Amanda Shires on why she tackled abortion rights with 'Our Problem'
When Amanda Shires sat down with her husband, musician Jason Isbell, in their home studio outside of Nashville as the pandemic raged throughout Tennessee, it was to put the finishing touches on "The Problem," an extremely personal ballad she had been writing for years. The single is a moving conversation between the multi-talented Americana songwriters about abortion and the complications it contains. It's staggering in its simplicity and beauty, but even more so for its vulnerability: Shires began sketching out ideas for the song nearly a decade ago following her own abortion, a decision she made early in her relationship with Isbell, and one that he fully supported. (Shires wrote about the experience in a 2020 op-ed in Rolling Stone.)
"There was the time that needed to take place to settle with the experience, and to prepare to put it out in the world and have it there for people to judge," she says of the years leading up to the release of "The Problem," last September. "I think it was just fear at first that kept me from doing it, or the unfinished nature of it, really understanding exactly, how do I make this work in these times?" The appointment of conservative and pro-life judge Amy Comey Barrett to the Supreme Court, a decision that dismayed Shires, gave the 38-year-old artist the answer she was looking for. "I started getting really angry with the Supreme Court and all, and then I just started going, 'F--- it, we're doing it.'"
On January 22, Shires will release another version of the song, "Our Problem," to coincide with the passing of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that ensured a woman's right to choose. But this time, she and Isbell have reinforcements from some of the most powerful voices in pop, rock, and country. Cyndi Lauper, Angie Stone, Linda Perry, K. Flay, Lilly Hiatt, Morgane Stapleton, Nona Hendryx, Peaches, and Valerie June all harmonize with Shires and trade verses throughout the track. Meanwhile, Sheryl Crow plays bass on the song, and Isbell sits in on guitar. It's the version Shires envisioned when "The Problem" first began to take shape. Though it's tough to picture anyone but Shires and Isbell singing these words so intricately tied to their own story, "Our Problem" moves the listener in a different way, as a showcase of feminine strength and solidarity: the message, that we're stronger when we're standing and singing together, comes through loud and clear. (All proceeds for both "The Problem" and "Our Problem" benefit the Yellowhammer Fund, the abortion rights and reproductive justice organization.)
"Even if it's just me, my friends in music, and our fans who feel like it's okay to talk about sensitive topics like this," she says, "I think it might keep us all a little bit more charged up about things rather than just be passive."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You released "The Problem" with Jason last fall. What inspired this new version?
AMANDA SHIRES: This was the original idea I had for it. I wanted to put it out and try to do something good, to help people feel more okay in the world, and help get some money to Yellowhammer and places like that. But of course, COVID came along, and it made it a little difficult to do my original vision. Jason and I were talking about it, and then we decided to rewrite it for the two of us to sing. I never really considered also needing the voices of woke men, just to be vulnerable and share the experience and the conversation. I was super proud of that, that it just happened so naturally. In the meantime, I tried to figure out how to get better at my ProTools rig and mix and give everybody time to participate that wanted to. Now we have our end result, which is the original idea come to life. I'm super excited about it, because it's not really the easiest conversation to have. I'm just proud to stand with those other ladies and do this together, because so many times, you think that you don't really know people right now in the past year or two. I know where my community is, and I know that we're all going to use our voices to try to at least bring awareness to the issues, and try our best with whatever we can, even if it's just willpower, to maintain the rights we have left — and try not to regress.
It's such a heavy-hitting crew of gals we have on the track, from icons like Cyndi Lauper and Linda Perry to Morgane Stapleton, Lilly Hiatt, Valerie June, and other incredible female country and Americana artists. How did the conversations go with the women you reached out to? Was it a gradual process, or did you have some people in mind from the get-go?
I reached out to folks that I admired, and for the most part everybody was onboard that I had asked. There were a few that were already recording records, or in the COVID mindset of not really feeling music right now. The end result worked out so perfectly. Everybody that was able to participate that wanted to, [from] all genres, all colors, all genders, for me — as deep as the song can be, and as scary as it can sometimes be to talk about things like womens' reproductive rights, and the feelings that go with choices — it just felt like you can find your people. It's nice to know that people care, because that is the crux of the song — unconditional love, really. And to date, no matter what you believe, we should all be able to decide what we do with our bodies and have access and means to take care of ourselves. The fact that we don't, I think it's a poor reflection of freedom in general.
When you listened to the parts from the other ladies as they started to come in, was there a line that hit you different? Did the addition of their voices change the context at all?
The context changed for me, I think, when people agreed to do it, just because I know how hard it is to be a woman in the music business, and how hard it is to also use your platform for good, and the things that go with that. We have to work twice as hard in all of our fields, and you know, we're all very aware and trying to make decisions that are right. But then all of us are like, f--- it, who needs a career if we have no rights to our bodies? Something that struck me was when Morgane Stapleton joined me. [She and husband Chris Stapleton] do a more country sound, and even the politics of country music can sometimes, well, oftentimes be stifling. I admired everybody's spirit of community and "We can do it together!" That song originally started when a close friend of mine took me to get my abortion. She didn't believe the same things as me, but she was there for me when I had to go through that. I feel like that spirit was captured.
I've been thinking about the word "radical" in the context of this song, in how it is radical to write such a personal and candid song about abortion like this — but it shouldn't be.
Exactly. The song should've already been written. That's the truth, and that's the problem: we get to see lots of dudes out there singing about how much they love life, or going to work in a factory, or riding around in a car, or whatever. It's important to sing about what scares me and moves me in the hopes that, maybe, we can get somewhere and find some kind of common ground on something.
You're no stranger to advocacy, and when I think of people who use their platform for good, you take that really seriously. When we think about "Our Problem," and the last couple of years in general, how has recent history impacted the role of advocacy in your work, and your willingness to have difficult conversations in your music like this?
It's the only thing I can do that makes me feel like I can sleep at night. I like to write all sorts of songs, but I'm kind of leaning into the fact that I, as cliche as it sounds, genuinely want this world to be easier for my daughter. She's five. I think she lit the fire in me. There's more things we should talk about, too, like being aged out, and infantilizing voices when we sing, and all that kind of BS, the types of songs we're allowed to make up, the ones that sell and don't sell — it should be more about heart and doing something meaningful.