“It’s all rock & roll – no golf!” is how singer/songwriter/violinist Amanda Shires describes her electrifying fifth album, To The Sunset. She’s borrowed a lyric from the track “Break Out the Champagne,” one of ten deftly crafted songs that comprise her powerful new recording. The Texas-born road warrior, new mom, and recently minted MFA in creative writing has mined a range of musical influences to reveal an Amanda Shires many didn’t know existed.

It’s been a jam-packed since the release of Shires’ critically hailed My Piece of Land: constant touring with her band and as a member of husband Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit; finishing her MFA; and winning the Americana Association’s 2017 Emerging Artist award. Armed with stacks of journals, she wrote a batch of new songs in a flurry of focus and solitude – in a closet at the Shires/Isbell abode. “With a two-year-old running around, there’s nowhere to hide,” Shires explains. 

She reconvened with Land’s producer Dave Cobb (Isbell; Sturgill Simpson) at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A. While writing such stunners as the enchanting “Parking Lot Pirouette,” haunting “Charms,” and raucous “Eve’s Daughter,” she thought about their sonics. “I explained to Dave that I wanted the songs to have atmosphere,” Shires recalls. “That the album was going to be sort of poppy, and that I was doing that to bring some sunshine into the world, cause it’s pretty dark right now.”

Shires is renowned for her carefully crafted songs. Her influences include Leonard Cohen and John Prine, the latter of whom has been a mentor. “I was talking to John Prine while I was writing this record,” says Shires, “and he was talking about how using images that actually happened to you makes the songs true. Also, if you use images that you can see daily, it’s more relatable.” Shires took his advice in such tracks as “Break Out the Champagne.” “It’s all true!” says the resilient Shires. The near-plane crash over Newfoundland, her BFF Kelly’s fears about our apocalyptic times, another friend’s heavy breakup.

To The Sunset, says Shires, “is meant to be a positive thing. Acknowledging your past, and at sunset, your hope for a new day. ‘To The Sunset’ sounds like a toast: This day is over, we don’t know what’s in the future, but it’s hopeful, I think.” Shires has drawn from her own past on To The Sunset – and pointed the way to her future. She has set the bar high – sonically and lyrically – and she’s jumped over it.

“It’s all rock & roll – no golf!” is how acclaimed singer/songwriter/violinist Amanda Shires describes her electrifying fifth album, To The Sunset. She’s borrowed a lyric from the effervescent track “Break Out the Champagne,” one of ten deftly crafted songs that comprise her powerful new recording. The Texas-born road warrior, new mom, and recently minted MFA in creative writing has mined a range of musical influences to reveal an Amanda Shires many didn’t know existed. “Isn’t it refreshing?” Shires asks. Indeed. Distorted electric guitars, effects pedals, swirling keys and synths, and rockin’ rhythms certainly suit Shires’ visceral songcraft and lilting soprano.

It’s been a jam-packed eighteen months since the release of Shires’ critically hailed My Piece of Land: constant touring with her band and as a member of husband Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit; finishing her MFA, after her laptop and thesis were stolen on the road; and winning the Americana Association’s 2017 Emerging Artist award – all while nurturing a toddler. Armed with stacks of journals and an autoharp originally owned by venerable songwriter/producer Paul Kennerley, she wrote a batch of new songs in a flurry of focus and enforced solitude – in a closet at the Shires/Isbell rural abode. “With a two-year-old running around, there’s nowhere to hide,” Shires explains. While Isbell watched their daughter, she wrote from 10 am till midnight: “I just started writing and tearing apart my journals and taping the parts I liked to the wall, and shredding the rest and putting it into my compost, which I then feed to my garden.”

She reconvened with Land’s producer Dave Cobb (Isbell; Sturgill Simpson) at Nashville’s historic sound-drenched RCA Studio A, with likeminded sonic adventurers, drummer Jerry Pentecost and keyboardist Peter Levin, alongside Isbell on guitar and Cobb on bass. Of course, she brought the fiddle she’s been playing since a teen, touring with Western swing stalwarts, the Texas Playboys. Only this time, she added effects pedals, distorting the instrument with which she’s accompanied Billy Joe Shaver, John Prine, and Todd Snider into something otherworldly. “I had never tried pedals before,” says Shires, “and I wanted to change my fiddle sound. I’ve been playing this instrument the same way for so long, and playing with pedals is so fun for me!” Likewise, she also revisited an early original, her hook-laden “Swimmer,” with pianist Levin’s “miles of keyboard that sound so huge.”

