Halfway through the second full-day of MerleFest, 200 lucky festival goers nestled eagerly into their seats in Mayes Pit-Cohn Auditorium at Wilkes Community College. Some arrived early to claim front row seats, while others waited in line, hopeful to be let in before the room hit full capacity. The Avett Brothers, Scott and Seth Avett and Bob Crawford, were whisked in through a side door and waited patiently in the wings for their introduction. Proud parents, Jim and Susie Avett filed in backstage, and watched as their sons took the stage before a roar of applauds.
For those who were in attendance, this was a chance to ask the brothers any and everything about their songwriting process and style, song themes, production, and evolution. The 45-minute session was filled with copious bouts of laughter, candid banter, and small but noticeable moments of brotherly love. While the workshop focused primarily on songwriting, the band managed to squeeze in 3 acoustic songs, one of which was completely new. This poignant ballad had the audience hanging on each and every lyric that dripped from Seth’s lips, and at the end brought the auditorium to its feet. It was a very special experience that those 200 people will cherish for a very long time. For those who were not fortunate to be there in person, here is the transcript:
(The Avett Brothers were introduced and came out on stage, Seth and Scott with their Martin and Gibson acoustic guitars, respectively, and Bob with his stand-up bass)
Scott: Thank you so much y’all.
Seth: So I thought we were attending a songwriter’s workshop not putting one on. What’s going on? (laughter)
Scott: Ha, come to the festival. We’d like for you to do this workshop before you play. We’re going to start by just playing a song. We would like to talk to everyone as much as we can, because we’ve been to several of these workshops and some of them that we’ve been to, we wish we could have heard more questions. But we are going to start with a song just to warm up with (strumming)…that falls in the singer/songwriter category.
Seth: So, does anyone have a question?
Scott: Yeah, let’s hear it!
Audience member 1: First of all thank you guys for making music. You guys are awesome. Secondly, what was your inspiration for making the song “January Wedding?” That’s my wife and my wedding song, so I just wanted to know what your inspiration was.
Seth: Um, well, outside of the obvious – a wedding in January (laughter). No, that was one that I just wrote…I hate that you are asking a question about one of the more mysterious ones as far as the source, well the theme is pretty obvious. As far as the writing of it, it was one of the rare ones that I wrote very quickly–10 minutes top to bottom. That doesn’t often happen. I’m more of a writer that comes up with an idea, and then studies it and works on it for weeks or months or years.
Scott: That’s for sure (laughter).
Seth: Yeah, I’m kind of studious about it. I’ll set up, you know, the coffee and the notebooks and the computer and just work and work on it. But yeah, just a real life event like most of our songs I guess, are things that we’ve experienced or want to experience, or have learned from or want to learn from.
Scott: Pertaining to that subject, we are pretty guilty of writing straight from the heart sort of, and exploiting our personal lives quite a bit. I mean that is our subject matter most of the time. And [“January Wedding”] would fall into that category. I don’t know anything about the writing process of that song. That’s one that Seth brought. It was in Seth and came out of him. In fact I didn’t even know until now that it was written quickly.
Seth: It took a lot longer to record it.
Scott: But yeah it certainly falls in the category, just like “Murder in the City” of songs that are scary to put out there. For one, they could be embarrassing and for two they could be exploiting someone we love quite a bit, or an emotion that you had or an emotion that someone else had.
Audience member 2: There are so many songs about pretty girls, how do your wives deal with that?
Scott: We just tell them that they are not real (laughter).
Seth: I like that there’s an assumption that our wives listen to our music (laughter).
Scott: I am very thankful to live with a woman who has no idea half the time what I am putting out there. The audience usually knows quicker than they do. Luckily they don’t care.
Audience member 3: How has your process changed from your earlier days? How has it evolved to where now you are recording with Rick Rubin. I read a story early on that as a kid you were writing a song about a chicken (laughter). So how has it changed form then, to your early stuff, to now with Rick Rubin.
