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This Is Me Now: Shelby Earl on Leaving Corporate America for CMJ

on October 31, 2013, 12:00am
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Before heading to the donut shop where we discussed the inversely proportional relationship between money and happiness in Earl’s life, we stopped by Travis Klein’s Human Head Records, only a few blocks away. Klein is a community-oriented shop owner who takes a grassroots approach to promoting local Brooklyn bands. Artists are invited to hang out on couches in the store and Klein is currently in the process of readying a back room for in-store sessions. He serves us mason jars full of beer from a kegerator installed in the refrigerator, and Earl Instagrams Human Head’s special Sub Pop and Light in the Attic sections so her friends in Seattle can see the local labels getting repped in Brooklyn. Later she notices Klein is wearing a t-shirt from Sonic Boom, a beloved Seattle record store, and she snaps an iPhone photo of that, as well.

Earl brought in a Swift Arrows CD and we go over the aesthetics of the album cover, which features her solemn visage shrouded in shadows. It makes sense considering the dour intensity of some of Earl’s songs, but she hopes it won’t be too expensive to spring for pink vinyl to offset the darkness when the LP comes out in 2014. Klein wants to ensure he’ll get a copy of the limited pressing, imagining it on the top shelf of his display a few years down the road.

The significance of Earl’s 2009 trip to New York, the one where she met Klein on the plane, goes far beyond providing her with a friend that would open a record shop and serve her beer in Brooklyn four years later; it also led to one of the most pivotal moments in her decision to finally leave Amazon and pursue music full time.

Earl was in New York to attend the opening of her cousin Tracy Rocca’s art exhibit, but also to play a show at, of all places, Pete’s Candy Store. At that time she’d been at Amazon writing songs for almost two years and, though still shaky on the guitar, had begun playing shows around Seattle. She landed an opening gig at Pete’s through a friend, and she and her cousin were able to spend a few days beaming at each other’s artistic pursuits.

Rocca also told Earl that set a goal for herself to have a solo art show in New York by the time she was 35, which she had just accomplished. Inspired, Earl decided to set her own goal to achieve by 35: to have recorded one album and be working on a second. She was 33 then, and six months later she left Amazon, selling her stock holdings with the intention of using the money to record her first album.

“I was totally financially secure before but always feeling like it was not the life I had in my mind,” Earl says about her decision to leave. “Why does my life look like this? My final revelation was that no one was making me do this every day, the 9-7 plus weekends, so why was I doing it?”

“You get to your early thirties and things aren’t unfolding the way you want and you just have to do something radical,” she adds matter of factly.

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Photo by Carey Denniston

Earl named her first album Burn the Boats after how her father described her bold new journey into songwriting. She had gone all in, landing on uncertain but exciting shores with no intention of going back. With her Amazon stock money, she intended to rent time in a studio and produce the album herself with the help of engineer Ben Kersten and a few Seattle musicians she was able to recruit, including ex-Fleet Foxes Craig Curran and Bryn Lumsden.

She also contacted John Roderick of The Long Winters about contributing, but when she told him her approach to recording, he suggested they meet for coffee to talk things over. Roderick convinced her to finish the album with him and Long Winters’ bassist Eric Corson at Corson’s studio, and before long Roderick assumed the role of co-producer. Six weeks and a successful Kickstarter campaign later, Burn the Boats was finished.

After it was released, a nerve-wracking experience in its own right, the praise started to roll in. NPR’s Ann Powers, whom Earl had gotten to know while working at the Experience Music Project, penned an open letter encouraging people to listen to the album, and writer Barbara Mitchell nominated “At the Start” to be one of NPR Music’s Songs of the Day. “It just seemed like a total miracle to me,” Earl remembers.

But after pouring everything she had into making the album and having burned the boat she sailed away from Amazon on, Earl was out of money and took a job waiting tables in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. The songs kept coming, though, and before long she was ready to start working on her second album, Swift Arrows. She hand’t yet turned 35.

