When people say they eat, breathe and sleep something they love, it is usually hyperbole; not so with Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the husband-and-wife duo who make up the Charleston, S.C.-based Shovels & Rope. When it came to the making of their new album, Swimmin’ Time — which released in August — they worked on it every chance they got, but they weren’t holed up in a studio for weeks at a time.
“It was more like, ‘We have one day off on this tour, so let’s go in and record while we can,’” says Hearst, who sings and plays several instruments.
“We were working every spare minute on it,” adds singer and multiinstrumentalist Trent. “But it’s not like we had the studio booked for months and could go in and say, ‘I feel like putting some bells on this one today. Bring out the bells!’ It was more, ‘Let’s park at the Sonic and edit these strings real quick.’” Swimmin’ is filled with energy and verve, mirroring the focus, determination and adventurous spirit the duo needed to have in order to complete the album. The rock track “Evil” is as dirty and sinister as the title suggests, while “Fish Assassin” is a raw, tribal track featuring thumping percussion, a tambourine and Trent and Hearst’s raucous vocals. “Stono River Blues” is a groovy piece of Appalachian folk that could easily fit into a chain gang’s repertoire, and “Ohio” sounds like a ragtime track set to fuzzy guitars and put on super slowmo.
The record is bursting with ideas and not only demonstrates the band’s willingness to explore different genre ideas, but their excitement for such opportunities as well. One minute they can be crooning softly on a more traditional folk track or love song, and the next they can be hollering at the moon like wolves on the prowl. The duo wanted to try some new things with this recording, so they were open to any and every idea that came their way, which is to the album’s benefit and to their credit as songwriters. And rather than being a hindrance, having time constraints was a source of inspiration for them.
“For me it’s better that way and kind of inspiring,” says Trent. “I feel like the good ideas come hard and fast and you’ve got to grab ’em if you’re paying attention. You have a small window when the ideas are coming and are fresh and inspiring, so you have to capitalize on that.”
Taking a flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants approach to the music also means they did not go into the studio with a set idea about what the songs would be about, how they would be constructed, or if there was even going to be a narrative theme running throughout the record. It could have worked out that way and Swimmin’ Time could have developed into some sort of concept record, but if that had been the case, it would have been completely by accident. Hearst is OK with this approach because their way of doing things feels more authentic to them.
“It’s not like ‘This is a genius masterpiece work of music that must be organized in this exact way,’” Hearst says. “I know bands have made records that way and God bless ’em for doing it, but we don’t really think about it that much. It’s more like, ‘Hey, that one sounds good. Let’s write another one.’” But while there aren’t strict guidelines for how they approach their albums as a whole, that’s not to say they don’t approach particular songs that way. Most of their work, for example, steers clear of being overly personal, but they know such songs can still leave a mark if done properly.
Again, it’s all about how well you are paying attention when an idea strikes.
“‘Save the World’ was us trying to find three hopeful things in a day to think about,” Trent says, “just because on that particular day we were bummed out about whatever.”
“About trying to save the world atlarge,” Hearst laughs.
“We just wanted to spread a little hope around,” Trent continues. “But yeah, [our work is] not usually autobiographical, and if it is, it’s embellished in a way that we’ve turned ourselves into crazy cartoon versions of ourselves.”