As was the case for many artists, Amanda Shires found herself at a personal and professional crossroads more than two years ago when theaters and other performance venues were shuttered around the world to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Faced with an unexpected abundance of downtime, the Grammy winner considered turning her back on the music business for good — that is, until a chance meeting with Los Angeles musician Lawrence Rothman last year helped inspire her to write and record her best, most sonically diverse album to date.
“At some point during COVID, I decided I had different boundaries, different things I was willing to fight for. I’ve recorded in the studio and I’ve been on tour with folks that aren’t easy to work with,” the singer, songwriter and fiddle player, who is based in Nashville and the founder of the country supergroup The Highwomen, told HuffPost. “Thank God for the gift of music, because that’ll often lead you to discussions, answers and working things out. We all go through some shit. It’s not all good and it’s not all bad.”
Last month, Shires unveiled “Take It Like A Man,” her first album of original material since 2018’s “To The Sunset.” The 10-song collection features the title track and a pair of sterling singles, “Bad Behavior” and “Hawk For The Dove.” The new tracks were produced in collaboration with Rothman, who is nonbinary.
“They’re the big voice that helps me when I’ve tried my own patience too much,” Shires said about working with Rothman.
Watch the music video for “Take It Like A Man” below.
Collectively, “Take It Like A Man” is a snapshot of Shires’ mindset as she steps back into her chosen profession in a politically divided America, as well as the highs and lows she’s experienced in her nine-year marriage to fellow musician Jason Isbell.
To longtime fans of Shires’ work, the album is, by all accounts, an emotion-awakening statement and artistic triumph. To newcomers, it should establish her as a compelling singer-songwriter willing to plumb the depths of her psyche in her work, like Joni Mitchell and Dolly Parton.
HuffPost spoke to Shires earlier this summer as she was visiting New York to perform at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” ahead of her new album’s release. In a refreshingly candid chat, she shares her experience of learning to re-embrace music after a four-year hiatus, as well as why she’s hopeful more Nashville artists will speak out in defense of women’s reproductive health.
HuffPost: “Take It Like A Man” is your first album of all-original material in four years and your second collaboration with Lawrence Rothman after “For Christmas,” your 2021 holiday album. Tell me a bit about your relationship on stage and in the studio.
Amanda Shires: They have a way to encourage me that’s different than any way I’ve been encouraged. I think they feel empathetic to the fact that I’m usually the only girl in the room.
They’re my champion, and they’re also not afraid to dance like a crazy person. You need somebody to be excited and happy with you. There’s a camaraderie and there’s encouragement. There’s a little “I got your back” kind of thing.
I appreciated how they skipped all the surface talk and went straight into feelings and problems of being a human and all that. There’s a lot of good in there and a lot of understanding. So I’m not doing any recordings or singing on anything without Lawrence in the room.
“Hawk For The Dove” is the album’s opening track, as well as its first single. Why did that song feel like an ideal choice to launch this musical chapter?
I think a lot about our identities as we grow and change, and I think about what is valuable in the world we operate in. Youth and beauty are always valued.
My friend Millie, who helps me with my garden, is close to 80 years old. She has these beautiful blue eyes, gray hair and frame. The first time I met her, I said: “You might be the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen in my life.”
She was like: “Oh honey, I’m not beautiful. They quit calling you beautiful at 27.” So suddenly our elders become invisible? That’s kind of fucked up.
Our identities aren’t really about the choices we make or the choices other people make for us or put on us. Our identities are an amalgamation of things, and we can be any of those things.
“Fault Lines” is a standout track that references the challenges you’ve experienced over nine years of marriage to Jason Isbell. How do you navigate being both intimate partners as well as longtime professional collaborators?
The first time Jason heard that song was in the studio. I’d sent it to him earlier, and he didn’t listen to it. I considered not having the song on the album at all, because when you knowingly put your life out there for people to judge or criticize ... I was just unsure if I was ready to talk about that stuff. But then, Jason was like: “You should really put that song on the record, and if you don’t, you should think about why you don’t want to.”
We met as friends first in music ― and we always trust each other 100% with our songs. We can keep those parts separated when we’re giving honest feedback on our songwriting. We’re still working on the language within the relationship, though, because it can be kind of tricky.
John Prine once told me that the secret to a good marriage is vulnerability. You don’t want to diminish a thing that’s so lovely in a life that you’ve planned and dreamed of together. But facing some truths... I just write about experiences I’m having, and if questions come up, we’ll talk about them. We have to be willing to sit through the torture that is talking about the big, hard things.
I imagine there are many reasons you chose to title the album “Take It Like A Man.”
There are a lot of layers to that title, definitely. In the time of self-care, it should be OK to have your feelings and not be seen as weak because of them. You’re supposed to “take it like a man,” but in truth, I can only take it like Amanda.
I tell my [6-year-old daughter, Mercy Rose]: “You go have your big emotions. Go have them. It’s way healthier.” I’m not going to say: “Oh, suck it up. You’re too emotional,” or any of those things folks tell you. It’s about the consequence of choice.
In 2020, you shared that you’d had an abortion in an essay for Rolling Stone, and earlier this year, you opened up about your experience with an ectopic pregnancy while calling on other Nashville musicians to publicly defend abortion rights after the Supreme Court’s June overturn of Roe v. Wade. Why do you think other artists in your genre seem so reticent to do so, at least compared to their pop and rock contemporaries?
People are reticent to speak out because of fear ― that’s what it is. People are afraid to talk about it, and take on the heat. For me, it’s easy because otherwise, I would’ve died already. I’d be already buried.
Some pregnancies won’t get to full term that women are now going to be forced to carry. There’s all kinds of things that can go wrong.
Roe v. Wade getting overturned is going to create a huge ass mess. What are they going to do with same-sex marriages, with interracial couples? I want to get to a point in the world where it feels easier for me to live in it, and I also want it to be easier for everybody else. So it’s just a shame. It’s really bothersome.
Ultimately, what are you most hopeful listeners take away from “Take It Like A Man”?
Music has taught me how to make sense of the world because I had no vocabulary for feelings or expression or emotion. I try to explain things to myself about life and the human condition and my own shit in the hopes it resonates with somebody else who can’t find the words. Even the bad stuff can be pretty.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.