On the eve of the release of True Sadness, the ninth album from The Avett Brothers, Scott Avett, one half of the famed alt-folk act, spoke to the Observer at length about the band’s musical evolution, his own feelings of despair and how he considers himself a visual artist first, and a musician second.
I heard your brother Seth got married last month. Congratulations to him and the whole family. Can you tell me anything about the ceremony? You had to perform (your track from the 2009 album I and Love and You) “January Wedding.”
[Laughs] Absolutely not! Actually, my dad did a song, which was very special, and I officiated the wedding. So there was a different kind of performing going on. It was not big; we had well under a hundred people. It was beautiful in every way. It was a very special day and one that we’ve been looking forward to for a long time. It was really great to witness that and experience it with people you love. It was terrific.
I would imagine that Seth would have a beautiful wedding since the songs are so beautiful and romantic. So I guess it’s not a surprise that his actual wedding would be beautiful and romantic, too.
Real life isn’t always as romantic as our imaginations can be, but you get as close as you can at a wedding with two people that love each other. So, yeah, you’re right.
And so eloquent, too. I hope you said that at the ceremony.
[Laughs] I’ve said plenty of other things.
You obviously grew up with your brother Seth. You’ve been performing for so long together. Is the reason why you stuck together because you’re similar? Or is it because you’re different and you fill in each other’s gaps?
Well, they’re both of those things and all of those things. We’re inseparable. From a very early age, he sort of pressed and insisted upon that bond, where as I was the older brother who sometimes saw Seth as someone who’d badger me and wouldn’t leave me alone when we were young. I witness it now with my own children.
I guess instead of letting our differences pull us apart through life, I’ve seen that anytime we’re at the forefront of a dilemma we crowd around and bring those differences together. We talk about them, spend time with them, and either accept them or leave them alone. But it’s rare. Our similarities are more prominent than our differences, but our differences are real, substantial and valid, and that’s what helps make us who we are as a unit.
Speaking of marriage, with me and my wife we’re very different but those differences are the things that make us come together to be capable of handling multifaceted issues that need more than one singular perspective.
You’ve been making music together for so long. This is your ninth album. Not many bands make it to album nine. By album two, that’s usually it…if that. Does it feel like nine albums?
You’re right. Every album and every recording we’ve made from day one, even before the Avett Brothers when we’d record things on cassette tapes and 8-track, for us they were this explosive new thing that was going to open the world’s eyes to us.
Every time we’ve made something, we’d dream that this would be the thing that changed everything for us. The funny thing about that was that in hindsight we’ve always felt successful to ourselves, so we’ve never had to have that conventional appropriated reward of “Hey, you’ve made it.” We went into it feeling that we were already stars, which we were not, and we also felt the need to make.
I think that instinctual need to make it is part of our makeup, and because of that we’ve been able to keep doing it. There was never a point where we said, “Why make another one? The last one wasn’t quote-unquote ‘successful.’ ” It was, “Why make another one? Because that’s how we live and breath.” I’m not saying that will never change, but it’s been that way for so long that it’s now just the way we are.
The other interesting and unique thing about you guys is that you’re always growing from album to album. I’m thinking even back in the early days when you started working with famed producer Rick Rubin, that was a huge leap. Now continuing to work with Rick, there’s always a sense of growth. Has that been a goal or just a natural evolution?
A natural evolution, for sure. The same thing happened with our touring life. There wasn’t a big goal when we started. When [bassist] Bob Crawford booked our first tour with us, we didn’t really expect a second tour ever. We did it thinking that that was the next step.
With the recording process it was the same thing, you’d return with what you gathered from the last album and make the next the best. The best in our eyes. I’m not saying that’s the most successful or the most sold, but make the next the best in which we go the furthest we could. So you’re right, it’s been an instinctual evolution.
I think I legally have to ask you about what it’s like working with Rick Rubin, since I’m sure everyone always asks you that. So instead, I’m wondering what sets Rick apart from everyone else? To you, why is he held in such esteem.
[Laughs] Well, I can only speak about his relationship with us, obviously. We haven’t had a whole lot of experience with other producers, just some here and there—some amazing producers.
The conversation with us and Rick has never been about what the thing we’re making will do for us [career-wise]. In fact, when we’d do a song that sounded poppy or like it could be on the radio, he might have a comment like, “That’d be a nice single if you wanted to go that route.” Just off the cuff. To him, it’s all centered around making the best thing we can. It’s not about a deadline or budget, because that has nothing to do with giving something the time and space it needs to grow.
You don’t tell a tree you planted, “Alright, you got till September 2030 to get big and full because it’s right before Christmas.” That happens in the music world, but not with our camp.
With us and Rick, we’re centered around a unifying philosophy to let it be the best it can be, and that takes a lot of time. That philosophy has been so healthy for us. It’s part of why we slowed down a bit as well, because we have allowed ourselves to do so.
How sick are you of people asking or mispronouncing whether it’s Av-Vett or A-vett. Do you ever think, “Let’s just call ourselves the Smith Brothers and move on from this.”
[Laughs] Well, I’m the one in the group to say, “Well, if someone says Av-Vett, who am I to say it should be pronounced one way or another.” Say it however. I’m so not a proponent of people correcting anybody else. Everyone should speak the way they want to speak, it’s fine with me.
Let’s talk about the title of this album: True Sadness. Whoa. Just that phrase, “true sadness,” sounds like a downer. I don’t think the album is a downer, though. I know it’s the name of a track on the album, but why name the whole thing that?