Seth: Despite my brother mocking me, I did attempt to write a song about chickens. Scott shot them down and it took me quite a long time to get over that (laughter). Still working on it. How has it changed? Scott and I first started writing songs by…I guess our first real attempts, we were putting them on cassette tapes and mailing them to each other. So that’s changed. We don’t do that anymore. We do some version of that. I think that maybe the process hasn’t changed as much in the writing process, perhaps in the revision process. Perhaps when we get into the studio and we start to realize that stuff works or not works and trying to be more open to letting it change. And also, Scott mentioned a vulnerability in songwriting. It’s sort of realizing when that’s appropriate and when it’s not. We put more emphasis on that now, and try to take ourselves out of the equation, and knowing that we are trying to make something that’s gonna stay even after we’re gone. So we can take some of the embarrassment factor out of it. I don’t think we thought about that as much, early on.
Scott: Personally I don’t sit down and write in sessions until there’s something that we’re working for like a recording or group of demos that have sort of surfaced. I much more into just letting the things come to me. I have this junk pile and I saw Chris [inaudible] talk about it once and it’s true to me. I notice that when Seth and I come together, which we do–we did just a couple of weeks ago–we usually meet at his kitchen table and Seth will have all of these things laid out all perfectly, like recording devices, his computer, stack of notebooks and they are all itinerary.
Seth: 90 degree angles.
Scott: Yeah, then I have napkins and stacks of junk with words on them, written upside down and backwards, and I just plop it down. I’ll piece together a collage of words that makes a song over a long period of time. So my process –and I think we can complement each other on how this process has changed, where I don’t force things as much as I once did. And, that may mean less songs, but I think that’s okay and that’s something we have learned along the way—that less songs is maybe better, putting more emphasis on fewer songs. But there’s not a lack of them still. We’ve got a lot of them. We’ve played one that kind of pertains to–in “Father’s First Spring”–it’s very pertaining to a song that’s written very fast and a song that certainly was scary to put out there, regarding exploiting the family, and family experiences (warming up instruments). This song was written traveling on the bus. I thought that childbirth would bring this wave of songs in my life that would just be unstoppable and it did not do that. It was more of a slow…well there was no time to write songs once the kid came along. This is the first song that came that I remember. This is “Father’s First Spring”.
(The band performed “Father’s First Spring”)
Audience member 4: What song did you guys have the most fun performing or writing?
Scott: (pause) Of all time? (laughter). The consistent answer to a question kind of like that one is that it seems that newer discoveries–as far as songs are concerned, which sometimes can be old songs and sometimes with the songs that were just written–we kind of pull something back and it has a new life with the instrumentation or a new approach, so that song gets pushed to the front, and it’s really enjoyable to play for this moment or time or shows. Then you will see us playing that song more at shows and whatnot. That changes, of course, in the recording studio as well. I think lately, for me personally–well it’s somebody else’s song–there’s a Buck Owens song that we’ve been doing and it’s a lot of fun to play. It’s just a song that we discovered. Nobody had ever heard of it until Seth heard it on his record. But, that we’ve written, lately we’ve been doing this medley thing that we did on TV not long ago with “Kick Drum Heart” and “Geraldine”. It’s very rock and roll but it’s a lot of fun, and it can just set off and take flight. I’ve had a lot of fun with that.
Seth: Yeah. I just want to point out something that I enjoy, was that she asked the question and Scott’s like, “Well the answer to a question that is very similar to that question is…” (laughter). I’m seeing Scott’s sort of very easy transition into politics when someone asks a question and [he says] “Well you know what let me answer a different one.” (laughter).
Scott: I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to be the writer for Bob’s speeches.
Seth: That’s right.
Scott: He’s the perfect politician.
Seth: Classic good looks
(cheers from audience for Bob)
Audience member 5: This is like the classic songwriting question. What comes first for you guys, the melody or the lyrics?
