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Write On: Amanda Shires

The spellbinding songwriter and violinist on touring and co-writing with her husband, Jason Isbell

Posted in MusicWorld on October 25, 2013 by
Photo: Erica Shires

Amanda Shires doesn’t shy away from the dark. Instead, she fearlessly and beautifully explores it in her songwriting, finding comfort in the universal emotions we all feel, and the universal discoveries we make when we come out of the darkness and into the light. “I like exploring the darker things,” BMI singer-songwriter Shires admits. “I write whatever comes out, and reconstruction and rebuilding was happening at that time in my life. You can’t have light without dark; you can’t have anything without it’s opposite.”

And when she picks up her fiddle, something truly magical happens. From the spare, haunting opening track, “Look Like A Bird,” and the radio-friendly heartbreaker “Devastate,” you’re instantly drawn into her world on her latest album, Down Fell the Doves, produced by Andy LeMaster (Bright Eyes, Drive-By Truckers) and released in August on Lightning Rod Records.

In person, the petite beauty is wisecracking, sharp and talkative. Lest this seem paradoxical to her songwriting when she explains that she usually doesn’t write when she’s in a “happy” mood, it’s apparent that this is an artist who has learned to channel negative emotions in a positive way.

Shires, 31, built her career in and around her hometown of Lubbock, Texas. She got her first violin at a pawn shop at the age of 10, and by 15, she joined legendary Western Swing band, the Texas Playboys. While it didn’t take long for Shires to make a name as an in-demand fiddle player, she had aspirations beyond the side of the stage. But in order to truly forge her path as a singer-songwriter, Shires felt that she had to leave Texas for Nashville.

“Logistics and a fresh start brought me to Nashville,” she explains of making the move five years ago. “I was mostly a sideperson in Texas. It was hard to say, ‘No, I’m going to be a songwriter and you’re going to take me seriously.’ I’d think, ‘Well, I still have to pay the rent, so I guess I’ll take some more fiddle side work.’ But I decided to start over. I got a job waiting tables, saved up money for the first record and then the second record.”

But for the lifelong Texan, it was an adjustment to become a Music City resident.

“When I first moved [to Nashville], I didn’t feel like I lived here,” she says. “I didn’t learn my way around town. I didn’t bother trying to learn my way around — I felt that might be the thing that made me no longer a Texan, or that I couldn’t go back. If I never learned my way around, I could leave a lot easier if it didn’t work out.”

But it did work out. She fell in with some like-minded Americana musicians, including Justin Townes Earle, Todd Snider and her now-husband, artist Jason Isbell. The couple, who married earlier this year, recently toured together, and Isbell and his bandmates Chad Gamble and Jimbo Hart played on Doves. Isbell’s guitar adds some meat to the tracks, but it’s Shires’ fiddle that gently weeps, claiming the spotlight in each song.

And for Shires, the working relationship with her husband is as rewarding as the personal one. “It’s easy because we’ve already established a line of communication,” she says. “It’s more natural than going into a studio not knowing anybody, where you’re sort of feeling it out and trying to understand the other person’s language.” Though the couple is still based in Nashville, they both spend a lot of time on the road, and Shires says that years of constant touring have sharpened many of her skills, even one she didn’t intend: the skill of losing things.

“I lose everything on the road!” she laughs after explaining that she recently left a bunch of necklaces in Springfield, Ill. “I lost my toothbrush, like, seven times, and I like a good toothbrush. I fell in love with this Elizabeth Bishop poem, One Art, and it says that ‘the art of losing isn’t hard to master.’ So I keep going with that. I just kind of accepted that I’m going to lose stuff, so I try not to get too attached.”

One thing Shires is careful not to lose is her tiger claw, gifted to her from a fan post-show, and the inspiration behind the song “Bulletproof.” “He came to the merchandise table, and like nice folks do, some bring you presents,” Shires recalls. “This guy — I might have met him once — brought me a bag, and I opened it up and it was tiger parts. He said, ‘I rescue big cats; we have a sanctuary for them, and they shed their teeth and their claws, but you should keep at least the claw and the whiskers because they’re going to make you bulletproof.’ The next morning I thought, that’s not such a bad idea; if you really were bulletproof, you could capitalize on that somehow. You could put on a good show.”

If Shires had any worries that Texas wouldn’t welcome her back with open arms, she can rest assured. After the release of her breakthrough album Carrying Lightning in 2011, Texas Music Magazine named Shires “Artist of the Year,” dubbing her “The New Lucinda” (Williams). Sonically, Shires’ voice has the same bittersweet, effortless yet evocative tone as Williams, but it’s likely the comparison was born out of the gift of storytelling they share, much in the tradition of one of her songwriting heroes, Leonard Cohen.

Cohen is such a strong influence on Shires — she has lyrics from his quintessential song “Hallelujah” tattooed on her forearm — that she wrote him a birthday song on Doves. “The day I was writing it, Jason and I were doing this thing where we’d each go into a separate room and write a song,” Shires recalls. “I decided to write Leonard Cohen a birthday song. And the next week I still liked it, which isn’t always the case. If I had known that I would record it, I might not have been able to write it — it was a little bit of freedom.”

She laughs when asked about the song that she described as her “dream encounter” with Cohen, in which the two share multiple drinks, talk and go for a walk. But it’s a small world, and this encounter could surely happen, right? “His backup singer was at my show the other night!” Shires enthuses. “She emailed him that there was this girl singing this song that she wrote for him. That’s one degree! Not to get all hippie, but sometimes I feel like, if you keep putting the positive thoughts out into the world…”