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For Shires, home is where the family lies

By Brian Baker, October 2016

Mercy Rose Isbell recently celebrated her first birthday and, ironically, the album she helped inspire has just been released. Synchronicity is a beautiful thing.

Mercy Rose is, of course, the daughter of singer/songwriters Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, two of the most gifted Americana artists working today, and the album in question is her mother's just-released fifth full length, "My Piece of Land." And while Mercy Rose's presence had a profound effect on the outcome of "My Piece of Land," Shires is quick to clarify that her influence was not necessarily direct; most of the album's songs were written last year at the end of Shire's pregnancy.

"I couldn't travel anymore at that 33-week mark, and it gave me time to write, for sure," says Shires. "There are songs on there that allude to being pregnant, but it's not a pregnancy record. It's kind of about my feelings and my perspective of a time in my life. Bringing a child into the world is pretty scary. So many times, it's excitement and anticipation and hopefulness and then you get the extreme opposite, where you're just doubtful and you question if you're going to be a good mom or what the world is right now. I just had to sit down and face myself, so I did that."

Amanda Shires with Jason Isbell:

The prevalent theme on "My Piece of Land" is the malleable idea of home, a concept that Shires has always had difficulty in pinning down. As a child of divorce, the Texas native split her time between her parents' homes in Lubbock and Mineral Wells, and she documented that experience on "Mineral Wells," a song from her 2005 debut, "Being Brave." As Shires struggled with conflicting feelings about motherhood and home while writing "My Piece of Land," the revelations of her new songs inspired her to re-record "Mineral Wells."

"I wrote that when I left Texas for Nashville," says Shires. "I was thinking about home and what home was to me and being home alone a lot and trying to define that, I finally figured out that it's more flexible than just four walls. Anywhere I'm with my family, that's my home, not my address where I actually live. It came full circle with 'Mineral Wells' because I was trying to figure out my childhood going back and forth from Lubbock to Mineral Wells, and they're both places that are important to me, but it turns out it didn't matter about the place as much as the people I needed. Then, if you're thinking at all, you start thinking about your kid's childhood and what they're inheriting now. It's kind of psychedelic and mind-blowing."

Another song where Shires tries to understand the parameters that define a home is "You Are My Home," a lovely sentiment couched in a moody and contemplative arrangement. It's a fascinating dichotomy and perfectly describes Shires' emotions when she was writing it.

"The sonic atmosphere was how I was feeling in the beginning," says Shires. "The meaning of it while writing through the puzzle of it is not what the sonic atmosphere is. It took one to get to the other, which is also hard to describe. 'You are my home' felt like an ominous thing; maybe I was feeling that way at first. It's an ominous love song. Love isn't all puppies and rainbows all the time. It's a terrible disease. I was struggling with the idea of being home alone a lot and how it didn't really feel like home without this person, and in working through that, I got the happy message that none of that matters at all."

The song with the most tortuous path would have to be "Harmless," which Shires had been working on for quite some time. She had a largely finished demo on the desktop of her laptop but, as she relates, "My clumsy ass spilled coffee on the computer." When the Apple Store technician couldn't help her, he referred her to a computer shop across the street, where she arranged to pick up the laptop upon her return from tour. Two weeks later, she returned to the shop only to find that they had completely recycled her computer (which the fine print revealed she had okayed them to do), and everything on it was lost.

"The melody came back, then the first verse came back and I had to rewrite the whole thing. I have no idea which version is better but the one I have is the one we got," says Shires. "But what if the rest of the song comes back to me and I've got two versions of the same song? Or what if I'm singing onstage and the old words come back to me? People will be like, 'You're not even singing the right words to your own song.' Ultimately, that would happen to me because I am the queen of humiliating myself in front of people."

While "My Piece of Land" retains a sense of Shires' bluegrass roots she played fiddle with the Texas Playboys when she was 14 - it also shimmers with the aforementioned sonic atmosphere. Shires is quick to credit Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton's "Traveller") with creating the album's aural environment.

"He's the best human, and he's a good listener," says Shires. "He's really good when you're trying to describe sonic landscapes. He can sort through the abstract and the vagueness that words can sometimes bring when you're trying to talk about music. When you say, 'In my mind, this is a spacey, moody song, and it feels like you're in a dark room,' he knows how to translate that into sound without making you feel like an imbecile. He's really passionate about what he does and he never gets tired. He's full of energy, and he'll follow a song until it's done. And he always knows when to order lunch."

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