A dictionary and a paper shredder are crucial to Amanda Shires’ songwriting process. The dictionary — a 1940s model around six inches thick — to inspire and clarify, the shredder to desiccate any lyrics the singer-violinist deems unworthy.
“I feel like if I died in some tragic way, I would hate for anybody to see those piss-poor ideas,” says Shires, who turns some of her discarded journal pages into compost for her tomato plants. “It would be like, ‘Oh my god, why is she keeping this paper? It says the most clichéd thing ever!’”
Her careful pruning — not to mention a 2017 M.F.A. degree in poetry — worked wonders on the 10 precise and passionate songs populating her seventh album, To The Sunset (out 8/3), which features a guitar assist from hubby and former Drive-By Truckers member Jason Isbell. Shires spoke to EW from her laundry room about the new record, frightful plane rides, and poetry, as she struggled to fit two touring operations’ worth of clothes into one suitcase.
On getting schooled
Despite the rigors of touring, making records, and taking care of a baby, Shires made time to get an M.F.A. in Poetry from Sewanee: The University of the South, finishing her degree in April 2017. When she applied to the program, Shires admits, “I didn’t even know what poetry was, really. I thought I did.” So, what is it exactly? According to Shires, “It’s a meditative, reflective, and mind-blowing experience. I read somewhere that a blockbuster in poetry is [selling] 3,000 copies. That’s a damn shame. I think about poems like ‘Oven Bird’ [by Robert Frost] or ‘The Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver or ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop. Where would I be without all those?”
On playing violin — with a twist
With To The Sunset, Shires looked to incorporate her longtime instrument in a new way. “Violin was my first form of expression — and is still in a lot of ways,” she says. “But the sound of it on its own, it’s kind of… well, it would have been displaced-sounding on this record just playing it as a traditional sound with what we were doing with the drums and synthesizers and guitar tones.” Enter the Mellotron pedal, which gave the stringed instrument a new sonic direction.
On using new tools
While Shires often writes music on ukulele, on Sunset, she also tried an autoharp. “I did a lot of autoharp and tenor guitar writing. It’s easier for me to find melodies on violin than it is on a rhythmic instrument,” she admits, adding, “then there’s just a lot of caterwauling and wailing! If I’m having trouble locating the easiest way to make a certain chord I ask Jason if there’s an easier way to get from one chord to another. We usually show each other our work when we’re done, or if we get stuck.”
On being her mother’s daughter:
Several songs on To The Sunset are about Shires’ parents, particularly her mother, who plays a role in “Charms” and “Eve’s Daughters.” Shires, looking at her own offspring, wonders in “Charms” “what is it that I’m doing and saying and teaching, and what will the outcome of that be?” “It’s a complicated feeling,” she admits, “because you have to face the parts of yourself that are not the best. It’s a guilt-ridden thing.” Her mom, a painter, gave up art school to raise her children, which is what “Eve’s Daughter” leans into. Says Shires, “It’s her story about her choices and how she coped with them, as well as having two kids and being everything from a bail bondsman to a fishmonger, climbing out of that, and then going to school. She went to college after I did, getting her nursing degree.”
On turning fear into art
It was a scary flight that sparked the album’s inspirational and raucous gem “Break out the Champagne. “I was in a plane that lost an engine flying from Dallas to England,” says Shires. “It happened over the Newfoundland Sea, and it was dark, and they took away our drinks, and it was scary. I thought I was gonna die.” That said, Shires’ wry humor remained, even when fearing a crash: “I was probably more concerned with the hope that when they find me I have some sort of clothes on!” She then transformed the experience into a memorable song of her Monday-morning-quarterbacking the incident: “I would turn it into a party, and everybody would have some fun while the plane would either go down… or not.”
On how poetry affected the new album
The recent student admits that her M.F.A. studies had a huge impact on this record. “A lot of it was the chiding and scolding I got from [professor] Andrew Hudgins that remains in my ears like a tiny sock puppet saying, ‘Is it nailing Jesus on the cross for you to use a comma, Shires?’ Also learning about the way you break lines up on the page and the effect that has as you read it,” she explains. “That can really help my songs, about where to put the most valuable words and expressions. The thing that I’m trying to accomplish is to tell the stories and my feelings in ways that are relatable. But at the same time, I’m so tired of hearing the same old crap. Bring some freshness if you can.”