Interview: Shovels & Rope on making records, touring and obsessing over Sharon Van Etten

Husband and wife duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, Shovels & Rope, based in Charleston, South Carolina released their new album, ‘By Blood’ on Dualtone last year to great critical acclaim.  They even feature in their own film, Shovels & Rope, The Movie’ written and produced by Curtis Wayne Millard the NY based filmmaker and photographer who has worked with likes of Margo Price and Aaron Lee Tasjan.  The pair, whose unique take on folk, country, and country roots is always beautifully written and played with electrifying fervour live, are playing a handful of shows in the UK later this month.  Americana-UK caught up with the pair to ask about making record, touring and whether living in each others pockets emotionally and musically comes with any drawbacks!

So, ten years in, I guess a lot has changed in that time for you both as recording artists and performers. How do you reflect back on that time and how did that help shape this album? 
Yes and no. It feels like it’s only been 1 year and also it feels like it’s been a hundred years.  We have kids now.  We’ve lost family members.  We’ve made seven records.  We’ve played a ton of shows.  We’ve traveled more than we ever thought we wanted to.   Death and birth have been in the forefront of our lives over the past four years or so.. so going into this particular record I think the swirl of human existence was really on our minds quite a bit.  Compassion.  Sadness.  Hopefulness.  Hopelessness.  Life feels like all of that.

Back on Dualtone records after a stint on New West, what drew you back to the label and what makes them a good match for a band like yours in terms of recording? Is it a case of allowing you a freedom to make the album you want? Or something else? 
We have always had a great relationship with Dualtone.  Personally and business alike.  Recording really doesn’t  have anything to do with it.  They trust us to make the records and we trust them to market, manufacture and distribute them.  We have nothing bad to say about New West either..  They were good to us and there are great people working over there!  Dualtone just felt a little more like home to us.

Tell me a bit more about the overall concept of ‘By Blood’? 
There’s not a definitive concept to this record.  It does have a lot to do with family.  It’s got a lot to do with loss but more specifically what you do with that loss.  How people can evolve through struggle.

it a joint effort in terms of the songwriting and the creation of the songs? Or do you each have specific tasks? Was the album approached the same way as the last one or was there a purposeful objective to do something different?
The songwriting is a joint effort but differs song to song in the way we each contribute.  Sometimes one of us has half of a song and gives it to the other to finish.  Sometimes one of us just has a melody and the other writes the words.  Sometimes one of us just brings a finished song in and the other one says “good job!”.  I (MT) do most of the studio stuff and then CA will come in and sing her parts or we’ll sing them together and talk about the arrangements or whatever.  We were going for a bigger, more dramatic sound with this one than we had before. More low end.  Lots of twelve string guitar and warbly mellotron.

One thing is for certain, there is no gentle ease into the album. ‘I’m Coming Out’ hits you straight between the eyes from the off. It feels like a lot of thought has gone into the track order here. It hangs together beautifully.. 
Thank you!  That’s great to hear!  Yes, a lot of thought goes into the flow.  We usually let our manager and friend Paul Bannister have the first crack at the track listing and he usually nails it and we rarely change it.  He has a gift!

Tell me a little more about the song ‘Mississippi Nuthin'”?  What inspired that? If feels like a ‘Look at me, I am that I am – bruised yet proud’ kinda song? Is it? 
Yes.  This is a song about two kids who grew up together.  One of them was very popular in high school and the other not so much, But they were still friends and the tougher one looked out for the weaker one..  then in adulthood their roles  reversed and the formerly popular kid’s life has not really gone anywhere while his counterpart’s life and career have really taken off.  The formerly great kid (and now very average man) feels like he is still entitled to the praise he garnered in high school.  He can’t figure out why he didn’t become something greater than he is.  There is bruised pride and a frustrated ego.  Sometimes he gets drunk and calls his now very successful friend up to give him unsolicited advice and remind him how great he used to be back in the day.  It’s really just a song about how youth is brief but life is long.  When we first finished it we played it for a friend who told us it made him feel like crying and punching something at the same time.  I get that.

“Carry Me Home”, for me one of the real cornerstones of this record, has a beautiful, ragged, anthem quality. “But at night we were free Mirror ball on the sea I’m looking out for you Are ya looking looking down on me…”.  It’s got an almost Springsteen-esque vibe. Tell me some more about it. 
Some of the imagery in this song is borrowed from childhood and some from adulthood.  The feeling of being driven to school in a freezing truck on a dark, snowy morning fumbling with the heater and the radio at the same time.. trying to dial up something good to take your mind off of the cold.  The feeling of getting ready to leave the house for a tour and making sure to bring everything you need while also making sure to leave the things you don’t need like say anxiety or ego.  Early morning drives that are so beautiful you could cry.  Co-dependance is another theme in this one.  We rely a lot on each other.. we co parent, we  co write, we co-collaborate on stage to make the show happen. When one of us gets tired and worn out the other has to get a little stronger for a while, and then vice versa .. and on and on it ebbs and flows like that with us.

