Scott Avett, the 36-year-old singer/songwriter/banjo player for the successful indie-folk group, The Avett Brothers, has been a North Carolinian for most of his life. Born into a respected middle class family, the son of a welder and a teacher, Avett embraced music at an early age.
Starting with piano, he moved on to guitar and then finally found his way to the banjo. Although not a devout follower of the traditional styles that other bluegrass or old-time musicians have championed, Scott Avett plays from the heart regardless of his unconventional methods.
After spending time in other rock bands when he attended East Carolina University, Scott and his older brother Seth formed The Avett Brothers in 2000. From there the group has seen a steady rise in record sales, adoration from fans, and recognition among their peers. Following the success of their major-label debut, “I and Love and You,” the Avett Brothers found themselves in the murky waters of the sea of success. Challenged by the complaints of selling-out and going mainstream, the brothers continued to write and record songs with no expectation other than to perfect their craft and give the world their honesty and sincerity in the form of song and music.
Arguably their most cohesive album to date, “The Carpenter” opens up their sound with electric guitars and louder percussion, but never fear, listeners can still hear the beautiful harmonies, the witty songwriting, the energetic blasts of folk tinged power-pop explosions with sway-ready melodies and singalong songs. While the Avetts’ formula for crafting songs has gone up a notch with “The Carpenter,” producer Rick Rubin has a subtle touch for simplicity and has helped the band retain grit and energy while exploring more mainstream territory. The twelve tracks that became “The Carpenter” were recorded at the highly regarded Echo Mountain studios in Asheville, N.C., back in January 2011.
“The Carpenter” is more of a spiritual journey rather than a Biblical one—a reference to Moses, pharaohs, divine intervention, and even bits of scripture don’t necessarily indicate the Avetts are headed towards a religious detour like Bob Dylan took in the late 70’s early 80’s. It appears experiencing significant life events has had a profound effect on the group and they have emerged from the trials of success with a record that continues the forward motion they seek. Filled with dignified grace and beauty, their lyrics are heartfelt and truthful, and the harmonies between the two brothers are a true pleasure to listen to, as the melodies they create are truly one of a kind.
Q&A with Scott Avett
While taking a break from their never-ending tour, Scott Avett spoke to SML about their new album, “The Carpenter,” family life, songwriting, the fans, and even barbecue.
SML: How does your heavy touring schedule affect your personal life now that everyone has families?
Scott: We hang on tight to the windows to be at home and to reconnect. We take [family] time very seriously because it’s important to us as any of the work is, so we guard it enough to maintain it. The truth of the matter is, when I met my wife I was a month away from moving four hours away from her, and I don’t think we’ve ever spent more than about two months together. I don’t know if we’ve spent that long together every night, so it’s a very normal thing for us. We’re very used to it and it works for us. I don’t think it changes a lot. We’re pretty steady. It’s just a way of life for us.
There’s a track on the new record called “The Day I met Eleanor,” your daughter, correct? It’s a beautiful song.
Yes. Thank you, thank you. There’s no mystery to the song or anything; it’s not very abstract. I heard Jay-Z talking recently about his newborn in an interview I read, he said something to the tune of, “I thought I’d be writing so much about my child when they were born, instead I’ve just put that to the side, spend time with the family, and not do much writing at all.” That was very true about fatherhood for me. There weren’t that many songs that came from that moment, right there at the beginning of it. There wasn’t a lot of time, nor did I want to take the time to be writing. I just wanted to be spending time with the family. All that inspiration was poured into that one tune. It was given quickly, I grabbed it, and I ran with it.
It would seem like it would be an intimidating step, as a songwriter, to write something specifically about one of the greatest loves of your life.
Yes, it’s scary; it’s very scary to let it out there. I’m nervous about it now. I’ve been with the song so long I almost didn’t bring it to the table to record because it was very special to me. It came so naturally and organically; it was so sacred that I was like…maybe, maybe not. I can remember this writer once told us: that’s what separates the men from the boys, the guys that are really truly willing to throw it out there. If it’s scary to put it out there, then it’s probably right. There were other songs we felt the same way about, so I’m running with it. What will be will be.
