On her latest album Down Fell the Doves, the veteran songbird (and wife of Jason Isbell) creates a sophisticated sound all her own. Watch for her on tour, too, starting this week….
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
For an artist known for her complex perspective, as articulated on her two most recent albums, 2011’s Carrying Lightning and this year’s Andy LeMaster-produced Down Fell the Doves (Lightning Rod), Amanda Shires is incredibly soft-spoken, a reflection of her west Texas upbringing perhaps, but more likely, her genuine and unpretentious personality. Having discovered her prime instrument, the fiddle, when her dad bought it for her more or less on a whim after spying it in a local pawn shop, she developed an affinity for it quickly, and by age 15, was already playing professionally. Her first real gig was as a sometime member of the late Bob Wills’ legendary Texas Playboys, later operating on her own as an opening act for Todd Snider and guesting alongside Neal Casal, Jason Isbell (who she married this past February) and Justin Townes Earle. In addition to the above-mentioned albums she’s also released Being Brave (2005), West Cross Timbers (2009) and Sew Your Heart With Wires (2009, with singer/songwriter Rod Picott), steadily attracting the notice of the critics in the process. Shires spoke from the Nashville home she shares with Isbell in Nashville, sharing her thoughts about the new release, her career trajectory and what it’s like to embrace domestic tranquillity.
BLURT: Your new album is quite the mixture of light and dark—what were your thoughts going into this album, and how did you come to realize this somewhat complex brew?
SHIRES: Life makes it happen, but after the songs were written, I found Andy LeMaster and he helped me get me the sounds I was looking for from the sounds I was hearing in my head. He’s good at translating. If you say, “I want it to sound more like a thunderstorm and less like a tin roof,” he’s good at using my language and turning it into the real thing.
What was the inspiration for these songs? There’s a song on here (“Box Cutters”) about suicide…
That to me is more like a sort of a parody. It’s more like me mocking myself. My mom will say to me, if I whine to her that maybe I’ve lost my cell phone, she’ll say to me, “Well I cried because I lost my phone, until I met a man who had no ears.” [So] that one is about taking something ridiculous and making it even more exaggerated.
On the other hand, there’s also a song (“Deep Dark Below”) that has you probing the definition of evil, what with the line about the devil getting into a man.
Well, I wrote that one about a house on the street that I grew up on. Kids thought it was haunted, but it was also a place where kids would sneak out and drink booze and smoke cigarettes and whatever. There was a local kind of myth that somebody had been killed there, and I just started wondering about things like that… and then I had a song.
In general, it seems some of the subject matter is kind of left of center.
But isn’t that the way the world is? It’s less easy than it can be described sometimes, and it’s so interesting to me to probe the gray areas.
You seem to have very a fertile imagination.
I’m lucky to have had parents that didn’t stifle it. We do a lot of things to our kids, but at least I got to keep that even if they didn’t stay together. I don’t know. Childhood is never the best or prettiest thing.
How do you see your trajectory so far? It seems like you’ve had a pretty quick progression in terms of your album development.
I’ve always kind of known what I like. By the time I decided I wanted to do my own kind of music, I already had listened to a lot of music and I’d found a lot of other artists that I liked and a lot of music that I loved. All those influences made a confluence into this I guess, and while I could continue to be a side person, that’s not what I wanted to do. It’s just something you do.
Your last album made quite an impression on the critics. It seemed that that was your breakout effort, was it not?
I’ve heard some people say that for sure, and yeah, that’s a nice thing for people to say because you never know how people are going to react to anything. I don’t write for the purpose of getting good reviews or getting any kind of reviews. I kind of just work on it. I’m all about learning new words and stories, and I’m trying to learn to be more precise so I can convey what I’m thinking. To learn how to communicate and articulate.
When I started seeing Jason, we started having these writing days together. It’s so easy to get distracted where you just want to go for walks or hang out or go to the movies. We found ourselves eating a lot of pizza and watching Netflix so you get a little restless and think, “Well now what do we do?” So we’d say, “This week we’re going to go into our own rooms and write just for the purpose of practicing. So it turned out that some of those songs made it onto my record and each of our records, respectively. It was really scary bringing infant songs to someone you really like and then letting them hear them before anyone else. It’s a weird position to put yourself in. But we learned how to communicate!
Where did the bulk of these songs come from?
“Look Like A Bird” I wrote in the studio… There are songs that were written during our writing days, and those songs are “The Drop and Lift,” “A Song for Leonard Cohen”—because I got in my room and I didn’t know what to write about, but it was Leonard Cohen’s birthday and he’s my favorite… [chuckles]
And you have a tattoo of his lyrics to “Hallelujah” on your body somewhere?
Yes, that’s on my forearm.
How did you and Jason first become acquainted?
About twelve years ago I was playing Georgia with my old band, the Thrift Store Cowboys, and we were in Athens where he was recording Sirens of the Ditch. He walked over to the club from the studio and that’s how we met. We had a little conversation and then he watched the band and after that he asked me to play fiddle with him occasionally, and so we got to know each other off and on. I don’t think there were any real intentions or any crush going on, but we were friends and so we’d talk like friends about music and so on, on the phone and in emails. Then I broke my finger and he happened to be off the road and we started hanging out a whole lot, because my hand was in a cast and he was driving me to doctor appointments and crazy things like that. We just started getting to know each other a lot better, and then we went on the road together. I was playing in Justin Townes Earle’s band and Jason was playing with his band at the same gigs and so we were spending a lot more time together. It turned out we had a lot more in common than just music. Now here we are. Sitting around being married.
So how is married life?
It’s the same as living together in sin really. We started living together about a year ago, or maybe a year and a half.
So that was kind of a slow burning relationship it would seem.
I’m a fan of friendship first when it comes to building a relationship. It’s a difficult thing to manage a relationship and getting to know someone when you’re not around them much. That’s probably part of it. So we started living together and then we got married in February. So far, everything’s great [laughs]
Do you now plan your touring schedule to maximize your time together?
What we do is we have a minimum. We don’t go out without being able to see each other a minimum of three weeks. That’s our cut off. Because after that you have to get used again to being with somebody. It’s almost like you’re living with a stranger: “Don’t touch me like that. I don’t know you!” Sometimes we’ll go on the road together. I’ll open some shows for him. But we do separate things too.
Distance can help in a relationship. It makes someone miss you. It’s good. It’s a healthy thing. Spending time with yourself is always good for you. Jason is really creative and sometimes it can be inspiring for each of us to talk about music and things, but sometimes it’s also nice to just kind of take yourself on a date and realize what it’s like to be alone.
Amanda Shires’ U.S. tour starts this week: http://amandashiresmusic.com/tour/. Watch for issue 14 of BLURT in which Shires elaborates upon all this and more—and, in a special sidebar, husband Jason Isbell explains how their personal chemistry informs (yet can be separate from, depending on the circumstances) their musical chemistry.
[Photo credits: top, Kelly Amber Garcia; middle by Erica Shires]