Given the imminent arrival of the high holy day of horror, a “warmhearted” discussion on shovels and rope probably isn’t something that’s destined to elicit a case of the “warm fuzzies” – unless of course you’re a homicidal lunatic.
But notwithstanding the proximity of All Hallow’s Eve, the only horrific thing about the music of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent – collectively known as Shovels and Rope – is that it’s scary good.
The spirited South Carolina-based duo stirs up a righteous racket with two old guitars, a handful of harmonicas, the occasional keyboard, and a junkyard drum kit harvested from an actual garbage heap and adorned with tambourines, flowers and kitchen rags.
But what really sets S&R apart are their exceptional tunesmithing and matchless live shows. Raw and imagined, effortless and insightful, the pair’s panoramic songwriting and raucous performances drive Shovels and Rope’s newest release “O’ Be Joyful.”
Recorded in such “renowned” locations as the twosome’s house, backyard and van, as well as various motel rooms across America, Hearst and Trent recorded much of the album at home in 2011 during rare between-touring downtime. Additional tracking took place throughout their travels.
S&R recorded the synthetic bass on the record’s opening track “Birmingham” next to the sink at a Red Roof Inn near New Haven, Conn. And incredibly, they tracked the organ solo on “Shank Hill St.” while traveling in their van at approximately 70 mph somewhere on I-10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The tuneful twosome was kind enough to chat with me recently about their peerless music and the new album, their second as a pair. The 11-song set offers a compelling encapsulation of Hearst and Trent’s unique approach, channeling their creative chemistry.
A single listen to “O’ Be Joyful” is all it takes – to be completely dazed and confused. Because S&R’s extraordinary sound defies description. Even the talented duo wrestled with branding their indescribably good music.
Hearst was the first to give it a shot. “Well, depending on who we’re talking to, the easiest thing to do is just to find two musicians that we think that they’ll like and say it’s kind of like possibly this and this (laughing). But I don’t know, I always tell people that our music is rooted in folk music. And if you like folk music, you’ll like ours.”
“Woody Guthrie fans would appreciate it. I don’t think Pete Seeger would be mad at us for being mildly electrified. While we’re not purists, our music definitely comes from that idiom. Michael has these great melodies and great turns of phrase that definitely make it ‘English-inspired’ – like Elvis Costello and The Beatles and all that stuff. But even with that, it’s like this is taking from American music and then we borrowed it back from them. So it’s kind of folk-based rock and roll and country music.”
Trent spoke about the band’s poetic flair, declaring the music to be secondary to the lyric. “The lyric in the story is the most important thing. But the way that it’s dressed up is also important. It’s kind of like setting the backdrop or setting the mood toward the story that you’re telling. It’s sort of painting the setting for what’s happening in the lyrics. Both of us are constantly trying to become better songwriters and storytellers. The music is just the vehicle in our chase.”
Trent discussed the new album’s diverse creation, no doubt earning the duo an advanced degree in “expansive musical production.”
“We learned a good bit – at least we’ve acquired a good bit – of confidence in our own ability to make a record in our house without having to use a lot of big fancy equipment. We got a lot of the sounds and ideas just from being limited. That was pretty inspiring, at least for me. Some really great ideas came out of not really having a whole lot to work with.”
“It was definitely by necessity,” added Hearst, “because of a couple of factors. One factor being that our budget is limited. Even if we had the finances to budget something in a more traditional situation, we just couldn’t have carved out the time. So for us to be able to hole-up in the house in the few days we weren’t on tour to get the thing done is definitely a matter of necessity at that point.”
Trent continued. “We weren’t trying to make a whole, big production out of the record. We had the ideas of how we wanted it to sound. It’s a two-piece band. We didn’t want it to sound like something that we couldn’t pull off, even though there are some songs that are a little bit more work with horns.”
“We wanted to just make something that we liked the way that it sounded and we didn’t want to overdo it. I think that as the record started taking shape, it was something that we were going for, not something that we were settling on.”
