The big names performing at this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, include Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Jay Z and Coldplay — not exactly scrappy upstarts looking to break through. But even as well-established acts siphon off some of the buzz SXSW generates (Prince and Justin Timberlake played last year, and Bruce Springsteen performed the year before that), there’s no shortage of opportunities to discover new artists.
Take Shelby Earl, for example.
Since quitting a corporate gig at Amazon a few years ago to make music full time, the Seattle singer and songwriter has released a pair of albums, including last year’s excellent “Swift Arrows.” They’re pop albums, in the sense that Earl has a way with melodies that have a classic feel, but there’s nothing bubblegum about her. She writes songs for grown-ups, sifting elegantly and with a certain bemusement through the life lessons that start to pile up after a while: broken hearts, unfortunate decisions and, in Earl’s case, an irrepressible determination to keep going and do better this time. Her songs are often pensive, or pointed — try “The Seer” from “Swift Arrows” — but they’re never bitter, or even particularly regretful, and she sings them in a rich, throaty voice that can be devastating.
In fact, Earl is an optimist at heart, and it showed onstage Tuesday night when she played in the opening time slot for this year’s SXSW. Strumming an acoustic guitar and backed by a drummer and a cellist, she was a beatific presence during her 35-minute set, parsing the music industry on the allegorical “Sea of Glass” (“let it hurt, just make it last,” she sang over a vintage Spector-style girl-group beat) and picking out a gentle guitar part that circled around her wistful vocals on “Everyone Belongs to Someone,” from her 2011 album “Burn the Boats.”
Through it all, Earl projected a serenity that is clearly genuine: She knows she’s meant to be up there on that stage, singing those songs, and her certainty at having found her calling is balanced by a sense of wonderment at what it turned out to be. Make it last, indeed.