Shelby Earl Explains 'Strong Swimmer,' An Ode To Trauma And Recovery

Mar 4, 2017
Originally published on March 4, 2017 9:35 am

Shelby Earl's new album, The Man Who Made Himself A Name, features a song called "Strong Swimmer." She says it started out as a song about herself getting over a relationship — but became more about her stepmother, who had just suffered a brain injury.

Earl was living at home, helping the family recover. One day, she decided to play her stepmother a recording of the song in progress.

"And she and her home care nurse both just burst into tears," Earl recalls. "I realized right then: Wow, she is the strong swimmer, not me, and this is so much more about her than it is me — I mean, she was literally trying to re-learn to walk and talk and eat. And the song immediately changed in meaning for me."

Earl shared the story of how the song evolved with Weekend Edition Saturday; hear more at the audio link.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Shelby Earl's new album, "The Man Who Made Himself A Name," features this song, "Strong Swimmer." It's a spare arrangement that packs an emotional punch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRONG SWIMMER")

SHELBY EARL: (Singing) What a strong swimmer.

The inspiration for this song came to me a couple of different ways. There's a great artist here in Seattle named Kyler Martz, and he draws this series of diving girls. And I always look at his artwork and think, yeah, those ladies are tough. And so after going through some tough stuff myself and ending a long-term relationship, I was in my van one day driving along, thinking, I, too, am a strong swimmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRONG SWIMMER")

EARL: (Singing) And with every tear, I'm filling the ocean I'll swim in next year.

I was actually living with my dad and my stepmother when I wrote this. My stepmother had had a brain injury, and I was living with them, sort of helping out in her recovery. And I played my stepmom a recording just on my iPhone. And she and her home care nurse at the time both just burst into tears, and I realized right then, wow, she is the strong swimmer, not me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRONG SWIMMER")

EARL: (Singing) But then I let go and said, I don't need help anymore.

This is so much more about her than it is me. I mean, she was literally at the time trying to re-learn to walk and talk and eat, and the song immediately changed in meaning for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRONG SWIMMER")

EARL: (Singing) Oh, what a strong swimmer I'll be in the end.

You know every time I perform this song, even here talking about it, I get choked up. I channel my stepmom, for sure. I channel my own experiences, but something happens with audiences, too. I've been finding there's, like, this vacuum that happens with this song, and everyone tends to sort of focus in. And people cry. And I don't know if it's that they can feel my emotion, or they are thinking to themselves, yes, you know, I want to be a strong swimmer, or I am one, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRONG SWIMMER")

EARL: (Singing) Oh, what a strong swimmer I'll be in the end. Through the push and...

I actually have to kind of pull it together sometimes because I don't need to be up on stage crying in front of people. I want them to have their own experiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRONG SWIMMER")

EARL: (Singing) And when the tears weigh me down, shed them all to the ground and start swimming.

You know, when I was first playing live, it felt pretty heavy. But my stepmom has come so far and redeemed her life and her independence in so many ways that now it feels more triumphant, and I want listeners to feel that, too. I don't want it to be a downer. I want it to be inspiring.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRONG SWIMMER")

EARL: (Singing) What a strong swimmer I'll be in the end. Oh, what a strong swimmer I'll be by then. Oh, what a strong swimmer I'll be by then.

SIMON: Shelby Earl - that song, "Strong Swimmer," is on her new album, "The Man Who Made Himself A Name." It's out Friday, March 10, and here's one more song from the record. This is, "The Vapors."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VAPORS")

EARL: (Singing) We have got the vapors, and we can't be tamed. We've got the vapors and...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.