In their 16-year existence, the Avett Brothers have gone from acoustic folk troubadours to grungy bluegrass pioneers to Americana roots-rock icons playing to packed arenas.
The constant motif in their musical ascendance: pure, unabashed earnestness.
Upon announcing their ninth studio album, True Sadness, earlier this year, the band fulfilled that reputation with a lengthy letter to fans explaining the emotional and creative impetus for the new music. Fatherhood, family, loss, heartbreak, and divorce—all of it nakedly explained by co-founder Seth Avett in more than a thousand words.
Seth, 35, divorced from his first wife in 2013, and landed in the gossip pages when it was revealed that he was dating Dexter star Jennifer Carpenter. “She ruined his marriage,” one source told a tabloid website. The undeniable pain of a marriage gone awry contrasted with the thrill of new love (Avett and Carpenter welcomed a son last year and got married last month) serves as the contextual backdrop for True Sadness.
For their fourth straight record with mega-producer Rick Rubin, Seth, along with his brother, Scott, 39, and their bandmates—bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon—emphasize those juxtaposed emotions with a variety of progressive new sounds: their classic guitar-and-banjo balladry meets polished orchestral swells, bombastic stomp-and-clap bass lines, and the occasional electronic texture.
The Daily Beast spoke to Seth, shortly before the album’s release.
You said in the album announcement that True Sadness is autobiographical, but at times it feels more than that—it’s confessional. You tackle your own break-up in “Divorce Separation Blues,” and it’s really quite candid. It’s almost shocking how frankly you handle writing about divorce. Not many artists do that.
Honestly, any life-changing event is quality fodder for writing songs. And if you’re being honest in your art, genuinely, I think it would unavoidable to talk about these things. I’m also surprised there aren’t more songs about divorce. It’s just so common, and yet the only songs you can think of are, like, Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” I bought a Hank Snow tape not too long ago and didn’t notice the song was on it, and I looked at it and discovered “Married by the Bible, Divorced by the Law”—which is one of those awesome old-school country titles.
But divorce happens to so many people and yet it remains a taboo topic. And at this point in my life, as a songwriter, it would be dishonest not to share some of that stuff.
You’re really not even cryptic about the pain of divorce. It’s right there in the song title.
“Divorce Separation Blues,” yeah. It’s really kind of a bare-bones lyrical presentation of an odd moment in my life. Being able to write the song was an odd moment. To be able to write something like that, at least for me, I had to be far enough away from the pain of a certain scenario to feel like it’s even worthwhile to write a song about it, while being close enough to convey a clear experience. It’s definitely not an obscure presentation of a first-person experience with divorce. It’s very clear, very open.
And you were very clear to your fans about what prompted this record. What led you to write the lengthy letter explaining the new album?
There was no decision-making process. I can’t really say why I chose to do it other than the ongoing dynamic we have with our audience which is one of the unique communications that goes on with the people who support our music. I think it’s a natural inclination on my part to make a mission statement of sorts.
We have this great communication with our audience. It’s a meaningful back and forth where we’re made aware of what role our music plays in people’s lives. So it only seems natural that we would reciprocate on our end.
It almost harkens back to a bygone era.
The age of the liner notes has kinda passed. If you’re someone like me who used to devour liner notes—because you were so interested in who played drum on track four—you miss that now. Now a lot of that remains unsaid, or if it’s said, it’s heard by less people. With liner notes sort of ending, something like this is one of the only ways to speak directly with your audience.
You wrote "there are moments of undeniable celebration and camaraderie, others of quiet and lonely exhalation." That almost sounds like the definition of The Avett Brothers’ entire catalog.
It’s very true. I think we really enjoy a lot of music that has that kind of contrast and has that kind of range. We aspire to that. The music that we share with people is as varied as our lives. We are very autobiographical songwriters. If you’re writing a lot about your life, it would be impossible to keep it all calm, or just raging. There’s just way too much going on in normal life. Music’s gonna be a reflection of that; it’s bound to vary quite a bit.
And that’s also reflected in the influences you cited for this record: Queen, Nine Inch Nails, Pink Floyd, Aretha Franklin, etc. You’re clearly broadening your sound in a way that some people might find unusual for a band that re-popularized the rustic, bearded folk band.
