Amanda Shires stops in New Orleans this Saturday night at the House of Blues – Parish Room for the final show of a tour promoting My Piece of Land, her acclaimed fifth solo album. Like her Grammy-winning husband, Jason Isbell—who spoke with us back on October 17 ahead of his double-header at the Joy Theater—Shires was very generous with her time and opinions.
Shires is a woman of many talents, but her demeanor is singularly kind. As a fiddle-player and singer, she offers advice to musicians and performers on how to conquer stage fright. As a poet and songwriter, she advises writers of any kind on learning to be better observers and writing through writer’s block. We talked about the late Leonard Cohen, rhythmic words and art, family and inspiration, and the universal desire for a “kickass” fiddle. We all need the “kickass” fiddle, and after the polls close on December 10, we’ll find it in Amanda Shires’ hands.
First of all, welcome to New Orleans. We’re thankful to have you finish your tour with us between the holidays.
I’m very excited. It’ll be so fun. Big bunch of shenanigans before we have to be done for the year.
Back in October, your husband told me that poetry and songwriting are “very different disciplines,” and I’d like to follow up with the Sewanee MFA-holder in creative writing to find out why exactly. How are poetry and songwriting so different?
Well, the major difference is that in poetry you have the blank page and the words on a page and in songs you have the musical setting that also informs what you’re writing. You don’t have that luxury when writing pure poetry.
A New Orleans poet, Rodger Kamenetz, told me he can draw tons of words out of a dream image. You mention dreams and daydreaming in many songs. Do any of your songs come from your dreams?
Yes, they do sometimes. It’s funny that you can find inspiration in anything from dreams to conversations with people. Even just observing the way birds walk around, or whatever—or some coffee. You never know when it’s going to come.
You mention dreams in “Mineral Wells” and water—a natural song. Birds are in several songs. And trees in “My Love – the Storm.” How do you find nature inspiring?
I think nature has good references to use to incorporate symbols and symbolism. Nature provides little details in the seams. It’s always helpful to have as many good details as you can. Also, everybody knows what a tree is. Sometimes it helps to paint a picture with the word you need everybody to know, rather than saying something and they don’t know what it is. But that’s useful in other places. Also, you know, nature is living and breathing, too.
You wrote a song for Leonard Cohen who passed away on November 7, 2016. Kate McKinnon honored him by singing “Hallelujah” to open Saturday Night Live’s post-election show. How has his poetry and songwriting affected yours?
Everybody has heroes and people they look up to or feel influenced by. I was drawn to him because I couldn’t ever find a hole in his writing. There was never a hole, everything’s just—it’s almost like sewn together with unbustable thread or something—all of his lines. I know he worked really hard at it. It’s impenetrable. You can’t switch any of the words around or replace them. To me they’re perfect. I really like the fact that he did poetry first. I identified with him early on because he dealt with stage fright, and I used to deal with stage fright. And he’s a snappy dresser.
How did you deal with the stage fright? You’ve been at this a long time from ranch dances as a kid to touring with the Texas Playboys to now.
I think the constant humiliation that I experienced on a daily basis is what really got me over it. Because, I mean, I’m the clumsiest person in the world. I did everything you could possibly do on stage and now nothing fazes me. But Leonard Cohen would do things like wear a mask or something like that. Lots of people have it and deal with it and struggle with it. I also feel like once I realized that being nervous or being frightened to be up there, it just means you care a lot. It comes from a good place. So, you know, I eventually convinced myself it was going to be okay. Not a humiliation, anyway.
It’s humbling to, say, trip in front of a lot of people and get back up and sing and move people.
Man, it’s humbling to split your pants on stage in front of people. And embarrassing. But most people are pretty decent. They don’t laugh too hard at you.
Was there any overlap for what you wrote for school and what you write for recorded albums?
There are some. Sometimes in poetry, the lens is so small and the things you’re talking about are really compacted into the space that you’re working in. Sometimes there’ll be a little bit of an image or something that I’ll write while I’m trying to work on my poetry that I write because I’m writing poetry, but it doesn’t work for a poem and I could see it working for a song. And vice versa. Sometimes I’m working on a song and I’m like, “I really like this,” but in the context of a song, it doesn’t have the right meter so I might start a new poem with it.
But poetry’s very rhythmic, too, though. There’s meter in some poetry. How does someone without the inner ear of a musician distinguish the two?
I don’t know if I’m ever doing it right, I just try to do the best that I can and what I feel is right. Within structures like poetry, you might be writing something in blank verse and then you’ll catch an image but it doesn’t fit in the linear way that it’s supposed to to make the poem work. But it’s there—something’s there. You can take it and sometimes add another layer to an image by adding music. You can sort of find more to talk about, more to express.
