Song Writing

Shelby Earl

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Shelby Earl spent the past decade marketing other artists' music through her multiple day jobs in the entertainment industry, all while her own musical aspirations blew away with the wind. In 2009, Earl grew tired of the rat-race and decided it was time to "start dreaming again." Having swapped her corporate nine-to-five for a modest waitress position at the local restaurant, Shelby started writing a record. A risk? It sure as heck was…

Luckily, Shelby's plunge paid off. Two years on and the blooming Seattle folk starlet released her debut album, Burn the Boats, to widespread critical acclaim. Earl began dedicating most of her time to writing and life on the road, while still managing to "keep it real" at her restaurant gig.

We first spoke with Shelby in November, 2011. In June, 2013, we got back in touch to discuss her second album, Swift Arrows, and find out if she was still waiting tables. That forms the second part of the interview below.
Jess Grant (Songfacts): You have an incredible skill with words and write very compassionate of lyrics. Where do your lyrics draw their inspiration from?

Shelby Earl: Thank you! I do take words very seriously – both in music and in life in general. I want people to say what they mean. I want to be able to say what I mean. It can be tempting to let something fly out of your mouth to because it's the easy thing to say or because it's what someone wants to hear, but I try to self-check as often as possible to keep myself from that falling into that habit. Similarly, I spend serious time on my lyrics. Not because it's hard to come up with the concepts, but because I want to be sure I'm communicating EXACTLY what I mean to in every word. The inspiration for most of my songs comes personal experience. Often times a lyric will come when I've taken a step back to ponder an experience or situation in my life and I've thought "this is totally wild, there's got to be a song in this." While that is how I come to song ideas most often, there are certainly times where I'm less of a calm observer and there's more crisis or catharsis in my writing process. There are a couple of songs on the album that were written when I was in the thick of it. They are words I had to sing in order to work through the hurt or the fear or the loss I was up against at the time.

Songfacts: Your debut album, Burn the Boats, features a multitude of Seattle big names (Long Winters, Telekinesis, The Maldives, (former) Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart, etc). Is there something about this city that fosters creativity and songwriting?

Shelby: God only knows what the magical connection is between Seattle and it's music-making/music-makers, but l I know that I moved here from LA to go to the university and only planned to stay for 4 years. Now here I sit 15 years (and multiple opportunities to move) later, and can wholeheartedly tell you that the music community is what has kept me. In the early stages of my recording project I had a very empowering conversation with John Roderick (of the Long Winters), wherein he said; "Shelby, you can ask anyone in this community to help out with your record and they will probably say yes." He was absolutely right. I mean, most of the people involved were pals, but there were a few folks I'd never met and really wanted to work with (ie. Michael Lerner of Telekinesis). Sure enough, Michael said yes, as did just about every musician I asked. We Seattle folks may not collaborate in the Nashville sense (co-writing all our songs so we can rake in the publishing cash), but we certainly work together and help each other out a lot. The Seattle music community is very encouraging and supportive of just about anyone making an honest go at music.

Songfacts: The track "Made of Sand" actually moved me to tears on first listen (ssh, don't tell anybody!). Do you think you could tell us the meaning behind this song?

Shelby: Made of Sand is an intense one, no doubt. It's been really interesting and cool to see how differently everyone experiences this song. The words were written after I dated someone who seemed to put me on a pedestal and who lost a lot of himself in the process. It was an odd experience because he was also a deeply religious person and I couldn't make sense of him glorifying me when that devotion should have been aimed at his god. That's why I use so many religiously charged words and phrases in the song. I wanted to paint a picture of one person deifying another while the one being deified knows they are too flawed to stand up under such immense pressure and expectation. You cannot make another person your emotional rock. If you try they will fail you, they will become sand, and you will be left without a foundation in the end.

Those are the lyrical roots of the song, but there is an extra level of spooky in the recording because my best friend, long-time collaborator and old band-mate, Katie Freeze, who wrote the music to this song, had just emerged from awful experience with a stalker. She was totally freaked out when she read the lyrics because they were so reminiscent of the creepy dude's obsessive behavior toward her. She brought that energy to the music and instrumentation and once you know that part of the story it's REALLY chilling to listen to!

Songfacts: "At the Start" features John Roderick (of The Long Winters), who also produced Burn the Boats. Could you tell us a little more about this song, and how John became involved with it?