Seth: I’ll answer this question for Scott (laughter). Scott – while we are highlighting differences between he and I – Scott will sometimes come to me with this idea for a song and be like, “Hey check out this idea for a song.” He’ll play like 3 or 4 minutes long and then he’ll get done and I will be like, “Well you know, it’s an interesting idea, I don’t know about the melodies.” [Scott would say] “Oh don’t worry about the melodies.” And I’m like, “Okay, well maybe we can change a chord.” [Scott would say] “Oh don’t worry about the chords either.” (laughter). That seems pretty consistent with Scott. I think with me it’s kind of either way. It’s just always changing. We feel like the really valuable thing to do with songwriting is to really fight tooth and nail against formula, so try not to get into some way you do it all of the time, and you’ll be in better shape. We’re in better shape when we do that.
Audience member 6: You guys went from playing on street corners and over the years playing and selling out theaters. You talked about the recording process earlier. As far as musical structure and musical elements, how do you think you guys have evolved over the years?
Scott: Once again I can really only speak for myself because Seth always had an awareness of melody and singing much more than me. For me, awareness of key and pitch and singing has been something that I know for the first 4 or 5 years of our existence I didn’t pay any attention to at all. All I wanted to do it to get on stage and move and make an impact – surprise people, or scare people, or excite people, or make people angry or happy or whatever. I just knew that I wanted to shake things up. But for development, I think this goes along for both of us, we’ve become much more aware of wanting to make something that is great in our eyes–in the 3 of ours’ eyes. That will never be reached. It’s kind of like saying, “Well one day I’d like to be perfect.” Of course that will never be reached but we will always try to strive for it. So, there’s a natural progression of refinement in our recordings that we have to this day and continuing have been the captains of. We’ve been very lucky to be the captains of, because we’ve always been allowed to cover our business trail with the art leading. You know, the art has always led the business. So we’ve always got to say, “This is what we want to do with the recording. This is how we want it to work. This is what we are aiming for.” And then people get in line and help us. The answer I’m getting to is just that I hope to refine what it is that we do. That doesn’t necessarily mean cleaner and more polished because we have quite an interest in albums like “Tonight’s the Night” by Neil Young where you have like a true live experience that happens one time and one time only. We’re just searching for great art, or no not searching. We’re trying to make ourselves available for it to find us.
Audience member 7: Are there any songwriters that influence your songwriting, such as John Prine and Bob Dylan?
Scott: Both of those for sure. Townes Van Zandt is huge for me, starting in like 2007. I’d actually avoided Townes Van Zandt because I didn’t like his name (laughter). I have no idea what that even means. I mean I have no idea – total ignorance. But, when I grabbed on and understood the hopeful darkness that he sort of brought with his lyrics, I felt very akin to it.
Seth: I know Bob, I and Scott all would say one is Tom Waits. He’s someone who has no interest in genre or sticking to any genre, which I think is really important for someone who wants to create something and find their original voice, even if their original voice is a crazy circus master, or whatever. Really, he’s someone who could have just skated along as, in the early days, as “Oh it’s the next Bob Dylan, but on piano.” There were a lot of “here’s the next Bob Dylan” throughout the years and decades, but he could have kept on making really quality piano music with a trio or whatever, but it’s really nice how when you think he’s going to zig he zags. He always seemed pretty healthy in his older tunes, and that’s what we’re going for.
Audience member 8: I kind of have a two-part question. One, if you guys ever get stuck or have dry spells do you have things that you do to re-inspire yourselves? And also as you’ve seen your audience grow and become a bigger operation, has that influenced knowing that more people are listening and waiting for bigger music. Does that influence your songwriting?
Seth: The second part of that. You can’t completely ignore it when you know that you are going to record something and if you share it, there’s at least a good chance that hundreds of thousands of people are going to hear it. And while there are really positive sides of that, you could just start psyching yourself out. So I think we’ve worked hard to keep each other grounded, and to find the balance between staying true with it and staying genuine in what we what to do and what really matters. And also not making it seem like it’s more important because more people will hear it. You know initially I was thinking that the f-word was going to be in this song, but maybe not so much anymore.