Well, conceptually we were talking about what the songs were representing. We never title a record before we know what we’re saying. Since our last recording process, life has changed drastically for all of us. Drastically. There are several more children in our lives, there were several tragic life changes that happened. And what we’ve come out with, other than those changes in life, is that we could not really celebrate the joys of life without knowing those true sadnesses and tragedies.
I’m not saying you can’t be happy until you’ve felt hard pain, for sure you can be, I’m living evidence of that. But after, you understand the gratitude that is beyond painful life-changing events. I witnessed people around me who utilized that. I see them enjoying life and utilizing life in a much more sincere way. So that being said, true sadness is possibly the fuel for the gratitude of life, which is part of the joy.
On the flip side of it, there’s a dichotomy here where true sadness can be viewed as being truly pitiful and slightly pathetic. The imagery on the cover sort of exemplifies that conceptually; ill equipped, vulnerable beings in a world that’s just going to ultimately chew them up and devour them.
It’s interesting because when you experience bouts of hard pain or true sadness from traumatic life events, what happens after that is that it can either bring you to your knees or you can learn from it. And it’s also interesting how, at the time you can think “Why is this happening?” But as time goes on, you take things away from it. At least for you, it must be a blessing being a songwriter to take these feelings that you have and write them down. Not many people will or know how to do that. Is writing music cathartic for you?
It is. Not to be cliche about it, but it certainly is. I turn to it in individual dark moments in my life. The normal depression of life is not talked about enough how it’s just a normal part of life. I know that for me, in times of despair, depression, and hopeless thoughts, turning to music has never failed me.
Often times to see that through is performing for someone. But not always. That’s why we end up with these really large surplus of songs that never see the light of day, because we do look at it that way and it is a bit of therapy for us.
Let’s talk a little about your songwriting process, because the other impression I have of you guys is that your lyrics are always so deep and rich and layered and, most of all, poetic. I’m curious if you have a process or if it always changes. Like, do you take out a legal pad and write lyrics down with a pen and then head into the studio, or do you take out a guitar and hit some chords and mess around? How does it work?
No legal pad?
I’ve heard similar questions like this asked and some artists answer them exactly my way. I remember hearing about Bruce Springsteen’s process where he has stacks of notebooks and it’s like a junkyard of ideas. Using working on True Sadness as an example, when we went out to Malibu to record I had a milk crate filled to the top with journals, a recording device, notebooks, napkins, sheets of paper and hotel notepads all collected over time.
One key point is that I never stop writing. It’s constant like living and breathing. Then, during the editing process with me and Seth, we’ll break it down and see what’s poetic and what’s not. I think that anyone can have that relationship with words; it’s something that builds on itself over time. Melodies at any given time will launch me into lyrics that don’t have any conceptual base at all, and sometimes it’s amazing what stone you uncover.
Though, I won’t say the melody doesn’t come first. The important thing is to realize what’s worth following and chasing and believing in yourself that this sentiment is universal. We know that much of what we say or believe or stumble upon has been said or believed or stumbled upon before. What I’m saying is that it has to relate to more than just us, so we just try to follow that.
Aside from all of the music, I know that you’re an incredible painter. No. 1, how did you get into painting, and No. 2, how do you have time to paint?
Well, I wouldn’t be playing music if it weren’t for painting. I’m an artist, but I’m probably a visual artist first. I—
Really? You consider yourself a visual artist first before music?
Yeah. [Laughs] Because I’ve done that longer. Well, I shouldn’t say that. I’ve always done them together. I guess I’m always thinking in visual terms. Even when I’m writing I’m thinking visually and I feel like everything trickles down from that. I don’t paint as much as I write lyrics or play an instrument now. I make music a priority now, but I have to work to make that a priority.
I decide at any given moment in a year that I’m gonna focus on music or lyrics, and I do that. But I never have control of my focus on painting or when it’s going to come. I’ve told myself before that I’m going to close my painting studio because it’s a distraction or it’s not serving me and within two months I’m back in there because I can’t stay away. I’ve never taken more than 10 months off painting in my life since I started painting in college at 18, 19 years old. It’s very important to me.
I have to put more time into music because I’m not as naturally gifted in music. I just try to follow what one’s calling and speaking the loudest to me. I want my conscience to lead that charge and the older I get, the more I feel loyal to that. That being said, at this point in time, this time of year is spent very much focused on music and lyrics and what they mean to me.
One impression that I have always had of you guys is that you have a particularly unforgiving touring scheduling. Zig-zagging across the country, performing at festivals, on the road and recording so much with such an incredible output. How do you have time to live a normal life and not get wrapped up and lose touch with reality and not write songs only about touring or life on the road.
Well, I don’t worship touring, for sure. Meaning, I keep my mind and my heart with the people I love and I try to make sure I do the things I’m doing in their name and in their honor. For instance, I’ll keep in touch with my family and my home life by going home every chance I can. If have a free weekend, I’m gong to going home. I need to do that to stay personally in touch.
Mentally and emotionally, I know that to do my work in their honor in their absence, then I won’t just brood about missing them or replace a normal life for worshipping this way of life.
My partner at home has an agreement with me and I’m going out to do my part, and they’re taking care of their part and we stay connected and in tune because of that. I know it sounds kind of pragmatic, but those simple things make it a very normal life.