Shovels & Rope on Family, Storytelling and Their Latest Album ‘By Blood’
South Carolina duo Shovels & Rope are a prolific band. In fact, they’re much more than a band, curating festivals and releasing films and books. husband and wife, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst started as solo musicians who collaborated and blossomed into a pretty tremendous force. Take the spirit of folk music, and the richness in it, but dismiss some of the hackneyed aspects that often show up in annoying retrocraft, and channel it into a more general rock format with references that run the gamut, with carefully picked bits that recall plenty musical history in an elegant and always engaging way.
These two are serious songsmiths with a craft for storytelling, and there’s a poetry to the lyrics that is very rare. Combined with their decidedly Southern flair, it makes for a sound that’s at once charmingly quaint and excitingly edgy. Their latest album “By Blood” tells compelling stories about characters that bring out often unspoken elements of the human condition, along with fanciful, droll narratives in longstanding traditions. Trent and Hearst spoke with Entertainment Voice to give an inside look into their arts, their thoughts, their new album, and their other grand slew of upcoming projects.
You originally released your debut self-titled album as a co-bill under your individual names, and the collaboration has evolved into the full-fledged bend and greater creative force that is Shovels & Rope, growing steadily bigger and bolder as manifest in your new record “By Blood.” How much does your special kinship as a husband and wife duo make its way into the sentiment of the album’s title and the title track?
Michael: Well, the last song on the album is titled “By Blood,” and that was originally written to our daughter, about being new parents. I was a new dad at that time, and everything was so new and complicated, and we were tired all the time, and navigating those feelings, and then we took a step back from it. It kind of encompassed our whole operation, what we’ve been doing for the past eight years or so. And now we have two kids, and we’re on the road all the time with our kids, and family is more important than ever. It felt like everything revolved around our family unit. We were thinking of that in front of our brains, and that’s why we named the album that.
You manage to strike a sound that’s pretty raw and primal with songs that are still carefully layered with painstaking detail. And you do it mostly in your home studio. Expand on your process and aesthetic.
Cary: This record and all our records have been made in a series of home studios. We’ve always worked at home. Michael is the person that produces our records, engineers and arranges everything. This version of our home studio is an exterior space that we built in the backyard. We learned that not necessarily having our sleeping children in the house was important to our process. So now we have this independent space that we can go when we’re in the creative zone or recording and arranging. What was different about this process, at least from my perspective — it’s really different from Michael because he has a whole slew of other challenges to play with — we had a chance to go out and work these songs in front of the audience, and come home with a little bit of fresh ears for ideas, and for the actual procedure of the songs, Michael would have to speak to that.
Michael: I don’t know, new instruments, new ideas.
Cary: Twelve string!
Michael: Oh twelve string. We just tried a bunch of stuff that we haven’t really used before in the past.
“The Wire” seems like a surefire single — a catch snapshot of your distinctive sound, full of nods to different styles, and with lyrics that seem at once weighty and lighthearted. Share a little about the song, musically and lyrically.
Michael: You can talk about it lyrically, and maybe I’ll talk about it musically.
Cary: So getting back to this record, it was made clear to us that all the narrators are kind of examining their weak spots about their own humanity, or just wrestling with the kind of shitty parts of their own personalities or their circumstances. And this narrator is basically saying — you know, the long and short of it — I can be a jerk and a failure, and I kind of hate myself a lot of the time, but when it comes to it, I’m going to be there. I’m going to show up every day. That’s like the true way people feel. No one is really nailing it all the time. So it’s kind of a manifesto for the flawed person who wants to do better, and show people that he or she cares about.
Michael: And I guess musically speaking, there’s a little bit of ‘60s girl group influence. You know, we put a lot of background vocals on there. It’s just kind of a chopped-up rock ‘n roll arrangement, and it came together really quickly. It was kind of fun and easy, that track.
