Sometimes you just have to be blunt about the bands you love. With The Avett Brothers’ eighth studio album out today, Magpie and the Dandelion, brothers Scott and Seth Avett kick the dirt off of their roots and plant a new crop of songs that are fixin’ to take full bloom.
Collectively, Magpie and the Dandelion is a polished throwback that is stripped of cumbersome instrumentation and soundboard tricks, while still maintaining the clean studio sound that comes with a Rick Rubin production–a winning combination. Perhaps Rubin finally decided to step back and let the boys do what they do best–make music.
While this may be the case, it was surprising to learn that Magpie and the Dandelion was recorded around the same time that The Avett Brothers recorded last year’s album, The Carpenter. Side-by-side these albums feel very different. The Carpenter walks the line between grand themes of life and death, while Magpie and the Dandelion returns to the intimate storytelling that has served the brothers well from their humble beginnings.
“Pack the old love letters up. We will read them when we forget why we left here.“
The Avetts aren’t strangers to a brutally honest and moving love letter. They’ve laid out their fears and feelings for listeners several times before in songs like “November Blue,” “If It’s The Beaches,” “My Last Song to Jenny,” and basically every song in the “Pretty Girl” series.
When these earlier songs were written the boys were bushwhacking their way through the early phases of love, often in an emotionally fervent state. Conversely, the songs on Magpie and the Dandelion reveal that the Avetts have moved on to a new, more complicated chapter of love–one that has been forced to withstand the hardships of life on the road, the struggles of caring for a sick child, and the possibility of growing old alone.
There is an authenticity that comes with bearing one’s soul for the world to see—laying out the mistakes, the doubts, the fears. This album continues to propel the story of a band of brothers who have been in the game for over a decade. Now they look back on where they have been, wonder what they may have done differently, and hope to find answers beyond the bright lights of fame.
“Put the sketches and the notes in the box labeled ‘Burn With Furniture’”
The album opens with “Open Ended Life,” a southern rock barn-burner packed with punchy banjo, electric guitar solos, a feverish fiddle, and the bluesy whine of G. Love’s harmonica. As if denouncing “If It’s The Beaches,” the boys light fire to their past–love letters and all–watch in the rear-view mirror as it burns to the ground, and speed away in an old beat-up truck. This track is pure bonfire, beer-drinking, hoot and holler fun, straight from the hills of North Carolina.
“It’s alright if you finally stop caring, just don’t go and tell someone that does.”
On “Morning Song” the mood becomes more introspective and the instrumentation simplified. Piano and drums round out the sound as Scott and Seth sing of the reality that accompanies embarking on life’s journeys alone. The harmonies alone will cut you to the core. With the song’s closing chorus, the listener is flooded with overwhelming emotion, as the beautiful voices of Avett family members sing, “I have to find that melody alone.” “Morning Song” evokes feelings of hope despite despair, and will surely be added to the canon of outstanding folk-ballads that have come from the minds and hearts of these men.
“Whoa oh whoa.”
The Avetts are masters of bending and blending genres. On “Never Been Alive,” Seth manages to layer Pink Floyd’s dreamy “Speak to Me/Breathe” with a Sam Cooke vocal cadence. This combination yields a deliberately subdued ballad that feels trippy, but sluggish at times. Though “Never Been Alive” has been road tested for several years, it remains an underdog, perhaps having not yet reached its full potential.
“Let me see your skeleton, well before your life is done.”
The album’s first single “Another is Waiting” is definitely the most radio friendly folk-pop track of the collection. Full of rambling banjo runs and tight drum lines, “Another is Waiting” speaks to the dangers of any industry that chews up and spits out protégés with little regard. This track’s positive message is sure to translate over radio airwaves to young, impressionable listeners worldwide.
“Bring your love to me. I will hold it like a dandelion.”
During a songwriter’s session at the Newport Folk Festival, Seth was asked how he decides what becomes an Avett Brother song versus a Darling song. With a thoughtful pause, he replied, “I have to actively answer that question every time an idea comes up. I can’t say that I always know, because a lot of times I am surprised at what makes sense for us to present together. But, the Darling songs that end up just becoming Darling songs, they look to me the same way that Scott’s paintings do, as far as this is a singular vision.”
In listening to “Bring Your Love To Me,” it appears that perhaps a Darling song slipped into the pile of 30-plus songs that the band initially brought to Rubin. Hearing fingertips sliding on tinny strings, Seth’s pleading promise to protect a fragile love, and the warm tones of intermittent hums offers fans a little glimpse into what can be expected on the fourth Darling installment.
“I want to be there for you, and when I come home will you still want me to?”
Did someone say “Norwegian Wood?” It’s not the first time that Beatles have found their way into an Avett Brothers’ song. Musical influences unconsciously shape the sound of every band, but what makes “Good To You” unique is that it is a heart-wrenching, honest and emotionally transparent personal account that could have only come from this band. On this piano lullaby, Scott and bassist Bob Crawford share intentions and fears with their families, in light of the fact that their time away from home may come with sobering consequences.
“Part from me, I would not dare take someone in love with me where I’m going.”