While writing such stunners as the enchanting “Parking Lot Pirouette,” haunting “Charms,” and raucous “Eve’s Daughter,” she thought about their sonics. “I explained to Dave that I wanted the songs to have atmosphere,” Shires recalls. “That the album was going to be sort of poppy, and that I was doing that to bring some sunshine into the world, cause it’s pretty dark right now.” As she sings in her empowering “Take on the Dark,” buoyed by bouncy bass, machine-gun drumming, and swirling synth: “Worry can be a tumbling tumultuous sea/with all its roaring and its breaking/How ‘bout you be the waves/too unafraid to even be brave/and see yourself breaking out of this place.”

Shires is renowned for her carefully crafted, evocative songs. Just as she spent her youth as a journeyman fiddle player, Shires brought years of studying the masters to her songwriting. Impromptu encouragement from Shaver, for example, inspired her to take up the pen. “Before touring with Billy Joe Shaver, I was only a side person,” Shires avers. “I wasn’t a songwriter. I was observing. Then I made a couple of demo songs so people would know I could sing, and he said, ‘These are good songs. You should go be a songwriter in Nashville.’ I thought he was firing me, and I said, ‘No! I really like my job playing the fiddle. It’s my favorite thing to do.’ Then a year later, I decided he was right.”

Her influences include Leonard Cohen and John Prine, the latter of whom has been a mentor. “I was talking to John Prine while I was writing this record,” says Shires, “and he was talking about how using images that actually happened to you makes the songs true. Also, if you use images that you can see daily, it’s more relatable.” Shires took his advice to heart in such memorable tracks as “Break Out the Champagne.” “It’s all true!” says the resilient Shires. The near-plane crash over Newfoundland, her BFF Kelly’s fears about our apocalyptic times, another friend’s heavy breakup.

Shires says she also uses songwriting as a way to “get through my own emotional stuff, which is cheaper than a therapist.” An example is the Hammond B3-fueled “White Feather” with its “scarecrow” imagery. The idea struck when she experienced “cat calling that’s become okay again,” then expanded to include her thoughts on climate change and capitalism, “but it’s bigger than that,” Shires clarifies. “The song deals with fear and all the ways it discourages the expression of our individual identities. It’s about the walls we put up to protect ourselves and the way those walls become prisons.” In the synth-ful “Mirror, Mirror,” she examines self-doubt, via the catchy refrain, “Show me something different/Than the mirror on the wall.” And shimmering guitars frame “Leave It Alone” with such realizations as “What you think you’re feeling is crushing at most.”

Other songs were derived from the lives of her mother and father, including 21st century Flannery O’Connor style album closer, “Wasn’t I Paying Attention?” “True story,” Shires asserts. “I couldn’t make it up.” The gripping tale, with its crunchy rock & roll soundtrack, will leave listeners on the edge of their seats, while tapping their toes.

As a whole, To The Sunset, says Shires, “is meant to be a positive thing. Acknowledging your past, and at sunset, your hope for a new day. ‘To The Sunset’ sounds like a toast: This day is over, we don’t know what’s in the future, but it’s hopeful, I think.”

Shires has drawn from her own past on To The Sunset – and pointed the way to her future.  She has set the bar high – sonically and lyrically – and she’s jumped over it.

Amanda Shires is not an entertainer. She isn’t looking to help listeners escape their everyday lives or soundtrack celebrations. She isn’t reaching for celebrity, and she isn’t concerned with cultivating a personal brand. She is an artist in the true sense of the word, meaning she creates because she has a real need for the process of creating. That is not to say that the songs on My Piece Of Land aren’t entertaining, but that quality is a by-product. The real intention here is to relate.

Ms. Shires began her career as a teenager playing fiddle with the Texas Playboys. Since then, she’s toured and recorded with John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, Todd Snider, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, and most recently her husband Jason Isbell. Along the way she’s made three solo albums, each serving to document a particular period in her life while improving on the perceptive qualities of the previous record.