North Carolina, and the world, lost a great man and gifted musician recently; did you ever get a chance to play with Doc Watson at Merlefest?
We never sat and played on stage with him, professionally. We spoke with him when we opened for him outside of Merlefest. I know he heard us playing; Seth has done some writing about meeting him as a younger man. We never did play on stage with him. We might have well have been performing with him cause it seemed like the whole time we were developing, we were performing from the inspiration that his recordings were bringing us. His voice, as far as the old-time category, was to us, physically and metaphorically, affecting us so deeply, it felt like we were just an extension of that and we wanted to take part in being an extension of that. He was very close to us, very close.
Sometimes you get comparisons from the traditional bluegrass folks; do you ever get tired of hearing that?
We don’t really get bugged with that. I think in the beginning we got billed as a bluegrass band or an old-timey band a lot more. As far as I’m concerned, any individual can say we are whatever they want to say we are. And whatever that is, is what we are to them. It’s all good. Time will let us nestle in to whatever we are. I love old-time and bluegrass music. I find myself playing both at times—not as much on stage as I once did—that’s just because we have our own songs that we’ve written that we want to express ourselves with.
This record feels different than the last; there are some heavy themes that float in and out of the songs. Was this album more difficult to make than “I and Love and You?”
It took longer, for sure. We listened more; we took more time after the recording process had started as well. I think over time, it was more difficult to make because some of the songs were written over maybe seven or eight years of writing. Some of them had been refining themselves. We would revisit; we’d leave them, revisit again, and then when we recorded these songs for this effort certain ones did rise to the top. Certain ones presented themselves as complete works. And with that, you look back and say, “Wow, we had to live through some more life to get those songs out.” We had to go through all the other albums we’ve done before to learn how to identify how to tap in to which songs are working and happening—compositionally, emotionally, mechanically, all those things. So yes it has been a more difficult, more involved process. Maybe the next one won’t be, maybe we’ll just step out of it. Who knows? I don’t think we intended this one to be, in some ways the songs formally were more complete when we started recording, more so than the songs for “I and Love and You” were.
You spent most of January 2011 recording the songs for “The Carpenter” in Asheville at Echo Mountain studio; did the mountain winter add anything?
It could have, yes I remember it was cold. I was trying to jog one morning, as I was starting to lose my mind during the recording process. I remember this clearly now—running up a mountain, it was frigid cold; I just needed to run some steam off, get rid of some tension cause we were working so hard. We love the Blue Ridge Mountains. There’s type of blanket of calm that I feel when I’m in the Asheville area. The cold weather certainly does nothing but cozy things up and makes you more ok with being locked up in a studio and focused on work. Whether I know it or not, I betcha it did add something to it.
“The Carpenter” is an interesting choice for an album title; it could certainly spawn some spiritual discussion. Do you have a problem with that?
I’ve got no problem with that at all. I would say “The Carpenter” refers to, or I suppose it would be, referring to Jesus, and as far as someone that would be a hero. I really can’t imagine many others that would be considered a great hero and a great teacher. Although that was not the idea of it, we were completely aware of that comparison. He just happened to have that label as well, and we thought that to be a fine coincidence. We were just focusing on the building of something; those spiritual ties are all tied into the big picture for us as well, so I have no issue with that comparison at all.
The closing track, “Life,” is a moving piece of music. Was that song a reflection of your recent life experiences?
The original notion of the song was life as a long process or series of goodbyes and the letting go of that. When the letting go happens, that’s when the real parts of life happens, and with that comes the shedding of fear. Seth added to the song the part about being able to shed those fears whenever things are terrible and awful. This was another song that came together naturally with very little work put into it after the initial composing of the song. With a title like that, so big and broad, you must have big things in mind, so we stuck to our guns on that one.
In contrast, the song that precedes it on the album, “Paul Newman,” is equally moving; it just comes from a totally different direction. I’m sure you’re gonna love playing that one live. Do you think you’ll scare anybody in the audience when you pull that one out?