“Apart From Me” stands alone as the album’s most jaw-dropping ballad. The songwriting on this track matches that of “Murder in the City,” raw, powerful, and thought-provoking. Scott’s voice tears through the listener’s soul, as his gritty exterior crumbles under the weight of past decisions. Looking back on the pursuit of his dreams, Scott seems to question the path he led his family down over the course of his career. Seth’s delicate finger-picking balances the harsh reality of Scott’s words and the listener is left peering into the wilted spirit of this woeful artist.
“How long can you live in shame and drop a lifelong curse on your own last name?”
Thematically in line with “Good To You” and “Apart From Me,” “Skin and Bones” picks up the pace as the Avetts weigh the pros and cons of the famed artist’s life on the road. There is an irony that emerges as lyrics speak of the “beast” that drives the band down the road farther away from home.
This “beast” has reared its ugly head before, particularly when Scott has discussed how he struggles to find balance between his artistic passion and everyday obligations. At his most recent art talk, Scott explained, “Artists are put on this planet to do…three things. [Ruskin] says we are here to see, and to feel, and to document. The artist can try to think, but he’s not here to do that. He can try to explain and analyze, but he’s not here to do that. He can go to parties but he’s not here to party. He can’t. He really can’t…As soon as he feels something he has to act on it and move on it.” With lyrics like “It’s the tin and the board that keeps me going home, but it’s who I am that won’t let me alone,” it appears almost impossible to tame the artist’s inner beast, thus the push and pull carries on.
“Bring me light from where I thought it was dark. Be the spark that has a chance to light a candle.”
“Souls Like The Wheels” is a welcomed live addition to this studio album. Originally released as a studio track on The Second Gleam in 2008, this live version of “Souls Like The Wheels” features Seth, his guitar, and an amazed audience at The Fabulous Fox Theater in St. Louis, MO last year. Even with the occasional hoot and holler from those fans you’d like to punch for making noise during ballads (in particular the girls who scream “We love you Seth!”…seriously if you are one of those girls, please just stop), this version evokes images of Seth and his HD-35 at the front of the stage in the warm glowing embrace of the spotlight. These are the moments when fans know they are witnessing greatness.
“I’ve got love pouring out of my veins, but it’s all vanity.”
No Avett ablum would be complete without one of Seth’s face-melting electric guitar solos. On “Vanity,” Seth and Scott trade verses, and tackle the ugly truth that underpins our words and actions. Recently, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell joined the band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to put his own rock-god spin on the song, proving that he’s still got the chops that served him so well in the 90s. “Vanity” stands alone in its rock-ballad style, while still contributing to the album as a whole.
“I will seek the approval of no one but you, in love for the changes I take.”
Magpie and the Dandelion closes with “The Clearness Is Gone,” a waltz-ballad previously released as a bonus track on The Carpenter. The Avetts plug in and offer listeners a strong finish to an album that chronicles the band’s journey. Though the band forges ahead into the bright lights, “The Clearness is Gone” contains muted hints of “Oh What a Nightmare.” Perhaps this nod to their former-selves serves as a subtle message to their fans that have started to question the band’s direction. Those fans should trust that deep down inside of these men, there is a screaming Avett just waiting to go berserk, melt into the stage and then dive into a sea of sweaty fans.
“We won’t waste a long goodbye on the smoke or foolish lies that finally passed us.“
Magpie and the Dandelion just feels like home. It successfully bridges the gap between the fan who boasts about being among a handful of people at the 2007 Plan 9Emotionalism record release show and the fan who first experienced the life-altering sound of Avett harmonies on Bonnaroo’s main stage in 2012. The album features more banjo for the bluegrass-loving fans, top-notch songwriting for the lyric-hungry fans, electric guitar riffs for old Nemo fans, and a thoughtful musical progression and growth for the fans that actually appreciate watching these talented men mature and fight to feel comfortable in their own skin. Today, a collective exhale and “thank you” can be heard across the spectrum of Avett fans as they sit down and take in the phenomenal work that is Magpie and the Dandelion.
**For fans that can’t get enough of The Avett Brothers, there is a deluxe Target-exclusive version of Magpie and the Dandelion that includes six unreleased demos off of the album**
Scott Avett sang, “I will rearrange my plans and change for you,” during the song “If It’s the Beaches” on Wednesday night, at the McKittrick Hotel in New York City. However, I was the one who found myself changing my plans on September 25, 2013 in order to attend a private Avett Brothers concert in The Heath room of the fictional hotel and home of the off-Broadway play, Sleep No More. The band played an eighteen-song set that was taped for the PBS program, Front and Center. The concert is to be aired in early 2014 in support of their upcoming album, Magpie and the Dandelion, being released on October 15th.
After reading a tweet from The McKittrick Hotel, a routine weekday morning at work quickly ended when I made the decision to board a train to New York City. The hotel was giving away a handful of tickets to Avett Brothers’ fans for a secret event at 8:00pm. The details were minimal, but I had made it to Penn Station and I was determined to win. Constant refreshing of my twitter news feed and a mild addiction to social media paid off–I was in.