Your songs are largely narrative-driven, and you dream up some fanciful stories. A sure standout is “C’mon Utah,” about displaced families trying to reunite, after the building and subsequent breakdown of a Southern border war, aided by a horse named “Utah.” You’ll also be releasing a children’s book with the same title. Please share a little about the book. And of all things, why a horse named “Utah?”
Michael: (Laughs) That was probably the first song written for this record, the oldest of the batch, and I don’t really know why. That was what my brain was doing on that day, naming horses and gifting them with magic powers for good. I don’t know, it was strange. What is strange about this song is that it was written, and we were performing it before the family separations started happening, but there was still talk of the wall. I think that was a bit of the inspiration, that this thing is actually getting talked about — kind of looking to the future and beyond that — like what if it did happen? And what if it came down? Then what happens? Then what do all these people do, and where do they go? What would that be like, and where’s the hope? I didn’t know where the hope would be, so I put in a horse. I put it on a horse. (Laughs) And yeah, so it was getting a lot of good response, and the timing of it as we were playing it live — these terrible stories on the news would be out there about families getting separated and kids getting lost, and we have small kids, and it was really hard to hear, and kind of hard to process and deal with. So we thought that we would give that song a little bit of extra attention and team up with one of our friends whose a great artist, painter. His name is Julio Codo. We’ve both known him for a long time, but Carrie waited tables with him fifteen years ago or whatever. He does great work, we’re always inspired by him, we’ve kept in touch, and we thought that it would be cool to team up with him on this project. And it’s basically just the lyrics of the song, but illustrated, with his mind and his heart, and it felt like it would be a cool collaboration. We’re kind of still smack in the middle, so we don’t really know when it’s going to come out.
Your stories are always vivid and compelling, but can get a bit cryptic. “Pretty Polly” comes to mind, as the story involves bits like “Stranded in a parking lot,” “the cops handed me a gun,” and “I buried pretty Polly in a grave.” What is this song about?
Michael: It’s a murder ballad, and basically the idea is a traditional — the old folk song.
Cary: Tell them. From the 1800s.
Michael: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s really old, at least the idea of it. And if you look back, there’re so many versions of “Polly” or “Pretty Polly,” and the basic story that most of them tell is this young couple that meet and fall in love, and then the girl gets pregnant, and then in a fit of rage or jealousy, because he thinks it’s not his, or just insanity, the young boy takes a life, and then he goes off to get a job. In most the stories, he gets a job on a ship, and everything goes wrong, but he’s haunted, or at least he believes he’s haunted, so his life becomes kind of a disaster, and I think he sinks the ship, and it kills him. But our version is a really fast, short song. I think the worst that happens to him is he runs out of gas. (Laughs) We just thought it would be interesting thing to take a song like that, and sort of speed it up, give it a modern, uptempo twist. It might be kind of unique in that way. A lot of people that do folk songs usually stick to the traditional approach, and ours is very much not that. It’s just a rock song.
Cary: Nick Cave.
Michael:”Stagerlee.” Yeah, it was kind of inspired by how Nick Cave took “Stagerlee,” and made it his own song, and wrote his own story within the parameters, and I thought that was a cool idea.
You delve into some exciting different sounds on new songs. “Twisted Sisters” stands out, with its almost doo-wop feel and raspy growl, as does “Hammer,” which sounds a bit like a deranged, old South work song. How did these two tracks come together?
Cary: Well “Hammer,” when we were working it out, the lyrics of the song are just a guy whose making commentary about the world around him and all the things he’s frustrated by, but he ends up just in a matter of survival, working for the exact machine that he’s really in. And it could have been recorded super like plain old Americana, traditional like. And this guy is pretty straightforward. There’s a certain feel to it that’s really traditional. And we tried to turn it on it’s back in the recording studio, and it’s part of our deconstruction (laughs) of how we’ve got to really make the player come out and play a lot worse than he normally would be able to play (laughs) Kind of crazy. I don’t know the words I’m looking for today.
