Cary Ann Hearst comes across as a redheaded fireball whose diminutive size belies her larger-than-life personality and voice.
Frequently backed by her husband, Michael Trent of The Films, the two musicians can be seen in various locales around Charleston, and around the country actually, playing a primeval brand of roots music that takes its cues from blues, rock and roll, vintage country, and old-timey gospel. Along with a small collection of similarly-inclined local musicians, Hearst is also one of the founders of the Charleston-based record label, Shrimp Records. One of the label’s first releases was Hearst’s new recording, “Are You Ready to Die.” Featuring the talents of veteran producer, engineer, and songwriter Butch Walker and a startlingly eclectic array of original songs, the EP caught the attention of Grammy-nominated music supervisor Gary Calamar, who chose one of its tracks to close out an episode of the wildly popular HBO vampire series, True Blood.
We thought it would be a fine time to check in with Ms. Hearst and ask a few questions.
um: You mentioned at a recent show that you are not the most prolific songwriter in the world. What sort of songwriting process do you go through?
CAH: It happens when I wash dishes or the first thing when I’m coming out of a dream; when I’m not awake really. It’s a very passive, very subconscious process. The songs come pretty frequently; I just need to have sense enough to write them down as they come to me.
um: What makes a good song?
CAH: It’s a secret.
um: I think most people would try to pigeonhole you as a sort of country-folk rebel, but you really branch out on the new EP. You play 1960s Ronettes-style pop (“Are You Ready To Die”), zydeco (“The Thread”), and saloon-style jazz (“American Made Machine”) without missing a beat. How would you describe your music?
CAH: You pretty much nailed it, and if there is a pigeonhole for me, that’s the one I want! When describing my music to people I try to think of bands out there to compare myself to based on the t-shirts they’re wearing. If somebody likes metal, then we are the Black Sabbath of folk country blues. If they have on a YES t-shirt, I say that we are pretty progressive for a folk band and recommend that they dig our counter melodies. But I never recommend our band to bluegrass enthusiasts. They are consistently dissatisfied with us and I don’t know why.
um: I’ve noticed you often play under a variety of band names like Shovels & Rope, The Butterbeans, and others. Why?
CAH: Music has to be my job. It has to be Mike’s job too. We have to be in multiple bands to make it work, so lots of bands happen. Having so many names helps people know what they are gonna see, too. If it’s the Butterbeans, they know that my home-girls are playing with Mike on drums; or if its Shovels and Rope, that’s me and Mike, and maybe Bill Carson. Of course that could be Los Federales, too, if you add Jack. Wait, I’m getting dizzy.
um: What songwriter would you steal from if you could get away with it?
CAH: Right now my favorite song is a Cowboy Jack Clement song that Waylon Jennings cut called “Dreaming my Dreams.” I also wish I had written “Frankie’s Gun” by the Felice Brothers or “I was Born On This Mountain” by Steve Earle. But you know what I really love? The Inlaws’ “I Am the Black Woman.” I wish I had written that.
um: Your new EP is called “Are You Ready to Die” and one of the more persistent themes in your writing is death and mortality. What’s going on with that?
CAH: I just found out last year that everybody dies, so it’s a little fresh in my brain is all. I’m kidding. But I do think about death a lot, so I write about it a lot. Many people walk around on automatic pilot their whole lives and completely take their lives for granted. Then, when they find out that there is a limited amount of time, part of their mortal frustration is that they haven’t lived their lives to the fullest. On the other hand, some people do everything in their power to kill themselves nice and slow, and when they pass away, everyone pretends not to know how it could have happened. These songs are a reminder to myself to live, live, and live some more.
um: Are you ready to die?
CAH: Am I ready to die? No, I am afraid to die most of the time. I saw someone die up close once. It was the scariest and the most natural thing I have ever seen. Death is not welcome to me and I am too well acquainted with it as it is.
um: What do you think happens after you die?
CAH: I hope there is a heaven, but I believe in reincarnation too. I’m not reconciled. It’s complicated.
um: You and Michael recently played at the Cannes Film Festival. How was that? Did you get any good autographs?
CAH: Cannes was incredible. It was my coolest where-am-I moment so far because it came out of left field. One minute I’m cooking at the farmer’s market, two days later I’m on my way to Cannes, with literally nothing but a raggedy dress and 100 euro to my name. We played in an ancient castle on the Cote d’Azure, and then we were off to somewhere else. I saw a lot of famous people, but I didn’t ask for any autographs.
um: One of the songs from the EP, “Hell’s Bells,” was recently featured on the closing credits of the HBO vampire saga “True Blood” and was heard by millions of people. How did it feel hearing it played?
CAH: I was so excited for weeks and weeks about whether it would actually play or if it would be a big hype-up ending in humiliation. I wasn’t sure it was really going to happen. So, Sookie gets bit and then the song comes on and my reaction was, “That’s awesome! Why is my master so quiet? The master is really quiet, isn’t it? Was it me? I think I messed up the master…”
um: My editor wants to know if it was “fangtastic.”
CAH: It was a pretty fangtastic moment in my life. I’m bloody grateful.