At the entrance doors of a warehouse in Chelsea, a host read my name on the guest list and invited me in. I was escorted to a dark and eerie elevator and taken to the fifth floor where the show was to be held. The home of the play, Sleep No More, is a 100,000 square foot building that is modeled to look like a 1930’s hotel, known as The McKittrick Hotel. This special occasion was a rarity for the band, as well as for the hotel. While a show is held at the hotel every night, this concert was much different than what usually happens at Sleep No More. Typically, guests are given white masks and instructed not to speak. They wander the rooms of the haunted hotel and follow actors. Guests experience the play, based on the story Macbeth, in a much different way. They are told, “Fortune favors the bold,” and are encouraged to stand out from the crowd or they just may be taken into a hidden room or given privy information. Those who have seen the play, return again and again because it’s a different experience every time.
The Heath room, was decorated like a haunted hotel bar–dark, cozy, and a little bit spooky. The walls of the small room were lined with booths and the floor was full of tables set for two. Drinks were being poured at the bar and large HD television cameras were resting on their tripods. The stage sat crowded with instruments as guests made their way to their seats. A Sleep No More mask lay at the foot of the drum kit. The room held 200 people, but it was not full. I took my seat in the front row, ordered a drink, and admired the elegant décor while I waited for the show to begin.
The band took the stage at 9:00pm. As he plugged in his Martin D35 guitar, Seth Avett whispered into the microphone, “It’s so quiet,” and let out a laugh. They thanked the audience for attending and kicked off the set with the song “Live and Die,” from their 2012 album, The Carpenter. As I sat in my chair, I fought the urge to get up and dance. I assumed the PBS cameraman behind me would not want me blocking his shot.
The band played crowd favorites, such as “Murder and the City,” “I and Love and You,” and “Laundry Room.” Among the set were also new songs, “Another is Waiting,” “Vanity,” “Morning Song,” and “Apart from Me,” all to be featured on the new album. Having attended several Avett Brothers concerts, I had been waiting to hear “Morning Song” performed live. Although I have not listened to the new album in its entirety, I can already tell this song will be a favorite of mine. The show was intimate and unlike any other I’ve seen. The band told stories and joked with one another throughout the set. Between songs, Scott reminisced about visiting New York City for the first time at age 26. He said he was intimidated by the fast paced city life, but has since grown a love for the city, and was happy to be back. “This is very exciting for us, to be playing a place like this,” he confessed to the audience. The band had created a setlist prior to taking the stage, but changed a number of songs on it to better suit the mood of the room. Scott and Seth would have short debates on what to play next in between many of the songs.
The final song of the encore was “If It’s the Beaches.” A passionate love song, played quietly to a room of attentive ears. The audience rose to their feet and applauded the band whole-heartedly, exchanging ear to ear smiles with the band. It had been a special experience for all of us. I joked with a friend, telling her my face hurt because of the permanent grin I had worn for two straight hours.
In groups of ten, we boarded the elevator and made our way to the exit. Once outside, we saw the band hustle into a van to be whisked away. Fortune favors the bold and fortune certainly favored me when I made the bold move to leave work early on a Wednesday morning. I’m thankful for this experience and look forward to reliving it through the PBS broadcast of Front and Center early next year.
The Avett Brothers will stay in New York for the next few days. They are scheduled to appear at New York’s Town Hall for Another Day, Another Time on Sunday, September 29th. This concert event is celebrating folk music of the 1960s. Several other musicians will be joining, such as Jack White, Marcus Mumford, Joan Baez, Punch Brothers, Collin Meloy, Milk Carton Kids, Patti Smith, Conor Oberst, and more. On Monday, September 30th, The Avett Brothers will return to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for a television performance on NBC.
The Setlist 9/25/13:
Live and Die
Old Joe Clark
Down With the Shine
Another Is Waiting
Go to Sleep
The Prettiest Thing (David Childers cover)
Ballad of Love and Hate
Just a Closer Walk With Thee
Apart From Me
A Father’s First Spring
I and Love and You
Murder in the City
If It’s the Beaches
For the first time in Evolution of a Fan history, we welcome our first guest blogger, Karissa Sevensky. Karissa was fortunate enough to share a very special evening with The Avett Brothers at McKittrick Hotel this past week, and kind enough to share her experience and photos with us!Thank you Karissa.
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)
Scott and 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?
Seth and Scott Avett
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”.
Just in time for the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, I caught up with Bob Crawford, bassist for The Avett Brothers, to talk about their new album “The Carpenter”, their first Grammy nomination, songwriting, and learning to play the fiddle, among other things:
EOAF: Congratulations on the success of “The Carpenter”. How would you describe the album?
Crawford: Mature, thoughtful, intentional, poignant, pensive. I think it’s heavy, and I think that’s where…I’ve had friends that I have had since I was 19, I’m 40 now. I’ve had them say “I don’t know about this one. It’s not your best.” I think maybe we lose some people as we go, but maybe we gain people in some ways. Maybe people come and go. It’s not 2007 anymore, and it’s not 2005. It’s a different time for us and I think you are being honest about where you are in life and that being reflected in your art and what you do and the way you do it. It’s definitely going to change.
