Anytime an album turns into a much-loved smash, there's always an unnerving amount of pressure that gets applied to the follow-up release. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent released O' Be Joyful - their debut album under the Shovels & Rope name - in the summer of 2012 and it ended up taking the Americana/roots music world by storm. After extreme amounts of marathon touring and winning crowd after crowd over at each festival they played, the incomparable husband-and-wife duo are back with their sophomore release, Swimmin' Time (out August 25 on Dualtone Records). To help alleviate the pressure and keep their own unique voice consistent throughout, Hearst and Trent once again wrote, played, and produced the album themselves, this time trading in the mobile recording confines of hotel rooms and vans for their home studio in Charleston, South Carolina. Fans of O' Be Joyful will immediately feel the resonating themes that reappear on Swimmin' Time, including the duo's matchless vocal interplay, their garage-folk stompers, acoustic weepers, murder ballads, and their unparalleled chemistry that was felt so fiercely the first time around. In other words, forget dipping your toe in and prepare for a full-on cannonball into the deep end of Swimmin' Time.
Ahead of the release of Swimmin' Time, Shovels & Rope have compiled the Swimmin' Time Primer. This fantastic 6-track EP is great for getting you up to speed on what they've done on previous albums and letting you know what to expect on their new album. Swimmin' Time Primer kicks off with "When the Devil is All Around," the first single from the new album. There's also two tracks from O' Be Joyful ("O' Be Joyful" and "Shank Hill") and a handful of rarities, including a cover of J Roddy Walston's "Boys Can Never Tell," a live version of "Lay Low" courtesy of KEXP and Pickathon, and "Mother's Scorn" from their 2008 pre-duo collaborative album. Swimmin' Time Primer ends up being a win-win as new fans will be able to jump right in and long-time fans will appreciate owning the tracks that have previously been unreleased.
This week I also interviewed Shovels & Rope and the charming duo opened up about some of the inspiration behind Swimmin' Time, why they recorded the album themselves, and what exactly those audio easter eggs are that are layered underneath some of their songs.
From the song titles to the lyrics to the sonar ping that closes out the last track, your new album Swimmin’ Time is definitely – pardon the pun – swimming with watery themes. What do you think is the source of all the aquatic inspiration?
It happened as an accident that there were so many water themes in the new songs. It wasn’t planned. Some of the inspiration is geographical because we live around rivers and marshes and we see the tides every day. We are also informed by a certain anxiety that persists because we live near the sea. It’s easy to look around and see people disregarding the nature of, well, Nature, and it can make you nervous for the future. Coincidentally, we had a beautiful song about a doomed submarine and an ode to a river fisherman. We surrendered to the coincidence.
With your last album O’ Be Joyful making such a splash, you guys probably could’ve had your pick of producers for Swimmin’ Time. What drove the decision to produce the album yourselves?
It seems to serve us best to produce our own records at home. We had always made our own records, and we like having control over that process. But since we are always traveling, it also makes sense to make records while we are "resting up" at home. Its important that we can do it on our own time, on our own dime. We think part of the magic is that the music comes straight from us, warts and all, straight to the record store racks.
Your first single from Swimmin’ Time, "The Devil Is All Around,” perfectly captures the sugar and smoke vocals that distinguish Shovels & Rope from every other duo around. Did you both feel it the first time you ever sang together or did you come to it over time?
We could sing together pretty well right away, but it was the years of gigging that honed the sound. Once we really learned to sing together, we could imitate each other and match up tight when we wanted to or we would vibrate real loose and slow, but with purpose. Thats the fun of singing with another person, afterall.
Being that you both had solo careers before joining forces, do you still write songs alone and then bring them to each other or do you write from scratch together?
We write separately as well as together. It happens all different ways, but it’s rare that we’ll just sit down and write something together from scratch. Usually one of us will have an idea and bring it in. A verse, a chorus or a whole song... it’s different every time. It was a learning process at first but we’re getting better at it.
Much as you did with the last track on O’ Be Joyful (“This Means War”), the closing track on Swimmin’ Time (“Thresher”) contains a charming bit of recorded conversation. What’s the story behind both recordings and what extra warmth do you feel they bring to the songs?
We are always making “field recordings," and they're almost exclusively of interesting relatives. Both of those audio easter eggs are field recordings. The new one in "Thresher" is one we taped of G. Wayne “Pappy” Powell singing a Kris Kristopherson song “Why Me Lord”. It seemed to fit what might be the bittersweet reflection of a man in his last hours, remembering good times. The former, from "This Means War," was a recording made of Nobert “Papaw” Ables talking to a 4-year-old Cary Ann about finding a trusty dog. Creatively, they add another dimension to the song. It's almost psychedelic to hear a voice in your music, dictating some element of the story. Personally, the recordings are that much more sentimental to us as well.
You can pre-order Swimmin' Time directly from Shovels & Rope on cd or double-disc clear wax vinyl HERE.