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Music

Shovels & Rope Talk About Upsetting Americana Conventions, Babies, and Life on the Silver Screen

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: Todd Cooper / All Eyes Media

South Carolina Americana duo Shovels & Rope discuss their superb new release, By Blood, and its ongoing evolution: "We always knew there were going to be less banjos, less mandolins, more weird things."

By Blood
Shovels & Rope

Dualtone Music Group

12 April 2019

With By Blood, Shovels & Rope continue their exploration of Americana's outer limits. On the one hand, the husband and wife duo of Michael Trent and Carrie Ann Hearst appeal to roots purists who find the pair's approach to be an exhilarating new chapter in American music's development. On the other hand, both musicians seem ready to thwart expectations and established definitions with each successive album.

Their new album isn't the only creative endeavor Trent and Hearst have immersed themselves in of late. There's a new film (Shovels & Rope: The Movie), a children's book, C'mon Utah, their High Water Festival, and a second child born just as the new LP and current touring activities were getting in full swing.

By Blood picks up where Shovels & Rope's last collection of original material, 2016's Little Seeds, left off. But it also drives the South Carolinians straight into the future, whether via the whirling, lysergic stomp "I'm Coming Out", the avant-soul of "The Wire" (featuring one of Hearst's all-time greatest vocal performances), or the chain gang-cum-commune exploration "Hammer".

It's akin to Los Lobos' strange, enchanting experimental era via albums such as Kiko and Colossal Head or Tom Waits' indelible Mule Variations. Even more conventional pieces, such as "C'mon Utah" are more than a simple G-C-D campfire tune. Its lyrics and vocal harmonies create a disorienting array of folk history and something undeniably neu. Even a nod to the Eels' incomparable 2003 effort Shootenanny! in "Carry Me Home" is a reminder that this ain't your grandad's folk scene.

Speaking from their South Carolina home, Hearst and Trent unwound the story behind By Blood and much more.

Where did By Blood begin for the two of you?

Michael Trent: We're always writing, but there is a point where we show each other our ideas and go into a room with the intention of gathering a collection of songs for a record. For this one, it was around May or April of last year.

Carrie Ann Hearst: We gave ourselves a timeline, but no one was standing around waiting for it. It was a little open-ended. "You guys got a new record?" "Oh, you mean this new record right here?"

MT: The goal was to get the record done before our baby came.

CAH: That's right.

Working on a record, getting ready to launch a tour, becoming parents for a second time. How easy has that been?

MT: I like the way that you phrased that. [Laughs.] Everything has been really easy this time.

CAH: It's been a way chill experience.

MT: We got caught with our pants down the last time. We had our first baby, and then it was time to record. That was a little more stressful because we wondered how it was possible. Nobody was getting any sleep, and every time we got the baby to sleep, that's when we had to go in and make a loud noise.

You had a little bit of a different studio experience this time.

MT: We got smart and built a studio in the backyard. We could leave the house and have a workspace that was just for that. It's the smartest thing we've probably done.

CAH: Don't cross the streams! [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] I've heard people say that it's nice to have the studio at home because if inspiration strikes at two in the morning, the recording facility is right there. You're also not paying somebody a hundred dollars an hour.

MT: We've always made our records at home, but there a came a time where we needed a separate space to get away from the noises we didn't want on our record. [Laughs.]

Do you have conversations about how to make each record a little bit different or do you find that it's a natural, unspoken progression?

CAH: Once we sit down with the music, we usually get a vibe of what the overall tone is but the way the records come out, sonically, is really more directed by Michael. We think about records that we like or a vibe that we're going for.

MT: We talked about making it a big, cinematic-sounding record. We're always trying to do something a little bit different and the last one, I feel like, came across more as guitar rock. We used a lot more sweeping sounds [this time], there's a lot more drama.

Photo: Curtis Millard / All Eyes Media

Was there anything that you feel inspired that drama?

MT: I think it was really just the sounds that we were into at the time. The instruments that we were experimenting with. We were not afraid to make it sound big. I think we cared the least this time about how we were going to pull it off live. We weren't afraid to layer things up and go for something bigger. We'll figure out how to pull it off live later. That's part of the fun.

I love the song "Twisted Sisters". But the sonics made me a little uncomfortable in places. There really is a sense of drama in it.

