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Amanda Shires on Marriage, Vulnerability and 'Take it Like a Man'

Wednesday, 03 August 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

It’s unlikely that you’ll hear another record quite like Amanda Shires’ candid,  fearless and sensual ‘Take It Like A Man’ this year. Weaving together dark Americana, jazz, soul and folk, the Texan songwriter dissects marital strife and issues of self worth through bracing honesty and painfully resonant, refreshingly unsentimental storytelling.

Since entering the music business at the age of 15, when she began performing with Bob Wills’ former swing kings The Texas Playboys, Shires has consistently worked in the background on a variety of successful projects, while also establishing a productive solo career and winning the respect of her peers and genre diehards.  

A virtuoso fiddle player, Shires features as part of husband Jason Isbell’s the 400 Unit and is the driving force behind country supergroup The Highwomen, and has also collaborated with the late Justin Townes Earle and John Prine. ‘Take It Like A Man’, though, should deliver the mainstream acclaim that has so far proved to be, slightly inexplicably, out of reach.

In collaboration with producer Lawrence Rothman, who practically had to drag Shires out of early retirement after a series of dispiriting experiences, ‘Take It Like A Man’ is a star-making vehicle and then some. We recently caught up with the singer-songwriter, who told us she’s determined to tour the UK next year and is currently putting together ideas for The Highwomen 2 record, to discuss the new album’s similarity to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’, working with Rothman and what, according to the legendary Mr. Prine, the secret is to achieving marital harmony.

When ‘Take It Like A Man’ was announced we discovered that ‘a couple of events left you disenchanted with some of your choices, musical and otherwise, and had you wondering if you should continue.’ Can I ask what those events were and just how close you came to walking away from the industry? 

I was just gonna be a painter when Covid started, or just gonna continue writing poems. But a lot of things happened. A lot of studio experiences. When I go back far enough, as much as I love Justin Townes Earle, I had a little bit of trauma from that experience. And then making the ‘Reunions’ record [with Isbell] wasn’t a high point in my life. There were issues in trying to get The Highwomen organised. That’s not to say I haven’t had good experiences. I had experiences with John Prine that were great. But it also sucked to leave my family and daughter for six weeks at a time. It got me feeling pretty low and then, on top of that, we had Covid. That was sort of a forced quit, in a way. 

Then, after I was done, I was talking with Lawrence and they were like ‘we should record’ and I said ‘I don’t really do that any more.’ I said, ‘I’ll give you a trial day, just one day, but I’m not promising anything.’ And that went awful good and I decided ‘Okay, now I’ll record, but that doesn’t mean I’ll put it out.’ But little by little I got coaxed back into it, all to realise that it wasn’t music breaking my heart it was just people and situations. Now I have different boundaries.         

For anyone who’s yet to hear the album, how does it compare and contrast with your previous releases?

This one is sonically different because Lawrence produced the record. The way we met was kind of serendipitous. Or not. Maybe it was predestination? But we’ve both been in music for a long time, are around the same age, have similar upbringings, and that made the record super true to what I wanted my self expression to be. In terms of the writing, it’s about choice and consequence of choice. It’s also intentionally vulnerable, more than I’ve ever been willing to get at or go to. It’s also different because I just cared so much about this one. Once I got to the place where I was recording again I was like, ‘If I’m doing this and I’m talking about my innermost thoughts and feelings, I wanna at least give them as good of a chance as they can get.’

This hopefully won’t sound creepy, but the album is so incredibly immersive it practically makes me feel like I’m inside your head, seeing what you’re seeing, feeling what you’re feeling.

That doesn’t sound creepy. That’s the highest compliment I can get. After recording it, Lawrence and I worked on it, off and on with the mixes and mastering and everything, in a way some people would call ad nauseum or tedium. But I thought of it more as, ‘No, we’re making something for real.’ You saying immersive, it’s the first time I’ve heard somebody say that and it brings me so much joy because we really tried to make it that way.  

Collaborating with Lawrence in that manner must have been very different to working with your regular collaborator Dave Cobb, who’s known for recording artists very quickly?

Yes, and I think that’s something I learned too. I like to record live in the studio and do live tracks, a lot of them work, but I really like to take my time and figure stuff out. During Covid I started recording on a Pro Tools rig and console in my studio.  With that I learnt that taking your time and not being able to get anything done as quickly as others is not good or bad. The result is what matters and I need all that time to untangle the mess in my brain between sound and words sometimes.     

Did you want to make a real statement of intent with Hawk Like A Dove, both as the opening track on the album and the first people heard?

I did intentionally write that song the way it is and released it first because it’s vulnerable. If you don’t follow my Instagram or know me you can just hear it as a song where you’re changing to be the one that’s gonna be the predator rather than the prey. But I was also trying to say when you become a wife and a mother it doesn’t mean you’re not still yourself and that desires and sex and all that go away. 

Of course they don’t. But sometimes it feels like you’re not allowed to be a sexual being because you’re married. Everybody likes to put it out there like you’re some kind of whore, but you’re not. You’re just trying to talk about normal human condition stuff. And rather than suppress that and make it go away for folks, if we celebrate it, not only is it fun and cool, it also might make your own sex life more enjoyable if you’re not suppressing yourself or letting others do that to you. That’s why I write songs, because it’s easier for me to say it in a song.          

