From Callaghan’s to “Late Night with David Letterman,” local fans of Shovels & Rope have watched the band rapidly rise from obscurity to fame. Michael Trent and his wife Cary Ann Hearst have been spending their time on the road in support of their sophomore effort “Swimmin’ Time,” which builds on a foundation of rock, folk and country. The follow-up to the critically acclaimed “O, Be Joyful” has been well received by both fans and critics. Hearst and Trent recently took some time to chat with Lagniappe about their life on the road, their rising success and their latest album.
SC: Cary, Mobile has watched you and Shovels & Rope grow over the years. How does it feel to be touring on your second record and playing all these huge venues?
CAH: It’s awesome, man. It’s cool. We made a plan to do it, and we knew it was going to take a lot of years of touring and a lot of dedication and a few sacrifices here and there. Even then, it wasn’t guaranteed. We’re pretty happy about it, especially to come to lower Alabama. I’ve got a lot of family down there. I know it’s been good for them to come and see us and not have to worry about where we’re sleeping and what we’re eating anymore.
SC: You’ve played everything from small venues to major festivals. Which do you prefer: the bigger stages or the intimate venues?
MT: We like to sample a little bit of all of them. We’ve played coffee shops in Mobile, and the (Alabama) Music Box and Callaghan’s. We really love Callaghan’s and the staff over there.
CAH: Michael’s right. Every place that we play has a certain thing to make it cool. Our thing is awesome to see in a really small venue. It’s awesome to see in a little rock club. We’re lucky that we’re having these great big shows. We’re definitely making sure that when we’re in these bigger rooms that the sound is always consistent. There’s a little bit more production that helps translate to bigger venues. Even in those big venues, we snuggle up nice and tight to those tiny stages and make those stages nice and dark. You’re not distracted by a great big stage. We want you to feel like you’re at an intimate show, even in a thousand-seat room. Then, there’s the difference between the sit-down theater and the live rock club. Alabama Music Box would be an example of that. We’re lucky that we can play either and that our crowd will stay quiet for a pretty song and rock out for a rowdy song. We’re lucky that way.
SC: Talking about diverse venues, one thing that I love about Shovels & Rope is your diverse fan base. What do you think it is about your music that attracts all these different tastes?
MT: It’s what we grew up on. We’re not trying to stick to any specific genre. Some of it’s heavier. Some of it sounds like country music. Some of it is folkier. I think we just enjoy writing different types of songs.
CAH: Since there’s nobody bossing us around in the A&R department telling us what we should and shouldn’t be, we make good ol’ music. Whatever it is, people who like music will like it. Nobody wants to be spoon-fed the same thing or just one thing over and over again. We benefit from an audience out there that likes good music and doesn’t care if it’s country, blues, rock ‘n’ roll or what.
SC: Your debut was a success, and now “Swimmin’ Time” is doing very well. What do you think about the success of this album?
CAH: It’s a relief. We didn’t feel a lot of pressure, but we’re glad.
MT: It’s actually our third album. We released a record called Shovels & Rope, and that’s what we got started on. That was back when we were calling ourselves just our names. We circumvented the sophomore slump by making everybody think that it’s our second record, when it’s really our third.
CAH: (Laughing) We outsmarted the system!
SC: Why did you decide to record this one in your home studio and go DIY?
MT: That’s the way we’ve been doing it since the beginning. It’s easier for us, because we’re in control of everything. We don’t have anyone else in there telling us what to do, not that it’s always bad. There’s still other opinions in the room. So far, we’ve been lucky to make the exact records that we want to make. They’ve come across, and people have enjoyed them. If we struggled with our own vision, it would be different. We have a pretty clear idea of what we’re going for, so it’s easier for us.
SC: How do you think the Shovels & Rope sound has evolved with this album?
CAH: When we made our actual first record that was called “Shovels & Rope,” we didn’t play a whole bunch of live shows. It was just me and Michael’s friends getting together to do something. It was a recording project exclusively. We started touring and played shows in Charleston bars. We went out on the road and perfected singing together, and we slowly added some drums.
When we recorded “O, Be Joyful,” there were horn parts and electric guitar parts that needed to replicated in some way. While we don’t have any obligation to replicate a record sound for sound identically, we definitely wanted to bring that energy and bring those parts in. That problem was solved with a micro-chord keyboard and a drum kit. That sound developed as a part of a core sound. We incorporated that into “Swimmin’ Time.” You can hear the grungy, distorted, low-end piano/organ sounds and sometimes horn and electric sounds. We continued to use that instrument to bring that dynamic of being a little low-end, and it adds a counterpoint to the guitar. We use it more as a percussion instrument that kicks it up as part of our drum kit. It literally makes it the most that two people can do with their four arms and two mouths. At this point, we’re making as much noise as we physically can.
SC: One thing that I really like about this album is your murder ballad “Ohio,” because I’m a fan of the old school murder ballads. What’s the story behind that one?
MT: The opening line is a tip of the hate to Gillian Wilson’s song “Ohio.” It’s just kind of funny. I think it started off with that clever one-liner, and then a whole story was written around it about this guy who went down this spiral of bad luck. In the end, it was his friend that talked him into going down this terrible spiral. It started out as a little quip, and it ended up being one of the tunes on the record.
SC: I always ask spouses who are in bands together how they keep from driving each other crazy on the road.
CAH: We drive each other plenty crazy. Honestly, me and Michael figured out early in the game that we needed to be in a band together to stay married, and so we wouldn’t be on different tours all the time. Within the band, we needed to be really earnest and communicative and patient with each other and give each other personal space, even on tour and at home. Maybe it was because we didn’t get married until we were in our 30s, but it has been relatively easy to do so far. Neither of us are emotionally needy, and we can talk to each other honestly about how we’re doing. We do that musically and in the context of being together all the time. I wouldn’t want to be out here in this game with anybody other than Michael, who I respect the most. It’s like two cavemen surviving in the wilderness, except on a really cool tour bus.
Shovels & Rope, Carolina Rose
Date: Friday, Jan. 23, doors at 8 p.m.
Venue: Soul Kitchen, 219 Dauphin St., www.soulkitchenmobile.com
Tickets: $17 in advance /$20 day-of available at Soul Kitchen, their website, Mellow Mushroom (WeMo/MiMo) and by calling 1-866-468-7630