Take It Like A Man? No, Take It Like Amanda Shires
By: Adam Bowie
The last time Amanda Shires visited Fredericton, she was on tour with folk music legend John Prine, and the two of them had an experience that could have been pulled from one of their songs.
Before a show at The Playhouse in May 2017, Shires, the Texas-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter and founding member of the female supergroup, The Highwomen, was commuting from gig to gig by car with her longtime friend and mentor.
And they ran out of gas on the highway just outside of Fredericton.
“You don’t usually run out of gas. But I like to recall those memories fondly, of us just talking so much, and having such a good time and conversation that we couldn’t see any gas tanks,” she said, laughing.
Now, she says she can’t wait to return for this year’s Harvest Music Festival, where she has a 5:30 p.m. showcase in the Blues Tent on Sept. 17.
Shires will be playing songs from one of the most buzzworthy albums in music right now, her recently released Take It Like A Man – a personal, emotionally charged collection of songs that almost didn’t happen.
You see, Amanda Shires, who is married to two-time Harvest headliner and Grammy winner Jason Isbell, briefly thought she may retire from the music industry and focus on other artistic endeavours, like painting.
When asked about it, Shires said she’d had some negative experiences with various music industry professionals – she didn’t want to name anyone – that left her feeling unwelcome and unwanted in the Nashville scene.
“Some of those experiences were the kind that make you feel small, or the kind that make you feel like you don’t belong in a space you’d like to exist in,” she said during a recent phone interview.
“At some point, I just didn’t want to keep returning to a place where I was getting injured. I felt like doing that over and over was real dumb, and not good for my sanity or my mental health.”
And then when the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut down the music business, she fell into a bit of a funk, like many of us did. She began to focus her attention elsewhere, if only for her own wellbeing.
What changed her mind? A request to sing backup vocals on a track by Los Angeles singer-songwriter Lawrence Rothman, a longtime fan of Shires’ writing and musicianship.
She said Prine had often urged her to listen to every piece of music that came across her desk. So she did, and as the two artists began to talk, it became clear that they should try working on a few more songs. Over time, that collaboration evolved into working on a full-length Shires album, her seventh, with Rothman in the producers’ chair.
“I was able to make a new space for [music] in my mind, where it was safe to be in the studio,” said Shires.
What emerged was a deeply personal collection of songs, which swings from the seductive (Bad Behaviour) to the defiant (Don’t Be Alarmed) to the emotionally naked resentments that exist between longtime lovers (Fault Lines).
“Fault Lines” was initially written as a way for Shires to work through her feelings, as a way to express what she couldn’t articulate verbally at the time. It wasn’t initially intended to be included on this, or any album, she said.
She recorded a demo and sent it to Isbell, who ignored it.
“During that time, it was the height of the pandemic, and I think he was in self-preservation mode, I believe,” she said.
“And so I sent my friend Lawrence a text message with my little demo on it. They were like, ‘Wow. It’s really sad, but it’s really beautiful. We should record it.’”
When Isbell first heard the song, Shires said he told her it was really good.
“I was like, ‘That’s all you’ve got to say,’” she said, laughing.
“Sometimes that’s all you need. It takes time for people, sometimes, to get out of your head and be in a place where you want to talk.”
For some artists, it’s simply too difficult to put this much of themselves out there into the ether, for everyone to poke and prod and contemplate.
For others, like Shires, it’s part of the artistic pursuit.
“I don’t think about it when I’m writing the songs. I just write the songs that I want to write, and usually the questions start happening when I start putting the [album’s] sequence together,” she said.
“That’s when I decide whether I want to extend that invitation, if I want to answer questions about personal things or not.”
Shires has to balance her desire to protect her family from scrutiny versus her desire to push herself creatively, and to put forward the best songs for the project, including “Fault Lines.”
“I did have that conversation with Jason. When I was sequencing the record, there were a few sequences where that song wasn’t on it,” she said.
“And he said, ‘I really miss that song on the record. It’s a good song.’ I told him, ‘I don’t know if I want to talk about that song or where I was in my feelings when I was writing that song.’ And he was like, ‘Well you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but the song should definitely be on there.’”
Shires said she’s excited to be heading out for her first solo-material tour since the beginning of the pandemic.
And she’s also starting to think about some new music for The Highwomen, the collective she helped found that also features artists Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby.
“I think as long as there’s a need for the conversation, then the group will persist,” she said.
“I know we’ve been talking about writing, all that business.”
Some tickets for Shires’ upcoming Harvest show are still available at harvestmusicfest.ca.