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Paid Dues

Shelby Earl shows how a decade in the music industry can change you for the better.

Shelby Earl’s last day of work at Amazon was a monumental one. It was 2009 and, after three years at the online retail giant as a liaison to record labels, Earl had put in her notice to begin a career as a solo musician.

Then, on her final day there, she was offered a dream job managing some of her favorite bands in New York City. She didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, one of Earl’s last duties at Amazon involved lunch with Glen Hansard, singer and guitarist for internationally acclaimed folk-pop duo the Swell Season.

“He looks me in the eye and says, ‘If ever I’ve known someone at a crossroads, you’re at it and you know what you have to do,’” she recalls.

Earl turned down the dream job and dove into her music, eventually releasing Burn the Boats, a debut album of folk-pop ballads recounting love unrequited and innocence lost, all told with the great force of her raw and gorgeous alto. The album found an audience in Seattle and full support in the local music community. The Long Winters’ John Roderick produced it (and guested on the stunning duet “At the Start”) and Local 638, the label run by former Visqueen leader and fellow redhead Rachel Flotard, re-released it in late 2011. Earl’s notoriety didn’t come out of nowhere. Her run-in with Hansard was just the last in a series of influential experiences during a decade of working in the music industry. It all began in 2000 when the Los Angeles native landed a job at the newly-minted Experience Music Project. There she worked with Seattle music heavyweights Andrew McKeag, Susie Tennant and Ben London, booking events at the rock ’n’ roll museum while learning a new way to think about music.

“I was coming from this very slick LA world where everything was super-produced and I hadn’t been exposed to music where the heart was what mattered,” she says. “And that has totally changed for me to the point where I have swung almost entirely the opposite way.”

The swing wasn’t immediate. Earl went through a few more industry jobs, including stints at Wind-Up Records in New York and the Village Theatre in Issaquah, and played in a couple short-lived bands before she came to that crossroads. By that point, though, the decision was easy.

“So often when I was in meetings, I was thinking about songs,” she says. “I loved working in the industry, but my heart is totally in making music. I hadn’t been exposed to music where the heart was what mattered.”

Photo by Dylan Priest.

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