Shelby: I started making Burn The Boats in late-2009. All I had at that stage was a collection of original songs I was excited about, a little cash, and a VERY foggy vision of what I wanted to accomplish. It was the first time I'd set out on my own, sans band, to make a record. It seemed daunting, but I was able to recruit some friends (members of SHIM, the Maldives, the Head and the Heart, a couple former Fleet Foxes, and others) to help me lay down basic tracks. Those early rehearsals and recording sessions were exciting but not very focused. A few months into the process I met up with John Roderick and played him rough mixes of the basic tracks. At that stage there wasn't really an official "producer" on board, but Ben Kersten (Grand Archives) engineered the early sessions and did a great job capturing sounds. Roderick was excited about the songs, but there was a lot of work still to be done. He knew I was feeling a little lost about how to proceed and he said; "you're making a killer rock record and I'd love to help you finish it as a sort of 'creative advisor.'" We didn't know exactly what that would look like at the time, but we scheduled a few days with Eric Corson (also of the Long Winters) at Eric's home studio just to see what would happen. That first session was totally stellar! It was clear from the get-go that the three of us made a great team and that John in "producer" role worked really well, so we decided to officially define it as such from then on. Together we proceeded to track the lead vocals, all the backing vocals, all the overdubs, and more. That was also when we brought in Michael Lerner (Telekinesis) to track and re-track drum parts on multiple songs.

This was Roderick's first official producer credit on a non-Long Winters record, but he's worked with a few more folks since me and will no doubt do more in the future. He's really good at it. His imagination is WIDE open and his contributions, along with Eric Corson's engineering skills, definitely took my songs to the next level.

Songfacts: Ann Powers says that "Under the Evergreen" is "a call for Pacific Northwest music insiders to transcend their own assumptions of what's cool." What are your thoughts on the song?

Shelby: Again, every song is up for interpretation, and that was Ann's take on the song (which is interesting and insightful)! But it is different from the original intention. I wrote this song when I was trudging through my days at a 9-5 corporate job and I was MISERABLE. I would sit in meetings at work and my heart and mind would be somewhere far, far away (usually cooking up lyrics or daydreaming about touring). But like most people who need to earn their own living, I felt stuck. Finally I had a revelation that no one was MAKING me stay in that job. No one was saying I COULDN'T do music full-time. I just hadn't tried! So it was while I was considering my options that I wrote Under Evergreen. It was sort of a "note to self" - or a personal challenge - to look beyond what seemed to be the obvious path and to start dreaming again. Nearly every time I play the song live, and share what it's about, someone will come up to me afterward and say "Thank you. There's something I know I have to do in life and this song inspires me to go do it." Taking a big leap into the unknown is terrifying – for everyone – but this song brings me total joy because I now have proof that the leap is worth it.

Side note: Ann is right about the fact that I tried really hard not to let "cool" steer my project. I mean, I personally think the album is pretty cool, but "good" was waaaay more of a priority than "hip." The result of letting that priority drive our recording process is that the album's audience seems to be extraordinarily broad. My parent's friends love the record, my own friends dig it, and my friend's kids can grove on it. That's pretty damn cool if you ask me, and way more satisfying than making something that only the cool kids like.

Songfacts: Is there a song on Burn the Boats which is particularly close to your heart, and can you please tell us about it?

Shelby: Yes, there is. "Pacific Love" is one of the first songs I ever wrote. It's also one of the ones I referred to earlier that was written in a state of total catharsis. At the time it was written, I was emerging from a very painful, but also very passionate relationship with someone from another country. I loved him. I knew he loved me too in many ways, but he couldn't give me what I needed and eventually he broke my heart. When the song came to me I was at the point in my grieving where I was fed up with the hurt and thought; "enough is enough. I am just going to decide to believe that he loved me and that I mattered to him so I can finally release this and move on." I had to claim my own value in order to pick myself up "by my bootstraps" - so to speak. This song has been an important companion and healer for me. But even now when I play it I feel very deeply – for that person and for the fact that human relationships can be so broken, even when people care about one another deeply.

Songfacts: What happens on a typical day in your life these days?

