Shovels & Rope Save the Drama for Their New Album

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You’d be hard-pressed to find coed musical partners who behave more fondly toward each other than Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. They’re singers, songwriters and scrappy instrumentalists who perform together as the theatrically-inclined hillbilly-punk duo Shovels & Rope and also happen to be married.

But you seldom find them playing out their own love story in their material or singing anything that could properly be called a duet. That holds true on Swimmin’ Time, the first album they’ve released since achieving beloved status in the Americana scene, with the Americana Award plaques to show for it. (For the record, their entire endearingly unglamorous journey from underdogs to darlings is captured in the documentary The Ballad of Shovels and Rope.)

The new songs are populated with colorful characters, twisted tales, humanism and apocalypticism. There’s ample imagination on display — just not autobiography. It’s in Hearst and Trent’s ardently locked-in singing that their knowingness and warmth really comes through.

Michael, you’ve been saying in interviews that you took basically the same approach on this album, with a few new tricks thrown in. But I think you might be underselling the differences here. You’ve brought a lot of drama to the arrangements with layered vocal parts.

Trent: If you listen to our first record — not O’ Be Joyful, but the record before that — we use a lot of those same sorts of tricks with layering more vocals. That’s something we used to do all the time even before we were in the band. When we would make recordings for fun, we would just use a couple of instruments and a lot of vocals and work it up that way.

When people ask about the approach, the instruments are more or less the same, except for some of the stuff that we’ve learned how to do over the last couple years and integrated into the live show, like some heavy organ or ramped-up guitar. … I’m happy that it’s coming across as a little bit more dramatic. That was the goal.

Hearst: Michael’s humble, though. He’s not going to oversell what he’s up to or necessarily talk about it too much. “This old thing? You know, whatever.”

Did recording this one at home — as opposed in the van, in the hotel room, wherever — have anything to do with the changes?

Trent: I think, for one, we did have a couple more options because we were not mobile. We were in the same place, so it was like, “Maybe we should throw a piano on there because we have a piano here.” We could scrap something and start anew with another idea. It was a lot easier to do that from home than it is when you’re in a hotel with a guitar and not much else.

I guess that’s true for the most part. We had our tools accessible to us. We didn’t have all the time in the world to record it, but we had about three weeks in between tours that we sort of had to hunker down and get the big chunks out of the way.

I’ve always thought that the most remarkable part of your sound is the way you sing together. Had you ever heard any other act do a dual-lead singing thing that appealed to you before you tried it yourselves?

Hearst: The Everly Brothers. I wouldn’t necessarily say they were an influence, so much as we have some Everly Brothers records in our record collection. When we put “Bye Bye Love” on again — obviously we all grew up with that song — we were like, “Holy shit, that’s what we do.”

When we were recording this record, we were reading about how the Everly Brothers would record their vocals live when they were getting along, and those were the recordings where their vocals were just crazy, psychic, paranormal, musical beauty. When they were fighting, they would overdub each other and it would lose its luster.

We recorded all the vocals on this record live singing together with very, very few exceptions. Some of them were on one mic. The majority used two mics that were in very close proximity, face to face, with only six inches between us.

Trent: With just enough room for the microphones.

Would you say “Mary Ann and One-Eyed Dan” is the closest you’ve come to an actual duet?

Hearst: Interesting. I don’t know, it’s like there was multiple personality disorder on that recording. … It’s not a duet — it’s like a sextet, and I’m five of the people and Michael is one of the people.

Even so, there’s kind of a conversation going on in there.

Hearst: In that regard, yeah, I would say it’s the most classical duet because there’s literally dialogue in the song between a man and a woman.

It stands out as a conscious decision on your part not to write and record songs that have you singing directly to each other about romantic themes.

Hearst: Ewww! (laughs) There are plenty of good love songs in the world, you know. And our songs are love songs. The older we get and the longer we’ve been in a functional, happy marriage, the less we’re concerned about it. We don’t have the conflicts that motivate a great love song. …

We’re looking out at the world, and we love people, and we want to have a family someday, and we’re all about the community. I feel the stuff we’re putting out is love songs — it’s universal, brotherly love, kind of.

You’ve joked about your fans rooting for you as “Ma and Pa,” which is a pretty down-to-earth, approachable image. What difference does that make?

Trent: I think it’s more natural and easier on us. We can just be ourselves a little bit more. When we first started doing any kind of interviews and people started taking any interest in us, we were like, “Oh, man, what are we going to do about this ‘being married’ thing? People are going to ask us about that.”

Hearst: We didn’t really want to talk about it, to be honest with you. It’s our most private possession.

Trent: But it’s also boring. There’s not much to it, except it is what it is.

Hearst: Except our eternal, infinite happiness!

Trent: My point is that it’s really kind of a nonfactor in the image once you take away the fact that “This is Mike and Cary, and they’re married.” This is where they’re coming from because they’re Ma and Pa, and not trying to pull one over on us or something.

Since you’re down there in South Carolina, which is beach music territory, I wondered how much exposure you’ve had to the beach music thing, the retro soul-pop that people like to dance the Shag to.

Hearst: I’ll be honest with you. I moved to Charleston in 1997, years before Michael would appear there, and I feel like I showed up on the shores of Folly Beach as the last whispers of beach music culture wafted across the sand into ambiguity. They still have dances, but there used to be a shag club on Folly Beach and now it’s an ice cream shop of some kind.

So, not as much as we’d like. I wish there was a radio station in Charleston that was devoted to great old soul and R&B – the Platters, the Drifters, all that good Atlantic Records music. I wish there was more of it. We love that kind of music, but you don’t hear as much as you used to.

Young people, I don’t think, are really picking up that torch, and there are so many new kinds of people coming from everywhere — because Charleston is an amazing place to live — and they’re bringing their own regional interests with them. Maybe it’ll become hip, and I that hope it does, for teenagers to start doing the old shag dances.

Do you have visions of your song “Coping Mechanism” fitting into that kind of scene?

Hearst: It’s got more of a New Orleans feel. We wrote it like a Fats Domino song. But I would love to see people …

Trent: Make up their own “Coping Mechanism” dance? Scratching their necks?

Hearst: Partners scratching each other and dancing.

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