“It’s all rock & roll – no golf!” is how acclaimed singer/songwriter/violinist Amanda Shires describes her electrifying fifth album, To The Sunset. She’s borrowed a lyric from the effervescent track “Break Out the Champagne,” one of ten deftly crafted songs that comprise her powerful new recording. The Texas born road warrior, new mom, and recently minted MFA in creative writing has mined a range of musical influences to reveal an Amanda Shires many didn’t know existed. “Isn’t it refreshing?” Shires asks. Indeed. Distorted electric guitars, effects pedals, swirling keys and synths, and rockin’ rhythms certainly suit Shires’ visceral songcraft and lilting soprano.

It’s been a jam-packed eighteen months since the release of Shires’ critically hailed My Piece of Land: constant touring with her band and as a member of husband Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit; finishing her MFA, after her laptop and thesis were stolen on the road; and winning the Americana Association’s 2017 Emerging Artist award – all while nurturing a toddler. Armed with stacks of journals and an autoharp originally owned by venerable songwriter/producer Paul Kennerley, she wrote a batch of new songs in a flurry of focus and enforced solitude – in a closet at the Shires/Isbell rural abode. “With a two-year-old running around, there’s nowhere to hide,” Shires explains. While Isbell watched their daughter, she wrote from 10 am till midnight: “I just started writing and tearing apart my journals and taping the parts I liked to the wall, and shredding the rest and putting it into my compost, which I then feed to my garden.”

She reconvened with Land’s producer Dave Cobb (Isbell; Sturgill Simpson) at Nashville’s historic sound drenched RCA Studio A, with likeminded sonic adventurers, drummer Jerry Pentecost and keyboardist Peter Levin, alongside Isbell on guitar and Cobb on bass. Of course, she brought the fiddle she’s been playing since a teen, touring with Western swing stalwarts, the Texas Playboys. Only this time, she added effects pedals, distorting the instrument with which she’s accompanied Billy Joe Shaver, John Prine, and Todd Snider into something otherworldly. “I had never tried pedals before,” says Shires, “and I wanted to change my fiddle sound. I’ve been playing this instrument the same way for so long, and playing with pedals is so fun for me!” Likewise, she also revisited an early original, her hookladen “Swimmer,” with pianist Levin’s “miles of keyboard that sound so huge.”

While writing such stunners as the enchanting “Parking Lot Pirouette,” haunting “Charms,” and raucous “Eve’s Daughter,” she thought about their sonics. “I explained to Dave that I wanted the songs to have atmosphere,” Shires recalls. “That the album was going to be sort of poppy, and that I was doing that to bring some sunshine into the world, cause it’s pretty dark right now.” As she sings in her empowering “Take on the Dark,” buoyed by bouncy bass, machine-gun drumming, and swirling synth: “Worry can be a tumbling tumultuous sea/with all its roaring and its breaking/How ‘bout you be the waves/too unafraid to even be brave/and see yourself breaking out of this place.”

Shires is renowned for her carefully crafted, evocative songs. Just as she spent her youth as a journeyman fiddle player, Shires brought years of studying the masters to her songwriting. Impromptu encouragement from Shaver, for example, inspired her to take up the pen. “Before touring with Billy Joe Shaver, I was only a side person,” Shires avers. “I wasn’t a songwriter. I was observing. Then I made a couple of demo songs so people would know I could sing, and he said, ‘These are good songs. You should go be a songwriter in Nashville.’ I thought he was firing me, and I said, ‘No! I really like my job playing the fiddle. It’s my favorite thing to do.’ Then a year later, I decided he was right.”

Her influences include Leonard Cohen and John Prine, the latter of whom has been a mentor. “I was talking to John Prine while I was writing this record,” says Shires, “and he was talking about how using images that actually happened to you makes the songs true. Also, if you use images that you can see daily, it’s more relatable.” Shires took his advice to heart in such memorable tracks as “Break Out the Champagne.” “It’s all true!” says the resilient Shires. The near-plane crash over Newfoundland, her BFF Kelly’s fears about our apocalyptic times, another friend’s heavy breakup.

Shires says she also uses songwriting as a way to “get through my own emotional stuff, which is cheaper than a therapist.” An example is the Hammond B3-fueled “White Feather” with its “scarecrow” imagery. The idea struck when she experienced “cat calling that’s become okay again,” then expanded to include her thoughts on climate change and capitalism, “but it’s bigger than that,” Shires clarifies. “The song deals with fear and all the ways it discourages the expression of our individual identities. It’s about the walls we put up to protect ourselves and the way those walls become prisons.” In the synth-ful “Mirror, Mirror,” she examines self-doubt, via the catchy refrain, “Show me something different/Than the mirror on the wall.” And shimmering guitars frame “Leave It Alone” with such realizations as “What you think you’re feeling is crushing at most.”

