Campfire Tales: Shovels & Rope interviewed

2012’s O Be Joyful was the first album to properly introduce the world to Shovels & Rope, the husband-and-wife team of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. Married since 2009 the duo have settled into a rhythm together, taking it in turns to answer questions, and they compare themselves to a small business: “We run a mom and pop store where mom and pop are in a different city every night singing and selling their wares.”

That analogy is as close to the truth as you can get. Their first album was written on the road and recorded at home; they’ve moved house since but have “put a little studio on the upstairs” of their new home. It’s “probably more developed” than where they previously recorded (“We had a couple of nice mics and a nice compression and some sound desking for a change.”) For Michael, who produces their records, it's all about “not being on the clock when we’re at home,” which allows them to “make our records sound really the way that we want them to sound.”

Second album Swimming Time was done a little differently from the first, with less of a focus on life on the road. Being able to do much of the process at home was a huge positive for Cary Ann: “It definitely had an effect because the way that we tour and how little time we get to spend at home, it’s probably integral to our survival to take that time and control that time. It’s cool because we work so well with limitations, so we've got this restricted set up and a limited amount of time. But within that limited time we've got all the time in the world.“

Within that limited time they finished writing and then recorded the whole album “within a three week chunk”, though writing the songs happens “a little more supernatural than that,” according to Cary Ann. “The way that we write is different every time. It is funny; you'd think there'd be more of a method, but it’s almost like a ghost whispers something into your ear, or you catch something really clever, and you have the discipline to take the five seconds to find a piece of paper or make a note of it in your phone. That's how the process starts.” These little snippets of ideas are turned into more complete songs, or parts of songs, then brought together and the duo “pour some marinade on them”. It’s a straightforward process and they don’t pressure themselves to write at specific time because “inspiration strikes at different times”.

As Michael admits, the overall feel of Swimming Time is “a little bit darker and heavier” than the colourful, sparky O Be Joyful. Despite this he doesn’t feel they “really did anything a whole lot different that we did before. We just reached further and deeper into those realms and used a lot of what we've been learning in the road.” Cary Ann agrees: “They're not out of our wheelhouse, but the stories were at a different level of intensity and the sounds are not mellow.” This was all part of the plan when they went to record the record. “We had 15 songs and we ended up trying to cram 13 on there because we felt so strongly about them being on the record.” As with the writing, it’s an organic process and the lack of pressure allowed Michael to be in control. “You record it, see what works, see what feels good, and then go on a ride with it and see how you feel about it.”

The ability to control everything about their records suits them down to the ground (“We've never done it any other way”) and is something that they’re expecting to continue with. “This is our family business and the way that this family operates, we are mobile and self contained. It'd be very difficult to let any other primary influence come into that. I think it would be counter-intuitive to what we are.” And they each have their strengths, as Michael says of Cary Ann - “Cary is a phenomenal singer, she definitely brings a powerhouse vocal to everything she sings, whether she’s singing the main part or the harmony. It’s the not secret weapon of our band, it’s like the nuke.” And her songwriting “can say something in a way that I don't think many other people can. It can sound new and old at the same time.” For her part, Cary Ann feels Michael “is the rudder on the ship. He really makes sure that when we are recording that we keep our attitude and the spirit of our band intact, in that it’s very much a reflection of what we do.”

Cary Ann's view is that their strengths together are what makes them so strong. “If Shovels & Rope are a boat, Michael is the rudder and I’m the windy sail; together we’re navigating the ship to wherever it’s going. I might be full of hot air but Michael is the direction, the keeper of the focus of what we’re doing.” And that right there gives you the truest sense of what's at the heart of this travelling mom and pop store: chaos and calm.

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