FORGOTTEN GEM: Shelby Starner “From In The Shadows”

Sometimes you stumble across an album that moves you so deeply that you can not wait to tell all your friends about it. But then, after a few too many plays the record sinks to the back of your collection and gets forgotten about for all eternity. Yet sometimes, the connection to the record runs so deep that it never leaves the top of the pile.

“From In The Shadows”, an album I first heard nearly a decade ago is still as frequently played today as it was when I first got sent it by my friend Nikki, who is based in New York. Having initially sent me “Don’t Let Them”, the only single I believe Shelby ever released, I fell in love instantly with Shelby’s voice and so I wrote back asking her to send the album should she ever find it.

Soon enough the album came tumbling through my door. I was completely captivated by Shelby and moved me immensely by the emotional display, most notably on ‘You’, a song to which my own personal would further grow as I matured. Having co-penned ‘Poppyock!’, a play about an odd couple, my co-writer Lynsey Mellor and I needed to find a song whose lyrics summarised our characters inner frustration. I did not hesitate in my suggestion.“You don’t belong here. You are so different from me” cries Shelby. Her inner torment at the relationship between her father Ray J. and his new wife expressed explicitly. As a pair of twenty year olds we could not find the words ourselves, as Shelby had said them all so much better.

Therefore comes as a big surprise when five minutes into a conversation with Ray J. Starner, father of the late Shelby, when he reveals that “Shelby was never really happy with “From In The Shadows”. She envisioned herself as more of a rocker. Craig Street (Norah Jones, k. d. lang, Cassandra Wilson, Charlie Sexton) produced the album, he’s a jazz producer and he pulled her away from her rock sound. She liked it but two years later she wasn’t happy.”

Critically acclaimed at the time of it’s 1999 release, “From In The Shadows” was a relative commercial failure. Launched at the peak of bubblegum pop, her contemporaries were too busy in schoolgirl uniforms and demanding “Hit Me Baby One More Time” or talking about their “Genie In A Bottle” to be taken seriously. But Shelby was “was a kid who was 14 turning 15. Who would believe that the lyrics would come out of this girl’s mind?” Her emotional honesty proving that she was “wise beyond her years”.

“I never thought that I was special, but I hear I used to be” sighs Shelby Starner on the heart wrenching ‘Empty Mind. Her direct approach to lyricism exemplary of a girl wise beyond her years. With her evident eloquence, it is little surprise that “You” ended up on the soundtrack of the eloquent teenage drama Dawson’s Creek, yet even this did not convert the critical acclaim to sales.

“Shelby could sing all the songs from “The Wizard of Oz” by the time she was three.” Destined for a career in music, Ray J. assures me “Shelby could sing all the songs from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ by the time she was three.” When Alanis’ first record came out, I would play guitar and she would sing all the lyrics.” As a young teenager Shelby was “constantly writing in her journal, be it poems or lyrics” and it was these musings that translated into her debut record. With her parents divorced and a dislike of her one step-parent, Shelby used her songs to express her emotions. The sheer honesty of her lyrics is doubled with a heartfelt vocal delivery that transcends genre and send shivers down the spine. A unexpected development of her twelfth birthday present, a session at a recording studio, Shelby’s original recordings a world away from the album that was released.

Add into the equation that “From In The Shadows” would be the only release from the tragic child singer and the album’s merits are multiplied. Her unreleased second record was to have featured Chad and Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and would have reflected her maturing rock tastes. Yet unhappy with the control her record company had cancer the discovery that her mother was suffering with cancer, Shelby retreated from the industry. Shelby descended into a battle with bulimia which would cost her her life at the tender age of 19, as she was about to start college.

Upon listening to the record and re-examining the album’s artwork, it is strangely haunting to fi nd a ghostly presence and an ethereal quality to Shelby’s vocal performance. Shelby appears to be consistently evaluating life through her lyrics, and this externalization of emotional expression is uniquely moving.

“From In The Shadows” is out now.
http://www.theshelbyproject.org

Words: Jeremy Williams

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