Interview: Amanda Shires Finds Confidence While Creating ‘To the Sunset’
“I don’t usually toot my own horn, but it’s a pretty good record.”
It doesn’t take long to hear why Amanda Shires thinks her new album, To the Sunset, is "pretty good." Her talent is on full display throughout the LP, a brilliant follow-up to My Piece of Land, showcasing a continuing evolution of her sound and writing.
“This record became different because of the environment that I wrote the songs in,” Shires tells The Boot. “I worked in our closet, amongst the shoes and the laundry, for about 10 and 12 hours a day, trying to write these songs. It was super confining, super constricting. During all that isolation with just me and my songs and the paper shredder — and the laundry — it became super clear what I was trying to do. And then all I had to do was get Dave to help me make that happen.”
The Dave whom Shires mentions is, of course, Dave Cobb, a man known as much for his production chops as his musical ability. He worked with Shires on My Piece of Land as well, and he’s become a good friend to her and her husband, Jason Isbell.
“Working with him in the past, we developed a rapport that has worked really well,” she explains. “I think he understands what I mean when I try to say things."
Shires says because she doesn’t have a background in music engineering, she leans heavily on Cobb for his expertise. “I’m a songwriter and I play the violin and tenor guitar, so Dave is very kind to let me try to describe the things I hear in my head,” she notes with a chuckle. “Then he translates that into sonic landscapes without laughing in my face.”
It was helpful for Shires to have a friend in the studio, considering how different the creation of this record was compared to past efforts. The reason Shires confined herself to the closet? She has a toddler running around the house now.
“In the past, I was free to write in quiet and in the space wherever my desk was at. I could leave my instruments out. In the past, my writing was super private; I never liked showing my work at its earliest stages,” Shires recalls. “But this record, I forced myself to let that go and be okay with taping songs to the closet walls and bathroom walls … because that way, I didn’t have to gather them up and put them away so they didn’t get crayons and markers all over them.”
The presence of a toddler isn’t the only thing that helped Shires let go of her creative privacy. In April of 2017, she wrapped up her MFA in creative writing with a thesis focused on poetry and blank verse.
“I started school because I felt like, as a songwriter, I was operating solely on instinct, and I was having a hard time deciding exactly what words I wanted to use. I felt like I wanted to be a writer, and being a curious person, school felt like a way to solve the problems I was having with my own work," Shires explains. "And it helped a whole lot.”
With this new way of approaching her own craft, Shires has gained a better sense of what she’s doing when she puts pen to paper: “I feel like I know which word to pick here and there, and what kind of implications each word has,” she says. “Now, I don’t worry that I’m clouding my writing by using a word I don’t mean when I mean something else.”
This understanding of her own economy of words has helped Shires focus only on the words that help move the song forward. But grad school also helped her grow in how she handles what other people think of her work.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever shown anyone your work before you’re done with it, but it can be very uncomfortable. This made me tougher,” she says with obvious and much-deserved pride. “It definitely changed how I can accept myself among people, and in general.”
From the sonic landscapes to the writing, To the Sunset is a crowning achievement in Shires’ growing body of work. But the listening experience isn’t relegated only to the ears; the album cover for the new disc is also quite striking, and unveils another layer or two to the record.
“I felt like what I wanted to do for the artwork was to try to express what I was doing when I got to that place of accepting myself more and being more confident in the work I was doing,” Shires says. “The process of the writing coupled with the sonic direction, I was looking for something futuristic.”
That futuristic something is most visually apparent in the font used on the album cover, but it’s also found in every groove of the songs. Shires wasn’t content only focusing on what’s to come, though; she also wanted to express where she’s been and how she’s grown.
“All the flowers and colors are there because it gives me a sense of opening myself up and, I guess, ‘blooming,’ if we want to get cheesy,” she admits. “I wanted it to show a growth in confidence, too. I like to pretend that I’m a confident person, but this whole process has made me actually feel confident. I gained a lot more confidence through this process.”
For Shires, this growth isn’t just something she hopes her fans hear on the record. It’s something she wants them to experience in their own lives, too.
“The goal at the end of the day is for all of us to find a little bit more peace in life and with ourselves,” she says, “and to feel a little more comfortable in the world.”
As a nod to her past and a toast to the future, To the Sunset is a perfect first step.
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