Adding a medium.
More colors to paint with, yeah. I mean there are probably songs that go like, “Hey-ho, hey-ho, hey-ho” for like three minutes. But a poem that just said “Hey-ho” on a page for about a page would be pretty boring.
I like what you said about “colors to paint with” for musical expression. What other art mediums affect your fiddle playing and songwriting? What have you been reading?
I’ve been reading a lot of poetry. Some novels, you know. Trash magazines. Some of it’s really funny. I read a lot of news.
Y’all have a sort of satire on Instagram called “Jason reads me the news.” He reads a blurb from celebrity gossip magazines, deadpan and looks up wide-eyed. It’s hilarious.
He just reads it in his natural accent and that is so funny to me. Just his accent reading super-celebrity, you know, the bright-shiny-people news. It just cracks me up. A complete juxtaposition, really.
What is newsworthy today in our divided country?
That’s a tough one. I’ve been thinking a lot about that and I keep coming back to Leonard Cohen’s “Isle of Wight” performance. He sang a little song about renewing ourselves. I think about that and hopefully we can figure it out. Come together more and renew ourselves. Try not to be lost.
I believe that art is something that brings us together. For instance, John Prine—your mentor and friend—played here last weekend, delivering songs from a wellspring of hope, you could feel the power of what art can do.
I agree. It moves you. Sometimes I feel like it makes you see something from another person’s perspective without being preachy, you know? There’s so many feelings and emotions that go along with that. Especially at a John Prine show. How could you not be moved?
And Shovels & Rope were amazing too.
Yeah, they’re pretty badass. Nice folks too.
Challenges seem to inspire your creation. For example, you’ve said the difficulty of fiddle-playing is what made you want to succeed at it at first. While pregnant and “nesting” you wrote My Piece of Land about home. What challenges are you currently using or seeking to write your next album?
I am working on the challenges of being away now. I was with Jason and Mercy a lot at the beginning, and now I’m supporting the record and touring. I’m dealing a lot daily with being separated from them both. With a child you see things anew, or fresh, you know? It’s hard to explain, but you start realizing that everyone is someone’s child.
And you’re more compassionate, more empathetic. But, also, motherhood is horribly guilt-ridden and anxiety-inducing. It’s beautiful but I think I’m drawing from all that. Also Jason’s going to be in the studio soon so we’re just sitting around when we get home, going to write, hang out with family. I’m looking forward to that.
You started seeing everyone as someone’s child. How’s having a child changed your ability to observe and turn what you’re observing into details you can use in songs?
I used to think I was a good observer, you know, before. I thought maybe too highly of my observational skills. I think having her is, like, I can really see details now. Not just physical details either because when she’s toddling through the world, she doesn’t see a certain kind of person when she sees somebody. She just says, “Hey there,” “Howdy,” to whoever. Tries to get somebody’s watch or bracelet.
Her nature is to be friendly?
Friendly and open and unguarded obviously. We can learn from them. But we also build up these walls because we’ve all been hurt in some sort of way. Having a child—you see the beauty in their openness. And I think it’s encouraged me to let my guard down a little more.
You’ve said there’s no such thing as writer’s block, that it’s an excuse. What’s your inspiration that keeps you going?
You just open the newspaper, or talk to your family, or talk to you friends, and then you can have something to write about. What I meant by that was that when people say they have writer’s block, it’s not true. Everybody can write. When they do write something and they don’t like what they’re writing, that’s a separate thing. If you don’t like what you’re writing at the time. You have to write through it or figure out what’s wrong, and put more in the well as far as reading and observing. Just walking around the world, whatever. But a writer writes. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. I just—there’s not. If there was then nobody would ever graduate from anything. No books would ever be written. It’s just that something’s not working for you, that you’re not liking what your writing. And you just got to get over it and keep writing some shit and then you’ll start writing something good again. Or do some writing exercises.
Finally, Amanda, your last show of the tour is on Saturday after a U.S. Senate runoff election in Louisiana. After all the voting’s done, tell us why everybody should come to your show at the House of Blues – Parish Room?
Why? Because you want to hear some kickass fiddling! You want to hear some kickass fiddling. You want to forget about your troubles. You want to connect with other people, be part of a community and meet new people. And you want to see me probably humiliate myself on stage. No, not really. It’s going to be full of songs, and full of other people just like us.
We look forward to it Saturday night.
Awesome. I do, too. I can’t wait.
Amanada Shires will perform at the House of Blues — Parish Room on Saturday, December 10. Tickets are available here.