Her Name Is Earl: Shelby Earl & the Desert Church of Doo-Wop
Shelby Earl insists she’s not a country singer. Good luck with that. When you’re name’s Shelby Earl, you could perform nothing but Pointer Sisters covers and likely still get branded with a banjo; such a moniker earmarks you for a career spent evoking hay bales and wide-open spaces, whether you like it or not.
But, in truth, Shelby Earl is not a country artist, even if her rich, assertive voice is often–and accurately–compared to that of Neko Case. Yet Earl’s devotion to traditional instrumentation, throwback harmonies, introspective songwriting and majestic melodies ought to make her plenty appealing to Americana fans.
“There’s no shame in a hook,” says Earl, over a beer and quesadilla at Hattie’s Hat, an authentically retro Ballard Avenue bar formerly run by No Depression founder Kyla Fairchild (she still owns a small stake) that’s nestled between Seattle’s foremost boot-‘n-buckle venues, the Tractor and Sunset Taverns. “I care about words. I think that’s maybe where people are hearing the country influence.”
Earl, whose own musical tastes favor the likes of Bjork and Rufus Wainwright, adds that she “was raised listening to singers. I can’t stand the whispery girls right now–wannabe Ella Fitzgeralds.” In fact, during a recent gig at the Sunset, a perpetually inebriated scenester expressed his gratitude for Earl’s full-throated style. “I just want to thank you for singing!” he exclaimed, before launching into a deriding imitation of Earl’s “frog-voiced” counterparts.
Earl split her childhood between Seattle and Los Angeles, where, while in junior and senior high school, she became an accomplished hip-hop dancer, of all things. She returned to the Emerald City to attend the University of Washington, and worked at at Amazon and other industry-side jobs before recently going “all in” as a full-time musician. Her 2011 debut, Burn the Boats, produced by Long Winters frontman John Roderick (who duets with Earl on the album’s strongest track, “At the Start”), was extremely well-received, and her just-released sophomore effort, Swift Arrows, has been hailed as a step even further. While tracks like “The Seer” leave no doubt that Earl can rock, the album’s strongest tunes–“Swift Arrows,”“Sea of Glass” and “The Artist”–sound as though they’ve been recored at the desert church of doo-wop, with angelic female harmonies, rhythmic piano and acoustic guitar.
In September, Earl will embark upon a West Coast tour–with a detour to Tuscaloosa, where the well-known music critic Ann Powers has set up a house show for her (Powers’ husband is on faculty at the University of Alabama; Earl will also play the Bottletree in Birmingham on Sep. 16 with Ben Sollee). So-called living-room shows have become an enjoyable and lucrative experience for artists like Earl, who marveled at the fact that 45 people would pay $20 a head to see her at someone’s house in San Francisco.
“There are these communities of music lovers who want to have this experience with each other,” says Earl of the hyper-intimate gigs, which she booked through the Illinois outfit Undertow Music. “Every show turns into a house party. Nobody wants to go to sleep.”