Compared to previous effort ‘After The Sunset,’ your vocals are front and centre on this album and sound better than ever.  

If you listen to that record compared to this one, what you can hear is that there’s more self acceptance. I’m not saying I love my voice now or anything. I don’t. But I know how to treat it more like an instrument rather than something to run away from. My first instrument is violin and I feel pretty good when I play that. I don’t think about myself as a singer and before this didn’t even believe in it as an instrument.It was more like a vehicle to get the words across.

In the studio Lawrence would stand beside or in front of me, doing lots of miming and stuff, and trying to make me bigger than I am ‘raise your arms up, sing loud, you can sing louder than this, you can use your breath’ and all this stuff. A lot of vocal coaching went on there. Lawrence pushed me and taught me about how to accept my voice as it is: ‘don’t listen to it if you don’t like it, but I’m turning it up.’

Jason is the subject of many songs on the record, like the surprisingly revealing Fault Lines, and he also plays on them too, which is very Fleetwood Mac. How did he feel about such revealing material?

So, there’s two things I can say about Jason. No matter what, like even in the recording of this we weren’t in the best of places, but when we were first friends and then quasi-dating and whatnot, it was always about serving the song first and the craft. While he’s super competitive, he’s not competitive with me because he’s so different. In his point of view, and he’s a man and I’m a woman, we do different things. But when we talk about words and writing, which is often, that’s the foundation of our whole thing.  

During the time when I was writing these songs, envisioning them, the first one I wrote was Fault Lines. I recorded a crappy ass demo of it on the phone. He was busy that day, but he’d been busy a lot those days, so I sent it him on a text message and he didn’t even listen to it. That really got to me. I was like, ‘Well, fuck it. He doesn’t have to hear any of them until we get into the studio…then maybe he’ll listen.’  

So here we come with Fault Lines, he counts it in, and hadn’t really heard the lyrics.  After we got done he went, ‘That’s a really good song.’ I said, ‘That’s all you have to say about it?  That’s all you’ve got?  That’s a really good song?’  But, in a lot of ways, those songs and the writing was our way back into finding how to talk closely and spend time doing that. To choose to spend time doing that. It’s weird how we all blame everything on time, but it’s really time management and priority.

It must have helped that Jason’s also a songwriter, whereas someone outside of the business might not have been able to deal with you discussing your marriage so publicly?

So, all the songs get recorded and I played him a sequence without Fault Lines and he was like, ‘I think that’s a huge mistake, not to put that song on there.’ And I said ‘I don’t know if I’m into talking about our marriage and stuff’ because the record could have gone one of two ways.

I could have just kept that part of our lives as their own and was like, ‘I don’t know about all the questions that people would ever…’ and he said, ‘Okay, so don’t worry about the people. It’s a good song. You don’t have to talk about any of the songs if you don’t want to, you just have to say ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ And we both know I can’t do that. People like me with ADHD, like not the fake version, all we do is over share and get over-stimulated.  

In the end, I trusted he was right and let that be on there and, because it was, that affected the whole collection. I had to put Empty Cups on and then it occurred to me what I was doing with the songs, with the highs and lows of the record, was making something more representative of how love works for me. Where it’s ups and downs in its patterns and it repeats. It’s great then it’s not great, then you’re happy then lonely, and you’re all the things, all the time. 

You chart the different phases of a relationship throughout the album, but how cognisant were you of making sure people understood that was your intention?

You hear about people having ups and downs and not a lot of folks are gonna say it because you might hurt the marriage. It’s not like superstition, but when you talk about marriage to anybody not in the marriage, it feels like you’re doing something wrong. My grandparents, they didn’t talk about it much but remained married forever. But they did say it was hard. John Prine, I once asked him, ‘What’s the secret, because you’ve been married forever?’ This is something I’d ask everybody at the time. He said the secret is really just being vulnerable and it’s not always easy to do. You’ve got to be vulnerable and try to put little bits of love in the love bank.

You have these moments where you get emotionally disconnected and have to put in some hard work to find your way back. Sometimes having those conversations is difficult because it takes time for each person to tread carefully and not harm your love any further than what’s been done. It’s a very careful and hard thing to do, rolling up your sleeves and sitting there talking.

The record also touches on the power of coming through those trying situations, which imbues a sense of hopefulness without defaulting to ‘happily ever after’ cliches.

I’m no marriage counsellor or relationship expert, but there is something beautiful on the other side when you get to a point of working things out, because the nature of all of us is to grow. And when you do grow you don’t really grow apart, you grow alongside, and you’re so busy doing your own growing that you’re not paying attention to the way the other person’s growing sometimes.

We put that part last because we were prioritising our family, as a unit of three first, and forgoing all else for the sake of our daughter and careers. We thought, ‘We’re strong, this part, we’ll just put that in a different box and address that some other day.’ And then you go along and go, ‘What the fuck is happening?’ And here we are now, after talking it out. That’s not to say more stuff may not rear up, because it likely will, but it’s a nice feeling when you go through those giant tar pits of blah and arrive back into a beautiful clearing where it’s not soggy any more.

Amanda Shires' 'Take It Like A Man' is out now on ATO Records.

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