Shelby: No two days in my life look alike anymore, which is awesome (and is exactly what I was always day-dreaming about in those mind-numbing staff meetings!). But generally speaking it goes like this: I roll out of bed and head to the computer to catch up on show bookings, tour planning, social media happenings, etc. I make myself coffee and an egg sandwich (a food FAV of mine – in a serious way) and hunker back down for a bit more work on the business end of things. Lately that has involved a lot more answering of interview questions, which is pretty fun for me, being a lover of words and all. ☺ Then, depending on the day or the week, I will run a set of music for an up-coming show, work on new tunes (my next record is almost entirely written!), meet up with band-mates for rehearsals, and/or head to work at my restaurant gig. Yes, I DO still hold down a part-time job. But it's easy and fun and it allows me the freedom to come and go and do what I need to do to build my musical life. Plus, serving people (regardless of how respectful of you they are - or aren't) is humbling and a great way to keep your feet on the ground. I suppose working in a restaurant is my way of "keeping it real" when the rest of my life kind of feels like a dream.

Her debut album earned Shelby the acclaim of her musical peers in Seattle; she ended up on bills with Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Rhett Miller, and Loudon Wainwright III. Her second album, Swift Arrows, comes out July 23, 2013. It was produced by Damien Jurado.
Songfacts: Many of the songs on Burn the Boats drew their inspiration from your relationships. Where do the songs on Swift Arrows draw their inspiration from? Is there a prominent lyrical theme that runs through the album?

Shelby: Some of the songs on Swift Arrows also draw inspiration from relationships, but I've definitely branched out a bit thematically this time around. In these songs I'm reflecting more on how people get through difficult or painful life experiences - relationally or otherwise – and how those experiences shake us, redefine us, and ideally grow us up and make us stronger. This record is about moving through life's battles with grace and coming out the other side a warrior.

Songfacts: Putting the lyrics aside for one moment: How would you say that Swift Arrows differs musically from Burn the Boats, Shelby?

Shelby: This record is more spontaneous, more raw, and more live than Burn the Boats. We tracked the whole thing in just 8 days so you, the listener, get an honest account of what we did in the studio. It's more dangerous that way too, there are flaws left in, but they are flaws that FEEL good. Stylistically, this record has fewer country elements than Burn the Boats. I've never identified as a country artist so I was always surprised when people said they heard that in my sound. I think one would be hard-pressed to find a country edge in this collection of songs.

Songfacts: What is the story behind the absolutely gorgeous "Swift Arrows," and why did you name the album after this song?

Shelby: When someone has hurt you it is natural to want to fight back, but sometimes words are all you have and they aren't weapon enough (although we often try to make them so). "Swift Arrows," the song, is about going through a trying time with another person and wanting to take them down somehow, or to be the one who comes out ahead in the end. But if you're a healthy, balanced person, you ultimately realize the old adage that says "happiness is the best revenge" is the absolute truth. I named the album after this song because it encompasses many of the themes running through the whole record – the themes I mentioned in my first answer. Each song on the record is it's own "swift arrow" in a sense, and the music does the story telling so I don't have to.

Songfacts: Can you tell me a little more about "Grown Up Things," which has to be one of my favorite songs of yours! The guitar work is amazing (it is amazing on the whole record, very psychedelic). What is the "terrible secret" that you sing of?

Shelby: "Grown Up Things," in a general sense, is about having your innocence threatened. I actually had someone say to me years ago "You're too optimistic about everything. It's naïve. You're not acknowledging how bad things are in the world." But I thought that was such a juvenile perspective. Hard times will open your eyes and grow you up, but that doesn't mean you need to choose hardness or cynicism from then on out. Cynical thinking doesn't make you an adult; it makes you old before your time. I've always believed that one can maintain innocence and youth without being ignorant to "the way things are." And the "terrible secret" I write about is something all of us can relate to. We all have secrets or little dark truths we hide away – and they are ours to keep - but the trick is not to let them overshadow the rest of our lives or take our sense of joy and wonder away.

Songfacts: I must ask you about "The Artist," which really made me chuckle: "I love you, you love you too." Would it be sneaky of me to ask who this is about?