 

 

The songs on My Piece Of Land deal with family, with anxiety, with the phases of one young woman’s life; but the primary focus of My Piece Of Land is the concept of home. Ms. Shires addresses the similarities and differences between the home she was born into, the two homes she was eventually split between, and the home she has finally made for herself. Some of these stories are from the creator’s point of view and some most certainly are not. You’d be hard-pressed to identify which is which, though, considering the level of empathy involved in the creation of these stories. “The concept of home, like the concept of love, is more complex than it seems,” says Ms. Shires. “You start out with this inherited idea of home, but as you grow you realize that’s only a suggestion. You have to use that along with all the little pieces of wisdom you’ve picked up along the way to finally build your own place in the world.” Ms. Shires sometimes describes songwriting as “solving the puzzles,” but before the songwriter even begins to arrange rhymes and melodies, she must first be acquainted with the complicated workings of the heart.

Most of this album was written after Ms. Shires had reached the seven-month point in a summertime pregnancy, and was no longer able to travel. For a woman used to touring most of the year, being stuck inside brought challenges and offered creative rewards. “Pregnancy does weird things to you,” Amanda says. “You walk around holding your arms over your belly, sometimes almost overcome by anxiety. I constantly wondered if I would be able to protect this child, if my marriage would last forever, if I’d learned enough about the world to be a good mother. At the same time, you’re so excited, so hopeful, and so severely physically limited.” About how the setting affected the finished product, she says “This record turned out to be a personal record, set in our home where I had lots of time for reflection and time to face my concerns and

fears.” The listener can hear Ms. Shires unpacking those anxieties in a song like “Slippin,’” with its ruminations on what could go wrong in a relationship that seems stable.

There’ll be a trigger, then up starts the fire, a handful of matches some faulty wiring.
You’ll say you have this hollow feeling. Something’s always been missing. Tonight could be the night you go slippin’ away from me.

Her piece of land is one with a panoramic view, and she pays close attention to even the smallest details. Take, for instance, the first stanza of “Harmless.”

A phased golden light rained down from the streetlight. It fell across your shoulder, paused just above your collar.

With this description of one fleeting moment, the writer sets an entire scene. Ms. Shires would argue that the term “poet” should not be used to mean “unusually perceptive songwriter,” since the roles of modern songwriter and poet are so very different. However, it isn’t hard to understand how her post-graduate education in poetry helps Ms. Shires choose which details to include. “It’s all about precision. My time in the MFA (Master Of Fine Arts) program at Sewanee taught me a lot about different ways of writing and how they all have one thing in common: the better you are at editing, the better your work will be. Spending long hours workshopping poems and reading the classics gave me a solid standard when it came time to edit my songs.”

Ms. Shires recorded My Piece Of Land under the guidance of brilliant Nashville producer Dave Cobb at his Low Country Sound studio. Inviting Cobb to produce My Piece Of Land was an easy decision to make, considering Ms. Shires had worked with him before on Jason Isbell’s albums Southeastern and Something More Than Free. Ms. Shires knew of Dave’s propensity toward arranging the songs in-studio, rather than rehearsing or making demos beforehand. Cobb believes in the spontaneity of early takes, and with the proficient rhythm section of Paul Slivka and Paul Griffith, the studio band was able to record the album in a relatively short amount of time without sacrificing performance quality. This approach gives each song on the album emotional urgency along with a groove that’s loose and effortless.

Among other things, “Pale Fire” is about consciously shifting one’s own priorities. There are two types of lovers: the kind we need and the kind we want. The hard part is finding someone who represents both. “You Are My Home” is written as a gift, a token of appreciation to someone who has helped the narrator define her place in the world. “Mineral Wells” is a song Ms. Shires wrote many years ago, after relocating to Nashville from her childhood home in Texas. It speaks to the part of us that never really leaves that original homeplace.

With My Piece Of Land, you get the sense that Amanda Shires has reached a personal pinnacle. This album is the creative milestone suited to accompany the recent milestones in her life: becoming a mother, developing into a true artist, and finally finding a home.