EOAF: How do you feel about how songs from “The Carpenter” have translated live?
Crawford: Oh they are great! I think they have really translated. You know what they have done? Some of them, like “A Father’s First Spring” and “February 7”, some of these song help us slow down on stage and try to meditate on being intense and calm at the same time. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s really fun to translate something like that live. We’ve had slow songs in the past–God knows we have tons of them. There’s a controlled, an intentional controlled aspect that comes musically, like a hang-there-in-space-and-time and have that patience. I’ve always thought Neil Young did that so well with songs like “Harvest Moon”–how he could have a very intense mid-tempo. That’s tricky for a musician. It’s very hard. The inclination is to play faster, because your heart is beating faster because you are on a stage and there are people.
EOAF: Is there any song from The Carpenter that you really love to play live?
Crawford: “Live and Die” is getting really comfortable. It’s starting to feel like an old trusty. We are getting better, with the last two albums, at holding songs back before the release. We were never good at that before. We’ve gotten better at that. When you record the song, but you don’t really know them, you know your part and you know the section that you did a million times, but you don’t know it like when you are on stage and let it fall out of you. When you record the record, there’s about a year before you really start playing the songs intently and constantly, and then they take on a life of their own. So, they are coming. Some of them are still in the coming phase, but some of them have been very surprising to play, like “Life” has been fun to play and “Paul Newman [vs. the Demons]” has been fun to play. That can be really fun to play.
EOAF: You played “Life” for the first time live at The Christmas Jam in Asheville. That was exciting to see you guys added last minute to the line-up. How was that experience for you?
Crawford: It was fun! Scott [Avett] and I used to live in Asheville, and I remember a time when the Christmas Jam came around. For a couple of years we were asked to participate, but we do our New Year’s show in Asheville. So it was finally good that this year we could be a part of it. It was really great, because we hadn’t played together in about a month and a half. I mean we had practiced, but we hadn’t done a show. It was fun because I was actually really nervous, but we did great. I was like, “This is great I am nervous! This is awesome.”
EOAF: That is a great feeling, and it was also a very different crowd. The majority of the people there were sort of that jam-band crowd.
Crawford: Yeah! It was nice to get that support. I could also tell from the stage that [the audience was] really there to see String Cheese [Incident]. That made if fun. It was nice to be in a room that we’ve sold out, and played two nights there before, and for it to be a new room—for the lighting to be different and for there to be no backdrop behind us.
EOAF: “The Carpenter” was nominated for the Best Americana Album award for this year’s Grammy’s. Congratulations! Where were you when you found out?
Crawford: Thank you so much. I was at home in bed. I started getting texts saying “Congratulations” and this and that.
EOAF: How does the Grammy nomination play into your or The Avett Brothers’ definition of success?
Crawford: I think it’s always nice to be patted on the back, or nice to have someone tell you good job. Let’s face it. It’s great to get a compliment. I mean, it’s always nice, but I don’t think it’s why we do it, and it’s not even necessary for us to continue doing it—to get those kind of accolades. We’re going to keep doing what we do probably until it doesn’t seem useful anymore, until there’s no need to write songs, until we feel like we’ve plateaued, or we feel like we have nothing to say, or until people stop coming to see us live. But I think the first thing, besides a tragedy, that would hasten us not doing it would be if we had nothing to say. We always told ourselves earlier that we would stop doing it if it seemed like we plateaued—if it seemed like it wasn’t going anywhere any longer, you know. I don’t know that we are there yet. I think we hope to do it forever. Maybe there are years to take off, or we can take a break, but I hope it can still exist in the same light.
EOAF: It is great that you guys have been getting recognized more for what you are doing. In that notoriety you have been asked to play with some pretty big names over the past two years—Bob Dylan, you’ve played for Tom T. Hall, and you did the Crossroads sessions with Randy Travis. Is there anything from those specific experiences that really stands out to you?
Crawford: Well they are all really touching and exciting. Obviously the Bob Dylan thing is surreal. It’s even surreal now because it doesn’t even feel like it really happened. You know? It’s one of those things. “Did that really happen?” It was really exciting to work with Randy Travis. He was great, I mean really awesome. He was great to be around and a really nice guy. I think we really blended well together. I think it’s a nice match and definitely a connection there. They are all really great, but we have to keep in mind that to share the stage with somebody or to collaborate isn’t the main thing. To be able to do these things is great, and we should be thankful for them, enjoy them and savor the moment, but it’s not the main thing. Take it as it comes, but we have that thing that we do and that needs to come first and foremost.
EOAF: Did you grown up in NJ?
Crawford: I did, I grew up in South Jersey.
EOAF: So is it safe to assume that you didn’t grow up listening to people like Doc Watson and Tom T. Hall?
Crawford: Yes, I started listening to Doc Watson in 1992. A friend of mine drove me down to MerelFest. Actually, the first time I saw Doc was at the Cowtown Bluegrass Festival with that same friend who told me about MerleFest. Then I saw Doc I saw at The Bottom Line in New York City before I moved down here. I remember the first time I saw him my friend was like, “That’s a legend. You got to see a legend”. I didn’t even know who he was at the time. I was fortunate enough to see him many, many times after that. We opened up for him one time and of course we played MerleFest all those years, and the last time I saw him was when we played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. He was out there and he was playing with David Holt, and we watched him from the side of the stage. I’ll never forget it. It was a very sad day when he passed–very, very sad day.
