On the weekend, I caught up with Shelby Earl, the charismatic singer-songwriter from Seattle who released one of the best albums of 2013. Her sophomore album, Swift Arrows, was included in many year-end “Best of” lists, including The Seattle Times, Indie-Music.com, Amazon, and the ultra-cool Seattle-based radio station, KEXP.

Earl also caught our attention here at The Revue. She was featured on one of the early editions of Mundo Musique and included on our list of 81 favourite albums of the past year, just missing out on our top-25.

To start the “date” (o.k., it was a phone call), I apologized for not including Swift Arrows on our favourite 25 albums of 2013. Fortunately, Earl was forgiving and gracious for the consideration, allowing our “date” to start on the right foot. During our chat, we talked about her life prior to her career as an independent artist, the making of Swift Arrows with the great Damien Jurado as the producer, and what an actual date with Shelby Earl would be like.

Thanks so much for speaking with me and agreeing to go out on a “date”. Like with any first meeting, let’s get to know Shelby Earl. What were you doing before starting your career as a singer-songwriter?

I’ve actually been involved in music my whole life, but it wasn’t until somewhat recently that I started doing it full-time. Before, I always had day jobs. I worked in the music industry for about 10 years; first as a booking agent, then doing radio promotion for a label, and then finally at Amazon.com working on the music team. I was playing in bands that whole time, but it wasn’t until 2009 that I quit my day job in order to dedicate my full attention to writing and playing music.

So what convinced you to make that leap to full-time musician?

It was a number of things. I wasn’t super happy with my day job at that point, and I needed a change. But what really inspired me to make a change was songwriting. I didn’t start writing songs until my early 30s, but once I started it snowballed quickly and I couldn’t stop. I became completely consumed by it. I would be at work, constantly thinking about song ideas. I would be in meetings, scribbling lyrics in my notebooks, and so on.

It was at that point that I had this moment of clarity, where I realized no one was making me be in a job I didn’t enjoy. That realization happened at the same time this new passion started to take hold. Meanwhile, I had also started playing solo shows in town and getting some positive feedback. So I decided to leave the day job and start making a record. I originally thought it might be a temporary move, but now, four years later, it’s still proving to be the right path for me.

You’re now on the “other side” of the music industry. What’s the one thing that has caught you by surprise as a musician?

When you have a day job, you imagine all the time you would have to write music and be creative if you did this full-time. But I have been shocked to find that it’s almost harder to find any creative time now because I am running my own business and acting as my own manager. So I spend a lot of time on my computer, in meetings, on the phone, just taking care of everything on the business side, which makes it extremely challenging to carve out time to write and be creative.

What was it like to work with Damien Jurado?

It was great. This is my second time working with another songwriter as producer. John Roderick of the Long Winters produced my first album, Burn the Boats. This model worked well for me on these albums because both John and Damien completely understand what it is like to be on the other side of the microphone, and they’ve both walked many miles in these “singer-songwriter” shoes. In turn, they really knew how to coach me. They also both have very open imaginations in the studio, so it was awesome to play around a lot and try different things.

Damien had a unique approach to producing the record. When he laid out his plan for me, he said he didn’t want to hear the songs before we got in the studio because he wanted to listen to everything with fresh ears. I remember him telling me that he wasn’t worried about whether or not the songs were good enough because, at the end of the day, I was the one who needed to be happy with them anyway, not him. So, he told me that I needed to do all of the work ahead of time and show up prepared.

It was kind of a scandalous way of working, to have a producer who did not know the material ahead of time. And it also took a lot of trust on my part because not only was Damien hearing the songs for the first time, but we were recording almost everything live. He said he wanted the sessions to be just me and the microphone and the band playing live in the studio. This is how Damien works – he records live – and I learned that one of his strengths is his ability to make decisions on the spot. He just has a very, very strong gut sense about things. It definitely made for a really wild ride, but he’s just so good at being in the moment.

