Shovels and Rope Make the Mundane Sound Magical
The Americana duo (and new parents) make country music for White Stripes fans on 'Little Seeds.'
"This life may be too good to survive," Cary Ann Hearst, one half of Americana duo Shovels and Rope, sings out. She is sitting on a stool on stage at Bowery Ballroom, where she and her husband Michael are playing the third and final show of a three-night run in New York City. Outside of the ballroom, in bars and homes across the city, the third presidential election is on TV screens, and just being somewhere else feels like an act of resistance. The phrase (which appears as the refrain to the song "St. Anne's Parade") is a stand-out moment on on Little Seeds (New West Records). Its October 7 release marked the punk-slash-Americana duo's third album since forming in 2008 (more on that later). In the coming days, as America believed it was inching closer to potentially electing the first woman president of the United States, the phrase felt extra true.
The "America" tag might sound quaint at first blush, but over the past few months (or years, depending on how you like to define Americana music), the alternative country scene has been growing rapidly among rural and rural-adjacent, educated white people. You can call it alternative, alt-country, Southern-fried soft rock, or the music a mason jar would make if it could make music, but the bottom line is that this is country music for people who like the White Stripes. Americana festivals have established themselves in cities like Nashville and even Brooklyn—the latter's popularity coming as a shock but not as a surprise—so really, it's a perfect time for Shovels and Rope to shine.
Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent first met in 2002, but both busied themselves pursuing solo careers until they came together to release their debut album, Shovels and Rope, in 2008. At that time, they maintained their solo identities, and didn't adopt Shovels and Rope as a moniker until 2013's O' Be Joyful. On stage and in person, Trent and Hearst are two of a kind, a beautifully compatible couple who feed off each other's energy while simultaneously bolstering the mood of anyone in the immediate vicinity.
That charisma is part of what makes Little Seeds such a dynamic record—that, and the canny way it presents a shot of political commentary with a long chaser of Southern hospitality. "I Know," the first song on the album, is a playful call out to the friends biting Shovels and Rope's sound, while "Mourning Song," a gorgeous story of a woman learning to live alone after her husband passes away, speaks to the longevity and power of a certain kind of love. "Buffalo Nickel," "Invisible Man," and "Missionary Ridge" all feature the gritty storytelling that helped define the genres of country music and Americana.
"The material on this record is mundane stuff. It happens to every single person," Hearst told me. Maybe the songs and experiences on the album are mundane—there is no unique trauma that happened while they wrote this album—but it is, of course, that oh-so-relatable mundanity that makes this record so special. Love, loss, ghosts, and gratitude all dance together on Little Seeds. It's a powerful response to our culture of violence, and a healing reminder that happiness can be found in the hardest of places.
Noisey: Hi guys! So, tell me a little bit about this new record.
Michael Trent: It's pretty personal as far as the way that we write. We write a lot of character-based songs, and this one touches on a few things that are more personal. We had a lot going on in our lives for the past couple of years and throughout this writing process. We recorded it at home, like we always do, but this time we had a baby downstairs. A new baby. That was a juggle.
Cary Ann Hearst: A new baby and a new album!
Where did your decision to become a little more personal on this record come from?
Hearst: Since Michael and I arrived at our most caveman-like state as writers, we write whatever is going on. It helps us deal with our feelings. We wrote songs for ourselves. When it was time to put the record together, we shaped the songs up. We decided that we should put personal things on the record. We used the songs that we wrote while processing our human existence. Michael's good at telling stories, he can tell them in two and a half or three minutes. There's a lot of that going on in the record too. That dynamic in that sort of way.
Trent: Yeah, a little bit, especially the ones pertaining to my dad and his illness. We did not want to hurt anyone's feelings. We had to talk with my mom and my brother beforehand. I just wanted to be respectful about that situation. They were totally supportive of it. That's the only reason we would be slightly nervous to release it, just because we wanted to be respectful of the realness that's going on with it. There's a clip at the end of the record of our friend who was murdered. It's his mother telling the story of the day that he was born. We obviously want to be respectful to her and make sure she was okay with it. She was totally supportive of it as well. We wanted to do right by him and our friends, and make sure that we were playing tribute in the right kind of way, and that it wouldn't come off as cheapening.
What made you feel like now was the time to get this stuff out?
Hearst: There's two songs on the record that directed that. One is a song that Michael brought to the pile of material called "Mourning Song." It's considering what it would be like for his mom during his father's passing. The songs that I reacted with, and brought to the pile were the beginnings of "Invisible Man," which is an outward rock and roll song. Even though the material is dark, there's some optimism in it. They were living with us for a couple of years, and during the last part of that I found we were going to have a baby. I didn't want to tell anybody. We were processing it. The material on this record is mundane stuff. It happens to every single person. Most folks start a family, or they'll face the difficulties of watching their parents age…they'll have anxieties that everybody else has. No matter what walk of life they come from. Even though that stuff is the most intense and scary stuff going, the ultimate price you pay for being born is your ultimate demise. When you start thinking about babies coming into the world…it's like hitting the emotional wall in that human cyclone. It's the most common thing in the world though. It's shaping our whole existence, not just this record or this song. It's the way that we cook dinner at five o'clock right now. Everything is different.