Roderick told her that if she ever needed anything from anyone in the Seattle music community that she should just ask. So she worked up the courage to email Damien Jurado about producing her second album, seeking the sound he and his producer Richard Swift captured on Jurado’s 2012 album Maraqopa. To her surprise, he said yes almost immediately.

While Burn the Boats was recorded track by track, with Earl and Roderick tinkering here and re-recording there, Jurado was committed to cutting the first and most honest takes of Earl’s songs, imperfections and all. They reserved six days at Seattle’s Columbia City Theater and he told Earl to practice up. She was essentially going to be performing for him.

Jurado’s raw approach unnerved the perfectionist in Earl at first, but she trusted his vision and complied. “There are vocal performances on Swift Arrows that I didn’t think were the strongest, and [Jurado] was like, ‘That’s what you sound like live. Why would you want to do something that you don’t actually do?'”

Though the recording of Swift Arrows is much more vulnerable and full of character than that of Burn the Boats, its songs are much more confident and self-assured. The lyrically brutal title track and lead single “Sea of Glass” are delivered with more gusto than anything from Earl’s first album, and on the crippling slow burner “Grown Up Things”, Earl harshly castigates a lover for his inability or unwillingness to grow up and confront reality. On “This Is Me Now”, Earl unapologetically, but also somehow compassionately, announces her newfound self to someone who isn’t ready to move on with her, a striking example of the tender humanity present in even Earl’s most uncompromising songs.

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Swift Arrows was financed with the help of some local benefactors who believed in Earl’s talent, and she has since quit waiting tables, now able to sustain herself on music alone. Earl has a licensing person, a lawyer, and a PR company, but handles all of her other business by herself, including booking all of her shows and releasing her own albums. On her most recent tour in support of Swift Arrows, she booked every show, tour managed, drove the van, and ran the merch table. When she asked her bandmates why they didn’t help, they told her she never even tried to delegate anything. “I end up just doing everything, and there’s a definite control factor,” she says. “No one’s going to care more than I care, and until they do I don’t know if I’m going to want to [delegate].” She talks about being so busy that she needs an intern. I think she’s joking before she begins to go over her plan to actually hire one.

The success of Burn the Boats and now Swift Arrows has brought Earl in touch with various booking agents and management companies, and she’s now getting help where she can find it. Recently Chicago’s Undertow Music helped her book a living room tour in the mold of those often embarked upon by fellow Northwesterner David Bazan. Earl loved the experience. The more intimate a show can be, the better.

If she continues on her current trajectory, Earl will indeed need to outsource more and more of the business side of her music career. Despite her experience in the industry, her relatively rudimentary know-how can only take her so far. To date she’s only toured around Washington and up and down the West Coast, with the exception of the occasional jaunt to somewhere exotic like New York or Alabama, where Ann Powers helped set her up with some house shows in addition to a gig supporting Ben Sollee that was offered through another booking company.

For now, though, Earl is perfectly content playing living room-scale shows—whether in someone’s house in Tuscaloosa or in an equally intimate dive bar in New York—and taking the rest as it comes. Her second and final show at CMJ is part of a daytime showcase at Skinny Dennis, a Texas-themed bar also in Williamsburg. The audience isn’t as rapt as they were at Pete’s, possibly because there are fewer seating options, possibly because it’s around noon on a Saturday and everyone is still trying to get their minds used to the idea of drinking and watching live music while the sun’s still high in the sky.

But Earl shows no ill effects. She gleefully takes pictures with the friends she is staying with in Brooklyn who’ve come out to see her. All smiles, as always. After a rollicking set by folk rockers Leland Sundries, she sets up by herself in the corner of the bar, shortly thereafter delighting the weary room with her songbird voice. Skinny Dennis is only half-full, and most of those in attendance probably don’t know who Earl is or the road she’s been down or the courage she had to drum up to chase her dream for a second time, the time when it’s the most difficult, after most have already relented to a 9-5. But everyone, familiar and unfamiliar, is watching her and listening to her songs, and as she plays them she can’t help but look up past everything and smile to herself.

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