Scott: The song “Down with the Shine” initially had the f-word in the chorus.
Seth: It was like, this is punk rock–this is good.
Scott: It just was.
Seth: It was like, “Is this exactly what you want to say?” I was like, “Well I don’t know if that’s exactly what we want to say.” (laughter)
Seth: What was the first part of the question?
Audience member 8: If you ever get stuck or have dry spells do you have anything to re-inspire yourself?
Scott: I just walk away from it whenever I’m stuck, because the more I convince myself that I am stuck, then I’m stuck. To me there’s a really…I do this with shows sometime. I say, “I don’t care about this,” and just throw it away. Sometimes I’ll do it with a verse. Then I can go out, and I can go relax and it just happens that that’s just the best way. To put all of this importance on one song, you know. I have, well I guess we have, but I have certainly thousands of ideas that are unfinished that if I really let myself think about it too much, it’s overwhelming and daunting. But, things just keep moving forward, so I just let it go. Throw it away. I’m into that. I have this definition I came up with, well not really a definition, no. Seth and I were talking about running. He ran this relay thing a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about it and I said, “Well you know all that matters is that you win, right?” (laughter) He said, “Oh yeah.” We were having a laugh about that. And then we realized the definition of winning, and it got me really thinking about well, no matter who wins the race, whoever is at the pub at the end of the night enjoying camaraderie after this long day of running and you know, exhausting endeavors, whoever is really having the most fun wins. It doesn’t matter who came across the finish line first, or who did it the best. That person will still be jealous of seeing the guy that’s like, “I lost but I’m still having fun.” (laughter) So you know if I hit like a bad note or something, I have to remember that if I am having fun, if I can define fun, including as many people in a good way as I possibly can and have as much of it as I can, then what I’m doing being stuck or not stuck kind of starts to fall away.
Seth: I try to zone in on the same thing when Scott hits a bad note (laughter).
Scott: And Seth will remind me every time (laughter). He likes to do this joke where he comes off the bus and sees whatever nice fella is going to help us at the club or concert or whatever. And, Seth comes over and says, “Listen these guys on this bus have been riding my coattails since day one.”
Seth: I do like to say that (laughter).
Bob: Can I just say one thing here? I just want to say a quick little story. There was a song—we were about to play a festival—and we were in the trailer 5 minutes before we were going on, and there was a very old song that we’ve been playing for 10 years. We were practicing, the 3 of us, and we hit a point and Seth said to Scott, “What chord are you playing?” [Scott said] “Well, I’m playing a G.” [Seth said] “Well you are supposed to be playing an E.” [Scott said] “I’ve been playing this G for 10 years!” (laughter)
Scott: I said, “Why is that important?”
Bob: I don’t know if the moral is that it’s never too late to be better. If it’s Seth it’s: “never too late to be better.” If it’s Scott it’s: “Man I’ve been playing this chord for 10 years!”
Scott: Here’s the problem, the G in my mind works simultaneously with the move when I hit the drum, and it had to stay there because if I was going to make the move on stage. [I should just] deaden all of the chords and just do that (does a cool move).
Seth: Then you could keep the most important part, which is the rock and roll move (laughter)! The great thing about when that happens, and that will happen occasionally, where I am like, “How can I say this to Scott? Scott listen, you are just hitting the wrong chord. I don’t mean for it to be an insult.” If it’s early in the tour Scott’s like, “Oh yeah, my bad. I’ll play the right chord.” But if we are like 2 months in and we are all just ragged, and I’ll be like, “Scott, can you hit the right chord?” and we are just…
Scott: Then later that day I say, “Seth I’m thinking about quittin’.” (laughter)
Seth: Just put like “Quittin’ Hard” on the (inaudible)
Scott: I’m in my pajamas…toothpaste in my beard (laughter).
Audience member 9: How has working with Rick Rubin influenced your process?
