When it came time to flesh out the songs for her fiery new album, Amanda Shires did not have the luxury of retiring to a quaint cabin in the woods or even the office of her house near Nashville. Instead, she wrote the bulk of the material in her closet.
“It was the only place I could go where I could leave all my notes and instruments out, and she wouldn’t catch on that I was in there working,” Shires said.
“She” would be Shires’ daughter with fellow singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, Mercy Rose, who just turned 3. Apparently, the toddler “likes to have a tuba-playing contest” whenever her parents are trying to get some writing done, her mom reported. Hence the closet trick.
“When I tell people about this, they think it was some kind of giant, Kardashian walk-in closet,” Shires said, her Texas drawl turning extra dry. “But it’s really just your average, cluttered closet.”
That confined workspace proved a functional incubator for what should be Shires’ breakthrough record. Titled “To the Sunset,” the 10-song collection finds the 36-year-old Americana music vet trading in a lot of the traditional twang and soft heartache heard on her previous four albums for rockier, more electrified sounds and harder-hitting songwriting.
With the ethereally poppy single “Leave It Alone” leading the way at radio outlets such as 89.3 the Current — a song that’s more Mazzy Star than Dolly Parton — Shires returns to Minneapolis for a Fine Line gig Thursday, just two months after she was in town headlining the Basilica Block Party as fiddler and backup vocalist in Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit.
“What a lovely night and fun party that was,” she said.
Talking by phone two weeks ago before a tour stop in Sacramento, Calif., Shires downplayed the rather dramatic sonic changeup on the new album: “I think you could see it coming with my last record,” she said, referencing 2016’s “My Piece of Land.”
However, she told Rolling Stone upon the arrival of “To the Sunset” last month, “If you are making an Americana record, and you’re a woman, you have to play acoustic instruments and be sad all the time. I did not want to do that.”
Instead, Shires and Nashville producer Dave Cobb — who also helmed acclaimed efforts by Isbell and Chris Stapleton — looped her fiddle through the kinds of electric effects boxes that rock guitarists use and amped up her sound.
The results range in tone from the lusty, reverberating opening track “Parking Lot Pirouette” to the aforementioned poppier tracks to a stormy, Neil Young & Crazy Horse-flavored finale, “Wasn’t I Paying Attention,” which rather graphically details a troubled man’s suicide: “John had been clean for over a year now,” she sings. “We all thought he was in the clear now/But it wasn’t God talking to him that day/It was a beast that never goes away.”
Shires herself pointed to the lyrics as this record’s more transformative trait. The songs, she said, all benefited from her completion last year of an MFA degree in poetry from Tennessee’s Sewanee: The University of the South.
For the sake of the song
“It was all about becoming a better writer, being able to rely on something other than instinct when it comes to songwriting,” she said. “Instinct is still important, but now I can easily identify problems like clichés and mixed metaphors, and I have a broader palette to work off of.”
One of the most evocative songs on the album is “Eve’s Daughter,” based on her mom’s experiences having to start over after a divorce — and, she said, “about all of us women out here trying to make something of ourselves without equal footing.”
Shires spent much of her youth split between her parents’ houses in the midsize Texas cities of Lubbock and Mineral Wells. Her music career started very young, in her midteens, when she was recruited to perform with surviving members of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Lone Star music legends four times her age.
“I was so young, I didn’t really know how important they were musically; I just thought of them as granddads who loved playing Western swing,” she said.
After becoming an in-demand session player and band member for the likes of Justin Townes Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, Chris Isaak and Todd Snider, she relocated to Nashville with her main goal being to make her own records.
“There’s a stability in being a side person that can be kind of dangerous if you also want to be an artist on your own,” she said.
Of course, the familial benefits of touring with her husband are one reason she’s happy to continue playing backup with Isbell, whom she met in 2011, married in 2013 and famously stuck by as he fought his way to sobriety in between. Shires said she’s grateful to have him there for feedback — “to tell me if what I’m working on sucks, and why” — but they otherwise stay out of each other’s way when it comes to songwriting.
“We see ourselves very differently, like one of us is playing pool and the other is playing basketball,” she said. “I’m happier he’s there because he’s an amazing husband and father more than because he’s also an amazing songwriter.”
Still, it had to be asked: Is it now Isbell’s turn to head into the closet to write a new album?
“We’re actually in the process of building a barn building we can work in,” Shires happily reported. “So the closet has gone back to just being a closet.”