Other songs were derived from the lives of her mother and father, including 21st century Flannery O’Connor style album closer, “Wasn’t I Paying Attention?” “True story,” Shire asserts. “I couldn’t make it up.” The gripping tale, with its crunchy rock & roll soundtrack, will leave listeners on the edge of their seats, while tapping their toes.

As a whole, To The Sunset, says Shires, “is meant to be a positive thing. Acknowledging your past, and at sunset, your hope for a new day. ‘To The Sunset’ sounds like a toast: This day is over, we don’t know what’s in the future, but it’s hopeful, I think.”

Shires has drawn from her own past on To The Sunset – and pointed the way to her future. She has set the bar high – sonically and lyrically – and she’s jumped over it.

"We are the elders of our minds," sings Sean Rowe on "Gas Station Rose," the track that ushers in his fourth album, New Lore, with plaintive plucks of guitar and steady drips of piano that fall in like rain. It's a sparse and beautiful moment, anchored by Rowe's unparalleled voice - so full of gravely soul, aged and edged by years on the road, as a father and husband, as a creative force always looking for the next rhyme. And, so integral to the man that he is, one that is constantly absorbing nature. It wasn't the easiest journey to get to the ten vulnerable songs that comprise New Lore (out April 7th care of Anti-) – it took a label change, a trip to Memphis and some support from unexpected places – but what resulted is a roadmap for a gentle heart in modern times, in a world where the best oracle isn’t within a computer, but within ourselves.

Though Rowe has often made his hometown of Troy, New York and its surrounding areas his creative base, New Lore brought a new environment, and a new producer. Appropriate to his love of folk-blues legends like Howlin' Wolf, he ventured to Sam Phillips Recording studio in Memphis to work with Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price). They tapped into the history of the legendary space to hone a sound that is at once rich and stark, putting Rowe's deep and dynamic rage at the forefront. Because if high notes can shatter windows, Rowe's low and guttural ones can meld sand into glass.

"I was looking for a specific sound and part of that was the rawness, the element of risk that Sam Phillips took with his artists," Rowe says. "Since I was a kid I was really drawn to that music. I wasn't really listening to music my peers were: I was really into old soul music, and music coming out of Memphis. It's been in my work maybe in more subtle ways than now, but it's always been in there."

The songs on New Lore were often built to let Rowe's voice come through in its most stirring capacity: from the wrenching ode to parenthood "I'll Follow Your Trail" to the naturalistic "The Very First Snow," instrumentals are layered carefully and artfully over the vocals, finding footing in Rowe's sly and idiosyncratic guitar style. Much of what came was a result of Rowe going into the studio with a more relaxed approach – no preproduction was done, no demos finished. Rowe and Ross-Spang embraced an organic style that is so representative of how the singer-songwriter leads his life, and that is one of always fighting to flow gently with the earth, not against it.

"We were looking for perfect imperfection," Rowe says. "If we fucked up and it was cool, then I wanted that in there. You let it happen and you don't polish it too much."


New Lore also ushered in a career shift – this time, after several years on Anti-, Rowe launched his own label, Three Rivers Records, and will release his LP as a collaboration with the Anti- family. He also embraced a new way of funding his work, using a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to make the Memphis dreams a reality, and embarked on a series of house shows to reconnect with his fans at the most basic, intimate level.

"I kept asking myself, 'What would be cool? What would be something different?,'" Rowe says. "That's what led me to house shows, and to the Kickstarter and to just take chances. Those chances are what led me to early rock and roll in the first place – that's all about taking chances. I had no idea what to expect, but I could tell as it got more momentum that people really wanted to see it happen."

Rowe also found himself on another unexpected wave – his unreleased song "To Leave Something Behind" found life in Ben Affleck's film The Accountant, exposing the mystique of his music to an even wider audience. Written five years ago in London, it echoes some of the themes that half a decade later surfaced again in New Lore: the things in life we pass down to our children, the ideas we learn from our elders, the shadows we leave behind when we are gone. The first single, "Gas Station Rose," is about two people trying to navigate that together. "That's the conflict to the story," Rowe says. "They want to stick it out, but they know it's incredibly hard to keep shit together. Conflict makes for a great song."

So does opening yourself up to vulnerability: New Lore is formed from that tenderness, exposed like an open wound but one asking for healing, not to linger in pain. Like "Promise of You," with a gospel swing inspired by Ketty Lester's classic "Love Letters" and the piano-driven "I Can't Make a Living From Holding You," Rowe speaks to the reality of loving and leaving, a constant dilemma for a man who builds half of himself on tour playing to strangers and half of himself tucking his children in at night. Home is process, not a destination, and New Lore is a roadmap there – perfectly imperfect, raw and real.

"My music isn’t glossy or shiny," Rowe says. "But it's true."

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