EOAF: You have recently added the mandolin and fiddle to your contributions to the band. How did that come about?
It came about because Scott and Seth [Avett] are very open to and very supportive of things that I try to do. The fiddle has been the most recent, and I seem to be getting some traction with it. Beginning to play something at the age of 40, you know, I wish I’d been playing all of these instruments when I was 15 or 16 years old, but that wasn’t the case. But the fiddle has been a real mental savior the past couple of years for me, and I feel myself growing in it in a lot of ways. Scott and I–before my daughter got sick–we started playing old-time music like Tommy Jarrell and Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole, and Uncle Dave Macon–just old-time music and we would just kind of go do our thing. Doc Watson when he was very young with Clarence Ashley, that’s a really good album if people can find that—really, really good. Doc was very, very young. It’s awesome. Anyway, we’d just be backstage and play these old-time tunes and try to learn them. They were just claw hammer banjo and fiddle tunes. It just kind of grew out of that. We still do it. When my daughter got sick, he’d come visit me at the hospital, and we would play. It’s kind of our thing. Hopefully someday…well maybe even not…maybe it doesn’t have to be something that we do for people. Maybe it’s actually something that we can do for us, but it’s been a lot of fun.
EOAF: The cool thing about when you get in the spotlight on stage, is that everyone just goes crazy. I think it stems from the fact that the spotlight is always on Scott and Seth so much, but the fact is that you are the third brother. When you sing your songs or do your upright bass spin [the crowd goes wild]. By the way how many revolutions can you get on that thing when you spin it around?
Crawford: (Laughs) Well like I always say, any monkey can spin a bass, and someday I am going to teach one to do it just to prove my point. But I love this job I have and the guys I travel with and play with. I’ve been blessed in so many ways, and I am so thankful for that. I just want to enjoy my remaining years, as many as they may be, just playing music and loving music and learning songs. I have just been fortunate with life.
EOAFr: Have you done any songwriting recently for yourself or your side projects?
Crawford: Not since my daughter got sick. David Childers and I did another Overmountain Man record, which will be out January 22 (“The Next Best Thing”, Ramseur Records). It was recorded before Hallie (Crawford’s daughter) got sick, and I’ve got several songs that are on that [album]. The fiddle was kind of that thing that I did when things got out of the critical phase and I had time to tinker, you know like 45 minutes a day, or a half hour a day in the hospital. I just kind of tinkered on the fiddle and tried to get to know that more. I feel myself closer to writing now. I write down little things here and there. I think at some point, there was a time after Hallie got sick, I thought, “I’m living it, I don’t have to write about it,” you know? Life is so intense I don’t have too much time for that. I think the big thing that we’ve been though–my family and people who have been through far different and far worse things—in some ways sometimes I think there are far worse things that you can go through as horrible as what we have gone through. You kind of get the feeling, and not in a bad way, that no one can really understand what you are going through or what you feel, like your friends and family members. You kind of just feel like, man, you kind of feel frustrated and angry. You don’t want anyone to go through what you are going through. You certainly wouldn’t even want your worst enemy to go through what you are going through, so you feel like no one really understands what you are going through. The idea of writing about it—if someone can’t truly understand or empathize, for good reason–what would be the point? Other than journaling, which I have done intentionally, how would it come out and what would you say? I think it’s just a matter of getting my head to the right place to write about it. I think I am going to write at some point, I just don’t know what or when.
EOAF: In terms of your daughter, the entire Avett Nation community has been hopefully uplifting for you and your family. Since then—and probably before then–a lot of the fans have gotten together around Avett Brother shows, and organized community events or fundraisers. How does that make you feel, and what part do you think you guys play in that?
Crawford: I don’t know what part we play in it. We do what we can, and we do as much as we can. I know we all have charities that we support and try to do all we can for. I am really glad people do it. Any kind of service, I’m glad people do it. I’d like to dedicate my life more to service. Any time you can serve someone else, it’s probably the greatest thing you can do as a human being. When I think about God and practicing your faith, I think that service to others is probably number one to what we can all do as human beings. I don’t think I’ve served anyone as well as I think that my wife and I and our family has been served during our time. We’ve been served amazingly by so many, so many friends and family members, and of course the Avett family and the Avett community has served us as well. I think that is something that I always keep my mind present to—ways to serve. I just think service is one of the most important things that we can all be doing. Look at the world and the country and people’s attitudes, people being divided along political lines—I think if people just focused on serving each other and serving someone other than themselves, a lot of these compromises we need would be evident.
EOAF: You guys used to play at Peasants here in Greenville, right?
Crawford: Yes, we did.
EOAF: Did you know they are reopening?
Crawford: No, but I am glad to hear that.
EOAF: There is a push to get music back in Eastern NC, so if you all are ever back in this neck of the woods, even if any of your side projects want to come through here, I know the town would be very happy to have you.
