Amanda Shires’ Closet Craft
Texan fiddler adapts her process and updates her sound
By Abby Johnston,
9:00AM, Thu. Jun. 28, 2018
Amanda Shires is used to getting creative. Her toddler’s curiosity modified the songwriting processes of she and her husband Jason Isbell. A broken phone forced her to make a new friend. The Lubbock fiddler’s flexibility launched her into a new sonic landscape on August’s To the Sunset, which she samples before John Prine on Saturday at Bass Concert Hall.
Austin Chronicle: How are things going today?
Amanda Shires: Fine, doing good. My iPhone microphone quit working, so I had to come up to the gas station and borrow a phone.
AC: Wait, are you on a pay phone right now?
AS: No, I borrowed a phone from the lady that runs the store. I made a new friend, you know? Technology, bringing people together!
AC: That’s encouraging because I’ve been on Twitter a lot, and it feels like technology might rip us all apart.
AS: And there’s the [iPhone] update today where all of your text messages are going to go to the cloud now. Great. That scares the crap out of me. I’m just going to throw away my phone.
AC: So you’re starting a tour, and then you’ve got an album coming out at the beginning of August. There’s a lot going on. How are you feeling?
AS: You know, it’s all good stuff. The fun part is playing music and recording music, and getting to do something that I feel like I’m good at. I was a shitty waitress, so it’s just like whatever it takes for me will be fine.
AC: I know that the process of writing and recording must have changed for you with this album and in the past three years since your daughter was born. What kind of adjustments have you had to make?
AS: As far as adjustments in writing, we’ve had to do all of our writing in a closet in our house because she’s 2-and-a-half years old, our daughter. That’s been an adjustment for sure, just having to be in a tiny small spot among all of your words and instruments and shoes. It’s not as glamorous as you’d think, but I don’t know. It’s kind of fun to be closed up all in one tiny little space. It feels kind of intimate and forces you to focus on either your music or shoes.
But for real, she reminds me of things that I think I run past quickly. She says funny things and is really good at observing. Like this morning when we were eating breakfast she said, “Mommy, you’re sitting on my shadow." And I thought, “That’s brilliant. You’re right: I am sitting on your shadow.”
Sometimes when you’re going through life you’re not really noticing it. You get used to everything you’re seeing and forget about the small things, and she certainly brought the small things to the forefront of what I think about on the daily. Because it is fascinating how light switches work.
And it’s not really anything hard to adjust to. When I can write and how to balance the day out is the adjustment, because having a kid forces you to become even more selfless.
AC: So both you and your husband are writing in a closet for now?
AS: [Laughs] Yeah. In our clothes closet. We have to pick up all the clothes off the floor and hang them up, so it’s good because it keeps the clothes clean. We drag all of our instruments in there and close the door with our papers and our pens. It also makes it easy to close the door so that none of the instruments get wrecked.
AC: Well, there you go. Now that you’re both working out of the same small space–
AC: Yes, the same small closet. Or, I don’t know – is it a big closet, like a California closet?
AS: No, it’s not a California closet. It’s like if you took a regular sized closet and smashed two of them together. So it’s not like one of those fancy TV celebrity closets. We’ve got a closet that’s probably about as big as the inside of a car, like a two-passenger vehicle.
The reason we have to do it like that is because when we do write or we’re playing an instrument, if our daughter is awake she wants to come play too, which is totally great. But sometimes you just have to focus and not be a teacher. Sometimes, nobody really feels like playing the trumpet upside down or backwards.
AC: Two and a half is about the age where they just want to help with everything.
AS: Let me help you with getting the clothes out of the dryer and then she climbs into it.
AC: Since y’all are working out of that kind of space together, I imagine you’re seeing a lot of the writing as it’s happening. Was that the case before? Did you and Jason share your work in-progress with each other?
AS: We shared works in-progress together – mostly all of his. I mean, I did a little bit of sharing with him. I’m a nervous sharer. I’m nervous to share things in their unfinished state just because, I mean, it’s kind of embarrassing. You know what it could be, but you can’t explain what it’s going to be.
And for me, it taught me how to accept my words and the songs and poems as they were coming. It taught me to trust myself and also my husband to not critique them until I asked for critique. He does the same thing. Oftentimes he’ll say, “I’ve just finished a song.” And I’m like, “That’s great, do you want me to look at it?” And he’ll say, “No, I’ll let you know.” And then there it comes off the printer for me to look at when he’s ready to do it. We definitely don’t share without one of us saying, “Would you take a look at that for me?”
So I was finally able to tape my stuff to the wall and trust that he wouldn’t critique before I was ready. It’s hard to believe that somebody won’t do that. I write really slowly, and my lines are really, really terrible all the time. It takes so long for me to get them to be where I won’t be embarrassed to sing them, and then feel like they’re great. For him, the process is different, and that’s all good. It’s great to have two different processes. You know how it is.
AC: As I listened through To the Sunset, I was struck by some of the sonic elements. There’s a lot of synthetic effects. Are you running your violin through a pedal at some points?
AS: Oh, yes, at a lot of different points. It’s the first time I’ve really done that. I usually use just a direct box and maybe a little reverb so it kind of sounds like amplified violin. And then, when I was in that closet writing the songs, I was hearing things differently.
When I met with [producer] Dave Cobb, he was able to help me translate what I was going for. I wasn’t opposed to running my violin through pedals, but I was like, “That’s crazy, man, what’s that going to sound like?” But it worked, and it’s awesome and fun. It’s just really fun to hear different sounds and play them, and I don't know why I didn’t start doing that sooner.
AC: It’s got this really interesting effect on the songs, because I’m listening to them in a different way just from the effects. I’m always so fascinated in how a pedal can change a guitar tone or something like that, and how it refocuses your attention from what you’re expecting.
AS: Yeah, it does that, totally. And also, when you change the sonic landscape like that, it has a way of blending with modern sounds. To have such an old instrument that’s known to be played one way and then to bring it into a modern sound of rock & roll is really fun. It’s fun to be able to fit it into a new landscape. It doesn’t have to sound like I’m playing a fiddle tune from 1900 all the time. Although I like that sound, it wouldn’t fit on certain songs.
AC: Absolutely. Do you feel like just knowing that those capabilities are there and that the ability to update a pretty classic sound–
AS: Update! That’s the word I was looking for, Abby. The ideas I have are more for the present. I don’t know, it’s a vague thing to describe. I was leaving my violin out of a lot of songs, and that’s a strange thing to do because I’ve been playing the violin since I was 2. It’s a part of me. Adding pedals and sounds is great because I get to play the instrument I feel most comfortable on and the one I feel gives my truest expression when I’m making a solo or anything like that. It’s been really great to be able to keep it.
AC: You’re playing with John Prine here in Austin. You and Jason covered “Clocks and Spoons” at your dual Austin City Limits taping last year, and y’all have worked with him before. What’s it like playing with him?
AS: Well, at first, it was terrifying because there’s somebody whose music I’ve listened to and been just slayed by his writing for so long, and then there he is in real life. I was terrified. I didn’t want to say anything to him because I didn’t want my dreams to get crushed, but now, to talk to John Prine is just like talking to John Prine. He’s the same guy offstage as he is onstage and in his songs. What a relief.
And also, what an honor to even hang around and listen to him talk about his life, and how he came up with songs and his process in writing. I feel like the luckiest person in the world when he lets me come over for dinner.
AC: Well, I know you’re really busy, so I’m going to let you get that phone back to the gas station attendant.
AS: She’s cool. Her name is Robin.
AC: Thank you, Robin, for allowing this interview to happen.