Shovels & Rope Dig the DIY Philosophy

Considering that romantic love is the theme above all themes in just about every corner of the popular music landscape, it makes sense that the male-female duet would be a classic performance model in country, pop, R&B, folk, indie rock and roots music alike. Shovels & Rope — a husband-and-wife duo made up of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst — contribute something new to the tradition: garage-rock energy.

Part of it’s their DIY philosophy; it takes nothing more than a bare-bones drum kit, a guitar, a pair of microphones and the two of them to put on their show. Along with that, their performance style is all about working up a sweat side by side, as opposed to serenading each other.

Shovels & Rope bottled the power ballad-less magic for their down-home power-pop album, O’ Be Joyful, which came out in July. They chatted with CMT Edge during the Americana music conference in Nashville last month.

Editor’s note: See an acoustic performance of “Birmingham,” filmed live for CMT Edge.

CMT Edge: As a band you don’t perform in the way I’d expect of a husband-and-wife duo. You don’t sing to each other much. Your dynamic is more rock ‘n’ roll camaraderie, like you’re egging each other on to give it your all and be tough.

Trent: We definitely like to rock and roll. And we do egg each other on a little bit. I think that’s kind of part of the fun of it for us. There’s nothing that we hate worse than showing up to a club and being perceived, before we soundcheck or whatever, by the sound guy or whoever we’re working with as one of those bands.

Hearst: A quiet, sentimental folk band. Which there’s nothing wrong with. I mean, we love quiet, sentimental folk music. We listen to Townes Van Zandt’s saddest records.

Trent: But we don’t want it to be sweet and longingly gazing into each other’s eyes and stuff. We’re more like giving each other the bird with our eyes.

Hearst: [laughs] Not all the time. We poke each other with a little bit of a stick as we go along, to see what we can do. And also, up to this point we’ve been notorious for all of our stuff …our act is always falling apart at the seams in some way. A string is breaking or the drum won’t stay put. We’re not hiding behind anything else. That audience knows what’s happening. So you almost have to just kind of engage with them and overcome it as a group together. … I definitely feel camaraderie. I feel romance and sweetness and stuff, but it definitely feels like a fraternal kind of camaraderie up there sometimes.

How did you work out your sound when you started singing together?

Trent: We didn’t think about it. It was just a pretty natural thing. We used to make lo-fi recordings of Ramones songs and stuff. That was the thing. Before we were even in a band, we’ve always really been able to sing together well. I’ve been her sideman and she’s been my sideman before we started this band. … Whoever it is that writes the song, or if we write the song together, the core of it is really our singing together.

Did the band dynamic grow naturally from that mutual support?

Trent: It did because we never planned to be in a band together. That wasn’t the plan. We had separate careers for years, you know, ever since we were in high school.

You’ve known each other that long?

Trent: No, no, no. I mean, on our own.

Hearst: Working really hard on our own individual things.

Trent: Yeah. The idea presented itself just sort of by default. Neither one of us really had much going on. We had just released solo records that we both thought, “Oh, these are great records. Let’s go do something with them.” And we were married at the time. We were already married, right?

Hearst: Mm-hmm.

Trent: We were trying to get it going. On the side, we were playing together at some of the wine bars or hole-in-the-walls or just wherever to make some dough.

Hearst: That would pay us and feed us the best.

Trent: Yeah, totally. And then that started to be the thing that people wanted to come see, instead of our individual things. Still, we resented it for a while. We didn’t give into it. It became obvious when we started getting phone calls or offers for great tours as this duo Shovels & Rope. We put it all in the hat at that point and said, “Let’s just do it this way.”

Hearst: Pretty easy way to overcome the No. 1 problem being on the road: you’re not with your loved ones. That’s the biggest sacrifice. So we kind of cheated in that way. And it comes with its own set of challenges. But us on our worst day is much better than us apart.

When you said you didn’t want to give into it, you made it sound like you were pretty reluctant.

Hearst: It kind of was like that. We had to have a conversation. Once Michael decided that he was ready to do that, he didn’t really look back. I kept thinking to myself, “Maybe this is just temporary. Maybe this is just until we can afford to bring other people on the road.” It’s really defined itself as, “Maybe we will do some other bands someday, but Shovels & Rope is definitely a permanent two-person installation.” Whatever this family does is Shovels & Rope. Other things can exist outside of it in the future, but as long as we’re healthy and can do it and can make records the way we want to, it’s just such a great way to pass our young lives, traveling around and singing together.

What’s the difference between how Shovels & Rope, the unorthodox duo, is received and how your solo projects were received?

Trent: I like when people don’t know what to think of it at first. We went on four different tours last year with completely different types of artists, supporting them. We supported Hayes Carll. We supported Felice Brothers, Justin Townes Earle and Butch Walker. It’s like kind of extremes of all of that. But we do feel like we fit into all those categories in one way or another.

When we went out with Hayes, the challenge was, for me personally, it was like Cary is more of a country singer traditionally, and people will latch on to her right away. They know what she is. I was a little intimidated, I guess, at the beginning. We switch back and forth and I figured all the country boys in the honky-tonks would be like, “What’s he think he’s doing?” But they embraced it and they liked it. I think that they appreciated that it was different and fresh, even to people that maybe aren’t that open-minded about music. I feel like we got ‘em somehow, with maybe just the energy of the band or the bombastic-ness of the show.

That’s why they call them hooks.

Hearst: [laughs] Yeah. We’ve got some hooks. And they like it. We’ve got some hooks and you can dance to it. Those Texas fans can dance to anything. They’re awesome.

I think the matched way you sing helps you get the maximum impact out of the hooks that you write.

Hearst: I didn’t ever think of it that way, but it is kind of a big stick to be wielding when you’re two people. If you’ve got something clever to say, you can say it louder with two people.

Trent: It’s an extra instrument that we can put in our deal, like our arrangement. We don’t have a bass player, but we have another voice.