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Bonnaroo 2014 interview: Shovels & Rope

Shovels & Rope will play Bonnaroo 2014 on June 15.
Shovels & Rope will play Bonnaroo 2014 on June 15.
Photo by Frazer Harrison

Husband and wife duo Shovels & Rope have taken the Americana and roots music scene by storm over the last year with their hit album “O Be Joyful” and their raucous live shows. This year, they'll be playing Bonnaroo for the first time on Sunday, June 15. We spoke with Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent by phone today to get their take on Bonnaroo and their new album.

We're talking to you guys today because you're playing Bonnaroo, I believe for the first time, right?

M: Yeah, this is our first time ever at Bonnaroo.

C: We did a lot of the big festivals this Summer and last Summer. We're bracing ourselves for the crowds and the heat. It's going to be awesome because we're going to get to see Elton John!

M: And Nick Cave!

C: We're going to do our show and rock out and then spend the rest of our energy to rock out to those bands.

Cary Ann, you were kind of there in spirit a couple of years ago when Hayes Carll did “Another Like You” and tried to do your vocal part.

C: Hayes does a lot of things... One of them happens to be singing in drag!

What times are you playing at Bonnaroo?

M: We have a Haybale Session at 11:00 and then we're on That Tent at 5:30.

You guys have done a lot of festivals. What do you think makes Shovels & Rope a good fit for festivals?

C: We're kind of lucky because we've played little festivals, big festivals, we just played one called Nelsonville in Ohio that we really liked. Our band's dynamic so we're a pretty good fit at any festival that's not too mellow or folky or, you know. We probably couldn't do like a death metal festival or an EDM festival, but we played Stagecoach, which is country as Hell and we fit well there, and we did Coachella, which is just the weirdest and we fit there, and we'll play Newport Folk Festival again this year. These festivals offer so much, they want to have something for everyone and we just squeeze ourselves in there somehow.

Festival audiences are a little different in that you're playing to a lot of people who may not know your music. Do you change up your setlists for festivals?

M: Not really. We don't really do setlists. We have a couple of old records out as Shovels & Rope, and a new record coming out, then a couple of solo albums we pull from too. We don't really have a set list that we do. We will definitely try to feel out the crowd as the show progresses and see what they might be into. If it's more of a mellow crowd, we might be able to get away with a ballad or two or some more stripped down stuff. If it's an amped up crowd, it just makes us want to rock and roll!

You mentioned a new album. It's out in August, right?

C: August 26.

Can you tell me a little about what you're doing with this album, and how it will compare for people who have heard “O Be Joyful?”

C: We kind of started out with a big batch of songs we'd written together and started to capture the way we wanted to record this. When we got the songs together, we saw kind of an aquatic theme to the songwriting; submarines, lakes, fishing, and storms and floods. These things kept popping up. Inadvertently, it became a collection of songs that are connected to water in some way. The approach we take is pretty much the same. We stick to what we have laying around to record with and we kept it real live and fresh. We're not a band that does a zillion takes of a performance. Most of this album is first, second, or third take. And we sing all of the vocals together. We kind of catch on to each other's vocal changes so the vocal sound is really alive.

M: We do have a couple of extra things laying around, so you'll hear a couple of new tricks and noises on there. But we pretty much did the way we did our last record. Just set up at home and when we're on a break hammer it out.

The title for the new album is “Swimmin' Time”, right?

C: Yes. It's kind of funny because the title track is about an aquatic apocalypse, the impending doom of man's greedy nature. The title “Swimmin' Time” sounds like fun, like everyone's going down to the swimming hole for swimmin' time, so there was a little tongue in cheek to it. Overall, it's a pretty hopeful record. The title track is a little dark and we do have some good murder stories with deceit and dishonor, but there's a lot of love and hope and good deeds on the record. It's a pretty balanced record. But the title is a little tongue in cheek.

Water figures in strongly for the video you did for “Birmingham” as well. What is it about water that draws you as a songwriter?

M: Well, the video for “Birmingham” was just shot near our home. We live on John's Island, SC, which is near Charleston. They call it the Low Country because there are so many rivers and marshlands and bridges so it's going to seep into the songwriting.

C: Well, and living on the coast there's always anxiety about the water getting into the road. When the water gets in the road, we can't get off the island!

M: The threat is always there. We deal with hurricanes and all that. There's always the murmur of the rising sea levels.

C: We've got $30 million of sand on the barrier islands to keep them from washing out to sea.

Before we get to what you guys have going the rest of the year, let me be probably the last person to congratulate you on last year's AMA Emerging Artist of the Year!

C: Thank you! We got to meet Don Was and Dr. John! We got to be on stage with them and all these wonderful people. That was the major thrill of it. “I can't believe they're letting us sing with these people! Are they crazy?” -laugh-

So what do you guys have for the rest of the year after Bonnaroo?

M: We have a few festivals we're doing. We're playing Red Rocks with The Avett Brothers. That'll be a fun show. We're going to do Newport Folk Festival.

C: We're going to meditate in the desert for a week and then off we go!

M: We've got a few shows with Old Crow Medicine Show coming up and then we kick off our tour in the Fall.

Bonnaroo 2014 will be held June 12-15 in Manchester, Tn. In addition to Shovels & Rope, bands performing include Elton John, Jack White, The Avett Brothers, and Sarah Jarosz.