I would assume this experience with Damien would be invaluable when you go on tour.

Absolutely. It has changed my experience with live performing in a major way. I just don’t have the same fears I used to have. While live performing can be scary, there isnthis sense that even if I screw up there won’t be a lasting record of it. But to make a live album I had to work through the fear that comes from knowing this particular performance will exist for a very long time. Once I got past that, I learned I was capable of doing this and doing it well. This experience kicked my butt, but it also grew me as a musician. Live shows just aren’t that scary to me anymore. I’m able to be a lot more present, a lot more in the moment.

shelby earl live_show_2

If this was actually a date, where would we go and what would we do?

While this may not be very inventive, we would probably go to a rock show. That’s where I spend most of my going out time, hearing bands and attending shows. It is what I love to do. I also love food, so we would have to hunt down good food and wine.

What would you order and what kind of white wine would you be drinking?

I would probably start with oysters-on-the-half-shell, followed by some sort of truffle pasta. I am a white wine drinker these days, although I use to just drink red more often. I am enjoying a great Gruner Veltliner these days. And we’d probably have to start with cava, which goes great with oysters.

What do you hope is playing in the background?

In a restaurant setting, I don’t want to hear anything with lyrics because I am totally a lyrics person and I will end up focusing on that. So, maybe something classical. If there are lyrics, my brain can’t help but listen to them and break them apart. Then my date would be neglected and that would be bad.

Ok. (Note to self – no music with lyrics.) So, who would we see that night?

That’s a great question. Ummm…I’ll go see anything. Well, I don’t usually go to metal shows, but I’ll go to just about anything else.

When you go to shows, do you sing along?

Yeah, if I know the music. I get frustrated when people are passive or not engaged at shows. You know, people who don’t dance or move, but who just stand still, have their hands in their pockets, or talk during the shows.

You are about to commence an extensive tour. What are you most looking forward to and what are you dreading?

I am really excited to be going out on the road again and playing in front of people. I haven’t been on the road since the end of September. While it’s fun to play in Seattle, it’s more exciting for me to play for new ears and to have that exchange with people that can only happen in a live setting.

As for “dreading,” there’s really nothing that comes to mind. I love all parts of touring. I guess there’s always the question about whether your body will be able to keep up because it’s a lot of energy output and performing takes a lot out of you. However, it somehow all works when you get on the road.

When you come out this way and we have a “second date”, I’ll ask you the same question, but more reflecting back on the tour.

Ok. You have a date.

Speaking of which, when will you be coming to these parts? I hope it’s some time soon?

Me too. I have yet to play in Canada, which I feel terrible about because we are only a few hours away from Vancouver. It has totally just been about circumstances, but we’ll definitely get north. I’m not sure when it’ll be on the schedule, but I hope to visit soon.

I know it takes a lot of time to put a record together, but have you started to think about the next album?

Absolutely. I’m currently working on a lot of new material. I have about half an album written and another 10 songs in process. I have a lot done, but I have a lot more writing to do in fleshing out the songs. I’ll probably spend time this summer demoing the new material and then hopefully start recording late fall or early winter.

So an album in 2015?

Yeah, I hope to have an album out some time next year, but I’ll probably release some new material later this year. I do have a couple of one-off things in the works. For instance, there will be two previously unreleased songs from the Damien Jurado sessions that will be available with the vinyl edition, which I’m releasing this week. People who purchase the vinyl will get a digital download code for the album plus these two songs.

With whom would you like to collaborate on the next album?

I have a short list of people I’m thinking about. I’m not sure if I will go down the singer-songwriter-as-producer route because it’s good to mix it up, and there are a lot of great producers in the area. That said, a lot of the names on my list are people who are also musicians.

When I’m ready to record the album, I’ll probably share my music with some people, see if they understand what I’m trying to achieve, and then go from there.

I would like to talk about “The Seer” for a moment. I understand it was actually written a couple of years ago.