This is an interesting time. When you look at a lot of the Americana bands that fall in that category, they are emulating something that was strong and current in the 1920s or the ‘30s and ‘40s. But now, since that time, there’s so much more to draw from. And for us, growing up, we weren’t only influenced by what had come out up to that point in folk music.
We’re also influenced by music that came up to the point when we were starting the band. We love The Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Prince, etc. And the stew is just getting bigger and bigger and more diverse with the flavors in it.
As an artist, you just can’t limit your sound like that, it’s going to make its way outward. We love so much music and so many different kinds of music. It was just bound to make its way into a lot of realms.
If you think about it, it’s now been ten years since Four Thieves Gone, the album which most critics would say was when you began truly incorporating non-traditional sounds into otherwise traditional folk and bluegrass music. Your evolution makes sense in that way.
Our mentality is just to have the song lead us. If you follow our journey you’d see a lot of songs presented different ways over different eras because we’re firm believers in the idea that a song doesn’t always work the best way one way. It might be great as a folk song today, but then a year from now, five years from now, maybe that song will be valuable as a rocker.
Our band started as an old-sound country, bluegrass treatment because it was the most mobile thing we could do. We weren’t tied to any stage; we could just take the guitar and banjo and play anywhere. But it was never like, hey, all these songs are just good as guitar-and-banjo songs.
We want to be unleashed. We want to be free from a lot of limitations. Since then, other opportunities have opened up, space has opened up, and so we allowed that to inform what instrument we might play on a song. Or what direction we might take, in terms of style. The song is the leader. We follow the song. That’s where we go. We are pretty adamant about keeping that open-ended.
The new album’s first single, “Ain’t No Man,” has that tight production with the “We Will Rock You”-like stomp-clap bass line. It almost sounds like you’re aiming for the arenas.
We’ve had a lot of experience playing in arenas so I’d be lying if it wasn’t something we could consider. And there are certainly times where we’ll be writing something and we’ll think, “Ah, man, this would be great with everyone singing along” and all that. But we don’t harp on that in the studio. We just try to record the best interpretations of songs we’re working on.
Do you feel any particular pressures in releasing an album in an election year? Do you feel like anything on the album could be seen as a statement in these tumultuous times?
It really hasn’t even crossed my mind. That was the first time I had even thought about it. We just don’t spend a lot of time asserting our opinion on all that stuff with folks.
You said in 2012 that music can act as a great uniter, that you have both liberal and conservative fans. Given how deeply divided America feels right now, do you feel like your music can fill some sort of void?
We have seen fans of ours people come together and be great friends and travel together and then we realize they are politically opposites and see them getting into arguments. We have seen actual true-life experiences where precisely that thing has happened.
I believe, personally, that music is an opportunity for connection with providence. And politics are generally just an opportunity to be connected to man.
I tend to hold the experiences I have with music than I do with the bickering that goes on among us humans. I think it certainly brings people together. I’ve seen it happen my whole life. It’s a very pure form, and it’s a more pure form than political agendas and folks agreeing on those. I don’t know what role we have in that, but I have had the good fortune of seeing people come together because they have our music in common.
For your fans, the Avett Brothers are synonymous with North Carolina. But it seems the state is now best known for its infamous “bathroom bill” dictating which public toilets transgenders must use. How do you feel about what’s going on in your home state?
North Carolina’s a beautiful state with a lot of beautiful people, a lot of love, compassion, diversity. It’s probably a little more complex than it’s given credit for. I don’t really have a podium to speak on this. I just hope for everybody to come together and make room for others.
Do you think it’s been helpful for artists like Bruce Springsteen to cancel shows in the state? Or do you think it’s better to continue playing shows while, perhaps, using the platform to bring attention to the law?
I don’t plan on cancelling any shows anytime soon, because I don’t think it’s helpful to punish music fans for something like this law. Cancelling the show is an opportunity to stand on top of a mountain to proclaim how high your morality is. But to me, the sensible solution is to bring people together. That’s not to say I think artists have made a bad choice. Everyone has the right to do whatever they want to.