Creation Ex Nihilo – The Shovels and Rope Approach
Creation Ex Nihilo – The Shovels and Rope Approach
Words by JJ Sheffer
Photos by Digital Ephemera Photography
Shovels and Rope are in Cleveland, enjoying a rare day off. The husband-and-wife duo from Charleston, SC went out on the road together almost three years ago and have been touring constantly ever since. It’s not lost on Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent how fortunate they are; many fellow touring musicians find it difficult to maintain relationships because they’re never home.
“I’d much rather be out here with him every day than apart like so many of our peers who don’t have that connection that we get to have all the time,” says Hearst.
And they don’t seem to have the opposite problem – fatigue from spending too much time together – either.
“I think we do pretty good, actually,” says Trent. “We miss home, you know, we miss our friends. It’s a pretty big workload since it’s just the two of us, and you know, a lot of bands have more people to divvy up the responsibilities. We have our stressful moments and we get exhausted, but we do pretty good.”
Shovels and Rope is one of the most shining DIY success stories. Their “workload” has even included recording their much-acclaimed new album, O’ Be Joyful (Dualtone Records) by themselves in their home in Charleston and on the road. It wasn’t exactly their first self-recording rodeo; Trent had cut his teeth on his solo album The Winner. He simply bought a microphone and got to work.
“It was intimidating for me because I had never done that before,” Trent says, but “I was really happy with how it came out. I did it all with one microphone in our house, and so…when we made the switch and we started performing as Shovels and Rope, and we were ready to make our record, we just kind of set up in the house in the same fashion.” The pair intended to stay out on the road, doing what they do, and didn’t have expectations for the record being in such high demand as it has been.
“We’ve been doing everything so DIY up until now without getting a whole lot of press or anything like that,” Trent says, “so we just expected that we would follow the same formula and get out there, go play shows and sell our records, and hopefully some people would buy them. So I guess we didn’t have huge aspirations for it when we went in and recorded. We just wanted to make something that we liked, that we thought sounded good.”
The record is the first release under the moniker Shovels and Rope. The two have been playing together in one form or another for about ten years. They toured for a while as Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, each releasing two solo albums and one as a duo. The title of that record they recorded together was Shovels and Rope, a nod to the murder ballads they’ve made one of their specialties. There came a point where they decided the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and the band, in its current and forever incarnation, was born. Much of the songwriting for the new album was done together, mirroring the shift from their solo careers to their collaboration.
“We’ve definitely written more together since we’ve been touring so much,” Trent says. “I think when we started out… we wrote a couple of songs together, but it was never the natural way for us to operate.” Trent says an increased frequency in co-writing was borne out of necessity. “[We were] so busy being out on the road, and it was like, ‘gee, I’ve got this part of a song, why don’t you let me take the wheel for a while and you work on the song for a little while, and we’ll switch, and we’ll switch back and forth until we get something.’”
They come from different musical backgrounds. Trent fronted The Films, a band heavily influenced by vintage rock like early Elvis Costello. His lyrics are poetic and often heartbreaking. Hearst is a rocker at heart who has become much-beloved for her beautiful, strong country voice (think Loretta Lynn, only better) and coy, funny stage banter with Michael (think June Carter Cash, only better). Both are wonderful storytellers.
It’s a perfect marriage of styles and strengths, and they manage to make a ton of noise for just two people. There are times when it’s easy to lose count of how many instruments they’re playing at once. In the DIY style that has become quintessentially Shovels and Rope, they learned to play the drums onstage – quite literally. Hearst says Trent picked it up quickly, while she suffered “multiple humiliations” along the way.
“Michael is a natural musician,” says Hearst. He’s “real athletic, musically. I was kind of intimidated by the drums most of my life, until a certain point where I started giving it a try at our local gigs back home. Gradually it was something I was competent enough to pull off, and now I feel pretty comfortable, definitely within my own little scope of our keyboard-drum rig…I could never sit down at somebody else’s drum kit and play the drums. But we learned it [onstage] because there was no stopping to work anything up. We played a show almost every single day, and to get to that show, we had to drive to it, and there’s just no other way to do it than to just do it onstage that night and hope it works.”
The result is the raw, gritty party that fans have come to know and love (think rockabilly White Stripes) as Hearst and Trent trade instruments and lead vocals and showcase the versatility and musical rapport that make them one of today’s best live acts.
Their story is built upon the romantic notion of making “something out of nothing,” as described in “Birmingham,” the autobiographical lead track on the new album. But the fact is, they made something out of the tremendous substance they both bring to their collaboration, and the world is fortunate that they had the wisdom to combine forces.
Photos by Digital Ephemera Photography, taken at Tellus360 in Lancaster, PA on August 27, 2012