Amanda Shires found her career — and her passion — in a pawnshop.
The secondhand violin sparked her interest in music, though it was only the beginning. Her sixth solo album, "To The Sunset," is set to be released Aug. 3, and she’s a regular in The 400 Unit, the accompanying band of her Grammy-winning husband, Jason Isbell.
Shires, with her quick fiddle playing, dreamy voice and thoughtful lyrics, is more than happy to take center stage or to play accompaniment. To her, playing music is the thing that matters. In the past, her solo albums have been introspective, singing about the excitement and fears that come with starting a family and the weight of what that takes. But with “To The Sunset,” she’s looking out at the world in a bold new way that combines her quintessential violin with synthesizers and a few other sounds listeners might not be used to hearing in Shires’ work.
She’s slated to play the Swyer Theater at The Egg on July 25. Shires took a few minutes to talk with The Gazette about her first sighting of a violin, her new album and balancing it all.
Q: Why did you pick up the violin in the first place?
A: I don’t know why. I just saw it at a pawnshop — I was with my dad when he was buying a knife — and I talked him into buying it. We weren’t a family of any means, so I took it pretty seriously when he said: “You’ve gotta learn how to play it if I’m going to buy this for you.” I took it home and broke all my strings because I wasn’t a prodigy and I didn’t know anything about tuning. Then I think, as a 10-year-old, I didn’t really have any frontal lobe development or an access to a vocabulary to describe my own feelings. It became an instrument that I used for expression.
Q: You graduated with your MFA in creative writing last year. How do you feel it's impacted your songwriting process?
A: I think I’m a curious person and I just wanted to be better [with] words, and that’s why I started getting my MFA in creative writing. It’s influenced my songwriting a lot as far as trying to get to a place where you can describe vague feelings and use real images in them. I’m also very good at spotting cliches and I can defend myself if I choose to use one now.
Q: Do you feel like it’s made your editing process quicker?
A: I’d like to say yes, but it doesn’t. I’m the kind of person that I’ll be in the middle of writing [a] song and I’ll think “Oh, it could go in this direction or this one or this one.” Rather than pick one, I write them all. But I think it helps as far as getting the right words. I’m trying to be intentional [with my words] and as true as possible. It takes a lot of practice and I’m still practicing.
Q: Back in 2016, you released an album that was introspective. Will “To The Sunset,” be [similar], or are you looking out at the world a little more?
A: I wrote, “My Piece of Land” [when I was] very pregnant, and it was directed more inward just because of the weight of doing something like bringing a child into the world and all the hopes and doubts that go along with that. Coupled with the hormones, I mean, that’s what you get. This one I think is more outward and I think you nailed it.
Q: What about the world did you use as fuel for the album?
A: Well, I can tell you that my whole process of writing changed after having Mercy. I used to write my songs in a quiet place, a private place. I would lock my desk because one of my greatest fears was that somebody would find my really shi*** lyrics and read them and misunderstand them. I had that fear of being misunderstood and of anybody seeing my work in its early stages. Having Mercy, though, in the house, I don’t have that kind of space anymore because all of our space belongs to her, which is not a bad thing. It’s just that when I was starting to make this record at my desk, I would be working on a song, she’d come in and want to play a tuba solo. Then [I’d say] “This is a terrible time for that solo Mercy.” After trying to do it my old way, I had to find a new way [to write songs]. My new way was to lock myself up into our clothes closet and painter’s tape my lyrics up to the walls so they wouldn’t get torn up or drawn on. It took some getting used to, having it up. I mean, my husband is a songwriter, but it took a while for me to get used to the fact that we are different types of writers and we have different ways that we get the same outcome, which is a song. I think going through that made me more confident in my own process and I think it shows on the record. It also made me accept myself more and not think that the way I [write songs] is a bad way, it’s just a different way.
Q: What about the sound on this album [how is that different from other albums]?
A: I think being in isolation for 10 or 12 hours a day with such hyperfocus, I feel like the sound I started hearing to accompany the sounds, I just started hearing them. They weren’t sounds I could really name. When I got my collection of songs [written] I called my producer Dave Cobb. What’s cool about him is he’s very good at translating what you’re trying to hear into actual music. He can identify a few instruments that would be the thing I was describing. When I was talking with Dave, I was trying to explain to him that I didn’t want to abandon the violin, but I was having a hard time figuring out how to make it fit in the sonic landscape that we were making. He had ideas about pedals and stuff [that] I was hesitant [about]. Then we started getting going and finding the right sound. It’s nice to feel like there’s something fresh and new to experiment and play with.
Q: In the past you’ve spoken about how female country artists are often underrepresented. Do you feel like that’s changed at all?
A: I think women have a lot more space in pop music. But Top 40 country -- which, I don’t really play, but I do pay attention to -- [is] heavy on my mind, not only because I’m a woman but because I have a daughter. As far as it getting better, I mean the conversation is going and it’s being addressed more and more. I don’t know how quickly it’s changing or if it’s really made any great strides as far as I can see. I don’t see any huge steps forward, but I feel like even the awareness and lots of writers addressing it, also musicians addressing it, that’s the thing that will help change it in the end.
Q: We talked a bit earlier about balancing everything. So how do you balance your own career, [being in Jason's] band and [your] family?
A: When it comes down to it, our favorite things to do are to play music together, to be together and travel together. But you know, he’s really supportive of me doing my music. He told me I seem more satisfied when I’m also doing my thing. What it really does more than balancing is it makes me feel really lucky because I get to play music. I love to play music and I love to be a sideperson. It’s an easier thing to do than to be a frontperson in a lot of ways, but I mean I also love to be the frontperson. It’s just nice to have different outlets or constellations of music that we have going on. That part [isn’t] hard to balance. It’s the grind that’s hard to balance. You’ve gotta make sure your laundry gets done and that you’re water bill is paid when you’re gone. That’s the hard part.
Q: For your show in Albany, are you going to be playing some of your older songs mixed with new [from “To the Sunset”]?
A: I like to see where the day takes me. I’m definitely injecting a lot of new stuff into the set right now, but also playing some of the old jams. I’ll be doing a mix, more than likely.
WITH: Sean Rowe
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wed. Jul. 25
WHERE: The Egg
MORE INFO: theegg.org