Shovels & Rope

It’s not all that unusual for musicians to talk the talk about taking a less-is-more approach to their work – but it’s rare indeed for artists to really walk the walk, and apply that philosophy across the board. Over the better part of a decade, Shovels & Rope have done just that, cutting unnecessary frills from their songs, not to mention the very way they live their musical lives.

Mississippi-born, Nashville-bred Cary Ann Hearst and Texas-born, Colorado-raised Michael Trent forged singular paths as solo artists before connecting – both musically and personally – in Charleston, South Carolina. While they’d both had burgeoning solo careers (Cary Ann earned kudos for her 2006 album Dust and Bones, Michael with his band, The Films, as well as his own solo outings), they quickly found that both their voices – which entwine with eerie beauty in their haunting harmonies – and philosophies matched up perfectly, and a beautiful partnership was born.

“Consciously or not, we’ve always insulated ourselves from outside influences,” says Cary Ann. “The key, for us, is to be authentic to ourselves – and, sometimes to a fault, we’ve managed to do that. I don’t think we’d be able to keep doing this if we backed off from what we were doing when we started.”

There’s no backing off or backing down on Swimmin’ Time, the duo’s much-anticipated sophomore set as Shovels & Rope, an album that brims with the confidence, energy and sinew of a band that’s accustomed to treating their career as a marathon, rather than a sprint. The album, recorded at the studio Trent constructed in the couple’s home, finds them cutting a new path through the sonic thickets they navigated so nimbly on their breakthrough bow, O’ Be Joyful – a disc that won rave reviews from outlets like Mojo (which called it “thrilling”) and Filter, which said “[they] were solid singer-songwriters on their own, but this is truly a thing of magic.”

On Swimmin’ Time – a title that nods to the aquatic theme running through the disc’s songs — Hearst and Trent bob and weave through a combination of witty, playful tales (like “Fish Assassin”) and brooding murder ballads (like the horn-tinged New Orleans shuffle “Ohio”) with a rare combination of intimacy and swagger. They know when to grab the listener by the shoulders and shake (as on the fiercely roiling opener “The Devil Is All Around”) and when to put a caring arm around those same shoulders in order to spin a gentler yarn (like “After the Storm,” a tale of surviving rough waters, both literally and spiritually).

“We weren’t trying to make a particular kind of record, but we knew early on that there would be some evolution,” says Trent, who also produced Swimmin’ Time. “There are all kinds of dark undertones, but there are other colors, too. Every song kind of played off, and built on, the ones that came before, so they fit together really well.”

That seamless construction helps Swimmin’ Time slide past the ears and into the memory banks with remarkable ease, each of its songs leaving a bit of an indelible mark, from the sonically brooding “Stono River Blues” (which could easily pass for a lost Grimm’s Fairy Tale) to the chiming “Save the World,” a sort of semaphore flag signaling hope on the horizon, to the woozy, closing-time waltz of “Coping Mechanism.”

“Our working model has always been to use what we have lying around,” says Cary Ann. “It’s just that this time, we happened to have an organ lying around, we had a piano lying around…we definitely had more resources at hand, but we didn’t want to seem ostentatious or anything. Besides which, we still have to recreate the songs live, so there’s a limit – even though Michael can play five things at once, like a wind-up toy.”

Those live shows have played a huge part in building Shovels & Rope’s reputation among audiences and their peers – the latter of whom voted the duo in for two 2013 Americana Music Awards, Emerging Artist of the Year as well as Song of the Year (for the vivid, semi-autobiographical “Birmingham”). Over the past two years, Cary Ann and Michael kept their sleeves rolled up and their voices raised, an M.O. that helped them eventually sell more than 60,000 albums the old fashioned way – reaching one listener at a time, and making each one feel like part of the Shovels & Rope family.

As a result, they were able to trade their well-loved and road-weary van for an R.V. and segue from tiny, sweat-soaked dives to larger halls, not to mention eye-opening performances at events like the Newport Folk Festival, Coachella and Lollapalooza. They may have had camera crews following them – for the intimate, revelatory documentary The Ballad of Shovels & Rope, which has been making the film festival circuit this past year – but they didn’t cut back on what Cary Ann calls “windshield time,” and certainly didn’t let their egos grow in tandem.

“Word of mouth has been a huge part of our story,” says Michael. “We just toured and toured, opening up for bigger bands and playing anywhere we could. Sometimes we felt more like t-shirt selling long-distance truckers. It wasn’t like we had a huge song that came out of nowhere and was suddenly on the radio all the time. I’d be terrified if that was the case.”

While they didn’t start showing up in the tabloids as a result, “Birmingham” (the number-one song on American Songwriter’s year-end list) and the rest of O’ Be Joyful did put Shovels & Rope on the larger stage in many ways – from an appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman to an acclaimed set on Austin City Limits. But as they continue to prove, night after night on tour, they aren’t about to put their blue collars into mothballs. Cary Ann jokingly says, “We keep getting more famous, but we aren’t getting any better,” before turning serious.

“This is something we’ve both always dreamed of doing,” she says. “We enjoy each other’s music and we enjoy each other’s company. We thrive on doing exactly what we’re doing, and we’re making people happy with it. What could be better than that?”

