Shovels & Rope

Shovels & Rope

Little Seeds, the electrifying New West Records bow by Shovels and Rope, finds the award-winning South Carolina duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst exploring fresh dimensions in their sound with a brace of bold, candid, highly personal new songs.

The 12-song collection, produced by Trent at the couple’s home studio in Charleston, succeeds 2014’s Swimmin’ Time and 2012’s O’ Be Joyful; the latter title garnered the twosome Americana Music Awards for Song of the Year (for “Birmingham”) and Emerging Artist of the Year. Last year’s Busted Jukebox, Volume 1 was a collaborative collection of covers featuring such top talents as the Milk Carton Kids, Lucius, JD McPherson and Butch Walker.

On the new release, Trent and Hearst as ever play all the instruments and penned the material, which range from stomping rockers to delicate acoustic-based numbers. Many of Little Seeds’ finely crafted and reflective new songs – completed in the late summer of 2015 -- are drawn from tumultuous events experienced by the couple over the course of the last two years.

“There were two major changes that happened at the same time,” Hearst says. “We found out we were pregnant, and at the same time Michael’s parents had been living with us, because his father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Those two things, having the baby and facing the reality that our parents were aging, made this weird, awesome circle of humanity that really just took us out. I guess we were in the crosshairs of human existence.” Trent continues, “We started putting this record together right after the baby was born. Every spare moment I had I was in the studio doing my best to work around the cries, and Cary would have to sneak up and do her parts when the baby was asleep. It’s a funny thing trying to make a rock n roll record with a sleeping baby in the house.”

Hearst adds, “As we were finishing the record and making the final decisions about what to include in it, our good friend Eric was killed here in town. We ended up dedicating the record to his memory. The beginning of ‘This Ride’ is actually Eric’s mother telling the true story of how he had been born in the back of a police car. With her blessing, we added that to frame ‘This Ride.’”

“Invisible Man” and “Mourning Song,” were directly inspired by the debilitating illness faced by Trent’s father. Hearst says of the former song, “The disease is preventing him from being able to mentally wrap his mind around it. I wanted to speak for him. I wanted to express what it would be like for a man like him, a capable, funny dude. I wanted to put that in an up-tempo pop song, because it’s always interesting for dark material to be presented that way.”

Of “Mourning Song,” Trent says, “I was envisioning what it was going to be like for my mother after he wasn’t around anymore. It’s weird, maybe, to write a song about the death of your father who hasn’t died yet. It seemed like something he would do – write a tune to comfort my mother after he’s gone.

The hushed, moving spoken word “BWYR”, a song of unity at a time when some try to divide, is torn from an event close to home: the mass shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015.

“The night we heard about it, we were in Denver and approaching the end of ‘touring while pregnant’, which was pretty intense,” Trent says. “We flew to Chicago, our show was cancelled – it was rained out – and we were stuck in the hotel, and that’s where it was written. We were talking to our friends and texting, and we wanted to be home so bad, to be with our people. These mass shootings seemed to be happening every weekend, and the thought of bringing a child into the world was overwhelming and scary.”

“Buffalo Nickel” takes on the most personal of all subjects: Trent and Hearst’s relationship as a married couple who also collaborate creatively. Only as the song developed did they begin to understand its topic. “We were trying to figure out what the story was about,” Trent says, “and the more we wrote on it, we said, ‘Are we talking about us here? Are we airing some things here?’” Without a beat, Hearst adds with a laugh, “And we were.”

Little Seeds also contains songs that deploy Shovels and Rope’s widely admired talents as storytellers: the thrashing “I Know,” a wryly observed description of intra- band backbiting, and “Botched Execution,” a darkly funny tale of a convict on the run in the manner of Southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor. Inspired by a concise history written by Hearst’s father, “Missionary Ridge” looks back at the decisive 1863 Civil War battle.

The album also tips a hat to the group’s Americana forebears. “The Last Hawk” pays homage to Garth Hudson, the master keyboardist of the Band, who Hearst calls “a quiet genius, this weird, wonderful creature who can do anything with music.” Trent recalls, “There was an article in Rolling Stone that was one of the first things you’d ever seen where it was just Garth, explaining things from his take. We read it on an airplane, and I looked over at Cary, and she was crying – it really moved her.”

Both Trent and Hearst acknowledge that making Little Seeds took the band into previously unexplored and even unimagined creative terrain.

“It was cathartic,” says Trent. “There were some songs we had trouble getting through because it was too emotional for us. That’s not really how we had approached songwriting in the past -- we got really into writing character-based songs on Swimmin’ Time. For Little Seeds, this is what was going on, and it was all consuming, physically and emotionally, and I feel like we couldn’t help but to be very raw and honest.”

Hearst says, “At a certain point in your relationship, professional or personal, you think it’s maybe run its course – ‘We can’t possibly write more together than we have in the past. We can’t possibly live closer than we have in the past. We can’t possibly understand each other more.’ But in the last couple of years, that has happened. We have become even more intimate as writing partners, and in life, collaboratively. It showed me that there were new depths to conquer in our creative life and our personal life and our family life. It’s all deeper and wider than I could ever have imagined it. Which is great.”

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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