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Shelby Earl

Shelby Earl 1 Photo

I don't believe in journalistic objectivity. Still, I've always tried to maintain a space between my music writing and my private life. Over the years I've become friendly with a few musicians, and some of my old friends have turned toward music-making. In general, though, I've clung to that old idea that critical perspective and personal connection don't mix. Until now. I'm writing this note to ask you to listen to an album by a friend. Shelby Earl is a singer-songwriter with a sharp pen and a sumptuous voice, who took a while to fully uncover her own talent. Before she made the brilliant music conveyed on her new release, "Burn the Boats," she worked in various positions within the Pacific Northwest arts community – including at Experience Music Project, where I got to know her as a part of the programming team in the early 2000s. Shelby was part of one of the intimate circles that make up the necklace of strong women who stand behind – and at the forefront of – the Seattle music scene. We got to know each other as colleagues and as women finding our places in a frankly boyish scene. When I lived in Seattle in the early 2000s, Shelby was starting to explore her own creative possibilities as part of the duo the Hope. But she kept working regular jobs. She was a practical person. Music wasn't a lifestyle for her; it was a practice, a way into new internal spaces. Eventually, it became her vocation, and she changed everything in her life to pursue it. Jump to 2011. I'm living far from Seattle, but still connected. Shelby sent me an email about her new solo album. Sure, I'll listen, I replied. No promises, though. In fact, I have to admit, I thought I'd send polite praise and move on. Instead, I became enraptured. "Burn the Boats" is an album beyond trends, a classic work of singer-songwriterly craft and beautifully framed confession. It's a fully adult expression of lessons learned, loss absorbed, and hope rebuilt, plank by plank. The title comes from something her dad said about what she'd done: the expression means to risk everything, abandon all past assumptions and easy outs, in pursuit of something bigger. That urgency comes through in the album's ten gorgeous songs. Shelby is still young – in her early thirties – but she's not a bubbly ingénue. She makes music for those of us who've been through a few things. Produced by John Roderick and engineered by Eric Corson, both of the beloved Barsuk Records band the Long Winters, and featuring a stellar line-up of Seattle mainstays, "Burn the Boats" realizes Shelby's compositions within arrangements that recall legendary genre-busters like Patsy Cline as well as more contemporary artists like Jenny Lewis and Brandi Carlile. Everybody wants to compare her to Neko Case, maybe because of the Northwest connection, but if Neko is bourbon, Shelby is honey wine. Sweeter at first taste, her music is subtly intoxicating. I love "Burn the Boats" for its class, its open-heartedness and its wisdom. I'm addicted to the perfect balance of comfort and challenge in Shelby's voice. I don't want this record to get lost in the avalanche of releases that confronts every critic and music fan. It's not particularly hipsterish – one of its best songs, in fact, is "Under Evergreen," a call for Pacific Northwest music insiders to transcend their own assumptions of what's cool. But it's the kind of album that many people in your life will love. Including, I hope, you yourself. Thanks for listening to my friend and my new favorite singer-songwriter, Shelby Earl. And yes, that's her real name. It's not her fault that it looks so right on an album cover.

 

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