While writing her thrilling and sonically expansive new album To the Sunset (out on Aug. 3), Amanda Shires quite literally immersed herself in the process. Among clothes, shoes and scraps of paper, Shires holed up and wrote some of the boldest and most adventurous material of her career.
"Honestly, I think it was just isolation. Just being in a small space — a super small space," Shires tells Wide Open Country. "I wrote my record in my closet — taping the stuff to the walls and being in there by myself for 10 to 12 hours I guess led to the sounds I started hearing for the record."
It's the kind of commitment you'd expect from the singer-songwriter and musician, who has an MFA in poetry from Sewanee University. Shires says her MFA studies strengthened her songwriting.
"My whole point in going back to school was to get better at words and precision. It makes the editing process a lot easier," says Shires. "You don't have to mull over a preposition for as long. If you see a cliche they're easier to spot now."
There's not a cliche or unnecessary word to be found on To the Sunset, a 10-song collection that blends electronic sounds and crunchy guitars with Shire's precise songwriting.
Album opener "Parking Lot Pirouette" pulses with self-assertive fierceness while the record's lead single "Leave it Alone" explores new love and desire and finds the narrator describing her lover's eyes as glittering "like an eagle's cage" and musing "I envy your clothes, how they get to be so close."
To the Sunset, produced by Dave Cobb, is the follow-up to 2016's critically-acclaimed My Piece of Land and the fifth studio album from the multi-talented fiddle player who spent her teen years as a member of the Texas Playboys and her early 20s touring the Texas circuit with country legend Billy Joe Shaver.
Shires says Shaver was an early champion of her songwriting — even if she wasn't fully convinced at the time.
"At the time when he was saying 'You should be a songwriter' I thought I was getting fired so I didn't take that very well. I just decided 'No, that's not what I'm trying to do, Billy Joe. I love my job,'" Shires says. "A year later there I went, packing up my U-Haul and driving 16 hours to pursue my dream of becoming a waitress in Nashville, Tennessee."
But it was only a matter of time before Shires gained well-deserved recognition for both her songs and onstage collaborations. In addition to recording her solo albums, Shires has spent the past decade touring with artists like Justin Townes Earle and with her husband Jason Isbell as part of his band the 400 Unit.
All Rock and Roll and No Golf
Filled with soaring synth sounds and distorted guitars and fiddle, To the Sunset offers comfort to anxious souls in a time of upheaval. On album standout "Break Out the Champagne" Shires embraces uncertainty, taking inspiration from late night conversations about the apocalypse and a brush with potential disaster.
"One night I was hanging out with my girlfriend Kelly and she was talking about the apocalypse and that's really where the whole thing started," Shires said. "In the next verse I was talking about this airplane I went on from Dallas to London. We lost an engine and it was scary. I was thinking if I had that to do over again I would turn that into a party. It would be way better than the flight attendants collecting the drinks and everybody just being silent."
The song also features one killer kiss-off, which showcases Shires' sense of humor and doubles as a succinct description of her approach to the album itself. In response to her partner leaving her, the song's narrator offers the reply: "I'm rock and roll and you're golf."
Shires says the lyric came out of a conversation about the demise of a friend's relationship.
"I was just trying to cheer them up and I said 'It doesn't matter. You're rock n roll and he's golf, you know?' And I don't know why. It's just in my mind the way I pictured that person," Shires says. "I also think it's hilarious. Golf is not my favorite sport. I get that people like it but it seems to me the opposite of rock and roll."
Rocker "Eve's Daughter," about the resilience of a young woman who packs up and heads toward the sunset to start over, was inspired by discussions Shires had with her mother.
"I'm pretty proud of that song because I'm proud of my mom. She had us when she was very young and she was a single mom and we had to move around a lot," says Shires. "She did things like work at a bail bonds place and be a fish monger while she also went to school."
"Sometimes it was treading water, I guess it is sometimes for all Eve's daughters," Shires sings on the track and it sounds like a rallying cry.
Read More: Amanda Shires' 10 Best Solo Songs, Ranked
While Shires is clear that she writes songs from her own perspective and shared experiences with those close to her, the singer hasn't been quiet about country radio's gender gap. She showed up to the 2017 CMA Awards wearing a shirt that read "Mama Wants to Change That Nashville Sound" (a lyric from the Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit song "White Man's World") and last September she called out a radio station for playing just two female artists in nearly two hours of air time.
"The idea that there's two or three spots only for a woman to occupy is terrible," Shires says. "And then it has to be a ballad like 'I need you' or 'I need to be rescued' or some kind of weak ass shit."
Weakness isn't in Shires' vocabulary. And in reflecting on those expectations placed upon women, she found freedom in new sonic spaces.
"I took that part of the thinking and applied it to my record. Usually I write a bunch of slow, miserable dirges and these are upbeat," says Shires, laughing. "So I tried to consciously go against that aspect of it."
The result is a collection of songs that's nothing short of fearless and electrifying rock and roll. Or, as Shires says, "10 tracks of all rock and roll and no golf."
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