Where are the influences for this record? What are you listening to, those ‘go to’ records that maybe help inspire when it comes yo laying the plans for a new record? Or do you shut of from everything else and just draw from ideas already formed in the head? 
(CA) – Michael does about 95% of the studio work- from conceptualising sounds and arrangements to playing all the parts on the record. This really gets to the next question , but basically when we were recording this record, i was listening to baby shark on repeat and Michael was learning to use the mellotron. He might correct me here, but when i was coming into record vocals, id remark “HEY THIS BIT SOUNDS LIKE THE BEATLES” (mellotron) or “HEY THIS SOUNDS LIKE THE KILLERS” (mellotron) or “OOOOH I LOVE THOSE STABBY CLEAN GUITARS THAT SOUND LIKE THE STROKES.”   There aren’t necessarily records that we go to over and over but individual sounds that you remember loving from a record. Michael was layering in low end on a deeper level than we have in the past. He was building landscapes in his head, making references to sounds he found elsewhere , but he draws it outta the corners of his mind.

How do you work in the studio? Are you ‘million takes’ kind of people or just run through a few times and press record? Do you enjoy making records or does it just provide the base in order to play live? 
We are definitely ‘record it a handful of times and keep moving.’ We work from home so if its not hitting, we can switch to another idea and come back to where we are stuck at a later time. We usually move fast, Michael throwing musical paint to the walls, looking for inspiration. Then there is a lot of taking away and recording bits and taking away some more. Personally, i have always been very easily overwhelmed in the studio. Its not a thing i relish in. Michael keeps the wheels on the car in that regard. He loves recording, or at least he can dedicate himself to it. The process can be gruelling, and sometimes I’m afraid he’s going crazy in there, but he keeps showing up for work. Me, i like singing live. I like the applause and  I feel threatened by the permanence of the recording process.  If its a bad show, theres a new one tomorrow.

I’m guessing these songs will sound amazing live. They have a real ‘personal’ vibe yet totally infectious. How has the reaction been? 
So far so good.  I imagine we look more engaged with our work, where maybe we were more free to goof around with each other in the past. Both our arms and feet are even more involved in the process now so its physically and mentally demanding.  These songs are exciting to sing and play. We both feel very engaged in the work . When we released ‘O’be Joyful‘ and ‘Swimmin’ Time,’ we were two songwriters coming together. We are definitely becoming one thing now- one two headed monster  with octopus arms full of tambourines and guitars and keyboards- and i wonder if the audience is reacting to that as well, especially in the states where people have seen us a million times. Im excited to see how the Europeans take to our expanding sound.  We are personal, ‘it’ is personal but we are still a little rock and roll band at our core , which means we lead with our heart and leave it all on the floor at by the end of the show.

What are your plans for 2020? What can we expect from the UK shows? What sort of line up are you planning to use? 
We have a hot mess of staging for our shows in the states. It will be paired down just a bit in the UK. There won’t be a bunch of set design or fancy light shows like we tote around the states on tour. It will be us, some drums, a few guitars, a piano,  a six string bass, and our doohickeys. We have a ninety minute show with a big emotional arc- folk, rock n roll, stories, no bullshit.

What albums or artists have you enjoyed this year? And local talents we should be checking out? 
OOOOHHH we both have musical crush on Sharon Van Etten. The record she put out last summer, “Remind me Tomorrow ‘ is so great. We love Matthew Logan Vasquez’s most recent solo work “Light’n Up” and theres about to be another Delta Spirit record coming from him. I know Tank and The Bangas have already come over to Europe and torn it up, a crazy good husband/wife band (full a big band, tho) called War and Treaty is gonna be huge over there by next year, watch and see.  Heres an incomplete list of some of our other favourites right now: Kevin Morby, The Felice Brothers, Angel Olsen, Foxygen, Cedric Burnside, Indianola and some of our hometown heroes Punks N Snakes, Bill Carson and Mechanical River.

Lastly, how does being man and wife affect your music? I’m guessing by now you must be totally in tune with how you both work and what you need to get the best out of each other? Are you able to shut of the band aspect of your life or is it ever permeating your lives? 
There was a time, earlier in our relationships both marital and musical where we would have sworn they were separate entities. We didn’t want to talk about being married as it pertained to music (but we did, at length, repeatedly) and we insisted that we were able to compartmentalise the relationships. At the time it was important to us, probably because we didn’t want people to “make it about the fact that we were married”.  Family life and marriage permeates everything we do, primarily because we are the parents of two AMAZING little kids and since they came along, the scope of work is different with a capital D.   We are artists who stay at home with the kids when we are off the road, and in that time at home it is a delicate balance of taking care of and spending quality time with them, versus carving out , sometimes with what feels like a blunt  rubber shovel, time to create and record music. Its a whole thing, a dance to do. Its so great though, and we know how lucky we are to be able to do what we do and share it with our kids and with all the people who love our music. we are so grateful.

‘By Blood’ is out now on Dualtone Records

Shovels and Rope UK tour dates

WED 29 JAN – Brighton, Komedia
THU 30 JAN – London, Electric Ballroom
FRI 31 JAN – Manchester, Gorilla
SAT 1 FEB – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
SUN 2 FEB – Glasgow, Òran Mór

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