Seth: Well there are a few answers for that. He helped us calm down a bit in the studio. Earlier–this question about playing on street corners and getting in the studio, and actually getting to spend significant time in the studio–um playing on the street corner, volume was more important than anything was, you know. So, we worked much more on turning our voices into megaphones rather than having good pitch or especially good rhythm. Working with Rick, it was good because his work speaks for itself, so our ears were open. We’ve been very guilty of just not hearing a lot. Early on Bob would try to help us get some things wrangled in and we were just like, “Nahhhh, we’re good to go. Let’s go on and play right now.” And you know we would. And in the process, me and Scott and Bob over 8 years that we were a band before we met Rick and got in the studio to make “I and Love and You”, Bob admits this but I hadn’t really, that our tempo was all over the place. We stayed together as one voice but we would fly and slow down and fly and slow down, and we were the only 3 that could understand why that was happening. It was just because of hundreds and hundreds of shows. So, working with Rick on a technical aspect, he was really good about saying, “Let’s just tear this down for a second and rebuild it from ground up. Not change the song but let’s just find out what’s happening and why this part feels like, not a disappointment, but just a drop off. It’s not the part. The part’s great, it’s good, but we are slowing down for some reason.” That works on a street corner, but we started having trouble with that working in a room where we really want to hear a song over and over and over and over and over and over.
Scott: There are 3 things that I notice he does as well. I think our lives kind of came together at the right time. I think we all believe that there’s a natural way that a song’s supposed to be and there’s probably several ways that it should be, but we believe it will settle in to a natural –it’s not really in our control. We just know when we hear it. Now there’s probably more than one way and at some point you can pick that they are all right, but you have to get it to that general space where nature sort of says, “This work of art has to be like this, more or less.”
Seth: Yeah, because there’s way more ways to over complicate.
Scott: With that, Rick working in hip-hop, he got good at inventorying parts. He’ll listen to a song once and say, “Well on the second pre-chorus,” which he names it pre-chorus and I’m the one who’s always like, “Why’s it gotta be called a chorus or pre-chorus, let’s just not call it anything. What’s it matter?” But, he’ll inventory everything after one listen and be able to name these parts and where thing mood-wise happen or note-wise or key-wise happen, and then you can all talk about it and play around. Where the hip-hop part comes in is that he can actually visualize this piece and then switch it around, and play with it in the studio like you would with digital parts. We don’t really deal with digital parts. We are pretty dead set on trying to…
Seth: Actually play the song.
Scott: Yeah, um and the third part I forgot.
Audience member 10: Relating to the last song you guys played. How does the songwriting process and the touring schedule work together. Because I imagine it would be pretty frustrating to be inspired when you are seeing the highway every day. So, do you write more songs back home on break or on the road?
Scott: It is both. It’s gotten less to be both as it used to be. It used to be, you could kind of see the world more when you are in a van, right? We travel on a bus now more, or on an airplane. So it’s gotten to be where you are sitting in the coach section of the plane and you really aren’t getting a whole lot of inspiration. Although, your mind can go a lot of places…I don’t mean to drift. We have compartmentalized it a little more at home now than we used to. I think the more we travel, what happens is the more you travel the more you have to travel, and the more you see the more you discover these new words and they have new meanings with new experiences. So like when you are at the Cliffs of Dover and you are like, “Oh my gosh the Cliffs of Dover, what a great line,” you know. And what’s happening right at the Cliffs of Dover is that you are on this ferry that’s got swells of 10 ft and you’re looking down one window and seeing the channel and looking out the other in the sky, and it’s like, so what IS happening right now? So in that regard, being on the road offers all of these new words and new discoveries that have…I always compare it to gold to cash. You know, you have cash. The cash is the song, but it’s gotta have the gold to back it up, which has to be the experience or the belief. You have to actually believe it, because when you try to continue on in your life, I’ve learned and we’ve learned that if [we] try to continue to play songs that we don’t really believe, they just disappear. They’re not important. That’s why so many of these old-time songs have lived so long. They have so many layers of belief and history in them, from so many people, that they are established like a brick foundation, you know–a stone foundation. We should take one more and then you should play that new song.
