Grammy and Americana Music Awards winner Amanda Shires began touring with the Texas Playboys when she was 15. But two-plus decades later, the singer/songwriter/violinist says she was ready to give up music, following some withering disappointments.
“I was in a place where I was done with music. I was not finding joy in music, or in the world in general,” Shires tells Billboard via Zoom from a New York City hotel room. Long before weathering the isolating COVID-19 pandemic, Shires had endured years of studio experiences where producers and musicians undermined her artistry.
“One of the first experiences I had in a studio in Nashville, the producer told me, ‘Less goat, more note.’ That affected me, because somebody’s telling me something about my voice that they don’t like, but I can’t really change my own voice,” Shires says. “I went and got singing lessons and tried to fix it, but I can’t fix it. I’ve worked with producers that have told me they don’t understand my songs.”
Understandably, then, Shires had no plans to record again — which makes Friday’s (June 29) arrival of her seventh album, Take It Like a Manon ATO Records all the more a pleasant surprise.
During the pandemic, Shires met singer, songwriter and producer Lawrence Rothman, who uses they/them pronouns. Rothman, who has worked with artists including Courtney Love and Lucinda Williams, was a fan of Shires’ music and sent a song to Shires’ representatives at So What Management with a request for Shires to sing a harmony line.
“They were a fan of my music and they love my voice,” says Shires, who says she quickly remembered the permanent impact that the late music luminary John Prine had on her own career.
“John told me a long time ago that he listened to everything that crossed his desk, and that stuck with me. He listened to my songs, let me open shows for him, and we became great friends.”
Similarly, Shires listened to Rothman’s music and found that she was moved by it enough to sing on the track. That brief collaboration led to a string of text messages between Shires and Rothman in November 2020, and they quickly found a creative kinship, conversing about childhood traumas and a myriad of emotions as they began co-writing music on their phones.
Shortly after, Shires created what became the first song for Take It Like a Manthe devastatingly honest “Fault Lines,” which was inspired by a difficult time in her marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Jason Isbell.
“I was trying to explain my feelings about the disconnect in my marriage to myself,” Shires says. “I felt it to Jason and he didn’t listen to it, which was fine. He was busy during the pandemic guarding his own mental health, dealing with things in his own way.”
Rothman encouraged Shires to record it. Still reluctant to return to the studio, Shires came up with a compromise: one trial day of recording. They recorded “Fault Lines,” and one song quickly turned to crafting more as they recorded at RCA’s classic Studio B in Nashville. The partnership also resulted in Shires’ 2021 album Christmas.
“They taught me how to accept my voice and rediscover joy in the studio,” Shires says of Rothman. “They let me lead and were on my side about choices. Sometimes you go into a studio, you’re with a group of musicians and you might say something and they don’t hear you. Maybe it’s because you’re a woman, maybe it’s because you have a quiet voice. Whatever it is, Lawrence will come in there with their big, booming voice and say, ‘she wants to try it like this.’ Everyone listens. Eventually, they ended up having to do that less and less.”
Shires and Rothman whittled down 26 songs to reach the 10-song arc on Take It Like a Man, solidifying a narrative that quarries the emotional complexities that accompany her journey as a woman, wife, businesswoman and mother. Shires’s collaborators on the project also include Isbell, Natalie Hemby, Ruston Kelly, Liz Rose and Yves Rothman.
In addition to her solo work, Shires is a member of Isbell’s group the 400 Unit, and co-founded the star-studded group The Highwomen with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris (the group released their debut project in 2019). Shires’ new album features vocals from Morris on “Empty Cups,” a meditation of how the fiery passion of an early relationship can dim as the years go by. Brittney Spencer provides backing vocals on “Here He Comes” and “Hawk For a Dove,” a song centered on finding the courage to pursue love even when you can’t predict the outcome. Spencer and Morris blend their vocals with Shires’ to craft the sultry harmonies found in “Bad Behavior.”
“Me, Brittney and Lawrence got matching tattoos,” Shires says, showing off a tattoo of a small dagger with a hawk on her arm. “It can mean different things to everyone. It could mean the pen is mightier than the sword. But also, what we choose to do is risky—it’s an unstable life. It’s a celebration of that.”
Like her sound, Shires’ writing process is thoroughly singular—but also protective. Shires writes journal entries, highlighting any couplets or interesting potential verses. She transfers those highlighted lines to index cards, which she hangs on the walls with painter’s tape in her barn-turned-studio outside of Nashville.
“I can have jumping off points, and see themes and ideas. You don’t realize you are working through stuff until you see it all around you,” she says.
Those original journals then go in a shredder to become compost. “I don’t want to be like Andy Warhol or Kurt Cobain and these come out, published. There are things in there that aren’t me, but that somebody could somehow say, ‘This is what she was feeling,’ when really, sometimes you just have to research things, like maybe the way a woman was killed or something — was she burned at the stake or was she hung? I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, something’s wrong with her.’ Then, of course, there are just things that don’t rhyme,” she says with a laugh.
Shires says all those trying experiences led her to a place to choose collaborators, like Rothman, who understand her. “They understand me and my songs, and don’t make me feel small. I write songs the way I write. They may not be tied up in little bows, but life is not like that. I learned you gotta be an advocate for yourself, for sure. That can be a hard thing to do when you’re a person like me that’s a fixer.”
The album’s title track includes a telling moment. In the final chorus, Shires can be heard, ever-so-subtly, changing the lyric from “Take It Like a Man,” to “Take It Like Amanda,” signaling a confidence in being authentically vulnerable.
“Having to walk through the world, being told that you’re not supposed to show your emotions or you’re gonna be seen as weak,” she explains. “The whole point of this record is to show strength and vulnerability, how necessary vulnerability is in relationships. You have choices in life and with those choices is the inevitable consequence. It takes a lot of strength to be vulnerable, to deal with your own choices.”
In September, Shires will embark on a headlining tour of US clubs and theaters. She also recently teamed with her Ella The Highwomen bandmates to perform an opening set for Chris Stapleton at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on July 23.
She says more music from the quartet could be on the way. “We’ve been sending some songs around, trying to get that ball started rolling. As long as things need to change, there’s always gonna be The Highwomen.”