Points of Reference

How Shelby Earl Turned to 'Twin Peaks,' Cody Chesnutt, and Jesus (Sort of) When Crafting Her New Album

The Seattle singer-songwriter pushes things away from her folky roots on 'The Man Who Made Himself a Name.'

By Seth Sommerfeld February 28, 2017

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Shelby Earl stars in The Man Who Made Himself a Name.

Shelby Earl continues to make herself a name. Following up her excellent albums Swift Arrows and Burn the Boats, the Seattle singer-songwriter steps out of her folky comfort zone with her new LP, The Man Who Made Himself a Name (out March 10). There’s still a melancholy, tender side her songwriting (see: “Like I Do” and "What Am I To Do"), but a sleek rock edge permeates tracks like “The Vapors” and "Chemical Hearts." Things get a touch funky and downright danceable on “James.”

Sink into the new grooves and grab an early copy of the new record when Earl heads to Tractor Tavern this Saturday, March 4 for an album release show featuring opening support from Silver Torches and Planes on Paper.

For the latest edition of our Points of Reference series, we chatted with the Earl about the pop culture—from the Roots to illustrations of diving girls—that influenced the creation of The Man Who Made Himself a Name.

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“The Seed (2.0)” by the Roots Featuring Cody Chestnutt

The song didn't necessarily inspire the seed of the idea—ba-dum-bum—but when I started writing the song “Call Her Mercy,” I just had this one line: “Let’s have a baby, we’ll call her Mercy.” I wrote it on the way to a piano lesson. It wasn't until I started to flesh the song out and think about the feel that was like, “Oh man, I want to make it like that Cody Chestnutt jam.”

When I wrote the song, it was sad. Which is not shocking, I guess. [Laughs] When it was just me on guitar it was a very sad song, so the band sexed it up a little bit. That’s why I hired these specific players, a group of dudes who call themselves the Spectacles. They’re a little production collective of really filthy players that just want to focus on recording projects. They kind of want to be the Seattle Wrecking Crew. They did that with another song that sounded very sad when I wrote it—this one off single called “Stay With Me Tonight.” The first thing they said was do you mind if we lighten it up a bit? Speed it up a little bit? Give it a beat?  So that was a huge part of the partnership on this record. If we just do the obvious thing with my songs and the way I write it, will sound exactly like the first two records. So please help me take it in a different direction. They were hugely instrumental in that.

In the studio, we actually took it even further in the Cody Chestnut direction and then had to reel it in. Like whoa white people, calm down. [Laughs] Let’s make sure that we get a hold of ourselves here. When everyone starts thinking in terms of a certain jam, it’s hard not to mimic, even if the song didn't start there. Sometimes you have to pull it back, so we did. It became its on thing in the end.

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“The Weight” by The Band +
“Jolene” by Dolly Parton

I was driving in my van and heard “The Weight” by the Band—“Take a load off, Anny…”— and was like, “Man, I want to write a name song.” [Laughs] “Jolene” is another obvious one. I like the sort of anthemic thing that happens with name songs sometimes. “Jolene” and “The Weight” were the two I had in my mind as these big sing-along jams.

Jolene dolly parton mqlj7s

The song I ended up writing is called “James.” I thought a lot about this whole name song thing, because my friend Mike Notter, who has played in a bunch of bands around town [Montopony, Shim, Hannalee], has very strong feelings that name songs are bullshit. [Laughs] He thinks they are very exclusive and that the listener is not included. So I decided to tell the listener about James rather than sing to James. I wanted it to be feel-good, even though the lyrics are kind of heavy.

It sort of fits the theme of the whole record. I did more character study things with these songs, they’re less biographical and more observations about other people. So that obviously goes along with a name song—actually writing about a specific character. James is both a real person in my life—though that’s not his actual name—and also something I could play around with. In my mind, everyone has James. And many of us have been a James. So James is everyone! [Laughs] But that is a little broad, so you obviously have to focus on a specific person or people. I have a lot of people who like to guess who James is and they’re generally wrong. They really want to know.

I just toured with the Felice Brothers in October, and one of them is named James. And so the first night he was like, “Oh girl, this is my song!” [Laughs] He was hyped on it each night. And I was like, “Oh man, this is going to be a long tour.”

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Twin Peaks

I was a super latecomer to Twin Peaks. I didn't see it until two years ago, and then I devoured everything as quickly as I could. The Twin Peaks reference came later actually I’d already written the song “James.” There is a character named James, and he’s always leaving. And the female characters in Twin Peaks, for some reason, say his name a lot. Which totally gives me a giggle when I’m singing the song. Seriously, I don't know why they say his name all the time, but I say the name James like 85 times in the song.

When we went to do the instrumentation, I was like, “Guys, dude on a motorcycle, he’s got a leather jacket on, he’s cruising through Twin Peaks. What’s his theme song? ‘James.’” So I’ve become the collective female psyche for Twin Peaks.

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Kyler Martz’s Diving Girls

Kyler Martz is an amazing, local artist who does tattoos and visual art. For a while, I could not stop staring at his Instagram. He has this series that he’s been doing for a long time of diving girls, and I am completely obsessed with them. They’re these badass stylized diving girls with tattoos, and he puts them all in this interesting swim get-ups. Just reflecting on his diving girls is part of what inspired me to write the song “Strong Swimmer.”

That song has its own whole series of stories behind it, but I started thinking about the imagery of the swimmer because of his stuff. I like that his swimmers, though they are feminine, they seem tough. I don't know how long I thought on that before the song became a reality. It’s not necessarily about his swimmers, but the visuals got those wheels turning.

I actually really wanted him to do my album art, but no go. Busy dude. I asked and he was sort of like, “Well, if you can wait until 2018...”

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A Photo of A Kid with Boxing Gloves

I lived with a guy, and things were not going well. And for whatever reason, he cut this photo of a little kid with boxing gloves on out of a magazine and set it on my laptop. It was actually really sweet because he meant it like keep fighting the good fight! It was this nice reminder, and yet I kept staring at it just thinking isn’t that just the perfect symbol for everything right now? [Laughs] I wrote the song “Boxing Gloves” about my relationship unraveling.

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Tom Brosseau + Jesus

One influence on the new record is really strong because it’s Jesus. [Laughs] In sort of a cheeky way. I am not making fun of Jesus. It’s basically Jesus and Tom Brosseau, who is another songwriter. They inspired “The Man Who Made Himself a Name.”

I toured with Tom. He is from Grand Forks, North Dakota, and has toured nonstop for the last 15 years. It’s all that he does. That dude literally has the key to Grand Forks, North Dakota—like from the mayor—in his shirt pocket. It’s the key to his home town, his finger picks, his grandfather’s war pin, and odd relics from along the way that he transfers it from shirt pocket to shirt pocket. So they’re always on him. I was like, “That is so intense. You’re never home. You never see the people you care about because you are doing this thing 110 percent.” These symbols are what tie him to home.

I started writing the song after that tour, thinking about Tom. But then I was thinking “The Man Who Made Himself a Name” is someone pursuing a name for themselves or leaves something lasting, is so huge. So then I was like, you could write about Jesus, because that is someone who made a name for themselves. Then it took me two years to write. [Laughs] I tried to include Jesus, but had to reign it back in to be about songwriters. There was a big loop with the song “The Man Who Made Himself a Name,” and now it’s basically about Tom Brosseau and Ben Gibbard.

Shelby Earl: The Man Who Made Himself a Name Release Show
Mar 4, Tractor Tavern, $12

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