Entering 2020, the husband-and-wife Americana duo Shovels & Rope had a plan for what they wanted their sixth album Manticore to sound like.
“We had the loose intention of making this album sparse,” says Michael Trent on the phone from Atlanta. “Like maybe just piano and acoustic guitars; we thought it would be nice to make a record like that.”
But sometimes things don’t go as planned, and in 2020 nothing went to plan. For a band like Shovels & Rope, who are constantly on the road, the pandemic gave the duo something that they had always craved: Time.
“We never had time ever in our lives,” says Cary Ann Hearst. “The one thing we never had was time to make a record without a sense of urgency.”
Time enabled Shovels & Rope to experiment with different sounds and instruments on Manticore, released in February. Manticore, like other Shovels & Rope records, was recorded in their home studio in Charleston, South Carolina.
The experimentation can be found quickly in the album with the high-energy leading track “Domino,” a song dedicated to the late actor James Dean.
“Domino was the most energetic song on the record, and the one that changed the most,” says Trent. “During the recording process, it started off with one guitar, and then it turned into something else when we had time to experiment.”
Much like the music, the lyrics and the meaning of the song evolved throughout the songwriting process. Originally, Trent wanted to make “Domino” about James Dean’s old car, but the song later turned into a tribute to the actor.
“There were so many crazy stories about the car he died in, and then someone took pieces from the car and made it into another car, and then someone got killed in that car,” Trent says. “It turned into something else and it turned into more about James Dean, and the ghost of him. “
Similar to how Shovels & Rope’s fifth album By Blood explored the Trump’s administration policies towards immigrants, Manticore also explores big societal issues. Part of what inspired By Blood was how Trent and Hearst responded to questions from their children about current events. And a couple police brutality incidents, a worldwide pandemic, an insurrection and a new was later, there are more questions that have been raised. Even though the questions are difficult, Hearst says she always tells her children the truth.
“You want to tell them what the truth is because that is exactly what needs to change, right?” says Hearst. “Sugarcoating, whitewashing and protecting feelings isn’t exactly the way to approach this effort at a more perfect union. There are issues that need to be addressed and you can’t pretend that they aren’t there and call it equality. We talked about that with our kids out of the gate.”
One of the issues that Shovels & Rope dive into on Manticore is homelessness; the song “Happy Birthday Who” is about Trent’s experience visiting Skid Row in Los Angeles.
“We played a show in Los Angeles and visited Skid Row, and we were taken aback by the overwhelming homelessness that is out there,” Trent says. “That situation is so big and it goes back to the ’80s and when they shut down the hospitals where they would get care for their mental illnesses and now they have nowhere to go. Good people who have problems like we do, but just a little bit different.”
Another song that explores the difficulties of life is “Collateral Damage,” a song that Hearst wrote about meeting expectations and doing the best they can to get by in life.
“It’s about someone trying to do the best they can and navigate life, and in this case it’s about a woman who is trying to be the best wife, mother and steward of the family she can be. She hits a wall and gets depressed, and down-spirals. It’s totally about me, but not really about me. It’s a song about somebody hitting a wall and wrestling to come out of the wreckage and starting over,” Hearts says.
Even though “Collateral Damage” sounds like it could be a song about recent years, it was written before 2020.
“We were already worn out and dealing with a lot of stuff and issues that we really, really, really got to sit with,” says Hearst. “We sat with these issues during break, but we were already worn out and emotionally vulnerable. But I can recognize my own journey in maternity and wifehood and see what it’s like out there for people who don’t have a supportive partner that see’s me the way that I have. Our Shovels & Rope brand has always been hope and positivity through the darkness, but also we walk through the darkness too. ‘Collateral Damage’ was an opportunity to be in both places to recognize the real heavy stuff and to recognize that you can pick yourself up and have another go at it. “
Hearst will spread hope and positivity, and some of the lessons she’s learned on her own journey, when musician friends have a baby; Hearst and Trent have two children, and are pros when it comes to touring with kids.
“There’s a cool thing that Cary does when she hears that a touring musician has a baby,” says Trent. “She finds them right away and lays a bunch of helpful information on them, and has a text chain with a bunch of female rock and roll musicians who are always sharing tips.”
The tips that Hearst gives expecting musicians?
“I always say, ‘So, you find yourself in rock and roll with a baby on your tour bus. Here’s a few things that have worked for us.’ Like having a crib that fits in a bunk and feels safe, and how to change diapers on the bus. The most important thing I do, and I got it from the women who did it for me when we were having a family on tour, is to say you are not alone, there’s no right or wrong way, and if you have questions, direct them to us and not the internet,” Hearst says.
One of those musicians that Hearst has helped is Clinton native and North Hunterdon graduate Sharon Van Etten. Shovels & Rope, along with Van Etten, covered “In My Room” by the Beach Boys in 2021.
“We hit her up about doing the ‘In My Room’ cover,” says Trent. “She wasn’t sure what we were asking at first, and I wasn’t sure if she wanted to do it. It’s always weird asking people you don’t really know if they want to be involved in a project. We worked on a track and sent it over and she liked it. She was really excited with the way it turned out.”
Van Etten will be playing at High Water Festival, a music festival that is run by Shovels & Rope in Charleston. Hearst credits the welcoming music scene in the oceanside town for their success.
“The music scene in Charleston is collaborative and cooperative,” says Hearst. “I grew up in Nashville and there was a lot of infighting in that music scene, but in Charleston everyone was in each other’s bands and everyone went to each other’s shows. There was a gig every night and it was our social life and how we would put meat on the table.”
Shovels & Rope will make the trip from the Palmetto State to the Garden State with a show on April 8 at the South Orange Performing Arts Center. Hearst spent a lot of time in New Jersey during college and is excited to come back.
“I had a really nice boyfriend in college before Michael who lived in New Jersey,” says Hearst. “I spent a lot of time in Randolph. As a southern person who wasn’t up north before, I found New Jersey to be lovely and full of lovely people with weird accents. You guys have townships, which I think are really cool and the population density makes for village life all throughout New Jersey.”
Shovels & Rope will be playing at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on April 8. Ticket information can be found here.