Crawford: Thank you!
EOAF: By all accounts you were pretty instrumental in pushing the [Avetts] out of their comfort zones and having them go on tour in the beginning. There are obviously tons of young singer/songwriters and bands in the Eastern NC area trying to make it, for example, Nick and The Babes is just one of them. What would be your advice to a young band or singer/songwriter out of this area who really wants to get noticed?
You mentioned Nick. He and I are friends and have worked together a little bit. I definitely think that people should take notice to them. I think that the advice is to get out of the area. Spend as much time as possible on the road and just travel around and around and around and around and just try to share what you do with the country. There really is no easy way. I can only say this because this is what we did, and this is what works for us. There are probably other ways to do it but I don’t know those ways. I haven’t experienced that. I know there is a ton of talent out there, and I wish this was a time in my life when I could go out and see more of it. I know there are a lot of really great musicians and there is plenty to be taking notice of. I hope they will have the presence of mind to reach outside of their comfort zone and listen to some other music.
The original interview appeared in Mixer Magazine. I would like to thank Bob Crawford for his time. To learn more about The Avett Brothers and their music, please visit www.theavettbrothers.com.
We’ve changed a lot, and no one here can stop that train before it gets to where it’s going
These lyrics resonate with me each time I listen to The Avett Brothers’ new album, The Carpenter. While there are certainly collections of lyrical lessons nestled in all twelve of the album’s new songs, these particular lyrics from I Never Knew You serve as a shot of reality to fans, both old and new. The band, made up of brothers Scott and Seth Avett, bassist Bob Crawford, and touring members cellist Joseph Kwon and drummer Jacob Edwards, is sending a pretty clear message that they are a forward-moving, well-oiled, meticulously crafted machine that shows no sign of pumping the breaks anytime soon–not even for their fans who are waiting at the “I Want More Banjo Station” screaming, “Hey, what about us!?” Didn’t Ill With Want teach you all anything?
Sure, The Carpenter has a more produced sound (um, it’s a studio album), and yes it may teeter on the cusp of mainstream pop music with an Americana twist, but so what!? Music is made to move the listener, to evoke emotion and thought, and that is what The Avett Brothers do best–banjo or no banjo. If the album moves you to tears, laughter, love, goosebumps, or overwhelming joy, well then stay on board and enjoy the ride. If you start to experience motion sickness, please feel free to get off at the next stop and find a different destination, because this Avett train is movin’ on.
For me, listening to The Carpenter is kind of like taking that train ride through the countryside–a thought-provoking experience of varying landscapes for the senses and soul. The brothers Avett, a charming pair of musical vagabonds who never seem quite comfortable sitting still, take listeners on a journey down the path of self-discovery. While they have left deep, muddy bootprints in all corners of the US, their mode of exploration goes well beyond planes, trains, and automobiles, so much so that they spent nearly three years in the trenches mucking through their own very private experiences–both joyous and sobering–in order to put this album together.
The Carpenter certainly maintains a common theme we have seen from the Avetts over the past decade–man searching for meaning through the passing seasons. The opening track, Once and Future Carpenter, stays true to this theme as it portrays the travels of “a poet young and hungry” on the eternal path for purpose. Imagery of spinning slot machines accompanied by lyrics like “sometimes I hit/sometimes it robs me blind” remind listeners that while life’s just one big crap shoot, we have to take risks and make the best of the hand we are dealt.
Although Live and Die is the only banjo-heavy song on the album, I predict some disappointment from fans who covet that gritty punk-bluegrass Avett sound of past albums and live shows. Instead, Live and Die delivers a much more radio-friendly pop sound, and showcases a delicate and happy side of the banjo. This catchy tune is like a big ol’ mason jar full of NC honey, dripping with the sweetness that is Mr. Seth Avett. It doesn’t get any sweeter than this folks. It is a fun and joyful song that I will undoubtedly be singing in and around the house for weeks to come.
Winter in my Heart takes a somber turn as the band openly shares their woes with depression. A poignant admission of falling victim to the black veil of depression, this song will hit home for fans who have experienced their own feelings of hopelessness and despair. The brightest light in this dark song is Kwon’s hauntingly beautiful performance on the cello, which is further elevated by the eery cries of the musical saw (side note: whoever came up with the idea to use the musical saw on an album titled The Carpenter deserves his own Grammy. Seriously, that is genius!). Overall, Kwon adds breathtaking dimension to this already multifaceted cast of characters, and continues to solidify the authenticity and uniqueness of The Avett Brothers.
On a rejuvenated February Seven Avett country charm resurfaces with crisp guitar picking and clean vocals. This song feels like throwback Avett–a simple song with strong and honest lyrics, much like the songs of the musical legends that paved the way for them. Through My Prayers speaks to the heavy regret and sorrow that comes with missing the chance to tell someone you care. Here, Seth shares the story of a painful lesson learned and implores others to show the love in their hearts before it’s too late–no message could be more chilling and appropriate as this on the 11th anniversary of 9-11.
