Shelby Earl’s “Strong Swimmer,” from the Seattle artist’s third full-length studio album The Man Who Made Himself a Name, is an easy song to love. Earl’s sweetly emotional vocals and heartfelt guitar combine in a universal ode to the lifelong process of healing and moving on. Over a year after the album’s March, 2017 release, the accompanying music video premieres today.
For Earl, the story began with one strong swimmer in her family: “I wrote it autobiographically, or so I thought,” said Earl. “My stepmom had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and I moved in... to help out with her healing. I played a recording of the song for her and her homecare nurse, and when they burst into tears I realized, ‘oh, this is not about me at all!’ This song immediately shifted and became something heavy—I initially wrote it as something triumphant, like, ‘aren’t I powerful; these are the things I’m gonna do!’ Then I realized that there were people fighting things way bigger than the things I was fighting.”
As Shelby toured the country after the March, 2017 release of The Man Who Made Himself A Name, she encountered several other people who reinforced the impression that the sense of struggle reflected in “Strong Swimmer” was bigger than she had originally understood. After meeting five families with pre-teens and young teenagers of gender non-conforming identities, Earl came to believe that “there was a whole other element to this song and that is when I knew that if I ever made a video for this song, this is what it's got to be about.” said Earl.
Back home in Seattle, Earl got to discussing what she'd seen with her her 14-year-old niece, Mackenzie, and a collaborative art project began to materialize. "She'd started drawing these characters," Shelby said. "All different blends of gender traits, clothing styles and names she'd made up. It was becoming her main creative outlet and I thought it was such an interesting reflection of all the questions facing her age group."
Those drawings became a major visual touchstone for the "Strong Swimmer" video, co-directed by Genevieve Pierson and Christopher Harrell. It's built around the common stories of gender nonconforming youth Earl heard while on tour, brought to life by Mackenzie's art. The resulting work is powerful—a grounded, rousing testament to the radical kickassedness of gender nonconforming youth everywhere who face the cold outside over, and over, and over.
“For some kids, that’s what it’s like,” said Mackenzie. “It’s really cold outside. Some of those kids don’t have people to support them when they go outside, so inside, they’re just there with themselves and their feelings and they can be themselves.”