Scott: We’ll just watch you (laughter). Let’s switch it up and go right here.
Audience member 11: Thank you very much for the joy you’ve given this 40-year-old man…
Scott: Your beard looks great (laughter)…You are out of the service now.
Audience member 11: Yes I am! Thank you very much. You’ve provided the soundtrack for our wedding, thank you. But my question is, let’s go back to high school age, Seth, Scott, and Bob. What were you guys running to the store to buy. I know we talked about Fugazi and all of that stuff, but what other stuff were you listening to 20+ years ago?
Bob: Bruce Springsteen, The Replacements, and Tom Waits.
Scott: I’ve said this over and over, and I’ve started to not want to say it because I am afraid it will get me in trouble one day, but I just worshiped Mike Patton from Faith No More–Mr. Bungle and Faith No More–and anything that he was doing. Then all of the grunge stuff was happening, so Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Which, by the way, I feel like – Blind Melon – I feel like they were all kind of precursors to what I guess some people call the neo-folk thing, which I think has been going on forever. But, I think there was a lot of acoustic rock going on within Nirvana, within Soundgarden, within Alice in Chains. I think “Jar of Flies” was an amazing acoustic record. But anyway, all of that stuff in high school, that’s what it consisted of…Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Seth: Nirvana obviously, um the Deftones, and Doc Watson—a lot of Doc Watson.
Scott: So this is interesting, we got on the bus this morning on the way up and we talked a little bit about not wanting to play too much during the workshop, because we wanted to be able to talk, because we love to talk (laughter).
Seth: We…WE love to talk (laughter).
Scott: So, um, every once in a while, I would give Seth some type of devisal situation, and he will go through lists of his if I haven’t, and it’s typical for me to forget them or just remove myself from them. Seth found kind of this list of them that he started pulling from on his own, so this is an indicator of sort of our process—one part of our process. So, he kind of brought back this series of songs that he’s basically taken ownership of, but we both wrote them. It’s kind of interesting. [To Seth] Um, I don’t really think I should try to play, unless I can…
Seth: Um, okay.
Scott: Well, I mean I will try…
Seth: Yeah, just try.
Scott: Okay, I’ll just do a couple of chords. So this is one of those songs from this new list that we have that we are just kind of watching the songs happen.
(Seth performed a new untitled song. Per the band’s request, audio and video of all unreleased songs should not be posted on the internet)
As previously mentioned, the session ended with a standing ovation as the band smiled, thanked the audience, and promptly left the auditorium. The following day, The Avett Brothers closed out the festival with a raucous and rainy set on the Watson Stage that left the waterlogged audience begging for more, despite the day’s incessant drizzle. Rain or shine, these men always bring their best to the stage, and this year’s MerleFest performances were no different.
Here was an especially moving moment from their Watson stage set, where Scott and cellist Joe Kwon performed “Am I Born to Die”.
8 responses to “Songwriting Session – The Avett Brothers @ MerleFest”
This was a wonderful read. Even though I was there, I didn’t catch everything they said. As always, you captured the tenor and tone of the event. Thanks for your reflection on this special interaction with the guys!
I was not there, thank you so much for sharing this!
This is a wonderful gift to those who could not be there, thanks so much. It is also so cool to have them be so candid and real.
Thanks so much for doing this! I’ve been following these guys for almost a decade and was heartbroken to be turned away. Would’ve loved to have seen it in person but this is the next best thing!
Did I miss something here or did the writer forget to mention the question about them writing about pretty girls? That was classic!
Hey Billy! Thanks for the comment, and yes that was a funny moment. It was so funny that the audience laughter drowned out some of what was said, but the part that could be understood is in there. I believe the audience member #2 asked the pretty girl question :). Thanks for taking the time to read this!
Always loved this group and when i heard they were coming to the PNC Center in Jersey, i couldnt wait to see them. What a fantastic show. Didnt care to see any of the other performers after them…sorry, other guys! Love to the band, fabulous musicians