An Interview with Shovels & Rope

Originally published in The Declaration October 2016

Photo by Leslie Ryan McKellar, All Eyes Media

South Carolina duo Shovels & Rope are coming to Charlottesville on Saturday, October 22nd, for a performance at the Jefferson Theater. This current tour follows the release of their new album “Little Seeds,” a record which pushes the group’s blend of folk, country, and rock to new heights and sees the husband and wife team of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst exploring topics more personal than ever in their characteristic narrative style. Luckily, the two were able to take time away from their busy touring schedule to talk about the new album in a brief phone interview.

The title of the album is “Little Seeds,” which I think is from a lyric in the second track, “Botched Execution.” How did you end up choosing the album title?

Hearst: It’s kind of got two things going on, like reaping what you sow and also the beginning of life, and where the end starts happening. It just sort of encompassed the record in a tight little idea.

Your songs on this record cover a lot of heavy thematic territory–death, Alzheimer’s, racial division in the U.S.–but overall, there’s still a pleasant kind of energy. How do you keep a balance?

Trent: It’s just in the perspective. These are things that are going to happen; it’s all about how you look at them. That’s just how we were inspired to write the songs. It’s one thing to acknowledge that something terrible has happened. It’s another thing to do something about it, or the way that you choose to move forward with what’s happened.

What kind of music were you listening to in the process of making this record?

Hearst: There were a couple of things going on. In the green room before a show, I happened to look up above Michael and see a Jesus and Mary Chain poster. A lot of the cool, spacey, sonic rock and roll stuff they do is kind of our favorite thing to do. We were listening to a lot of rock and roll: the Band, Tom Petty, and Elvis Costello.

A lot of people have said that this is a much more personal record than your others. How does that compare when you’re performing these songs live? Is it a different feeling when the stories you’re telling are about you?

Trent: We just started to perform the songs live really in the past week or week and a half. It’s one thing to write it, and one thing to record it, and the live performance–that’s the only one that is changeable at that point. It’s kind of fluid. Some nights you’ll be really kind of taken back to the place that you were when you wrote it, and other nights, it feels more like playing music and playing it—

Hearst: Like it’s just a song in the canon, in the body of work.

Trent: It changes.

Hearst: “Mourning Song” was hard to record, and now I feel like when we get to play “This Ride,” it’s deeply personal, and it kind of commands the audience to be quiet and listen to it. It can be almost a little bit too emotional, but it feels good to do that.

Shovels & Rope is clearly a project that’s very personal to the two of you. Have there ever been times you considered bringing other people on, or times there were things you wanted to do that the two of you couldn’t do yourselves?

Trent: Not really. The plan with this band is always to be a two-person band, and the creative process is working around that. It kind of keeps things fresh for us, so there are no plans to add anybody. You learn to play instruments along the way.

What’s been the most interesting thing to come out of that?

Trent: One of the most interesting things goes back to the first record. We arranged some horn parts, and we obviously couldn’t perform that live. We got a little keyboard, so whoever was playing drums could play keyboard as well, and we ended up emulating that sound through an organ. That ended up being one of the main instruments in the band.

What’s the secret to great songwriting collaboration?

Hearst: For us, we take it pretty easy on each other. If we’re working on a song, we definitely go into work mode, like “how about this idea?” “or how about this idea?”

Trent: Nobody takes it personal if yours doesn’t win out.

Hearst: Half the time, if you have an idea that doesn’t work with one song, you put it back in the jar and use it for another one. You don’t feel like, personal hurt feelings when you’re writing a song.

What was the first song you ever wrote, and why did you write it?

Trent: Ooh, that’s interesting.

Hearst: When in Jackson Mississippi, as an eight-year-old, I started the third grade, there was a contest with a winner from each grade, and we got to flesh out our song with a songwriter. We had a song called “Why Did You Leave Me.” It was so structurally simple, and that’s why the songwriter picked it, so we got to sing it at the Country Music Hall of Fame when I was eight years old.

Trent: I was older. I was probably 16 or 17, and me and my bandmate at the time, we wrote the nastiest song you ever heard. It was called “Filth.” And it was just pure raging teenage hormones. We were discovering a lot at that time, including a distortion pedal. I feel like it had a pretty heavy riff, but I don’t want to remember what the lyrics were.

Where’s your favorite city to perform?

Hearst: I’m partial to New Orleans, personally.

Trent: I really don’t know, but I can tell you the city I was most pleasantly surprised by as we started touring was Minneapolis. It had a lot of grit and soul and people really cared. Every venue we played, everybody really seemed to care about what they were doing and take pride in their city.

Biggest musical guilty pleasure?

Hearst: For me it’s classic reggae. I don’t play it but I listen to it a lot.

Trent: I wouldn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings by calling it a guilty pleasure, but I really have a strong feeling for Soul Asylum, also from Minneapolis. I felt like they were the grunge Tom Petty. Just kind of cool, good songwriting.


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