Talking with Amanda Shires.
By Lindsey Lowe Osborne
In some ways, Amanda Shires and I do the same thing: Tell stories. Mine have a bit more punctuation; hers have a melody. But we’re after the same end—connecting people. “I tell stories and make them rhyme and have fun doing it. I use the violin and tenor guitar to help me do that,” says Shires, whose most recent of her five albums, To the Sunset, stands to be released Aug. 3. “I think art is supposed to raise questions and bring people together. My goal with music is to have fun and to be honest; I think of myself as a human going through human things and looking for ways to make the pictures in my mind all rhyme and make sense.”
Shires has been a musician for most of her life—she came across her first violin at the age of 10 in a pawn shop, and at 15, she began touring with the band Texas Playboys, which turned out to be a fast-track course in real life. In her late teens and early 20s, she was a side player, but a conversation with country music singer and songwriter Billy Joe Shaver pushed her to pursue something bigger. “I was a side player for lots of folks age 15–22 or so When Billy Joe Shaver told me my songs were good and that I should pursue that, I had the beginning of an ‘aha moment,’” Shires recalls. “It took a year for me to agree with him, but I decided he was right and I went for it.”
In the time since, Shires has crafted a thriving career, both as a solo artist (she released her first solo album, aptly named Being Brave, in 2005), as well as as a collaborator, working with the likes of Rod Picott, Justin Townes, and Jason Isbell (whom Shires married in 2013). She won a Grammy as a member of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit in 2017. (What has surprised me most about it) is becoming friends with heroes like John Prine, Gillian Welch, and Todd Snider. Winning a Grammy? Ten-year-old me would never have guessed that I’d go to the Grammys and see Tony Bennett in an elevator (then run away because I wasn’t sure if I’d say something idiotic),” she says.
Shires’s music is evocative and understanding, telling both her stories and those of her listeners. She uses songwriting, she says, to deal with her own feelings—“Cheaper than therapy!” Her MFA in creative writing is apparent, as well; an example is “White Feather” off of the new album. “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,” Shires explains. Still, Shires hopes that this album will be a bright spot in the world for those it finds. “I explained to Dave (Cobb, who produced the album) that I wanted the songs to have atmosphere,” Shires says. “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.
“(My music has) evolved over time in the fact that I had less to talk about when I was 22. I now have more life experience. I have a husband and a child and a career,” she says. “I have experienced what most of us do experience at this point in our lives. I think with age and time, I’ve figured out what’s truly important to me and I feel like I make fewer stupid decisions. At the same time, I feel like I can relate better to people and I feel less afraid to express myself.”
If you could use a dose of therapy from Shires (not for free, mind you, but well worth it), join her Aug. 11 at WorkPlay. She promises more than a good time—she promises to do her best to make you feel like you’re not alone. “Playing live is my favorite. I love the wildness and heart of improvisation,” she says. “I like to be in rooms with others that have similar feelings and life experiences. We’re all in it together, right?”
*9/7: Liz Phair at Saturn *9/9: Grizzly Bear at Iron City
*9/13: Portugal. The Man at the BJCC