The Avetts take a brief departure from their traditional acoustic sound, and give a slight nod to their Nemo and Oh What a Nightmare roots by bringing out the electric guitar for a few face-melting riffs on songs like Geraldine and Paul Newman vs. The Demons. Paul Newman vs. The Demons offers a new twist on an old theme–not learning from past mistakes (think Distraction #74)–but this time with a very different sound that tends to distract from the album’s cadence. On a positive note, the song does evoke quite vivid Labyrinth-esque images of Seth falling down a dark rabbit hole while being grabbed at by his demons on the way down, only to find Paul Newman there to save him in the end. Seriously, in my mind this has already translated into the most amazing Crackerfarm video. Nevertheless, it will be interesting and exciting to see how this song matures and holds up on stage. Additionally, Pretty Girl from Michigan gets plugged in and ends up as one of the best songs on the album. This song has been a longstanding fan-favorite, so it is nice to see such a smooth transition from the road to the studio.
The infamous banjo returns on Down With The Shine, alongside a horns section that brings in some dirty Bourbon Street undertones. Although this song has been floating around for a few years, it made its first “national” debut on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts and has been evolving ever since. More recently the live version has turned into something of a big top waltz with Scott acting as the dramatic ring leader. While this album version is masterfully layered with rich instrumentation, it unfortunately feels bogged down and sluggish in comparison to the live version. Herein lies the magic that is the ever-changing nature of Avett Brothers songs, and also why I don’t put too much stock into the initial “feel” of the album versions of their songs. Inevitably, the live variations of these songs will continue to move audiences and strengthen their already loyal fan base. Fear not weary, doubtful fans, it will be alright.
Deep beneath the mountains of depression, loss, and turbulence that drives the album, emerges a true gem that immediately beams with light. A Father’s First Spring shines brightly in all its glory as Scott shares the overwhelming feelings that accompanied the birth of his first child, Eleanor. To say that this song will move you to tears is an understatement (think Murder in the City, Part 2). Though simple, the lyrics “I was a child before/the day that I met Eleanor” reveal a complex evolution of character. Scott’s mastery of song and story allows him to speak on life’s purest love–that of a parent for his child–and evoke the deepest of emotions, even in listeners who have yet to experience parenthood. This track is a pure nugget of gold–a special gift from a proud daddy to his daughter, all in the name of posterity (of course).
The album closes with Life, which highlights the fragility of our time here on Earth. Themes of faith and love are intricately woven through the song in true Avett fashion. The beauty of this song lies in its simple message to live with intention and keep those you love close, for “we’re not of this world for long”. As the end of the musical journey approaches, Life leaves me with a feeling of hope, promise, and empowerment.
Overall, The Carpenter proves to be a cohesive collection of songs that gives fans a glimpse into the maturing hearts and minds of men who strive to find deeper meaning and purpose in life. The album succeeds in balancing themes of life and death–good and evil–and opens the door to further discovery and evolution. What it may lack in raw energy, it certainly makes up for with raw emotion, like a wound left open for all the world to see. This album bears the souls of a band of brothers who have been up against some very serious life changing events, yet in their transparency fans are afforded the opportunity to listen, relate, heal, and push on to a new day.
The Carpenter, which was officially released today, is available on iTunes and exclusively at Target with bonus tracks* (*Standing With You and Die Then Grow are wonderful additions to the album, and will ease some of the longing for that old Avett sound).
Songwriter Nick Bailey isn’t just writing music for TV shows; he’s writing his life’s soundtrack. From guitar teacher to banker, singer to guitarist, and songwriter to DJ, Bailey is proof that when music is your passion, it will sneak into every facet of your life — yes, even banking.
A native of eastern NC, Bailey started playing music at the age of 13 years after receiving his first guitar for Christmas.
“I got a guitar and [my twin brother] Graham got a drum set. He wanted a guitar but I said, ‘No you can’t get a guitar if I am getting a guitar’. Back then I wanted to start a band because I was really into (shamefully) Guns N’ Roses. When that song You Could be Mine came out I saw the video and watched the bass player, because I thought he was playing a guitar. I thought, ‘Man that guy is so cool. I want to learn how to play the guitar’. That was really what made me want to pick up a guitar, which is just funny to me now,” he recalled.
After a year of music lessons, Bailey and his brother formed a 90’s cover band with their childhood friend Rob Wank. Soon after, the twin brothers found themselves playing their first gig at the tender age of 14 years at a bar in the historic waterfront town of New Bern, NC. Little did the brothers know that many years later they would reunite with Wank under the new band name Nick and the Babes (NATB).
“It’s kind of funny that we’ve come full circle. [Rob] and I both played in a bunch of other bands. We’ve known each other since high school. We know each other very well, so it’s cool to have him back. He is very versatile, and basically my wing man in the group,” Bailey said of his bandmate, who now plays keys, banjo, and mandolin while adding harmonies for NATB.
Though Bailey’s journey as a musician started that fateful Christmas, he never had goals to study music formally. After only a year of instruction, he stepped away from lessons and began experimenting on his own.
“As far as the composing goes, that was just something that I had to just kind of plunder through. I wasn’t a music major at [East Carolina University] or anything. I stayed away from that. I am not one of those guys who sits there with a classical guitar and reads music. I felt like if I went to school for music I may end up hating it. I didn’t want to have music homework. I’d rather learn about the theory on my own and discover it through learning songs. So I just learned it by doing it,” he said.
