Personal Style: Singer/Songwriter Shelby Earl on Music, Life Pivots and Pregnancy

"I think life pivots contribute to everyone’s evolution and are nearly always a good idea."
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Photography: Genevieve Pierson Location: Thompson Seattle

Photography: Genevieve Pierson Location: Thompson Seattle

Warm, effusive, talented and electric are all terms that come to mind when we think of singer/songwriter, Shelby Earl. A force in the Seattle music scene, Shelby's trajectory has been determined by her talent, yes, but also by the resolve she has acquired in her 10+ year career. Her latest project will be debuting this spring (a baby!), the first for she and her husband. 

Shelby is at a point of gratitude and reflection, the juncture of a sweet spot: She's confident in her accomplishments and talents, brave enough to continue to try new things and wise enough to hold on loosely to the outcome. In her own words, "I now step on stage with the knowledge that I have something meaningful and impactful to offer an audience. Performing has become more about sharing my heart and my songs with people than about singing or playing perfectly, and that makes it a really joyful experience."

And as if trying to prove our point, when we asked her if she would be interested in a profile highlighting her career trajectory and personal style at eight months pregnant she did not hesitate. And, of course, she chose an equal parts easy and cool jumpsuit from Meg, one she can wear now and later. 

We met up with Shelby at the Thompson Seattle to chat and capture this moment in her pregnancy. Shelby's inherent beauty in both photos and words transcends this piece, and her inherent coolness and well-earned confidence is what inspired us to share her story.

Read on for our discussion on the realities of life as an independent musician, the importance of life pivots, pending motherhood — and yes, maternity style. 

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You are a singer/songwriter living in Seattle performing at amazing venues and festivals alongside some incredible talent. What are you most proud of in your career?

I’m most proud of two things in my career: First, that I’ve finally gotten good as a live performer. I was basically the opposite of a wunderkind when I started. I had a whole lot of heart and determination, but not a whole lot of confidence or natural talent. It’s taken me a long time, and a whole lot of hard work, to get good. I don’t mean that to say I’ve suddenly arrived, or that I no longer get nervous before I perform, I do. 

But I now step on stage with the knowledge that I have something meaningful and impactful to offer an audience. Performing has become more about sharing my heart and my songs with people than about singing or playing perfectly, and that makes it a really joyful experience. I think my audience can feel that energy and it makes for a more relaxed and enjoyable experience for them too.

Second, I’m damn proud of the songs I’ve written and recorded at this point. I’ve been involved in music for a long time, but in my younger years people loved to tell me I was a singer, not a writer, and that I should focus my energy entirely on the former. In fact, I had a musical partner go as far as to tell me I was an interpretive artist, not a generative artist, and I remember actually shouting at her (yes, it was a woman), Don’t box me in! You don’t know what I’m capable of! 

It took me a long time to build up the courage to even try writing songs because I had so much self-doubt, and I’ve written a lot of crappy songs since then (as you do), but I’ve also written a handful that I’m proud of. What’s even more extraordinary is that some of those songs have actually become meaningful to other people. I now find the completion of a new song to be the MOST satisfying part of my job. I love to sing, but creating something that has life beyond you is the most thrilling thing. I feel like I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and still have contributed to the world in some small, meaningful way. To quote one of my main musical heroes, the late Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit, While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth.

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Who and what inspires you and your music?

There are a lot of great musicians and makers I look up to who have inspired me musically over the years (too numerous to list), but there aren’t specific artists I’d call out as my main influences at this point. When I first started writing songs they were mostly autobiographical because that’s the most natural starting point for writers. Emotions like heartbreak, anger or infatuation are often such visceral experiences that they’ll force songs out of you in a wonderfully cathartic way. It’s a reactive way to write, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that because it also tends to be the most honest, and I find it’s often the material listeners relate to the most. 

I still write songs that way now, but my songwriting voice has broadened to the point that really anything could inspire a song idea. I’ve been inspired by pieces of visual art, books, news stories, other people’s life experiences, etc. Once I even found the kernel of a song idea when shopping online for a throw blanket. I came across this Aztec blanket that the retailer had named “The Swift Arrows Blanket” and it struck me that the image of swift arrows perfectly encapsulated my feelings about a particular situation I was in at the time. So I snagged the phrase and turned it into a song. I wasn’t sure it was worth anything at the time, but it has since become one of my more popular songs (“popular” being relative, of course).

You left a day job (with the largest online retailer) in your early thirties to pursue music full time. Tell us about that process both in making the transition and the reality of the highs and lows that have followed since the shift.

I worked on the industry side of music for a long time – first booking shows for a local venue and helping to start a young band competition, then doing radio promotion for an independent record label, and finally doing music retail for a mega dot com. That last stop was the one that inspired me to quit nine to five life and to finally put all my weight down on being a musician. I had always imagined living a big life – traveling a lot, being part of a worldwide community, having many great adventures and life experiences, and making music - but instead it seemed my world was getting smaller by the day. 

At some point I woke up and realized I was getting further and further from my original vision rather than closer to it. Then one day I was sitting at my desk and realized wait a second! No one is MAKING me do this! It’s could literally just quit! So I made a plan, saved a little money, cashed out some stocks, quit my job and started making my first solo record. I initially thought “I wonder if I could make it a year without getting another day job.” I didn’t know if I was any good yet, so I certainly hadn’t imagined I could make music a career path. 