While Hearst and Trent are both songwriters individually, the new album finds them discovering new strengths as a collective unit. The record includes a large number of musical collaborations. Many of them were birthed on the road. The incredible musical synergy between Hearst and Trent radiates throughout “O’ Be Joyful.” And contrary to the old adage, it is anything but “familiarity breeds contempt” according to Hearst.
“We’re in a constant emerging experience, you know? It’s kind of like when you send kids to France and they don’t really speak any French. They’re there for a long time and they can learn the language really easily.”
“We’re kind of a living, breathing organism. And we’re encased inside this moving vehicle, motions of time. We’re rarely further than twenty-five or thirty feet from each other at given time.”
“We fit into each other’s synergism. We know each other inside and out so well, that we know what the other is thinking. We don’t even really have to ask. That gets me in trouble sometimes (laughing). But I think that’s part of it.”
“We really care about what we’re doing. It’s fun and it’s an adventure but we’re growing. It’s a lot of work, working and putting in the windshield time as the two of us have done. The result has been an apparent cohesiveness that has a great deal to do with our burgeoning popularity. That’s what people have reacted to the most. They like the songwriting and they like the sounds. But the live performance is the kind of thing that you feel because of that synergy.”
The twosome’s lyrical insights and melodic interactions make for some artfully nuanced music. And as Trent confessed, a crowd’s seeming inability to appreciate those nuances can be a source of frustration for an artist that has carefully crafted a story, only to find that the fans are at times more intent on stalking their next bottle of beer.
“Yeah. That is something that’s a very interesting question because we have both sides to the songs. We’ve got songs that people can get off on in a live setting, just purely rock and roll songs, a little bit louder and a little bit more energetic – not necessarily picking up all the lyrics that’s being thrown out there. Then we have songs that are maybe just one guitar and two voices. And it’s very important to the song that the lyrics are the only thing that’s out there.”
“So to answer your question, yes, it does get frustrating sometimes when you feel like people aren’t listening or they want to hear the next rocker – because we do put a lot of thought into the songwriting.”
“But it’s all part of the business. You have to feel out the crowd. Not every crowd is going to want to listen, is gonna want to be dead silent and listen to what you have to say. And other audiences are more excited by that part of it. We have a pretty good mixture of the two.”
“The perfect audience is the one that will get loud with you and have a good time, but also simmer down when it’s time, when those moments happen in the show. We’ve actually been lucky enough to have that happen at a few shows.”
“New York was the most surprising to me because the whole room just got silent when we started into ‘Lay Low.’ I was nervous to put that on the set list because I was like, ‘Oh man, everybody’s gonna go get a beer or just start chattering until the next, bouncy number comes along.’”
The talented pair’s startling ability to construct a discerning melody is at least partly due to the mantra that they’ve collectively embraced of “Creatio Ex Nihilo” – the notion of creating something out of nothing. After generously helping me with my Latin pronunciation, Hearst explained the concept.
“There’s a lyric in ‘Birmingham’ that’s ‘making something out of nothing with a scratcher and hope.’ And when I was thinking of what our motto would be or what our family crest would be, I thought that would be it.”
“Making something out of nothing is a simple idea. It’s very American and it’s very national. It’s like the ‘poor people’s creed,’ you know? And so I thought to myself, ‘Well, if we use it, certainly it’s gotta be in Latin.’”
“I’m don’t speak Latin, I’m a French speaker. So I went scooting around the Internet looking for expressions that were similar and when I found that one, it was ‘from nothingness comes something.’ It’s kind of a heavy philosophical endeavor about it.”
“It raises questions about the positions of God and the universe and how the universe responds. It’s way heavier as a philosophical concept than we’re using it for. It’s kind of a macro-philosophical idea that Mike and I have for our own purposes.”
Admittedly, this music fan can’t speak for the Martians, the Vulcans, and the rest of the extraterrestrials as to the galactic reaction to Shovels and Rope. But as for our little corner of the universe, the response will no doubt be cosmic.
It’s hard to imagine that they started with nothing, but with “O’ Be Joyful” Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent have really created something…