
After the release of 2014's Wake the Dreamers—a covers album conceived, recorded and mixed in only two days, which included contributions from several local musical bigwigs such as Corey Gray of Graves and Chris Funk and Nate Query of the Decemberists—Short eschewed the traditional obligations of a songwriter trying to push a new album out and instead spent most of her time and effort studying to earn a master's degree in education. Working as a substitute teacher in tandem with studying became a demanding endeavor that pulled more and more time away from writing and performing.
"I was in school full-time all of 2015, like, full, full-time," she says, eyes wide for emphasis. "I didn't really have time to think about it."
It was during this hectic period that the avant-garde composer and budding producer Peter Broderick picked up a copy of Wake the Dreamers from the shelves of North Mississippi record store Beacon Sound, where he was working. Intrigued by his discovery of another local, kindred musician, he extended an offer to Short to come out to Sparkle, his work-in-progress studio in the Oregon coastal town of Pacific City, to record something—anything she wanted, so long as he could produce.
Broderick's eclectic resume includes deceptively sparse and moving ambient piano pieces and neo-classical folk, as well as a tenure in Efterklang, the Danish indie-rock band who recruited the constantly on-the-go Broderick while he was traveling through Europe. Once the two convened to the coast, dormant ideas materialized. "He's just one of those dudes," Short says. "He plays drums, guitar, piano. He plays everything."
Utilizing Broderick's jack-of-all-instruments facility, Short committed to a week of recording the as-yet-unwritten album, harvesting from a mental backlog of ideas and imbuing them with the placid beauty of her environs.
The songs on the resulting album, which she titled Pacific City, almost sound like standards ripped from an unheard volume of the American Songbook. They're the kind of bright, beguiling tunes that immediately strike you as familiar. Album opener "Death" could be a campfire sing-along passed down through word-of-mouth across generations and newly revived. Halfway between "Danny Boy" and "Sea of Love," it ponders the inevitable to a lilting waltz lullaby.
Broderick sets Short's voice in a mostly stark bricolage, surrounded by only melody or percussion. Piano chords pulse out a progression behind a somber lament on "Book Under a Tree" while a tambourine and bass drum eke out a subtle backbeat. "Muddy River" also uses a simplicity that somehow manages to sound enormous, much like Phil Elverum's production of early Mirah. The actual utensils are lo-fi, but the end results boom. "Wagoner's Lad" even incorporates a rolling coastal breeze as a background to Short's achingly beautiful a capella croon, conjuring the image of a jilted lover lamenting her lot in life on a 1930s boardwalk. It seems unbelievable that a record put to tape with such ease by its authors in 2014 could be delayed for release for so long. But Short is as nonchalant about its release as she was for its inception.
"I like when things happen organically," she says. "I guess I was just waiting for the right time to put it out, and this is it." She shrugs, her body language implying a nonchalance charmingly consistent with her agreeable attitude. "I got the opportunity, and so it's coming out now."
SEE IT: Shelley Short plays Polaris Hall, 635 N Killingsworth Ct., with Darren Hanlon, on Friday, Aug. 25. 7 pm. $10. 21+.