Q&A: Shovels & Rope

Q&A: Shovels & Rope
Photo Courtesy of Leslie Ryan McKellar Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, of Shovels & Rope, will be playing at George’s Majestic Lounge Saturday, March 25.

Photo Courtesy of Leslie Ryan McKellar
Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, of Shovels & Rope, will be playing at George’s Majestic Lounge Saturday, March 25.

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, the Charleston, S.C., married musical duo that is Shovels & Rope, have been through a lot in the past few years.

Trent’s father recently became diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, they lost a close friend, and the two had their first child. In 2015, in their hometown of Charleston, Dylan Roof shot and killed 9 people at an African-American Methodist Episcopal church.

In their latest 2016 record, Little Seeds, the music ebbs and flows from foot-thumpin’, screamin’ rock n’ roll to somber, beautiful balladry. Whereas Trent confronts the trials of his father’s Alzheimer’s in the high-energy “Invisible Man”, the eerie “BWYR” (black, white, yellow, red) is a response to the horrors of the racially-charged Charleston shooting. This record is a catharsis, and its something the two hope troubled others find solace in.

Songwriting is the clear focal point of their songs. The two started out writing folk murder ballads, and some of their best work still uses narrative structure, flush with clever and poignant phrasing.

We got the chance to talk with the lovely couple about the album and their time at last year’s Roots Fest.

TFW: How was the experience of playing Roots Fest? It’s a point of pride around here as our premier string band festival.

HEARST: We had a great time at Roots Fest. There were a lot of friends there who were also playing on the bill we hadn’t seen in a while, and that was cool. Fayetteville seems like a real cool low-key town. A little bit Bohemian for its general location, y’know? We thought that was cool. I remember the weather wasn’t terrible. It was summerish. It will be interesting to see the town with all the kids in school and the vibe with all the youth around.

TFW: I remember there was a special moment when you thanked the crowd for being so polite and attentive to the songs. Could you tell me a little more about that moment?

TRENT: It’s funny because a lot of times you don’t know what to expect or what the room is going to feel like in there. The songs we play and the general sound arc of our show is loud and heavy to very delicate and pretty. A lot of times we try to do all of that within the span of a show length. Sometimes the crowd isn’t in the mood to bring it down. Sometimes we crash and burn or at least we’re feeling like that. It was really nice to have an audience that was willing to ebb and flow with us. I think we mention that every time that happens to us. It feels like what we’re going for.

TFW: What’s your approach to songwriting as a duo?

HEARST: Generally, we’re kind of dividing and conquering, taking ideas and jotting them down. When we get a breathing point at home and get our feet up with a pile of ideas, we work out song ideas and pass them back and forth. Sometimes we co-write, sometimes we hand it off. Sometimes one person gives up on material and the other takes up the mantle and surprises the other one with great ideas. We write all different kinds of ways. With this record, it is largely personal, but we still like writing narrative songs with good stories. Those songs, those come from anywhere—out of the news, things people say that we catch that sounds clever and sometimes the story writes itself if you allow it to. That’s how we do it most of the time.

TFW: I hear a lot of stress and pain on this record, and I understand a lot was happening when you were recording. Was this album a catharsis for you?

TRENT: Definitely. Some of the songs were. It’s always, in the big picture, releasing an album and completing the task of writing and recording songs at the same time as having a newborn in the world is cathartic in its own right. The songs were coming out that way. We normally don’t do that a lot. I think people are sick of lovey dovey two-piece acts singing love songs about each other. Normally, the whole vibe when we started was murder ballads. That was kind of our thing. We started writing about things happening in our lives that we were anxious about. We were anxious about disease in our family, having a newborn baby and everything that goes along with that and we lost a friend. At the end of it when we looked at the pile of work, it was only really then we realized how personal it was. I wouldn’t take it back. I’m proud of it.

TFW: What were some of the cornerstones for your musical education? What artists influenced you into the music you’re making today?

HEARST: My education was based on John Prine and Bob Dylan. That’s where the train started and stopped, and Hank Williams, until I started learning more about rock n’ roll and great rock n’ roll songwriters from Michael.

TRENT: My dad taught me how to play guitar. He was in a transitional phase from rock n’ roll to bluegrass music and the first song he taught me to play on guitar was Johnny B. Goode, and he was a heavy Chuck Berry fan. That was pretty much where we parted ways. He was way into bluegrass and especially gospel bluegrass, and to me it all sounded the same. I didn’t have the attention span at the time to dig into the songs and listen to what they were singing about. I liked bands like Violent Femmes and Nine Inch Nails, who were turning me on at the time. A lot of great melodies and attitude and sense of humor, that a lot of British invasion bands like the Kinks, were bringing to the table. That’s my corner.

TFW: With the whole family on the road, how do you balance your professional and personal lives?

HEARST: I will say it can be a delicate dance and you have to really respect your partner and give them space, and also turn on wife or husband mode when it may not be the best time to do that. Like, you’re supposed to be in professional mode, but the wife in the situation instead of the bandmate needs a certain response. That’s the kind of stuff I’m grateful we’re a little bit older, because that makes it easier. One of the reasons we started this band was because if our solo careers worked out the way we hoped they would, the result would be we’d never see each other. The structure of our family would be compromised in ways we weren’t willing to accept. This band was an effort to form like a family dynasty, basically. It also helps that, for better or worse, this project would be more interesting. People would throw us on open slots because of how easy it was to have us as an opening act. It’s propelled us to continue forward. We take it one week at a time. I wouldn’t change it, and I certainly wouldn’t go back and do it a different way. Our entire family is on the road, our daughter, our dog and this crew we’ve had since the beginning already feel like family. We have a really unique and beautiful thing.

Shovels & Rope

Where: George’s Majestic Lounge, 519 W Dickson St.

When: 8:30 p.m.

Tickets: $18 at georgesmajesticlounge.com

Categories: Galleries