CAH: We had that song for a while. It didn't make the last record because we couldn't quite get it the way we wanted it. One thing we loved from the original workup of it was the crazy horns. Our friend Nathan Koci up in New York recorded a million takes of his trumpet for us. We shifted it around to build the whole song around that.

MT: It was a little linear, the way the last recording went. It probably wouldn't have made you feel uncomfortable. I think that's what was interesting to us, stretching our vocal range.

CAH: In that recording, I was visualizing being caught in a tornado, standing there watching these two tornados destroy everything around you. We wanted it to feel like all that stuff was whipping around in the track. We recorded the vocal pretending I was Dorothy Gale! [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] I love albums that have a powerful sequence to them. This one certainly has that. I feel like you captured the perfect entry and perfect exit for the album. Do you labor over that in the process?

MT: We do spend a lot of time on that. But our manager is good at sequencing. Usually, when we have some songs ready, we'll say, "How's this?" It was his idea to end the album with "By Blood" and said that it was really impactful for him [that way]. He definitely had more perspective on it at that point. He thought it would be really effective as a parting thought. It's the title of the record, and we are a family band, and there's a whole lot that goes into this whole thing that revolves around our family life.

Are there ever songs that take you by surprise. Like, you think, "This is good," but once the production's in place, the final performances are there, you say, "Wow, this is so much better than I imagined"?

CAH: I experienced a lot of that with this record because I basically spent 20 percent less of the time that Michael did in the studio, so I was always coming in with fresh ears. I liked all the songs, and they have to be good if there's nothing else on them. I guess that's a litmus test, like, "Is this song good with just an acoustic guitar, sung into a phone? OK. Good. Let's put it on the record."

For me, "Mississippi Nuthin'" came to life [in the process] and, to me, one of the weirdest songs on the album, "Hammer".

Right on.

CAH: It's the most "Americana" but a totally bizarre song. That has one of the few guests on the record, a friend [Daniel Coolik] who came from Lafayette, Louisiana and played that weird fiddle stuff. It's strange what makes things come alive.

Americana is that really broad designation that can mean a wide range of things. For most people, though, it means some sort of adherence to "tradition", whether that's traditional instrumentation or sounding like records from 1952. Where do you see that line between being traditional and breaking new ground? I feel like music has to break new ground in order to survive.

MT: We were embraced by the Americana community early on and it has done a lot for us. But we didn't….

CAH: We always knew there were amps coming.

[Laughs.]

CAH: We always knew there were going to be less banjos, less mandolins, more weird things.

MT: From the beginning, we haven't tried to stick to anything. We've always been about making it a little bit weird. That's probably our exploratory, defiant brains. We see things when we're on the road, like, "Rootsy folk duo Shovels and Rope!" We think, "Oh man. If that's what people think they're going to get then we're probably going to offend some people here." We're kind of loud. We have complicated feelings about it.

CAH: It's a catch-all for anything that's remotely connected to traditional American musical idioms. Our music doesn't sound like Woody Guthrie, but we love him. Our lyrics don't sound like something John Prine would have written, but that's my Number One person that I would rip off. For the most part, Americana radio doesn't care [about the differences]. Within the audience, there are purists, but we like folk music that's deconstructed and weird.

MT: Or even things like Tom Waits. In a different time, he might have been labeled as an Americana act. He's very experimental but the way that he can tell a story [is incredible]. Maybe it's got something to do with telling stories with your songs.

What could be more American than trying to break new ground and be innovative and individualistic?

CAH: You may be right about that. We concur. We both have our thumbs up.

[Laughs.] You also have Shovels & Rope: The Movie, which is coming out into the world.

MT: We were going to put out a concert, just a live show that we had filmed. The guy that filmed it [Curtis Wayne Millard] came to us and said, "What would you think if we wove a narrative through this thing and made it more like a movie [than a concert film]?" A lot of times, with concert films, no matter how much you love the band, it's not the same as going to a show. Even if it's mixed well, it doesn't feel the same. We were up for doing anything different, and we all put our heads together on this thing.

By using actors in Charleston, a bunch of our friends, and non-actors, and us …. [Laughs.]

CAH: [Laughs.] We're the best worst thing about the movie.

MT: We were definitely out of our wheelhouse, helping put this thing together. It was mostly on Curtis. He was the mastermind.

CAH: It's homemade.

MT: It's very homemade. I don't know if we think it's funny because we've watched it so much and have been living inside of it or if it's actually funny. I don't know. We'll see.

CAH: Twitter will let us know! [Laughs.]

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