Mercy Rose Isbell recently celebrated her first birthday and, ironically, the album she helped inspire was recently released. Synchronicity is beautiful.
Mercy Rose is the daughter of singer/songwriters Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, two of Americana’s most gifted artists, and the album in question is her mother’s fifth full-length, My Piece of Land. While Mercy Rose profoundly impacted My Piece of Land, Shires clarifies her influence was indirect — most of its 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,” she says. “There are songs that allude to being pregnant, but it’s not a pregnancy record. It’s about my feelings and my perspective of a time in my life. Bringing a child into the world is pretty scary. It’s excitement, anticipation and hopefulness and the extreme opposite, where you’re doubtful and you question if you’re going to be a good mom or what the world is right now. I had to sit down and face myself.”
The prevalent theme on My Piece of Land is the malleable nature of home, a difficult subject for Shires. A child of divorce, the Texas native split time between her parents’ homes in Lubbock and Mineral Wells, an experience she documented on the song “Mineral Wells,” from her 2005 debut Being Brave.
As Shires struggled with conflicting feelings about motherhood and home in her songwriting, new revelations inspired her to revisit “Mineral Wells.”
“I wrote that when I left Texas for Nashville,” Shires says. “I was thinking about what home was to me, and being home alone a lot and trying to define that, I finally figured out it’s more flexible than just four walls. Anywhere I’m with my family, that’s home, not my address where I actually live. It came full circle with ‘Mineral Wells’ — I was trying to figure out my childhood going back and forth from Lubbock to Mineral Wells, and both places are important to me. 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.”
Shires also examines home’s philosophical parameters in “You Are My Home,” a lovely sentiment couched in a melancholy and contemplative arrangement. The fascinating dichotomy perfectly describes Shires’ emotions at its conception.
“The meaning of it while writing through the puzzle of it is not what the sonic atmosphere is,” she says. “It took one to get to the other. ‘You Are My Home’ felt like an ominous thing; maybe I was feeling that way at first. Love isn’t all puppies and rainbows. It’s a terrible disease. I was struggling with 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 “Harmless” followed the most tortuous path. A largely finished demo that Shires had been tinkering with for years was endangered when, as she notes, “My clumsy ass spilled coffee on the computer.” A stumped Apple Store technician referred her to a nearby computer shop, where she arranged to retrieve the laptop after her tour. Two weeks later, she returned to find they’d recycled her computer (she’d unwittingly agreed to it in the fine print), eliminating everything on it, including the “Harmless” demo.
“The melody came back, then the first verse. 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,” Shires says. “But what if the rest of the song comes back to me and I’ve got two versions? Or what if I’m singing onstage and the old words come back? 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.”
My Piece of Land retains a sense of Shires’ Bluegrass roots — she played fiddle with the Texas Playboys at 14 — while shimmering with the aforementioned aural environment, an element Shires credits to producer Dave Cobb.
“He’s the best human and a good listener,” she says. “He’s really good when you’re trying to describe sonic landscapes. He can sort through the abstract and vagueness that words can 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, he never gets tired and he’ll follow a song until it’s done. And he always knows when to order lunch.”
Another element of her Bluegrass DNA is the tremulous catch in her vocal delivery that many reviewers have likened to Dolly Parton. Shires is flattered by the comparison, but demurs to anything but a slight similarity.
“That’s a high compliment, but I don’t have the range she has at all,” Shires says. “I think I was born with that warble because I went to a vocal coach to try to get it out. When I heard it in playback, I sounded like a goat. I was trying to figure out how to not do that and apparently I can’t not do that. A podcast on NPR talked about how German and American babies cried in their own dialect, so maybe it has to do with your location. I might just say that and see if it works.”
Shires ultimately sees My Piece of Land as her most cohesive album to date, which she feels is reflective of her creative writing classes at Tennessee’s Sewanee School of Letters. She resumed coursework in 2011 and is completing her thesis for “an awesome MFA in poetry” next spring.
“I feel like this one’s more focused,” she says. “Each piece can relate to another and the whole thing is like little chapters. I’m proud of my work, but on some of my other records, I was operating on instinct and didn’t understand some of my leaps. It’s cool to go off topic, but for this I’m proud of the concentration rather than running away from talking about stuff that bothers me. I got used to criticism and hard truths at Sewanee, like, ‘That really sucks’ and ‘That’s 10 pounds of shit in a five pound bag.’ Sometimes people say that. But the record is still me; it’s all hopefully an evolution and a progression and not a regression. That’s all I really care about. My only goals were to get better and connect with people.”
AMANDA SHIRES plays Southgate House Revival Sunday. Tickets/more info: southgatehouse.com.