Yeah, I think so; I think we may. I think there will certainly be some people that will be…if it were me, I’d be a little bit shocked. I’m still shocked whenever I hear us playing the song. You know we come from that—it used to be that; every song was like that when we did play more rock music in other bands, so it’s not all that surprising. The variety of expression within our characters is really just an obvious thing, a bit of an aggressive…I don’t know. I joke with myself that some songs are a little more of a boy than others. You can take the roll as predator whenever you’re playing those songs because there’s a little more aggression, and you can’t take the roll as victim or prey like you can on other songs. That song is a little more angry, and that’s okay because that’s real and we all feel it.
Your fan base is pretty incredible, has that connection with your fans changed over time?
Yeah, it is incredible. It’s always changing, and it’s changing now. The way that I view it is a big part of my life. The way that I see people interacting with what we do and reacting with what we do has always been changing. I have to say that in the past it has been known to make or break me on any given day. I’ve learned how to compartmentalize that in my life like when I should put thought into that, or where I should go to see or hear what those fans feel or think, and which things I should take for honest feelings and honest inspirations and then others that just may be nay saying. You’ve got to be careful with that because it can affect an artist quite a bit; I just have to be perfectly honest about that.
Like most bands’ beginnings, you started out playing tiny clubs and coffee houses. Do you miss that?
Yeah, a funny thing though is we occasionally do get a chance to play a smaller venue, but is never like it used to be. You know, you just can’t go back. It’s dangerous; it can slip into contrived, just not honest sometimes because the further we’ve gone along, the more we’ve just been faced with the fact that forward is the only direction. There was a moment when we played smaller places, but it’s not fair to the people that come to see us. Some of the places we’ve played overseas you can get into the 600-900-seater, but we used to play coffee shops that held maybe 30 people and that really was a special time in an artist’s development, if they are developing through that.
The Avett Brothers have been good for North Carolina and North Carolina has responded in kind. You’ve developed a following in all the regions of our state. Do you prefer one area the most?
We’ve all had our fair share of spending time in each region. I went to East Carolina, and I’ve lived for 6 1/2 years in Greenville, N.C. I’ve lived in Mars Hill for a couple years, and we always had family in Fletcher and Asheville. We’ve had a long time relationship with Lake Junaluska where we would visit for my grandfather for being the Methodist minister and having Methodist ties, and of course the Piedmont, in the central part of the state, when we were growing up. I can’t really say, but I’ve found each region to be certainly beautiful and different in its own right. All have great barbecue, and all have great people.
Ok, I need a definitive answer; do you prefer Eastern or Western style BBQ?
(Laughing) Well, I’ll say that I’ve spent more time in Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, N.C. than in any other place. But B’s Barbecue in Greenville, if it’s not, it should be world-famous or legendary, but both are great.
Can the road really go on forever and the party never end?
We got in this morning at 3 a.m. and I’d slept about four hours on the bus. After I packed up and pulled my car away from the bus about 50 yards or so, I could hear the diesel motor from the bus getting ready to pull away and I thought, “The party’s over.” You know we’re fatigued; I can’t deny it—our bodies and our minds. We’ve been playing big shows and we’ve really been going strong and all of us. When we do that, we start to slip, so as I listened to those diesels pulling away I imagined, for a second, what if this was the last one? It was about 4 a.m. by this time, and I thought, “I don’t know that I would know what to do.” I personally believe I’m capable of doing anything that I want to, but I really have no idea what I’d do without that camaraderie that we have. I absolutely love what I do. I love the motion, and I love the movement. There’s a lot that scares me about it though. There’s a lot that scares me about traveling and the constant motion, but every time I come back from it I feel very normal and proud. I feel alive. I think the road will have to get a little bit shorter, but it’s not time for that yet. I feel like we’re in Act II, Scene II, and that’s probably prime time for us to get it and share as much as we can with the world. We’re in the thick of it or just before it.