Shovels & Rope have a brand-new movie, a book in the works, and their latest album, By Blood, isn’t even close to wearin’ out the tread. Truly at home on the road, husband and wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have spent years honing their sound as a duo and logging mile after crucial mile through America’s bars and festivals. Today, that hard work reveals its success as Shovels & Rope are in demand and constantly in motion. They are proud parents meeting the troubadour’s demands while finding a unique balance of music, love, and family.
AI- We haven’t had an opportunity to speak to you since By Blood came out. One of the things that I wanted to talk about was all the great ambient noise, all the electricity, everything that is just built level upon level in the sound. I listened to it and I can’t find where any of it ends. You’ve spoken at length about creating that cinematic atmosphere for the album… I think you’ve had pieces of it before, but now it’s kind of come full circle. How do you take that and put that on the stage from the studio?
CAH- I think this record represents Michael’s growth as a producer. And it’s not just the addition of like a cool Mellotron, which is a source for some of the sonic stuff, but just the way he has layers of ambient sound to create a cinematic vibe on this record speaks volumes to his growth. Now as far as movin’ that to the stage, that has been a really fun challenge. We have added a few tricks. We’re making all the sound. There’s a trigger here and there on the drums where I can make interesting crash sounds that we made with a reverb chamber. We’re using our feet a lot to create low end, where in the past there hadn’t really been… It’s interesting, you know, with a two-person band you might think it’s really limited, but when you grow kind of slow and you’re maxing yourself out with each record, but also growing, there’s plenty of stuff to add. And in our case this time, it’s been adding low end to the live performance.
Shovels & Rope The Movie just came out, and I would say it’s fairly different from The Ballad of Shovels and Rope that came out some years back. It’s got a lot of texture to it, and much like your music is not easily categorized. There’s a Cohen Brothers, sort of Lynchian feel to it. And you two almost kind of take on the role… Kind of like Guitar Wolf did in that Japanese zombie film, Wild Zero, where you’re almost like mythical characters within it. What led into the way that movie was put together?
CAH- Oh, man. That’s our friend Curtis Millard. It’s his brainchild. We set up to record some live performances just to put out a DVD or recording or both. We made some good recordings and good film of a couple back to back shows at the Orange Peel in Nashville… Michael, you should speak to the rest, take the second half of it– but yeah, he came back with an idea.
MT- We basically were gonna put out a live concert film– just kind of like your straight forward, “Here’s the show and here’s what it looked like and here’s what it sounded like.” And then Curtis… We kind of agreed that, yeah, we could do that, but sometimes [concert films] can feel a little stale and you’re really not getting the same experience when you watch one of these things as you do when you’re at the show. Curtis was like, “What if we make a movie out of it?” We were into it and he came to us with the script and we bounced it back to him with some different ideas… And we went along like that for a little while. Then a couple of years later (laughs), that’s what it was
Do you feel like you needed to do something different like that? Having already done The Ballad of Shovels and Rope?
MT- No, that was more of a documentary about following us around, showing what we were…
MT- Yeah, the evolution. But we were going to do a concert film, you know, just like, “Here’s the concert, here’s the show, here’s what it looked like”, and we just decided to go a different direction with it. Not for any reason except for we thought it would be more interesting and something different.
CAH- We’d never turn our nose up at an interesting idea. You got to make stuff, you know? You gotta be on tour all the time and you gotta make interesting things that people like to enjoy. Whether that’s t-shirts or stickers or recordings of your music– or in this case like visual media. Since we have to make this stuff, we’ll try to make it interesting and original. Even it’s not the slickest or like most bougie, it’s always trying to make something interesting.
And also like a children’s book. Come On, Utah. Give me some details on that. When have you guys got that scheduled to be released?
MT- We don’t have a release for it right now. It’s still in the middle of being made… We started out thinkin’ that it was going to be more like a children’s book. And now, I don’t know if it’s gonna be. It’s not really a children’s book anymore, it’s more like a graphic novel. But not like it’s not suited for children– [but] there’s some dark undertones in it. The person who’s illustrating it for us, he’s kind of in the middle of doing his thing. It’s basically just the lyrics to the song with illustrations to help explain the story with a little bit of a visual aid.
What’s been your takeaway from being parents on the road as musicians?
