Following the success of her 2011 debut Burn the Boats, and her 2013 follow up, Swift Arrows, critically-acclaimed Seattle-based indie folk musician Shelby Earl has returned this year with her latest effort, The Man Who Made Himself a Name.
Produced by Martin Feveyear (Kings of Leon, Mark Lanegan), the album marks an atmospheric shift from Earl’s previous albums, trading the darker moods of the former for a more hopeful, uplifting feel. “I felt a major musical shift happen when I recorded the song “Stay With Me Tonight” with my friends in the Seattle-based production collective The Spectacles,” she says. “It was meant to be a one-off project just for fun, but there was so much levity in it—both musically and interpersonally—that it changed things for me. I wanted that joy on my next project. Also, as a group of players The Spectacles have a very definite feel that I realized I wanted on the next record.”
Along with capturing the energy of her studio collaborations, much of the album’s joyful feel comes from Earl moving out of difficult circumstances in her personal life and into a new phase. “My personal life was (and is) in a more positive and hopeful space, so naturally I wanted to make music that felt celebratory. It all came about very honestly, so even though the instrumental feel is a bit of a departure from my first two records, I still totally sound like me.
The album kicks off with the upbeat titular track, “The Man Who Made Himself a Name.” “I realized during recording that it best encapsulates the overarching theme of the record, both musically and lyrically. Many of the songs [on the album] are about leaving a lasting impression, either on the world or on another person. And musically this song seemed like the best bridge between the darker, guitar-based, indie rock feel of my first two records, to the more sort of rhythm-oriented, buoyant sound we introduced on this record. I feel like the song sort of grabs people by the hand and leads them from there to here,” she says.
The song was inspired by Earl’s years on the road alongside fellow songwriters and reflections on her own reasons for creating and sharing her art. “This song is a sort of composite of imagery and observations I’ve gathered along the way, and a reflection on what it even means for one to make a name for oneself,” she says. “The idea of the man’s pockets being ‘heavy with keys to the cities’ is a literal reference to a songwriter I toured with a few years ago who was given the key to the city by the mayor of his hometown, and he actually transfers it from pocket to pocket so it’s on him at all times. I found that really poignant because the key becomes this sort of tangible proof that what he’s doing matters. But there’s so much sadness, disillusionment and loneliness involved in the pursuit of making a name for yourself—whether you’re a politician, a doctor, an artist, whatever, it doesn’t really matter—and one can’t help but wonder if it’s worth it or not.”
Earl selected a man as the fictitious character of her song’s narrative as a way to toy with dynamics of power and gender. “The choice to use the word “man” was intentional even though I am a woman. I found it interesting to play with gender that way, especially for the album title because of course people think ‘wait, but that’s a woman on the cover. Is she the man? Who’s the man?’ Now add this extra layer of complexity and meaning to the title because of the intense times we’re in! I see women claiming a lot of the power and position men have traditionally held and it’s exciting to be a part of,” she says.
“And of COURSE, people have asked if I wrote this song about a certain orange-faced megalomaniac we can’t escape at the moment (a man who will clearly compromise ANYTHING in service of his own name and his own interests), but I can proudly tell you I did not. The truth is that the song is as much about me as it is anyone I drew inspiration from.”
Listen to “The Man Who Made Himself a Name,” now. The album comes out on March 10 via Savage Man.