Amanda Shires could hear the sounds she wanted for what would become To the Sunset, the remarkable collection of songs she released earlier this year. The notes were clear in her head because of the silence she was able to find writing songs from the solace of a closet.
“That’s the only space I had to write in because, my daughter’s awesome, but she also likes to hang out and try to play the harmonica while you’re trying to play the ukulele, and it’s never in the same key — so that wasn’t working out,” says the songwriter whose music career spans over 20 years, though her first solo album didn’t debut until 2005. “So I just locked myself in the closet, in isolation.”
It was Dave Cobb who translated the sounds to actual instruments, but not before the lyrics for To the Sunset took on a different evolution than the music. The way she puts words to songs has changed for Shires over time, and To the Sunset is the masterpiece it is because she’s accepted her process, whatever it is now and whatever it will become. “I guess I felt like my way was wrong for a long time, but I’d just ignore that and just pretend like I wasn’t thinking those things,” she says. “But when I started having to put my shitty ideas up on the walls for everyone to see — because I didn’t want [my three-year-old daughter] Mercy to draw on them or tear ’em up or whatever — I think a lot of things happened: just self acceptance, and trust.”
Shires is referring to trusting her husband, also a songwriter and performer (Jason Isbell) to read her still-brewing words hanging up on the wall of their home; it was hard to put unfinished thoughts out there during the vulnerable period of a song, when the idea is still half-cooked and she’s simply not ready for anyone’s opinion on it yet.
“We like to trade songs and ideas and edit each other’s work, but only at a time when we’re ready to do that,” says Shires, who’s also a violinist in Isbell’s 400 Unit. “… So there’s an intimacy there that’s further than what we had in the fact that we can trust each other more deeply, or I can trust him more deeply now with things that are so abstract as feelings and real thoughts that I have.”
Shedding her folk singer-songwriter label for a fierce rock ‘n’ roll force to be reckoned with, Shires breathes a different, more electric life into To the Sunset than in previous works, opening with the otherworldly “Parking Lot Pirouette” before revealing further depth with every song that follows.
“Mirror, Mirror” is cosmic in sound, with its words zeroing in on the perfect world curated on social media. “All those things are a curated life,” she says. “And when you start comparing your day to somebody else’s — I just wanted to remind folks, if they need reminding, that it’s not like that really — it can get sad if you start going down the rabbit hole of what’s-my-life-compared-to-another-life, when that’s not what it is.”
“Wasn’t I Paying Attention” tells the story of a family friend’s suicide attempt, underlining again that things are not always what they seem with people you love. “It was a regular morning,” she sings. “No red flags or warnings, no nothing suspicious.” Luckily, the friend lived, but too often others aren’t so fortunate. “I just wanted to maybe open the door for conversations,” Shires says before stumbling. “… I don’t know what I was trying to do — it’s a hard thing when people you’re close to do something like that … I don’t know what to do except try to talk to folks and try to dig in and let folks around me know that I’m there for them … I guess that’s why I wrote the song.”
Shires also lets folks know it’s OK to fall apart, if that’s what the moment calls for, on “Take on the Dark,” a great example musically of the more fiery side of the songwriter. Along with “Eve’s Daughter,” “Break Out the Champagne” is another rocker on the LP. With its singalong chorus “Let’s get on with the shitshow,” “Break Out the Champagne” asks the listener to celebrate the losses along with the wins, whether some boring, beige dude just dumped you or the world feels like it’s about to crumble all around you. “It’s all about putting on your big girl pants and wading through the muck, and the only way to get through is through,” Shires says. “Sitting down isn’t going to do anything. You accept the shitshow and you trudge through, and the other side is better — it always is.”
Don’t miss Amanda Shires along with Aaron Lee Tasjan on Friday during Garden & Gun’s Made in the South kickoff concert. Tickets can be had here. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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