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Music For Folks Who've Been Through A Few Things


Shelby Earl always loved music, and straight out of college in Seattle, she went to work in the music industry. She worked as a booking agent, then at a record label, an eventually at Amazon's music department.

SHELBY EARL: So, all of those little blurbs you see all over the music page on Amazon - those are written by people. And I was one such person.

MARTIN: But what Shelby Earl really wanted was to make music. She was in her 30s, facing the decision a lot of creatively inclined people face. And in the late 2000s, she chose. She saved up, quit Amazon, and made music.


MARTIN: When I spoke to Shelby Earl recently, we started off with her song, "Swift Arrows," off her second and most recent album, which is now out on vinyl.


EARL: (Singing) When war, when war is in your heart, when war, when war is all you can control, you find one point, you get swift arrows, on your lips. And you'll find more poisoned tips, swift arrows, with a name on it...

MARTIN: I'll admit - the first time I heard this song I wasn't seizing on the lyrics. I was listening to that kind of doo-woppy thing happening in that song. And I was, all of the sudden I'm in, like, a prom in 1957 doing the slow dance. But then you listen to the lyrics and, you know, when war is in your heart and there's a poisoned tip - there's this really interesting juxtaposition between the dark and the light.

EARL: Yeah. And, you know, Damien Jurado, he produced this album. And I have to say you nailed it on the prom scene because that is the imagery he gave me.

MARTIN: Really?

EARL: Damien, as we went in, said, you guys, I'm thinking prom. I want you to feel like your partner is right there. And this song, I was playing it on my acoustic guitar and a little faster with a slightly front rhythmic feel. And Damien came out of the booth and said, Shelby, that is a ballad. That should be a ballad. And our friend Jacob James was in the studio with us. So, he sat down at the piano and this was a one-take wonder.


EARL: (Singing) And it won't be the first and it won't be the last. No, you won't be the first and it won't be the last.

Damien and I, we went in the studio with our band, recorded everything live in eight days. And, it's funny, I'm not a perfectionist in my life at large, but with music I can definitely go down some rabbit holes and find myself trying to perfect. I'm a vocalist first and foremost, so I always want vocals to be perfect. And they're never going to be live. And then to work with Damien, who said people are hungry for something honest, you know.


MARTIN: Let's play another track. This is called "The Artist."


EARL: (Singing) Oh, you wrapped the world around you, but you might dismay. You forgot to hide (unintelligible) you. I remember when you used to share the mirror. I love you. You love you too.

MARTIN: This is funny kind of. I love you. You love you too. I'm going to guess that this a song about narcissism to some degree?

EARL: That is correct, yes.

MARTIN: How that might occur sometimes in the world you inhabit in music, is that accurate?

EARL: That is definitely accurate. It's funny. I mean, there are so many great musicians in Seattle. And I have shared with people that this is about why it's a questionable idea to be in a relationship with an artist. But, of course, everyone's next question is who is it about? And the funny thing is it's me pointing a finger at myself. But...

MARTIN: Oh, really?

EARL: Yeah. I mean, I actually - this is the only co-write on the album. And my friend Lance Payne, who lives in Nashville, I was visiting him and we wrote this over coffee one morning as we were discussing what a pain we must be to be in a relationship with. Because, you know, this music life is very consuming.

MARTIN: Yeah. And you do kind of have to think that you're great.

EARL: Oh, goodness. I mean, I think it can certainly feel that way, you know, to maybe people around you. It's a strange, strange thing to have your business and your "product," in quotes, be your own name.


EARL: (Singing) This is me now, (unintelligible) this is me now and I'm sorry if it lets you down.

I've actually heard Macklemore talk about this as well; just going to bed every night and waking up every morning thinking about himself because it's his job to do so.

MARTIN: How do you keep that in check?

EARL: Well, I'm certainly not at no Macklemore level. He's...


MARTIN: Not yet, Shelby. Not yet.

EARL: ...he's fighting a different battle that I am fighting right now. Things that keep you real are sitting in a car for eight hours and loading into a venue late and hurrying on stage, you know, all ruffled. I don't know. I am definitely in the independent artist life right now. It keeps me pretty humble.

MARTIN: But you're doing what you want to do.

EARL: I am. It's so great. I mean, the freedom part of it is amazing. And it's sort of understanding that any stress I have is stress I'm choosing. And that's such a different brand of stress from being under this big corporate structure. So, yes, I certainly enjoy this model quite a bit.


MARTIN: Shelby Earl is a singer-songwriter from Seattle. Her latest album, "Swift Arrows," is out now on vinyl. She talked to us from WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Shelby, it was great to talk with you. Good luck with everything.

EARL: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.


EARL: (Singing) And I (unintelligible) see us now.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.