IN TERMS OF accomplishments and accolades, the last couple of years have been busy for singer-songwriter Amanda Shires. In 2017, she earned a master’s degree in poetry from Sewanee, the University of the South, and was named emerging artist of the year by the Americana Music Association.
This year, she won a Grammy as part of husband Jason Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit, for their album The Nashville Sound. She also drew raves for a new album of her own — her fifth — To the Sunset. And she’s a member of the new supergroup the Highwomen — consisting of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Shires — which professes to be a movement aimed at empowering women.
Yet another of Shires’ achievements was something that was actually beyond her dreams: headlining a show at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. “I never even put that in my mind as a thing I’d want to do, because I never thought I’d do it,” Shires says of the August 2018 performance. “And now that it’s happened, I’m like, ‘OK, now I’m gonna do it again.’”
With the demands of marriage and motherhood — Shires and Isbell have a 4-year-old daughter, Mercy — impeding on her work time, Shires decided her writing process for the songs that make up To the Sunset had to change, and somewhat radically at that. So she moved her workspace from her home office into … a closet.
“I used to think I had to be in a certain place at a certain time with my certain things to write,” she says. “And it didn’t work that way. I’d go in my office, and Jason and Mercy would show up with their kazoo or harmonica or want to jam or something. And that was fun, but I wasn’t able to get anything done. So I moved everything into the closet and shut the door.”
And the result? “Being in there by myself made me super-focused, made me able to grasp the sonic landscape I was hearing, or maybe just made me feel like I could have a better sense of it.”
Shires is quick to point out that her closet is “not a Kardashian-style closet. It has clothes and shoes in it, and now a paper shredder and whatever tiny instrument I can fit in there.”
Also, in an effort to keep her lyrics-in-progress and notes from getting scattered, torn or colored on, Shires began taping them to the walls — an uncomfortable feeling at first, because that left her unfinished ideas visible to anyone.
She got over that feeling of vulnerability, she says, when she saw an exhibit of Dutch abstract painter William de Kooning’s at the Museum of Modern Art. There were sketches and paintings that were essentially collages where you could see him covering his mistakes, editing as he went. “That was the part that shows the humanity of it,” she says. “Also, it takes a lot of balls to put something up there and be like, ‘Fuck y’all if you don’t like it.’”
On To the Sunset, Shires leans into the songs with an urgency and confidence of someone who knows what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. “I don’t know why I didn’t write a bunch of depressing dirges this time,” she adds with a shot of sarcastic glee. “It won’t happen again.”
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