Thankfully, his self-taught approach has worked. After two years of persistent emails and calls to a top TV music composer, Bailey was signed on to compose music for TLC’s show Nineteen Kids and Counting. Soon thereafter he was hired to work on various TV series like Crime 360, Pit Bulls and Parolees, and Last American Cowboy. To date he has written music for nearly 50 different episodes, and was just singed on for another season of Nineteen Kids and Counting.
Over the past few years Bailey has become accustomed to the process of TV music composition. Typically, he is given an idea or direction from which to work. Sometime he gets to view the scene for which he is writing, other times he does not. Regardless of the amount or type of direction, Bailey’s job is to complete the scene with music–a process that can be both exhilarating and daunting at the same time.
“I was doing a scene for Animal Planet and they sent me this video clip from a helicopter viewing over this mountain. They said, ‘Write something epic and grand for this scene’. I thought that was pretty cool and I was inspired [by the video]. Sometimes they will say, ‘We need you to watch this movie and listen to the score and write something similar’. They give me good direction as far as what to write. I am familiar with a lot of different music, which does help me out with the TV music writing. People tell me what they want and I can create that,” he shared.
Bailey draws his inspiration from a very eclectic background of musical influences, including funk, Motown, grunge, folk, jazz, indie rock, and more. This aids him when he sits down to write a TV score, but can make the process difficult when sitting down to write songs for NATB.
“To me it is easier [to write for TV] than sitting down and trying to create an identity for yourself. That is what you are essentially doing when you sit down to write. You are creating a brand and an identity that people can latch onto or relate to, like a certain sound. Sometimes I struggle with that. I like so many different bands, so finding that perfect mix of everything is sometimes a struggle,” admits Bailey.
Rob, Nick, and Dail
These days when he is not up against a TV deadline, teaching guitar lessons, DJing, or working at the bank, Bailey sits down with his Martin acoustic guitar to write new material for NATB. While the band’s sound continues to evolve, Bailey often describes it as ‘Americana’, which encompasses a number of different genres.
“I am trying to get [our music] to sound like NATB as opposed to sounding like another band. A band like The Avett Brothers did something amazing because there really aren’t other bands out there that sound like them. You can’t call them bluegrass, or indie rock, or folk because they really aren’t those things. When I go to write, I try to write in a certain vein and not steer away from that. I am not going to write anything that sounds like Metallica, but it is fun to try to mix everything that I like,” Bailey said.
Just as the music of NATB has evolved, so too has membership since the band’s 2007 inception. Currently NATB is made up of Nick on guitar and vocals, Graham on drums and vocals, Dail Reed on bass, and Wank on keys/banjo/mandolin and vocals.
Though their touring schedule was sporadic this past year–all band members have other full-time jobs–show attendance was great and reviews positive. They shared the stage with the talents of Jason Isbell from the Drive-by Truckers and Jim Avett, and developed relationships with a number of creative NC musicians. One particular musician is Bob Crawford, bassist for The Avett Brothers. It was through Crawford that the band was asked to perform Christmas Time is Here on Crawford’s My Favorite Gifts Christmas Album this past year.
“Initially the Christmas album was supposed to come out last Christmas and we were just going to be session musicians with Samantha Crain. Thankfully it didn’t come out last year because then Bob approached me and said that he’d like to produce a track for NATB for the album. I said, ‘Absolutely’. We went to the studio where The Avett Brothers [recorded some of their music]. To be in the same studio where all of that happened was really cool for us,” recalled Bailey.
My Favorite Gifts Christmas album showcased the music of many popular and up and coming musicians, including The Avett Brothers, Paleface, Jim Avett, David Mayfield, Jessica Lea Mayfield, The Wood Brothers, The David Wax Museum, Overmountain Men, and Mark Crozer. The album was produced by Crawford and Dolph Ramseur (Ramseur Records) with the intent of sharing unique holiday music in the name of charity. All profits from the album will be donated to The Vickie Honeycutt Foundation, which benefits teachers with cancer. This very important detail appealed to Bailey’s philanthropic side.
“[Crawford] told me profits were going to a charity for teachers with cancer. My mom is a teacher, and there has been cancer in my family. I have lost several family members to cancer. To be involved in something that would benefit something so personal made it even better. That was definitely a major motivator for us to do it right. Being part of the bigger cause was definitely a cool thing for us,” Baily added with a smile.
Bailey also has high hopes that the Christmas album will expose NATB to a wider audience. He is eager and excited to get the band back on the road touring and into the studio to record a full-length EP of new material this year. In the meantime, Bailey continues to pursue his passion of music with an easy attitude and steady patience. Experience has taught him that works. I am sincerely looking forward to the catching the next episode of Nick and the Babes.
Nick and the Babes @ The Tipsy Teapot
Many thanks to Nick Bailey for taking the time to do this interview. To learn more about his TV work, visit his IMDb page. To learn more about Nick and the Babes, visit their website: http://www.nickandthebabes.com/.