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Burn Boats, Not Bridges

Photo by Francisco Macias
Photo by Francisco Macias

In 2009, Shelby Earl quit her job on Amazon’s music team to record her first album. The Seattle singer-songwriter was excited; after three years of promoting other musicians at the internet giant, she was going to be the one promoted — hopefully. 

“Then six months in it got really scary. It got really real and the money ran out,” Earl tells EW. “I told my mom I was freaking out.” 

Earl’s mother responded, “Well, you know, Shelby, someone asked how you were doing.” Her mother went on to say that Earl’s stepdad told them “she pulled all the boats ashore and she burned them.” He was referring to the legend of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés ordering his army to burn their fleet of ships so they couldn’t retreat from battle.

“I wrote this song that day,” Earl says of “Burn The Boats.” “I named the record that because it just felt so right.” Coming full circle, Amazon named Burn The Boats the “No. 1 Outstanding 2011 Album You Might Have Missed” and NPR music critic Ann Powers deemed Earl her “new favorite songwriter.” 

Oddly enough, only a snippet of the titular song by the folk-rocker made the album, but Earl toured with it and, before long, it became “sort of an anthem” with audiences. The day after Earl plays Sam Bond’s Aug. 17 — the first stop on her tour — she will finally release “Burn The Boats” through the Seattle-based London Tone Music’s 52X52 project, in which the music production company releases a new song by a different artist every week for a year.

In the meantime, Earl came out with 2013’s Swift Arrows. The sophomore album is, like fellow folk-rockers Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and Jenny Lewis’ Acid Tongue, a blazing vocal and lyrical knockout. The soulful title track — a heartache-filled breakup tune in which Earl croons “When words are all you’ve got, you’ll find one poison-tipped swift arrow in your mind/ And they’ll find one poison-tipped swift arrow in their eye” over doo-wop piano and church bells — caught the attention of Rolling Stone in November. 

In the past year, accolades for Swift Arrows have come pouring in from Paste Magazine, American Songwriter, KEXP and NPR, who featured Earl on “Music For Folks Who’ve Been Through A Few Things.” Salon.com says Earl “writes songs for grownups.”

When I ask her about this “grownup” label, she laughs. 

“I think that it’s great because it’s true. I’m a grownup songwriter. I’m not 20,” she says. “I don’t attempt to do that. I just write about my own stuff and what’s going on with my friends and what I see around me.” She continues, “The songwriters I respect write about real stuff, not kid stuff.”  She ticks off names like Case and Lewis, as well as Ryan Adams, Björk, Rufus Wainwright and Ben Gibbard.

“They are all song-oriented artists,” she says. “They can all embody that idea that if you have a pretty voice, you can’t sing about pretty things.”

Shelby Earl plays after Sacramento’s folk-pop artist Justin Farren 8:30 pm Sunday, Aug. 17, at Sam Bond’s; $5. To see Earl’s video for “Swift Arrows” and read what she said about the process, visit the EW blog.