Shakey Graves

“The first album was me wanting to burn down my life, cut my hair off, and run screaming into the woods,” says Alejandro Rose-Garcia. “This album is the trials and tribulations of becoming domesticated, letting people into your world and letting go of selfishness—the story of becoming a pair, losing that, and reconciling with the loss and gain of love.”

Rose-Garcia is professionally known as Shakey Graves, and with his new record, And the War Came, he extends the ground—emotionally and sonically—broken by his 2011 self-released debut album, Roll the Bones, which brought him national acclaim and, three years later, still ranks near the top of Bandcamp’s digital best-seller charts.

Roll the Bones established the powerful, mesmerizing Shakey Graves sound of Rose-Garcia accompanying himself on guitar and a handmade kick drum built out of an old suitcase. NPR Music named him one of 10 artists music fans “should’ve known in 2012,” describing him as “astonishing…unclassifiably original. And frighteningly good.” Paste included him in a “Best of What’s Next” feature, praising his “gnarly composite of blues and folk,” while The New York Times observed that Shakey Graves “makes the one-man band approach look effortless.”

But while this distinctive arrangement continued to earn him an ever-expanding fan base on the road, Rose-Garcia knew that he wanted the follow-up to achieve something different. “With the first album, I didn’t have any expectations except my own,” he says. “This time, I was making something people were going to listen to out of the gate. I tried to maintain everything I enjoy about recording, the weird homemade aspect, but I was seeking a new, shining sound quality. The concepts for the songs are a little bigger. This is not the ‘Mr, Folk, Hobo Mountain’ album—it’s more of the Cyborg Shakey Graves. It’s definitely the next step in the staircase.”

An experienced actor who had a recurring role on Friday Night Lights and appeared in several of Robert Rodriguez films, Rose-Garcia started making music as part of New York City’s “anti-folk” scene. While knocking around the underground music community in Los Angeles, he saw a performance by one-man band Bob Log III that pointed his work in a new direction. Since returning to Austin, Rose-Garcia has become so closely associated with his hometown that for the last three years, Austin has celebrated “Shakey Graves Day” by mayoral proclamation.

To record And the War Came, co-producer/collaborator Chris Boosahda brought all of his gear to Rose-Garcia’s house and converted the space into a big, open studio. Though the signature Shakey Graves set-up remained the starting point, other instrumentalists came in and multiple, wildly different arrangements of the songs were attempted for what was initially planned as a double album.

Most notably, Rose-Garcia wrote and sings three of the album’s songs with Esme Patterson, a solo artist and member of the Denver-based band Paper Bird. “We started out just having fun and writing, and then that turned into some of my favorite songs on the album,” he says. “We actually wrote ‘Dearly Departed’ on Halloween as a tongue-in-cheek, haunted house sex joke, and then we played it that night and people went bonkers. Esme and I write so similarly it kinda freaked us out, and I really learned the power of writing music with someone you get along with.”

Soon enough, Rose-Garcia found that the experience of making the record was being mirrored in the songs themselves. “I was letting go of that one-man everything,” he says. “I did need people’s help, and my control freak nature had to subside a bit. It meant learning collaboration, but also knowing when to stick to my guns—all of that was the experience of this year, and the songs were some of the more genuine experiences; some of them even became sort of prophetic.”

“Only Son,” a meditation on solitude (“I used to be an only son/My heart was like a stranger”), became the opening track and “thesis statement” for And the War Came. “Hard Wired” is not, as it may first appear, about a relationship falling apart, but “about having friends with problems—watching a friend struggling and not doing anything about it.”

The themes of these ten songs, explains Rose-Garcia, return over and over to the idea of the “other.” “It’s not about any single person, it’s about being that second, other person. Even the title—I never thought about whether I was able to handle that aspect of things, of having these relationships. And the War Came is a little bit of, be careful what you wish for.”

Songs like “The Perfect Parts” and “Family and Genus,” meanwhile, represent a very different sound for Shakey Graves. “Those have a lot more aggression, they’re heavy and big,” he says. “I’m a little worried because it is a new step out, and people have gotten really precious about the stuff I’ve done—which is a huge compliment, and a dream come true—but I’m interested in what a Shakey Graves song is to people.”

Another crucial influence on the direction of And the War Came has been Rose-Garcia’s lengthy and far-flung touring schedule (which has recently included stops at the Winnipeg and Newport Folk Festivals, prior to a headlining run this fall). “I’m constantly flying places and moving at a fast rate,” he says. “Imagining what it was like a year ago is almost incomprehensible to me now. I feel like I’ve almost seen too much this year—bands, music, places. And if that doesn’t affect you in certain ways, then you’re doing it wrong.”

While his remarkable success story continues to unfold, Alejandro Rose-Garcia sees And the War Came as a pivotal step in the evolution of Shakey Graves. “This is a doorframe album, as we’re going into a new building,” he says. “It’s taste of everything—what might come in future, which might include just guitar or the one-man band thing, but not pigeonholed to any one sound. I wanted to open some stuff up and get people ready for wherever it’s going.”

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Shovels & Rope with Shakey Graves

Friday, September 13 · Doors 8:00 PM / Show 8:30 PM at Union Transfer