First things first: Seattleite Shelby Earl is not a country artist, dammit. She’s not Shelby Lynne nor related to Steve Earle, so stop describing her music like that. “It just sounds like a country name,” she says. “But those aren’t my influences.” She may be a singer-songwriter, but you won’t find a whole lot of twang on her sophomore LP, Swift Arrows, which was produced by local indie-folkie Damien Jurado. With Earl’s debut attracting attention from Rolling Stone and being named by Amazon as the #1 Outstanding 2011 Album You Might Have Missed, anticipation for the record, which she’s self-releasing on July 23rd, is high. We caught up with Earl to chat about the LP, recording it at the Columbia City Theater and her recent unconventional tour of living rooms. Earl celebrates the release of Swift Arrows at the Columbia City Theater July 13th.
John Roderick produced your first record and Damien Jurado has produced this one. How did Jurado’s involvement come about and will you try for some kind of hat trick next record by having another local music luminary produce it? For this particular set of songs I talked to multiple people about producing, some whom are actual engineer-producers, but his record Mariqopa is one of my favorite records in a very long time. I just kept thinking, “I want that. I want what he did.” And then as this set of songs developed my mind kept going back to him. I knew he had produced one other project so he was new to the producing thing, so I emailed his manager and him. And they wrote back and said they’d like to sit down and talk about it. I thought I was going to have to convince him to do it and he was like, “Can I start? Here’s what we’re going to do…” He had a whole plan and it was terrifying but also very cool.
That plan involved tracking the record at the Columbia City Theater, correct? Part of his plan was to have a big room where I could play live and have natural reverb, with the room sound being part of the production. The way Damian tracks his records is that he tracks live acoustic guitar and vocals, and then he and [producer] Richard Swift go back and add everything. So that’s how he wanted to do it. There was a major trust factor doing it this way.
Are you pleased with how it ended up sounding? I am. I think it sounds really, really different. It sounds live, and that makes me a little nervous, but I think there’s a lot of life in it. If you come see me live, that’s what I sound like. It’s just more honest that way.
Did you feel more pressure to write for this record than you did the first time around since the last one attracted a fair bit of attention and since you knew this one would be heard by the audience you’d developed? I did what a lot of people do, which is while I was making the first record I was still writing. But it went well. I’m new to songwriting still so maybe I don’t have that much baggage. It’s not like my first record was like a Fleet Foxes record. I still feel like I’m proving myself to tons of people who haven’t heard me. I don’t have a label and I didn’t have anyone saying, “This better be a certain thing.”
Are you looking to sign to a label? There was definitely some local smaller label interest but I just figured I can put it out myself at this stage. If a dream label came around at some stage that would be cool.
What labels would those be? Sub Pop, I’ve been a huge fan of forever. Secretly Canadian is one of my favorite labels and I feel like would be a good fit.
I know you’ve hired a publicist but do you have a manager or booking agent? I am DIY-ing it, man. I do have a publicist but I do everything else myself. I’ve started working with Undertow Music, who are in Chicago and they manage David Bazan and Rocky Votolato, but we’re just getting to know each other. And they just booked a living room tour for me, which was a super cool experience.
You were literally playing in people’s living rooms, right? How many people can fit in an average living room? It was anywhere from like 20 to 50 people, depending on the show and every single show, no matter what the audience size was, was like the coolest night.
Were any of the venues in a shitty apartment or anything? All the places were really cool. That’s kind of part of it, talking to people who have a living room that’s conducive to doing a show.
Do you like tape your t-shirts and CDs above the fireplace or something? Yes, exactly! It sounds really awkward but every single show just turned into a house party and no one wanted to go home. It was the craziest experience.
Why Swift Arrows as a title? And which came first, the title or the song itself? Interestingly enough, I had 13 songs done but I had this one additional song and I had shown it to the band. We played it through once and Damien came out of the booth and goes, “You guys, the content of that song is fucking killer but it sounds like an indie rock car commercial.” He goes, “The melody is great but I think we need to change the feel. It should be a ballad.” I don’t know, some of that Toyota money might not be so bad. I wouldn’t be mad at it, frankly. The more I started thinking about that song [made me realize] it was also the last one I wrote in the collection of songs and it felt like this encapsulation of all the rest. One of my friends said to me, “These songs are swift arrows, each one of them.” And then guitarist Ragan [Crowe] who played on the record said, “Man, that song just makes me feel like I could go to war and I know I would win,” which is the gist of the record: Moving through something hard knowing you not only can be intact at the end of it but actually feel stronger and feel good.