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Shelby Earl is set to release her stunning debut album, and celebrate its release at the Tractor on Friday

{Shelby Earl’s CD release party is Friday, March 4 at the Tractor Tavern with Cobirds Unite and Jason Dodson of The Maldives. 8pm, 21+, tickets here, but word is, they’re going fast.}

When discussing the supportive and collaborative nature of Seattle’s music community, Burn the Boats, singer-songwriter Shelby Earl’s beautiful debut album (released March 8), is a prime example. The collaborators she’s worked with on the long process of completing her album could carve out its own space on the Seattle Band Map. Somewhere through the process of finishing the album, she’s worked with members of SHIM, The Maldives, Michael Lerner of Telekinesis, former Fleet Fox Bryn Lumsden, producers like Martin Feveyear, Ben Kersten and recent Grammy winner Kory Kruckenberg and credits Long Winters John Roderick and Eric Corson with helping steer the album towards its completion, with Roderick producing the album. Of working with Roderick and Corson, she said in an interview over breakfast last weekend, “We worked so well together. I thought John was going to be a little bit of a bulldozer because I told him I was uncertain of which way I wanted to go, but he was incredibly respectful - but also had an imagination that was totally wide open.” Moreover, she added, “He and Eric will let ideas flow in the studio for way longer than I’ve ever experienced.” The album was recorded piecemeal over a long period of several months and she said, “I’ll never make another record this way again, but I absolutely love where it ended up.”

She should be. Her album is a collection of eleven songs that showcase a naturally gifted singer and songwriter. When talking to Earl, she talked a lot about learning about writing songs and learning her instruments: she was half of the duo The Hope with songwriter/composer Katie Freeze. Of the partnership, she told me, “I really wanted to grow in that direction [as a songwriter], but as a band, we were a band with that structure in place. I was a singer and she was a songwriter.” When talking with Earl, she often mentions her the lessons she took to learn guitar or treating writing songs as learning exercises, and she told Seattle Weekly writer (and my friend) Litsa Dremousis last fall that “I wrote my first song at 29 or 30” (she’s not much older today) but the finished songs on Burn the Boats are fully realized songs, most often with complete, first person or autobiographical narrative stories.

Her voice is reminiscent of what Neko Case might sound like if the part-time New Pornographer didn’t want to overpower every listener with the strength of it. Earl’s harmonies sound like she’s singing to you directly, though making little effort to hide any vulnerability. The beauty of her voice is all the more explicit when contrasted nicely with the understated simplicity of the acoustic guitar sounds she sings over. Part of what makes the album feel intimate and personal is that nearly all of Earl’s songs are autobiographical in one way or another. She gave one exception on her album, which was the song “Beloved”. She explained it’s inspiration came from when “I was looking at the relationships around me and I thought ‘men are working overtime to please their women and the women aren’t acknowledging it’. The dudes aren’t getting credit for how hard they’re trying. I saw a lot of female friends and family be kind of ballbusters and I would think ‘but he’s trying so hard, he might be failing but he’s trying’. I was imagining an apology from a woman to her man and her say, ‘it’s okay; you’re enough.’”

Although Earl’s songs rely on a consistently narrative storytelling, she doesn’t consider herself a country musician. She told me in our interview (when I asked what she found appealing about the genre), “I don’t listen to country music and I have fought tooth and nail with people calling it country music. Everyone says ‘well, Shelby, it’s totally country music’ and it’s totally not. I hear the Americana stuff, so there is that. I’m baffled but also fascinated. I thought I was writing three-chord folk songs.” Her music is much different from what you might hear on commercial radio directly from Nashville, but it’s still not difficult to see a straight line from an artist like Loretta Lynn to Shelby Earl with the empathy and honesty in their words, regardless of whether a banjo or pedal steel guitar is present (for the record, on Burn the Boats, it’s no and yes). More simply, in her own words, she writes she’s “a Seattle-based, independent musician with a deep commitment to simple, beautiful songs, sung from the heart.” That works nicely, thank you very much.

Whether she is classified as a folk or country singer should be immaterial – and only done by self-described music snobs and those who believe country and western is “both kinds of music” – but during our interview, I was able to figure out why I, a usually pop-focused writer, found her music so appealing. When asked about her songwriting, she said “The main way I write is with a lyrical idea first. I usually start with a chorus. Ben Kersten said I have the opposite problem as other songwriters because I always have a chorus first and my choruses were strong but the verses [initially] could use some more help melodically. I start with a chorus but I think a lot of people start with a verse and think ‘shit, this needs a hook now.’”

Earl was able to finish her album by raising the funds on Kickstarter, after sinking a lot of her own money into the project first. It turned out to be a big success as she exceeded her $5000 goal by more than 20% and had 92 total backers. She said was encouraged by singer-songwriter (and former Seattleite) Kate Tucker who also funded her latest album through the site. She loved the experience, telling me “I knew a lot of my friends were working with me on the project but it was amazing the number of people who showed up and gave ten bucks or fifteen bucks. I remained in communication with everyone regularly and gave them updates. I really loved it also because people who gave to it felt like they were a part of the project.”

{Photo by Steven Dewall.}


Chris Burlingame is the editor of Another Rainy Saturday.