Shelby: "The Artist" is the only co-write on the album. I wrote it with my friend Lance Paine one day when we got laughing about how selfish and self-centered life can be as a musician, and what a terrible pain in the butt all of it can be for a romantic partner. Anyone partnering with a full-time artist knows this territory well. This song is just us poking fun at ourselves and putting ourselves in our significant others' shoes. Feel free to make it about anyone you want though... if the shoe fits.

Songfacts: In "Mary," you sing about somebody who has always been there for you. Is this song religious in any way? I am mainly basing this on the title.

Shelby: I really want people to have room to interpret this song however they wish (as with all of my songs). I will say it is not religious in the traditional sense, but it is somewhat inspired by Mother Mary from The Bible. I wasn't raised Catholic and Mary isn't a figure I've spent much time with. But I had a very moving experience a few years ago that caused me to stop and consider her. I realized that symbolically she is the ultimate "mother figure" and it made me understand why so many people, across time and across cultures, have always looked to her for comfort. Because surely the ultimate mother would always be there for you, right?

Songfacts: Is there a song on Swift Arrows that is particularly important to you, and can you tell us more about it?

Shelby: Each of these songs has a special place in my heart, but I'm pretty deeply attached to "Mary." Every song is a mantra in some way, but "Mary" is almost more of a prayer. I have yet to play it live, I suppose because it still feels so personal. That said, it felt right to include it on the record because it is so intertwined the rest of the collection of songs and the overall theme. Believing that one is not alone - cosmically or otherwise - is crucial to getting through any battle in one piece.

Songfacts: You recorded the album in eight days, which is pretty incredible! How was that experience? Was it a challenge to finish the album in such a brief period of time?

Shelby: It was a whirlwind of a week! We dove in and didn't come up for air until we were done. Oddly, it wasn't really a challenge to finish in that amount of time. We hadn't put a time limit on ourselves. We were just done when we were done - when there wasn't anything else to add. And because we'd tracked it live with everyone in the room, there wasn't really a way to change or re-do things. So once we were done adding the bells and whistles (so to speak), we were done entirely.

Songfacts: You recorded Swift Arrows live at Columbia City Theater in Seattle, with one mic on your voice, and one mic on your guitar. Was it a nerve racking experience, having to expose yourself like that?

Shelby: It was incredibly nerve-wracking for me that Damien wanted to record this way. But I was also really excited about the challenge of it. I wasn't sure if I could pull it off, but I knew I wanted to try. I also knew he wouldn't want to record that way if he didn't think I was good enough. So I chose to trust him and his vision for the project. I practiced HARD for a couple of months – by myself and with my band mates – and I felt pretty ready by the time we got into the studio. It was still very exposing and vulnerable to track full performances, but I was able to be calm enough to honestly share my heart on tape. I hope people can hear and feel that in the recording.

Songfacts: Last time that we spoke, Shelby, you were "keeping it real" by working at a local restaurant. Are you still working there, and if so, how do you fit it around your busy music career?

Shelby: No more waiting tables for me! I quit doing that in February when my touring schedule was getting too complicated to hold down another job. So now I'm REALLY "all in" as a full-time musician!

Songfacts: In 2009, you quit your corporate job to pursue music. You even wrote a song about it: "Under Evergreen." Do you have any advice, or words of wisdom, for those who have a dream, but feel as if they are "stuck" in their current job, situation, etc?

Shelby: I'm lucky in that I grew up in a family of risk-takers and go-getters. Both my mom and dad changed career paths multiple times throughout their lives so it was modeled for me that you could reinvent at any point. That said, we all need to work, and sometimes our work and our passion don't get to be one in the same. I don't think EVERYONE should quit his or her jobs to make art full-time. But for me, it had gotten to the point where I really felt I could do better, more meaningful work in the world – and that I truly had more to contribute – as an artist than as a music industry professional (which is what I was doing before). So as soon as I knew in my gut that this was what I needed to do, I started making plans. I saved money, I created a strategy for getting my new "business" off the ground (aka. making my first record), I started talking to other pros about how to do it right, and then I made sure I exited my job gracefully and professionally without burning any bridges. I didn't just take a big leap with no net – which is what a lot of people wrongfully assume I did. So if it's time for you to take a big career change, start making your plans NOW, while you're still in the "wrong" job. My mom, who is an executive coach, calls it "a paid job search." Then, once you have a plan, you actually do just have to take a big, scary leap and never look back.

Get more at shelbyearl.com.
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