Yes, it was. It was actually the first new song I wrote after we made Burn the Boats, and we’ve been playing it for a couple years. So when we went to record it for the new album, it wasn’t very fresh for the band at first. However, there was a new power to it in the studio because Damien didn’t know that song, and it was very exciting to hear it through his ears.

I think it’s a very beautiful, heart-wrenching song and one of the best of 2013. If I may ask, what was the influence behind it?

That’s a good question. It definitely came from a personal experience, and I was trying to make sense of a relationship with a charismatic person who also was a very destructive person. The song in general terms, besides my own personal experiences, is just about that. It’s so often that these really charismatic, forceful personalities also have destructive tendencies, and this song was me making sense of one such person.

It’s one of the songs that still moves me live, as it’s probably one of the closest songs to my heart. That one means a lot to me. So thank you. I’m glad you feel it too.

So in some respects, writing the song was therapeutic?

Oh yeah. Most of my songwriting is therapeutic even when it isn’t autobiographical. Many of my songs are compositions of my own and other people’s experiences. I’m finding that the more I write, the more I draw from the experiences of others, and, therefore, the less autobiographical my songwriting is becoming. This record was very much that, starting from a personal place but the end product is this amalgamation of all these different stories.

What song or slogan would best describe 2013?

It would go hand-in-hand with how I’ve described the meaning of Swift Arrows, the album, which is one can go through a difficult time and not come out of it weaker or wounded. Instead, one can come out of the situation as a warrior – stronger and better. 2013 was just that for me, where there has been a wonderful redemption in writing and performing the music and releasing this album.

As for a song, I would choose one from the album, either “Swift Arrows” or “We Will Die”, which is totally about facing your own mortality and taking control of one’s life. So, I will say “We Will Die” is my song of 2013. Some people say it’s a song about death, but it’s absolutely a song about life, living big, and perseverance.

And finally, how do you want 2014 to be remembered?

2014 will be the year where I break out of my Seattle cocoon and go share my music face-to-face with the world. I plan on going to Europe in the fall, and I hope to get east, too. So, this is the Year I Get Out There!


Shelby Earl Smile

Follow Shelby Earl at the following sites:

Bandcamp where you can buy Swift Arrowshttp://shelbyearl.bandcamp.com/music

Upcoming Tour Dates (click on the venue to get tickets)

  Jan 25 Tractor Tavern
w/ Smokey Brights

Seattle, WA
  Jan 27 Native Sound Recording
w/ Aaron Lee Tasjan

St Louis, MO
  Jan 28 Rozz Tox
w/ Aaron Lee Tasjan

Rock Island, IL
  Jan 29 The Space
w/ Aaron Lee Tasjan

Evanston, IL
  Feb 01 The Southgate House
w/ Aaron Lee Tasjan

Newport, KY
  Feb 02 Willies
w/ Aaron Lee Tasjan

Lexington, KY
  Feb 03 Eddie’s Attic
w/ Aaron Lee Tasjan

Decatur, GA
  Feb 04 Grocery on Home
w/ Aaron Lee Tasjan

Atlanta, GA
  Feb 09 The Manor House

Bainbridge Island, WA
  Feb 25 Mississippi Studios
w/ Tom Brosseau

Portland, OR
  Feb 27 Axe & Fiddle
w/ Tom Brosseau

Cottage Grove, OR
  Mar 01 House Show
w/ Tom Brosseau

Sacramento, CA
  Mar 03 Freight & Salvage
w/ Tom Brosseau

Berkeley, CA
  Mar 06 North Vaudeville and Candy Shoppe
w/ Tom Brosseau

San Diego, CA
  Mar 07 The Sanctuary
w/ Tom Brosseau

Santa Monica, CA
  Mar 08 House Show
w/ Tom Brosseau

Lompoc, CA
  Mar 11 SXSW Official Showcase Austin, TX


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