Photo by Genevieve Pierson
Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Ryan Bort speaks with Shelby Earl about leaving Amazon in pursuit of becoming a songwriter at 37.
Shelby Earl laughs as she nibbles on a half-eaten donut and sips from a cup of coffee at Dun-Well Doughnuts in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In town from Seattle for CMJ, she’s discussing her general state of mind since quitting her job at Amazon in 2009 to pursue a career as a singer and songwriter. She was 33 at the time; now she’s 37, which I’m guessing is probably well above the mean age of artists appearing at a music conference meant to showcase up-and-coming talent. She loves it, though.
“I enjoy being a grown-up songwriter,” she says. “I just feel so much more calm. Money stuff is really the only thing that gets stressful, but when you’re older you know that. You come around.”
Until she decided to leave behind a life of steady paychecks from one of the world’s most successful corporations, Earl’s story was not a particularly uncommon one. She played in a band and worked in the music industry throughout her twenties; the band was moderately successful but ultimately decided to call it quits for totally legitimate reasons. Then, with the scarier, post-twenties phase of adulthood looming, she tabled her artistic ambitions to settle into a more practical career.
But in one of life’s paradoxes, as soon as Earl resigned herself to a sterile, office-bound existence full of long hours and bottom lines, the floodgates of creativity burst open and she began writing songs, almost uncontrollably, for the first time in her life. Six years later she’s her own boss, playing shows and doing interviews in New York in support of her second self-released solo album, Swift Arrows. Speaking of which, she needs to go to pick up the guitar she left at the venue last night. She gets a to-go bag for the other half of her donut.
The venue is Pete’s Candy Store, and as it hosts Riot Act Media’s CMJ showcase the bar is crowded and loud and full of music industry people taking advantage of a generous PBR-and-a-shot special. Beyond the din of networking, in a narrow back room that resembles the inside of some kind of wood-paneled school bus, a small audience sits still and quiet and attentive as Earl plays acoustic guitar and sings. In such an intimate setting, her deeply affecting songs register on an almost paralyzingly visceral level, her lyrics alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, wrenching hearts and lifting spirits. She is able to articulate the inherent messiness of life and love with such acuity and grace that to listen to her perform almost feels like trespassing on something that wasn’t meant for public ears, like hearing a musical rendition of someone’s diary.
To take this in and then think about how Earl didn’t even begin writing songs until she was 30 is mind boggling, but discovering her gift later in life allowed her to color in mature, emotionally complex themes with a curiosity and freshness of spirit that’s rare, if not absent, from popular music. Just as some argue that a proper novel cannot be written until the writer has accumulated a certain amount of life experience, the same could be said for the kinds of songs that Earl writes. Rock and roll is an inherently youthful endeavor, but more than anything else, Earl is a storyteller. As she plays at Pete’s, people sit on the ground in front of the small stage with their legs crossed and knees pulled up against their chests, like schoolchildren being read to.
Despite the often devastating ground her music covers, Earl does not have a closed-off or overly intense personality. Between songs she cheerfully engages with the crowd, almost as if to compensate for the minor chords her lyrics can strike in the hearts of those present. She smiles and jokes and introduces Joan Hiller, the owner of Riot Act, whose publicity services are some of the only third party help Earl enlists, and Hiller’s fiancé Matt Lemay, who both join Earl on stage for “The Artist”, a relatively playful song about being in a relationship with a creative person and their ego. She finishes her set with the biting title track off Swift Arrows, which she released in July, and someone passes around a donation basket.
Watching Earl play at Pete’s were several of her friends from Seattle, as well as living legend of the Pacific Northwest music scene and Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman, who stood at the opposite end of the school bus venue from the stage, where the emergency exit with that big red lever would be.
Also present was Travis Klein, an audiophile with a predilection for Seattle music who just opened a record store, Human Head, in Williamsburg. He came out to see Earl because he met her on an airplane traveling from Seattle to New York four years earlier, just when Earl was deciding to leave Amazon. Sometimes the world of independent music can seem impossibly small, and, as Earl is now constantly reminded, it’s full of serendipitous little miracles that you could spend a lifetime searching Amazon’s massive Seattle campus for and never find.
In her twenties, Earl played in a duo called The Hope with her best friend, composer Katie Freeze. Earl sang and Freeze, an accomplished songwriter, wrote and arranged all the music. After releasing their only album, In The Deep, in 2007, Columbia Records showed some interest, but when the label came to Seattle to see them play live they weren’t impressed. “There were like 50 people in the audience because we hadn’t played any shows,” Earl remembers. “We didn’t have an audience. We weren’t ready.”
Soon thereafter they were forced to cancel a tour because of a family illness, and after sitting down to consider what they both wanted out of the band they decided to go their separate ways. Earl was a fan of simpler, three-chord song structures, while the classically-inclined Freeze preferred more lush and ornate instrumental arrangements. “We taught each other a lot and it was a good partnership,” Earl says, “but we were finally just like ‘let’s just be friends.’ We toasted.”
While with The Hope, Earl worked in radio promotion for a local record label and as a booking agent at Seattle’s Experience Music Project. Around the time the band dissolved she parlayed her industry experience into a career in music retail at Amazon. She resigned herself to only working in the industry “day job style,” but also started taking guitar lessons and trying to write songs of her own on the side. Before long she was scribbling down turns of phrase in the middle of meetings.
“I told myself that maybe I’d just work in the industry,” she says. “I think that’s important for the creative person to do sometimes. I had to really look at my reasons for why I had been doing it and why I was maybe going to stop doing it, and then, I shit you not, songs just started coming.”
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.
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.
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.