When it comes to her music career, golden-voiced Shelby Earl has a knack for doing things a little backward. At an age when most musicians are thinking about leaving the game and getting a real job (mid-30s), Earl quit her full-time position at Amazon to devote her life to music. Then, after releasing her debut record, Burn the Boats, in 2011, rather than following up with a flawless second album that utilized all the new tricks she learned the first time around, Earl recorded Swift Arrows (out July 23) in only eight days, using a lot of first takes and live recordings as the foundation.
Because of the stripped-down approach of Swift Arrows, the album is more vulnerable than Earl's previous release, but the songs also carry a newfound confidence. Just as Earl celebrates the possibility of mistakes and imperfections in the music itself, she's also, in a way, celebrating the once-shitty situations that inspired lyrics like "I will swim in your sea of glass/Let it hurt, just make it last."
This time around, Earl is not holding anything back, nor is she hiding behind anything—even if it might make for some awkward conversations with her dad.
I don't know if you remember this, but several years ago, we ran into each other at a show at the Sunset and I asked how things were going—you told me you decided to leave your job and pursue music full-time. Did I witness a pivotal historical moment in Shelby Earl's musical career? What prompted that?
I was in a band for a long time, but I was always "just the singer." When that band broke up, I took some time off and thought that was that. But maybe nine months later, I started writing songs and it just snowballed—writing my own songs was really freeing. It started getting consuming: I was writing lyrics in meetings, going to my car to voice-memo a melody. And then I started thinking I should record these. I had never been all in with music—I just figured there would always be a day job. I also had someone close to me pass away within that same time frame, which makes things very real and urgent. You realize that this could all be over soon and you might as well be doing it the way you want to be doing it.
The first line of "We Will Die"—where you sing, "That first step, all it takes, to start walking the other way, and that fear, well it has its place, but it cannot compromise the grace"—is clearly coming from a place where something different needs to be done. That theme pops up a lot on the record. Was there a lot of transitioning during the writing of those songs?
With Burn the Boats, I would tell people, "This song's about that, and this song's about this," but I'm feeling a little more reserved these days. There are some tough life events that happened. This is where I love being older and being a songwriter and having this outlet. The main theme on the record is going through something really challenging that does not take you out.
That makes sense—there's a lot of talk of war or weaponry on the album. On the song "Grown Up Things," it sounds very threatening. The songs are very lovely sounding, but they're also battle cries. Like you want to kick somebody's ass. Do you?
Not now, no [laughs]. Thank you, songs! Actually, "Grown Up Things" I wrote from somebody else's perspective. I had somebody say to me, years and years ago, "You're too optimistic—it's not realistic, you're not acknowledging how bad things are in the world," and that is so naive to me. "Grown Up Things" is about an event that threatens your sense of innocence, because I've always believed you can have innocence without ignorance. It's not me singing that to someone else, it's someone telling me to get my head out of the clouds. That song was a purging for me, it's a little cheeky.
You get cheeky a few times! Like the "I love you, and you love yourself" line on "The Artist."
That one, too—people keep asking who that's about. That's the only cowrite on the record. My friend Lance Paine and I wrote this song actually poking fun at ourselves. He's a songwriter, he's married, and we were talking about what a pain in the ass we are to our people. Seriously!
You recently tweeted that some guy came up to you and was like, "So who writes your songs?" You said, "I do," and then he said, "Yeah, but who writes the lyrics?"
That was unbelievable. That's actually happened a few times. Maybe it's because I sing about all these weapons—they think a dude is behind it [laughs]. I actually didn't even realize this, someone just pointed it out, but I listen to almost all male musicians. So it could also be about my input, which of course affects my output.
There's the line you sing that I really wish I'd heard in my early 20s: "Let it hurt, just make it last." Who hasn't felt that way? Either a person is terrible or a thing is terrible, but you still don't want to let it go.
I dreamed that chorus. That's never happened to me before. In my dream, it was the Flaming Lips singing it or something, so I had to google it to make sure it was not a song. But I didn't know what it meant, it was the whole line: "I'll go swimming in your sea of glass/Let it hurt, just make it last." So I created a whole story around it. That line has had the most interesting effect on people.
With so many songs that are about battling and going to war, what is it that you're battling against?
These songs were written over a couple of years, so it's different life situations. Like, with "Grown Up Things," I've had a couple people ask, "What's the terrible secret?" And I'm like, the terrible secret is whatever you're hiding! Or whatever makes you feel like you're no longer an innocent person. My dad said to my stepmom, "So what do you suppose that terrible secret is?" I was like, "Dad! No!"
What do you say to that, to your dad wondering what kind of terrible things you're hiding?
For this record, there's a quote—this is terrible, I hate even saying it out loud—but there's this writer, Anne Lamott, who said, "Write like your parents are already dead." Which is a terrible thing! But she just meant that you've gotta say what you've gotta say. It's hard, though. In the past, I've definitely self-edited.
This album doesn't feel as self-edited or vague as Burn the Boats.
That's what I'm saying! I let there be grown-up stuff in there.