ALBANY - Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst do a lot with a little.
That’s part of the reason they’re known as Shovels & Rope, a folk duo that can spin an intricate tale and belt it out with a strength that seems greater than the parts that make up the whole.
“It ain’t what you got, it’s what you make,” they sing out in “Birmingham” one of their first singles. “Making something outta nothing with a scratch and a hoe, two old guitars like a shovel and rope."
They’re coming to The Egg on March 21. It’s a more intimate setting for them - they can sell out large theaters across the country - but the duo wanted to slow down and shake things up by telling stories in between songs, giving them a unique context, and playing stripped-down versions of fan favorites.
Since they started Shovels & Rope much has changed: Between touring and starting a family, they’ve learned to make a whole lot of “something outta nothing” Here, they talk about life on the road, their new music and the importance of focusing on impacting your own community:
Question: How did you learn to balance being on tour and raising your first child?
Trent: We’re still working on it!
Hearst: I think just like with any family, it doesn’t matter if you’re balancing your law firm and your kids' soccer schedule or if you’re [managing] your tour bus schedule. We have great support, that’s what it is. We have an awesome tour nanny, we have great friends at home. We have to hire a babysitter to song-write a lot of the time. But it’s good. I feel like we’re probably as happy as any family can be. We’re like traveling gypsies, tumbleweedin’ around.
Q: Do you feel like becoming parents has influenced your songwriting?
T: I would say, you look at the world a little bit differently, maybe [with] a little bit more compassion after being parents and realizing that everybody was somebody’s baby.
Q: Earlier this year, you released the song “Great America (2017)” Can you tell me a bit about how you wrote the song and what was happening at the time?
T: We were still in transit from a two-week European tour and we had a night that we had to spend at the Denver airport hotel. We got there and were jet-lagged and exhausted, and flipped on the news and it was like . . . the [number] of things that had happened within that [tour] was just staggering. [We] basically wrote a list of all of the things that were happening all at the same time and it was insane.
H: Anybody that listens to our music understands that we lean left and we are all about community and family and hope and brotherhood and integration; all these things that we think are pure American ideals. It goes without saying that in the face of all this madness, that [“Great American (2017)”] would be our response to it. It’s kind of a weird thing. Fan bases are split whether they expect you to be political or [they] don’t want you to be political or [they’re] annoyed if you say something political whether they agree with you or not. For us, in these times, just to sit and not say anything . . . white complicity is dangerous; it’s not more dangerous than outright bigotry. Because we have the power to make the difference in the world just by not sitting idly by. We decided with that song, because it was so outwardly political, that we would make sure that any money that was raised from it would go to serve some purpose. So we partnered with Intrepid Fund, which is an organization that specializes in working with returning veterans with traumatic brain injury. We funneled the financial benefits of that song to that organization because we think it’s important to literally put your money where your mouth is.
Q: [Can listeners] expect more songs like this in the future?
T: There’s no telling what you’re going to be inspired by and inspired to do. We have always had these themes throughout our music, but we wouldn’t strictly write political songs from here on out. I do assume that we’ll be influenced by things that are happening, but we want to do our best to use our art and our platform to inspire or call out things that we feel like we should.
H: Especially on a local level. I think the most important work people can do is in their own communities, because on the news the national and international stories are seriously overwhelming. You can feel helpless. But where people are not helpless is [in] their local elections. Vote for your school board, know who your county representatives [are], have a relationship with people at the local level because that’s the development of your community. In our lives, when you get overwhelmed with the macro, it’s good to just focus on your microcosm and serve your community to the best that you can. That’s what Michael and I are more and more inspired to do: Do what we can where we live.
Q: Why did you want to have a tour [focused on storytelling and stripped-down versions of your songs]?
T: I just feel like it shakes things up for us a little bit. We also have a lot of songs that might be more difficult to play in a rock show [setting]. It’s nice to play in some of these smaller [venues] and tell some stories about some of these songs, and try out some new material. It’s a different experience for us and a different experience for some of our fans who might want to see a show like that. We get to honor some requests maybe that we’ve been skipping for a few times through that town.
Q: Do you get to interact more with the audience because of the smaller setting?
T: Definitely. The nuances of a story can easily be lost in a cavernous room, but if everybody is seated it’s just easier to talk to everybody.
Q: What sort of stories have you been telling?
H: We’ve selected a set group of songs and we’re telling some of the stories of their origin or giving a little bit of a context to [them]. It’s just an opportunity; we could never do that in a rock n’ roll show. There’s a certain pace you have to keep up. There’s definitely stories connected to each song, but some of it is us just BS-ing with each other, you know? It’s loose.
Q: Where did the name come from?
H: Michael and I had written a bunch of songs together like concept records, for an album called Shovels & Rope by Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. The reason why we named it Shovels & Rope was that the songs are written off of each other and a lot of them turned out to be murder ballads, kind of wild west kind of [songs]. So the name was kinda apropos; it went with the songs. When we decided to become a band, the name Shovels & Rope solved two problems. It sounded like two units.
T: Like Beavis and Butt-Head
H: Right. Then the utilitarian nature of [the name] Shovels & Rope, like you could build something or you could get away with a crime. This is checking a lot of boxes, because our whole motto was “Let’s do the most we can for two people.” So I think for creative and practical purposes it was a good name.
Shovels & Rope
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: The Egg
MORE INFO: theegg.org