Shovels & Rope Dig Up Scary Stories and Psychedelic Moths on ‘O Be Joyful’

Photo: Leslie Ryan McKellar

On their second album together, the Charleston, South Carolina husband-and-wife duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent — better known as Shovels & Rope — pare their alt-Americana sound down to basics. O’ Be Joyful is full of back-porch folk, twang ‘n’ bang country stompers, swampy blues and thrift-store garage-rock grit, filtered through the minimalist DIY ethos that drives the band all across the country to tell stories thick with sultry Southern atmosphere.

Just as they do onstage, singer/songwriters Hearst and Trent handle all the heavy lifting themselves on the home-recorded O’ Be Joyful. The songs’ Spartan arrangements basically revolve around a couple of guitars and a two-piece drum kit, but it always feels like enough. Hive caught up with Hearst and Trent and discussed recording techniques, writing songs with psychedelic lyrics and the virtues of a DIY career.

You recorded O’ Be Joyful yourselves, using a single microphone. Wouldn’t a studio with an engineer have been easier?

Michael Trent: The good thing about having a small studio setup is you can pretty much take it anywhere. It’s easier for me to work that way — you’re not on the clock, it’s cheap, you can work on it at any time, and don’t have to worry about counting on anybody else for anything, which is kind of the way that we started this whole project and have operated in a real streamlined way.

Cary Ann Hearst: [To Trent] You did everything — you ran every cable, set every level, you did everything except play my guitar and drum parts. He does the work of three people.

MT: I wasn’t trying to make something that was ultra lo-fi; I wanted it to sound good, but at the same time I don’t feel like everything has to be so meticulous and just so. You just make it sound the way you want it to sound working with whatever you have around you. We were on the road for like 200 days last year, most of the time we were gone, so we’d come back and I’d have to lock myself in there for a couple of days and get some stuff done. And we did record some stuff on the road, like in the van even, and in hotel rooms. All in all, maybe it took like a month to really make it.

Besides being a self-contained musical family, you both have music in your family backgrounds. How has that influenced you?

CH: My stepfather is a songwriter and a multi-instrumentalist, his name is Doug Eckert and he made an LP on a record label called Ode in New Zealand in the ‘70s. It was definitely a thing that kind of inspired me to want to write songs — it was what our family did, the thing that my daddy taught me to do instead of, like, fishing or lawyering or whatever [laughs]. Michael’s daddy too — Michael’s daddy is a bluegrass musician that kind of taught him.

MT: He plays mostly mandolin; he used to play guitar back when he was a wild child, he played in a band called the Satans.

You’re both singer/songwriters who worked on your own before starting Shovels & Rope. What kind of stories are you each trying to tell on O’ Be Joyful?

CH: For me, I kind of like to take a kind of a folkie story and make some of the elements of the lyrics psychedelicized. Like in “Kemba’s Got the Cabbage Moth Blues,” it’s not like mushroom clouds and strawberry fields, but there are things that don’t make any sense. Or like in “Birmingham,” there’s a completely normal, real-life-sounding story, and then all of a sudden there’s a reference to a covered wagon on the Brooklyn-Queen Expressway. I don’t even know why that kind of stuff popped into my brain but it seems kind of acid-trippy to me, like something that’s just slightly out of place. And I think Michael’s narrative stories that he likes to tell really take you to the place and time of the story, like the song “Shank Hill St.” — for me, the song is scary and creepy, it feels like you’re walking into a scary movie where everybody in the audience is like, “Don’t walk through that door!”

“Kemba” is such a rapid-fire rush of images, what’s the song about?

CH: It’s this little silly story song that took place at a very specific moment in time. My friend Kemba was down from New York. She’s a character — she’s a farmer and a traveler and a musician and all these crazy things, but she’s got great style. We were drinking beers in this bar getting pretty toasted on Cinco de Mayo [in 2010], and that was when Nashville was flooding. We were watching my hometown flooding, and helpless to do anything about it, we just kept drinkin’ on it. Each verse is kind of a Polaroid from that weekend …we had three roosters that went missing from a fox raid of our chicken house, all those little images in my brain, I just threw them all into these quick lines to try to paint a picture of who Kemba was and what we were doing that weekend. Cabbage moths were the particular bug plague of that summer, and Kemba was having a hard time dealing with the cabbage moths that were eating up her kale crop. You get a lot of agricultural information from these songs! [Laughs]

What do you feel you gain in doing everything from recording to touring in such a stripped-down, DIY way?

MT: Freedom, I guess. Nobody tells us what to do and we don’t owe anybody any money. We can be self-contained, and we feel really lucky being able to gain some fans and get picked up for some really great support tours, we feel really grateful for people giving us a hand up in that respect. But to keep it simple, and to do it our own way and not really have to be accountable to anyone, that makes us happy creatively, and we get to represent ourselves in the way that we want to.

O’ Be Joyful is out July 31 on Dualtone. Stream it below:

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