The Charleston, South Carolina-based Shovels And Rope describe themselves as a folk duo, but that’s a rather boxed-in way to describe their caffeinated, toe-tappin’, intelligent and tuneful mix of alt-country, electric blues and signature, glorious two-part harmony. Married couple Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst had each been pursuing solo careers of varying momentum since meeting in 2003, but when they teamed up seven years later and hit the road, the result was instant fans, a nationwide fanbase that’s brought them a blizzard of media buzz, an eventual spot on the Late Show With David Letterman and an opening slot for Dave Matthews Band at Jones Beach on June 25 and 26. I spoke to them both mid-tour in support of Dawes and plugging Shovels And Rope’s latest release, O’ Be Joyful.
You’re opening for Dave Matthews Band at Jones Beach at the end of June. Considering you two have very different styles, how did this come about?
Michael Trent: They just called us up out of the blue. I don’t know much about who they usually pick to support them, but I imagine someone said to someone else, “Hey, I heard of this little band who’s not bad and they don’t take up much space!”
How did you pick the producer for O’ Be Joyful? Did he or she give you much direction, or just let you do what you do?
Cary Ann Hearst: I was sleeping with him, and I had him wrapped around my little finger (laughs). Michael is the producer. We produced and engineered at home, we didn’t have a budget or a label. We were just making a record to sell. Michael turned all the knobs.
MT: As far as strong ideas, it’s different song to song. I just mostly work up the idea of how we want the song to go, and then I’ll get in there and try stuff, different arrangements or I’ll write some horn parts, whatever feels good. We don’t think about the “band,” we just think of how we’ll pull the song off.
Do you feel a bigger sense of responsibility now that you’re getting more and more well-known, as opposed to when it was just the two of you, the dog and the van?
CH: Yeah. When we were playing rooms and getting five people to attend, the people booking us didn’t care too much if we canceled. Now that our shows are getting 200, 300 people, it sucks to cancel for us, for the venue and for the people who bought tickets.
MT: We’ve always made records at home, then we’d go pack up the van, live in the van, and run the band out of the van. Now we have a little help, someone to run the sound and a tour manager, but it’s not like you just give everything over once you start being successful. It’s physically less demanding to turn responsibility over to others but you do like to keep your business afloat.
Your voice sounds a tad raspy today, Cary Ann. Do you have any special regimen or technique you follow to keep your pipes healthy?
CH: This is my natural voice, which is actually naturally a bit raspy. We performed late last night, too, so this is one day’s worth of damage. I don’t take good care of my voice, but I try not to stay late out late and I also try to limit talking after shows, but no offense to anyone. It’s just hard to say no sometimes. To keep healthy, there’s lots of hand washing, lots of water.
Are you conscious of not blowing out your voice, say, if you can’t hear yourselves on stage at a venue?
CH: The show we’ve got now is paced well. We used to do from nine to 11 shows in a row straight, and that was hell on the cords and fingers. Now we do two to three shows with a day off. No excuses for no voices on this tour. We do a couple of cold beers in the afternoon. We also drink a whole lot less than we used to.
Cary Ann, this is a tricky question, but what do you have to say to women with non-traditional looks? Do you like yourself on camera naturally?
CH: It’s really hard sometimes. It’s not like we have costumes, or a persona. The band always looks the same. Sometimes when we look at ourselves we say, “Oh, man, I gotta do push-ups, I gotta change my hair.” But then, why make it harder than it is? We accept ourselves as we are, and we feel it propels us to be happy where we’re at.
MT: I feel like it’s the same way, but with recording. It’s easy to be hyper critical in the moment. We don’t read reviews or press, no offense to you, Josh. We gotta keep our brains intact and if people are coming to the shows, that’s really all we need.
In many duos, particularly male and female, the attention can naturally go to the female. Is this true in your act and if so, how do you handle it?
CH: I know what you’re saying. It’s usually me who makes the first impression to audiences, then the fan gets a second wave when they find out Michael produced the record and is the creative champion of the band. When people listen, it solidifies and they say, “Look at Maw and Paw! We want to buy from Maw and Paw.”
MT: I do think that you’re right about the attention going to the female, but at least the attention is somewhere! We’re equal partners in the band, we both play drums, we both play guitar, we share all of that, so it’s really not a big deal. Sometimes someone specifically likes one aspect of the band or they like a song that I wrote. It’s not something to get hung up about.
Cary Ann, you say you’re influenced by Elvis Costello. Which Costello is it in particular you love? Is it the angry young punk, or the mature, Burt Bacharach Elvis?
CH: I go for Memphis Elvis, Almost Blue, Delivery Man, Sugarcane, but Michael is the Costello fan in the band. I would not have heard of Elvis Costello if it weren’t for him.
MT: I like it all. I can’t choose a favorite Elvis.
What kind of home setup do you have?
MT: I have a modest rig, one mike and I use, Logic. I’m not gonna give away all the secrets of our sound! We got what we wanted from the raw tracks, and then Jake Sinclair, a friend, mixed it. We were excited and pleased with the results, it doesn’t sound too slick or too lo-fi, either.
Did you feel any pressure to add bass, drums and the whole “production” thing?
MT: Writing songs and making demos, you learn what your own production style is and we chose to do it this way instead of giving someone else control as producer. For example, there isn’t any bass on “O’ Be Joyful,” and not one cymbal. I wouldn’t want to work up a song to sound like bass, drums, two guitars. That’s not a bad setup, it’s just been done and done.
What’s a typical Shovels And Rope fan?
CH: There isn’t one. There’s a weird thing happening where younger people—folksy 18-19-year-old kids—are coming around and also their moms and dads, which I think is cool because there is a lot of division between what people like generationally today. But we see everything from gutter punks in New Orleans to grandmas in Texas. The songs appeal to a wide range of people.
Do you guys anticipate making albums with a similar flavor to what you do now? Or do either of you have a secret genre you’ve always wanted to try?
MT: I don’t know, it depends on the songs we write. We don’t want to make the same record over and over again. Sometimes we write more punk rock songs, sometimes a classic country song. Cary is working on gospel songs.
CH: I feel the next record, as usual, will be informed by what instruments are available. For instance, we have a piano now and we’re using it a lot more, so there might be more piano on the next album.
Does Townes the hound dog ever express approval or disapproval of songs? Tail wagging or howls?
MT: Not really. He likes to be in the studio, though, and he’s got a knack for making dog noises at the wrong times. We just try to work ‘em into the recordings. He’s all over the records if you listen close.
If Dave Matthews called you “Shovels” and “Rope,” thinking those were your real names, would you correct him, or let it slide out of politeness?
MT: I’ve gotta start by saying that this is one of those things that so many people say, and have been corrected for. We could not allow Mr. Matthews a free pass.
Shovels And Rope will play with Dawes at Terminal 5 on June 22 and Jones Beach Theater with Dave Matthews Band on June 25 and 26. For more information, go to shovelsandrope.com.