When you and your partner are well-known musicians, writing deeply confessional lyrics about your relationship and anxieties can be more difficult than usual. Amanda Shires, who released her fourth studio album, My Piece of Land, last month, knows this all too well.
Shires’s husband, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, wrote deeply personal confessions, some of which pertained directly to Shires, on his 2013 album, Southeastern, and was awarded and applauded for his honesty.
While Shires’s confessions and musical style differ greatly from those of her husband, her unabashed approach to honest songwriting is equally impressive and allows My Piece of Land to read like a close-kept diary: personal, poetic and cathartic for both writer and reader.
Westword caught up with Shires recently and talked to her about her personal lyrics and how studying poetry has helped her frame her songs.
Westword: When you wrote a lot of this record, you were pregnant and not able to tour. That seemed to inform the new album’s title. Now that you’re back out on tour, how does being a mother establish your understanding of “home” and what your “piece of land” is?
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Amanda Shires: I wrote a lot of this record while I was doing the preparations for expecting our child. During that, I was starting to write, and the things I wanted to talk about were the questions I was dealing with, like, “What kind of childhood would my daughter have if we weren’t at home?” I grew up always having a bed and the same location to come back to. I was wondering how that would work for her and the fact that Jason and I have to tour separately sometimes. I was wondering if all of this was possible. We thought it was, but we weren’t sure, because we hadn’t gone through it yet.
We wanted to see how we could have careers and be good parents and still maintain our own relationship. It was hard to envision, so I started working that out in songs. I realized that “home” is not at all our address, or our physical location. It’s whenever I can be with them, no matter where that is.
Is it hard to write about personal anxieties and fears now that you and Jason are in the public spotlight? Is it hard to write such confessional lyrics?
It honestly is; it’s tough. But at the same time, songs aren’t 100 percent true. There’s a lot of our personalities injected into them, and in this case, my record is more confessional than my others. It’s not easy to say — like on the song “Slippin’” — that I worry about Jason falling off the wagon. But this is more of a conversation I have with my audience, and not with him. It’s tough, but the whole purpose is to understand you’re not the only person in the world dealing with it. It’s nice when someone responds to it and we don’t feel so alone. It’s all about connections.
You have a master’s degree...
Almost! This spring I will!
So you’re close to having a degree...
I’m trying. It’s an arduous thing, this poetry.
Have you found that the study of it helps your songwriting, or do you go to a different place?
The reason I wanted to go to school was because before I was only operating on instinct and I had no formal training with writing except for college term papers. I wanted to have more tools in the toolbox. I find myself a lot of times on the road not having a lot of mental stimulation. Riding in the van, there’s only so much I can look at on my phone. I read a lot, but I felt like I was looking at something and I had no direction. I didn’t know where to start, so I just enrolled and I started finding all of these things that I was missing. Now I feel more satisfied that I’ve found another outlet. I’m by no means a good poet at all, but I like to do it.
What types of things did you used to torture yourself with?
I put a lot of pressure on myself on past records to have a very clear idea of what exactly needed to happen — having too much control, in a way. I put more pressure on myself because I didn’t want to look like a fool, being the only woman [in the studio].
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It turns out that really wasn’t necessary. [Producer] Dave Cobb prefers not to have demos and wants the songs worked out naturally. It really taught me that there are different ways to work, and they’re not gender-specific. It’s much cooler to operate on instinct. It keeps you from being self-conscious when the “record” button is on.
There’s certainly a balance between being prepared and not driving yourself crazy.
Yeah, and I didn’t know how other artists did it [or] that there were other ways to do it. But now I know you can be professional and serve your art at the same time. That’s how you capture the heart of it.
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