Sometimes you stumble across an album that moves you so deeply that you cannot 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 other times, 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 bought it.
Though the name Shelby Starner may not be one that rings many bells, her voice will resonate with the Dawson’s Creek generation. Sixpence None The Richer’s ‘Kiss Me’ and Paula Cole’s ‘I Don’t Want To Wait’ may be the most strongly associated songs with the wordy, teen melodrama, but the soundtrack was littered with many an unforgettable song. Shelby Starner’s ‘You’ was, for me at least, one that stood out.
‘You don’t belong here / You are so different from me’, cries Starner, in a notion much suited to the relationship torment often explored in the numerous Dawson’s Creek love triangles. The story behind From In The Shadows, however, is even more tragic. The album was born out of the then 15-year-old Starner’s inner torment at the relationship between her father, Ray J., and his new wife. The consummate lyricist, who was signed to Warner Bros Records at the tender age of 14, found that she could only escape and understand her situation by penning the truth in song.
Critically acclaimed at the time of its 1999 release, From In The Shadows was a relative commercial failure. Launched at the peak of bubblegum pop, Starner’s record was unfortunately mistimed. ’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 and emotional honesty were exemplary of a girl wise beyond her years. But Shelby was, as her father Ray J. Starner explains, ’a kid who was 14 turning 15. Who would believe that the lyrics would come out of this girl’s mind?’.
Destined for a career in music, Starner landed her record deal as a result of her father’s enthusiasm and encouragement. The little girl who excelled in academia, also had a talent for the creative. From a young age, Starner was obsessed with music, from The Wizard of Oz through to Alanis Morissette, Starner would learn lyrics and perform to family and friends, accompanied by her father on guitar. 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 début record. With her parents divorced and a dislike of her step-mother, 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.
Sadly, Starner – a rocker at heart – was unhappy with the album that received so much acclaim. Having poured her heart and soul into the record, the label’s vision differed to Starner’s. Though intense but beautiful from start to finish, the Craig Street (Norah Jones, k.d. lang, Cassandra Wilson, Charlie Sexton) produced, jazz-lilted, From In The Shadows, further fuelled Starner’s disappointment. Having already started her battle against bulimia, the album only saw the release of one single, the jazz-tinged teenage anthem ‘Don’t Let Them’. While it had minor radio success, it failed to translate into commercial acclaim.
Despite having begun work on a sophomore release under the guidance of Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s Flea, Starner remained unhappy with the control her record company had. After the discovery that her mother was suffering with cancer, Shelby retreated from the industry. She descended further into her battle with bulimia, which would cost her her life at the tender age of 19, just as she was about to start college. Upon listening to the record and re-examining the album’s artwork, it is strangely haunting to find a ghostly presence and an ethereal quality to Starner’s vocal performance. Starner appears to be consistently evaluating life through her lyrics, and this externalization of emotional expression is uniquely moving.