CAH- The structure’s a little bit different and everything is happening, moving from place to place like a gypsy camp… But we’re so privileged to get to spend so much time with our kids while they’re little especially. We’ve had the privilege of a lot of parents on the road with more experience than us lending their advice. And Michael and I are super generous with our advice– solicited and otherwise– when it comes to havin’ little ones out. I think that the tour and the lifestyle and working conditions is a lot more adult and wholesome– I think, at least in our world than it maybe was when we were younger, when the industry was a little bit more… Nuts. But, yeah, it’s great. They’re learning everything in a different way and they have different social skills… And they learn to run winding equipment instead of Fisher-Price things. They’re playin’ at the soundboard, scooting things up and down, watching the lights get brighter and dimmer. I think it’s wild in the way that parenting… Anybody’s parenting situation’s wild, but Mike and I often reflect on how much nine to five parents, especially dual-income families, how much [they] sacrifice of time to earn enough just to get by. It’s tough.
How has the songwriting process changed for you two? I know if I’ve got like a line or like an idea that needs to be strummed through real quick before I lose it, that’s exactly the moment when my daughter needs me the most. Like wants my attention the most. How has that changed for you guys?
MT- It’s tough. Time is really the hardest thing. I feel like this is boring to people who don’t have kids but to people who have kids, they really understand that it’s hard to do anything. It’s hard to get anything done and also feel like you’re being a present parent and doing a good job. So we do a lot of hardcore scheduling. [We] schedule a little bit of time to be creative– and that sounds kind of weird and boxy, but that’s what we gotta do! We have to be there and do mom and dad stuff and then really find some time to really get into something– and just give yourself some guilt-free time and space to do it. Even if it’s only a couple of hours. I work well that way, personally. I can kind of clock in and just go into that mode. I know that whenever I do have an idea and I’m in the middle of cleaning up something terrible or picking a child out of an anthill (laughs,) I will with one hand, jot it down or speak it into my phone and with the other hand do the task that I need to do. And then you can reference it later. I feel like you kinda gotta make due. And I end up with all these little tiny tidbits… I don’t even know when I wrote them down. And then when I get some time to focus on them, I start making little piles.
Michael, Lilly Hiatt’s Trinity Lane was not only one of my favorite albums in 2017, I think everybody here around the Creek, it made their Top Five list at the end of the year. Do you have any more plans to collaborate with Lilly? And what other artists have you got lined up to get behind the producer’s role with?
CAH- You need to get some of those gigs, Michael!
MT- (Laughs) I just kind of do that when I can. We stay out on the road as much as… That takes up a lot of time, and when we’re not doing that, we’re trying to write, we’re trying to keep our thing going. But I love producing records for bands that aren’t “our” band– just because it’s a different brain and you don’t have to take everything so personally. It’s like you can see it from a whole other perspective. And Lilly, she’s great. She was a lot of fun to work with. I worked with another band called Indianola who’s out there doing a thing and it’s more or less something that I… If the right thing comes along and it works out timing-wise then I love doing it.
Cary Ann, what about you? Have you got any side projects coming on? I know you’ve done some great, great duets with folks… Whose albums are you going to go heat up here soon?
CAH- Well, that’s a good question! I also am basically “hands full” with Shovels & Rope and then the kids. But I have like a side project in Charleston [SC] that I enjoy– and it’s totally just me hanging out with my friends. I sit in with this band called Marshgrass Mamas. We’re not a bluegrass band ’cause nobody can play fast, but it’s a social outlet for me. It’s just a bunch of women younger and older than me– and at some point I’m going to talk Michael into recording us. I’m trying to weasel my other side project into Michael’s side gig!
You’ve done the Busted Jukebox Volume 1 & 2. What’s the future looking like for Volume 3?
MT- Well, I guess there’s gotta be a “3” comin’ up at some point.
Any particular songs in the back of your mind that you guys would like to add to the next volume?
MT- Oh yeah, but we can’t…
You can’t tell me? Awww… (Laughs)
MT- (Laughs) It’s gonna be a lot of fun though!
I will settle for a consolation prize. What is the Shovels & Rope guilty pleasure song, the song that you guys sing together that nobody knows? And maybe you don’t want anybody to know?
CAH- Oh, man, there’s a lot of ’em… There was a time when Michael and I could bust out a very impassioned version of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”… (Begins singing) “Down in the West Texas Town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl…” We used to could kill that!
You should resurrect that. That would be great on Volume 3.
CAH- With the Shrimp Records Family Band, I’ve seen Michael do a rendition of “Thunder Road” that was pretty damn impressive– and definitely felt self-indulgent for all of us!
MT- No, but we used to listen to a lot of like… Back in the van days, all you get in some of these pass-through places are like the Jesus channel and Top 40 Country. So we listened to a lot of Top 40 Country for a while and it started out as like kind of a joke… And then I think we were kind of actually into it, you know? But neither one of us would admit it. We were just kinda like..
CAH- Oh, I admit it! You know that song “Neon Moon”?
CAH- (Singing) “You’ll see me tonight in a neon moon…” Ohhh, it’s such a good song!