Can you tell me about your song "BWYR?" I know it was about racial unity, and it was inspired after the Charleston shootings. Where were you coming from when you were writing that song?
Trent: We were in Denver when we heard about it. I have family in Denver. We were playing a show and having a baby shower, and we heard about the shootings. It's terrible and tragic. But the thing that's even worse is that every single weekend something like that was going on. Not to that degree, but there were people being shot all the time. It's constantly on the TV.
Hearst: Everyone is rioting in Charlotte, in the streets, right now.
Trent: That also started out as a form of therapy writing, like an emotional purge on paper. It wasn't meant to be a song. We were really sad to be away from our community and our friends. We wanted to be there to help, to support…to just put our arms around somebody. We were far away. We were in Denver and Chicago. When we got home, and we started putting the album together, it was just words on a page. We tracked a little music over it, and we put it over a drone. Then, we had it stored in a pile on my computer with all the other songs we were compiling for this record. Our manager was going through the songs, and he stumbled across it. He talked to us about it, was moved by it, and encouraged us to put it out there. It just seems like it was the right thing to do, and that it might be important to release something like that. What do you think, Cary Ann?
Hearst: It's just so sorrowful that some mother's son is gunned down in the street. Or that some officer gets gunned down in the street. It's like a violence that permeates. So much of this violence is directed at people of color. On the other side, people who put their lives in harm's way are afraid. We have this lifestyle and we can't seem to stop violence. As a new parent, you see the world differently. Everybody wants the world to be safe for their kids, for them to have opportunities to thrive. They shouldn't worry that their child isn't going to make it to 18. A lot of people in this country, this great nation of ours, that is just one of the things that they worry about.
Do you hope by writing and releasing songs it inspires people to take action? Whether it's about mental health or gun control?
Hearst: It's not really a didactic song that would rally people to action. I hope it rallies people to feel, to find compassion and empathy with each other. I feel like that's the building block of understanding. Wouldn't it be great that an officer would result to murderous violence? Then the person on the other side would have to feel fear or disrespect by the authority. In that instance, that perfect little bubble, there's opportunity and hope for reconciliation, in building a community. I hope that it inspires somebody to feel first. To first think compassion and mutual grief.
Do you feel like the world doesn't have enough compassion? And that's why you write songs like this?
Trent: I think…I don't know. I know compassion is there.
Hearst We have faith in compassion.
Trent: You can definitely see it. We see a lot of compassion on the airplanes these days, with new parents that understand we have a small child.
Hearst: I think that most people show compassion to their fellow man. I really hope that when you see somebody coming you're not like "this asshole!" That's the big difference, trying to believe in the collective consciousness where there's a critical mass of people who refuse to abandon all hope and who will act with love as their first reaction to an encounter. If there's a critical mass of people who do that, the collective consciousness will change. That will be the reality for mankind.
Trent: Instead of a fear-based reaction.
How do you manage to keep believing in hope?
Trent: Every human being, unless you're on some really good prescription drugs, deals with ups and downs throughout their lives and weeks and existences. I think that keeping that as the goal…to be kind to other people and be hopeful for things. If you didn't have anything to hope for, that would kind of be unimaginable. It's kind of a human thing. It's a thing to look forward to. That's the thing we try to keep in mind, in our music world and in our everyday world. We want to be hopeful and inspire that in people.
Hearst: Don't let the bastards get you down.
What's something that you notice about your crowds now?
Hearst: It's definitely bigger. The crowd itself is diverse. It's young and older people, hip and square.
Trent: Rock 'n' roll people, country music people. When we first started going on tour, we did a tour where we opened for Hayes Carll. It's very much an Americana and country type of music.
Hearst: Post-modern folk…
Trent: It's a different audience completely. Maybe some crossover. We went out with Butch Walker. Those people are rock and roll people. We did all these back-to-back tours, and then we would go out on our own. There'd be the guy in the cowboy hat standing next to the guy in a sleeveless shirt.
Hearst: And the jacket girl and her girlfriend.
Trent: The Mohawk guy standing next to the hippie. It was awesome actually. That felt really cool. We were able to navigate through these certain genres, and not be put in a box.
Hearst: Keep in mind we had no idea what the hell we were doing.
Do you still feel like that?
Trent: We have definitely navigated through the murkiest of waters for that part. But we're always changing. This record is a lot different than the last record we put out, which was a lot different than the record we put out before that. I think that not knowing is kind of a good thing. You do what your instincts tell you to do, and not worry about it that much. That's the best way to make music.
You guys are constantly put in the genre of alt-country or Americana. Is that how you see yourselves?
Hearst: It doesn't hurt our feelings in the least. From song to song, it's kind of different. It seems nice that, in the few record stores that are left, we can see our records in the store. The more different kind of things they call you, the more of a chance you'll get to be on the formatted radio stations for the thing that they called you. I'm just glad they're calling us.
Annalise Domenighini is far from mundane on Twitter.