Michael: It’s kind of droney. Daniel, he’s like an occasional sort of player guy, and we had him on that. It was set up to be a very traditional sounding song, and we didn’t want that, so we messed with it quite a bit. And “Twisted Sisters” is about two tornadoes, and actually I kind of have to tell people about that because we’ve had the song for a long time, and in my mind, it’s obvious, maybe just because I know, because it’s been around so long. But for the record, the joke is about two tornadoes, and kind of described as like females, and walking into town to ravish it and blow it up. And we used things we hadn’t used before, like string sounds andt here’s doo wop, and we had a friend play horns on it. Actually, those two songs were the only songs that had guests on the record. It’s all us, they’re all us. But yeah, we kind of got scream therapy out on that song.
Michael: Yeah we might have done some damage to our throats. (Laughs)
Cary: It was working!
Michael: It came out pretty dramatic, but we got a kick out of it.
Several new songs feature lyrics that suggest being on the verge of something dramatic — as if a monumental event is imminent. On “I’m Coming Out,” first of all there’s the title, and then you sing, “I’ll show up to battle in my best suit / I got the taste of blood in my mouth.” On “Mississippi Nuthin’,” you hint, “I got ideas / No one knows.” On “Twisted Sisters,” you sing, “Close your eyes / Click your heels and say goodbye.” Expand on this theme.
Cary: That really lined up. It’s totally a thing, isn’t it? It’s a recurring theme. We missed it. Not to chalk something up to pregnancy, but maybe our subconscious mind, an imminent event is coming. An imminent event is always coming in everybody’s leave — suffering or sickness or a parent, or enduring a complication in a relationship. Something is always coming. I think that’s part of the human species. We tend to be better when we’re suffering just enough to make a scrappy. And maybe that’s part of it. The narrators of these songs are all kind of wrestling with some element of their place in the world — wishing they were better, or trying to be better, or lamenting, a little bit.
Michael: Wrestling with their own fight or flight, a little but. You know, you can do something out instinct, and it’s not alway the thing that you wish you would have done. (laughs) But that’s just human. That’s something that’s strange about human beings, but we don’t have a lot of control over that.
There are songs like the opener “I’m Coming Out,” in which your voices somewhat blend into one another’s in the distortion, resulting in this gestalt union. More often, you sing all the lyrics of a song together, each voice distinct, and freely flowing into its own melodies here and there. It can give the lyrics a certain dynamic duality to hear them take two paths at the same time. How much thought generally goes into the way your voices make their way into a song?
Cary: It starts off really organically. We’re not chasing each other. I’m aware now that we gear of what must be classical melody or classical harmony structure, or who’s taking the lead, when there’s a lot of back and forth. None of that. It all happens organically. And recording, we do many takes, and sometimes several sections, but it’s always, with vocals or something, but it’s always like four or five takes at most. And with performance and rehearsal, those kind of things lock in, or we start making more distinct choices. Definitely there’s a little something of our voices singing the same note, and kind of sounding like a double vocal. We can kind of imitate each other a little bit, so not only can we be distinct, but we can also sound like one thing, which is fun, a cool situation to try.
You’ve become filmmakers, festival curators and all the works. It must be a challenge to stay inspired, be so prolific, and endure the grueling demands of the road. On “Hammer,” you sing, “2005 / 2008 / Out here every day with my hammer,” and on ““Mississippi Nuthin,’” you claim, “There’s no barren wasteland like the back of my mind.” Are these expressions of touring and writers’ block taking their toll, or not at all?
Michael: (Laughs) No, I don’t think we’ve really suffered from anything like writers block. I think it’s just a feeling of trying to stay positive, just feeling physically drained on the road. It’s really fun but it’s physically demanding, and the record business is such that artists need to stay on the road more now because you don’t make money selling records, it’s basically free now.
“By Blood” is available April 12 on Apple Music.