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Tarrytown News

Shovels & Rope: Couples Therapy Through Music

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March 21, 2024

By Alan Sculley–

Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the husband and wife duo that record and tour as Shovels & Rope, finished touring behind their 2018 album “By Blood” and came to New Orleans in early 2020 while their home in South Carolina was going through some upgrades. This wasn’t a vacation. Instead, the couple came to work on songs they had started for a new album.

As things progressed, they thought they were going to make a stripped back, largely acoustic album, which was quite a contrast to “By Blood,” an album where Trent and Hearst experimented liberally with instrumentation and sonic treatments and came up with their most expansive, loudest and boldest album to date. “When we were kind of putting them together, all of these songs were, they seemed like full songs just on a piano or guitar and the voices,” Trent said in a recent phone interview.  “So I guess that was maybe the partial inspiration. Another part was we had just made a big, bombastic thing (“By Blood”) and we were looking to just sort of strip it back and let the pendulum swing the other way.”

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Things seemed on track to complete the album and release it later in 2020. But of course, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and that changed everything. Suddenly given a bunch of free time, they started experimenting with the songs, and the album that emerged, “Manticore,” became a different kind of animal.

One song that stands out is the album-opening cut, “Domino.” It’s a snappy, uber-catchy retro-pop tune with handclaps, thumping piano accompaniment, some sharp guitar, a synchronized duet vocal. The ballad “Collateral Damage” gets built out with steady drums, synthesizer parts, guitars joining the piano. The lovely “Bleed Me” (about the exhilaration and exhaustion of parenthood) enhances the soaring vocals of Hearst and Trent with piano, drums and a silky string-like synthesizer line.

Other tunes, such as the ballads “Anchor,” “No Man’s Land” and “Happy Birthday Who?” are indeed more stripped back and offer a hint at what the original album might have sounded like.  “We kind of just took the time to add and then take away (from the recordings) and get comfortable with it,” Trent said, describing the approach to evolving the songs into their “Manticore” versions. “We added, but not to everything. I feel like the heart of the record is still a pretty stripped back feel.”

“Manticore” marks the fifth studio album from Trent and Hearst as Shovels & Rope, although they did a 2008 album as Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst that was called – you guessed it – “Shovels & Rope.” They weren’t musical rookies, though, when they decided to work as Shovels & Rope in 2012, having each pursued solo careers for more than a decade.  Hearst had released two albums and an EP, while Trent spent years in a band, the Films before releasing a pair of solo albums. 

 While trying to decide their next moves musically, they started playing shows together around their home town of Charleston, South Carolina and liked their scrappy sound as a duo and found they could earn enough money from the shows to make ends meet.

One of the advantages of being a married couple and songwriting partners is Trent and Hearst can naturally be open and vulnerable with each other in songwriting. But feelings can get hurt and they’ve had to learn how to work through any issues that come up. The song “Divide & Conquer” addresses the fact that combining marriage and career is not always a smooth ride. “We’re in a unique position to be truthful about what counts in an established marriage, or well-functioning (relationship),” said Hearst, who joined her husband for the interview. “We’ve put ours through a lot just because of the way we’ve chosen to live our lives. But on the other side of that, we’re like about as sturdy as they come in terms of being able to talk to each other. And while that song isn’t necessarily 100 percent about us, like literally it’s definitely informed by our experiences as people who have to evolve within their marriage and look after little ones and also keep who you are.”

 On tour, Trent and Hearst have steadfastly refused to add musicians, even though their music frequently has enough instrumentation to justify another pair or two of hands onstage. The sonically packed “By Blood” proved especially challenging to translate to the live stage, but Trent and Hearst made that material work and will do the same with songs new and old on the current tour.

“We can do a lot on stage with the two of us. We have things (such as pedals) we’re stepping on. We’re both playing two instruments usually at a time,” Trent said. “And so with ‘By Blood,’ I feel we got real ambitious. I’m glad for it, but it was exhausting. There was like a lot to do. And I do think we have a little perspective coming in to the way we wanted to approach these (“Manticore” song) arrangements.”

Shovels & Rope perform at the Tarrytown Music Hall on April 6th

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