The nice thing about going into it with such modest expectations is that every good thing that’s happened in my career since has just been a delightful surprise. But even still, it hasn’t been an easy path. I’ve had to make myself immensely vulnerable, pound the pavement, earn my chops, and face a lot of fear and rejection along the way. And the hardest part of all, I’ve had to ask for help. That’s one thing artists don’t always talk about publicly — the family members, significant others, patrons, fans and friends who have kept them afloat financially while they were supposedly “making it” on their own. I’m nine years out from quitting my day job and can honestly say I’ve only made it this far because I’ve had so much support.

There are definitely days when it will get you down to reflect on the fact that music making hasn’t become a self-sustaining model for you. It can make you feel a lot of shame if you let it. But the reality is that artists have always needed patrons. It’s not a new model and it’s not a shameful one, but it can sure feel that way when you’re the one accepting help from loved ones and strangers.

And yet, the last nine years have been by far the most fulfilling of my life. And that’s not lip service. I can truly say that while I’ve never been more broke, I’ve also never been happier.

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Speaking of shifts, you are about to embark on another major life transition: motherhood. Did you always know you wanted to have children? And if you have known you wanted to have children, has the journey to motherhood been as you had imagined?

I always imagined I’d have a family someday, but I started pursuing music relatively late (in my early thirties), and it has consumed most of my time and attention ever since. I don’t think I could have successfully started a family while attempting to be all in with music (in fact, I don’t know how any female musicians successfully balance both, but I intend to find out because I’m definitely not hanging it up with music!). 

I also never had partner I wanted to start a family with until I was 39, so that was a huge factor as well. Sometimes I’m glad it took me so long to find my dude so I wasn’t distracted from music. I’m glad I’ve had these years to be selfish with my creative time and energy. I’ve always said “I’m fine to be broke as long as I’m not responsible for anyone else.” But now here we are. I will be responsible for someone else’s wellbeing very soon, and he certainly hasn’t signed up for broke artist’s life! He’s going to have very real, base needs that have to be met. So it will be a game-changer for me. It’s not that I think I suddenly need to sell my soul or make tons of money, but I do want to be able to give my little dude a happy, relatively stress-free upbringing. So along with hopefully continuing to make & release music, raising a happy, well-adjusted little human in a stable environment is the new goal!

As far as the path to pregnancy and imminent motherhood is concerned, I feel a little bit like I’m getting away with something by getting to start a family so late. I knew it wasn’t a given that I would be able to get pregnant at this age, and I definitely don’t take it for granted that it happened. In fact, I spend a good amount of time flooded with gratitude that this is even reality. It’s like getting to experience a third iteration of my life, which is pretty cool. But maybe circle back in a few months and ask me how glad I am to be a new mom in my 40s once I’m totally wrecked by sleep deprivation.

What most excites you about becoming a parent?

It’s twofold really: First, selfishly, I’m excited to deepen my own life experience. I’ve always wanted to experience being pregnant (which has been wonderful thus far), and I’ve always believed that raising a child would deepen my humanity. I know it’s not going to be easy, but I also know it will challenge and better me, and I look forward to that. Second, I’m excited to be forced out of my own selfish ways. When you make it all the to your 40s still being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want, it can breed selfishness in a pretty major way. 

I also think that being an independent musician breeds some amount of narcissism, no matter how hard you fight that. You have to write your own name a million times a day, and you have to try to convince people to pay attention to you. None of it appeals, but it sort of comes with the territory. I am SO ready to take a break from all that and turn my focus outward toward another human. As someone said to me after one of my shows recently, You know why I decided to have kids? Because there are only so many weekends one can go jeans shopping and still feel fulfilled.

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How would you describe your everyday personal style? Does it differ from your pregnancy style, and if so, how?

I’m not sure I always accomplish my ideal personal style, but my aim is for a sort of a chic, ageless, urban look. I like oversized pieces, but I also really like clothing with structure and angles. My closet is a pretty solid mix of both. I think the main difference between my usual style and my pregnancy style is just that my favorite looks no longer fit! I’ve had to dumb down my style a little bit just to keep myself clothed. 

My oversized pieces worked really well in early pregnancy, but there’s a point where oversized doesn’t look good when you’re actually oversized underneath. I’ve finally, reluctantly, had to give in to the maternity clothing industry and buy myself pants with stretchy tummy panels and fitted tops with side-ruching.

Now how would you describe your stage style? And does fashion contribute to how you feel when performing?

My stage style isn’t far off my street style. I don’t wear any crazy stage costumes or anything. I just go for a slightly elevated version of my every day look. I do spend time and energy choosing what I’m going to wear on stage though because I find that I play better when I feel good about what’s on my body. It makes me more carefree, less self-conscious, and better able to be in the moment. It’s not that my stage outfit has to be something loud or spectacular, it just has to make me feel good in my skin so I can forget about it and just play.

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How do you feel life pivots contribute to our evolution as women?

I think life pivots contribute to everyone’s evolution and are nearly always a good idea. I am lucky to have been raised by parents who both changed career paths and reinvented themselves multiple times over the years. So it’s been modeled for me to be open to change, risk and transition. My mom has a saying she likes to remind me of which is choose often, choose up. Doing so has only brought immeasurable richness and adventure to my life and I wouldn’t undo a single change of direction I’ve taken along the way. 

SEATTLE! Join us as we continue this conversation with our MOTHER vs ARTIST event, A Live Musical Podcast Event Exploring the Joys & Challenges Facing Musician Moms, featuring Carrie Akre, Shelby Earl & Lenore

Moderated by Amanda Carter Gomes of The Fold Mag

Presented by The Fold Mag, Abbey Arts and "Between You & I" Podcast

Thursday, March 14 - purchase tickets. 

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