The Avett Brothers Break Down a Decade of Their Best Songs

Just in time for their new album Closer Than Together, Seth Avett reflects on tunes old and new.

Music Features The Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers Break Down a Decade of Their Best Songs

The Avett Brothers are almost always on tour. The relentless travelers, currently a six-piece troupe, headline festivals and amphitheaters, as well as concert halls and theaters, all over the country. So when I call up Seth Avett this summer to talk about their new album, Closer Than Together (out now on Republic Records), I’m not surprised to find him far from the forests and dirt roads of his native North Carolina. He’s in Arizona, where it “basically feels like the surface of the sun when you step outside,” he says. 110 degrees. It’s not anywhere near that warm here in Atlanta, but Seth, being the personable fellow he is, expresses understanding for those of us suffering the “extreme” Georgia temps.

Indeed, the seemingly never-ending southern summers can feel unbearable, much like living in America in 2019. Gloom has permeated our national discourse for nearly three years now, and artists have responded in the best way they know how. The Avett Brothers, who have never really been politically forthright in their lyrics, released an album called True Sadness in 2016. It was Closer Than Together’s deeply personal prequel, home to such moving ballads as “No Hard Feelings” and “I Wish I Was.” If you’ve seen Judd Apatow’s excellent 2017 HBO film May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, an intimate look at the making of True Sadness, you know the album was born of just that: real, earthly grief. It seemed as if every band member faced some sort of upheaval in their personal lives. The Avetts lost their aunt. Seth underwent a divorce. Bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter faced a brain tumor. In the three years between 2013’s Magpie And The Dandelion and True Sadness the band—a family in all but blood—weathered life’s highs and lows, together.

This time around, they finally turn their attention from personal strife to political, while still maintaining the earnest storytelling abilities that made them famous. The Avett Brothers, along with groups like Mumford & Sons and Lord Huron, rode in on a wave of nu-folk obsession at the turn of the decade. But they have remained grounded and beloved in ways other bands have not. Their live shows, which are expressions of top-notch playing and emotional catharsis, are clearly expressions of love—for each other, for the fans and for the gift of the Avett Brothers community. The thing that stays with me most after my conversation with Seth is his grace and humility. He’s just thankful they’ve made it this far.

Seth reflected on some of The Avett Brothers’ most beloved songs, plus new cuts from Closer Than Together, and the events, feelings, places and people that inspired them. Our conversation has been edited for length.

“Murder in the City”

I have no shame about saying that it’s a classic of ours, and that one was sort of a line-in-the sand kind of song. In some ways, it’s, in my mind, the ultimate Avett Brothers song. It definitely feels like there’s sort of a before and an after with that song. I remember hearing it when Scott initially brought it. It was just like, “Well, there you go. That’s it. 100%.” And I remember for some reason, when I think about it in its early stages, I remember him playing it in Florida. I remember us being down in Florida playing at a tiny little restaurant, and I remember the feeling just being absolutely otherworldly. I mean, otherworldly is not the right word for it, because it was so worldly. It was so connected and so powerful in the moment. And I believe that [song] brought us into our own and really introduced us to the heart of the families that were already listening to us.

“No Hard Feelings”

God gave me the first line—and I’m just going to say it like that, because I believe that’s how that happened. From the moment that came to me and came through me, I was in tears. And anytime I connect to it as fully as I did, I feel very weak and I feel very vulnerable and it feels right. It’s the temporary nature of my life—of all of our lives—matched with what might be after, that we can’t wrap our heads around it. It all comes crashing into my heart, and it’s a special feeling. It took about eight years to finish the song, which was a very interesting thing. I just had to keep living my life. But, after sharing it, it’s been one of the great honors of our artistic life to hear how it’s been included in funerals and services, celebrations of life, and how people have brought it into their own families as a coping tool or a healing tool. It’s just a very special thing to be a part of. I don’t feel like it’s mine in any way. I don’t feel like any of them are, but I knew that one particular, right from the very beginning, that it was not mine in any way.

“Ain’t No Man”

I love it for a lot of reasons, but it makes me feel like a cheerleader, which is fun. It’s just a beat and a bassline. It’s a very fun song to perform and to just dance and just throw it down with everybody. But I also really loved it because it’s a pretty equal input between me and Scott. And it was one of those lightning bolt ideas. We’re in Asheville, North Carolina, and it’s winter and it’s cold. And I get to the studio a little bit before Scott. He comes walking in and he’s just like, “Man, listen, we got this thing, it’s like this.” And he just starts singing it. And then we’re just off and running. In that May It Last film, you can see just a little of the end of that. But it was a two-hour, sparks flying, synapses firing, kind of thing. The fun of that song lingers. Every time I play it, that initial excitement sticks around, and that’s what really makes me love it so much.

“Through My Prayers”

It’s a very important song to a lot of folks, and it’s an important song to me. That one has taken quite a journey for me where I have been led into other people’s stories of loss. It’s very clearly a first person speaking to someone who was gone, who has died, who has left this plane of existence. It had a very specific meaning to me in the beginning, and as others have asked to hear the song or have expressed their connection to it, it has grown and gotten much, much bigger in my mind. But I think farewell is important. I think a healthy goodbye is important, if you can get it or when you can get it. I believe that song, in its purest form, what it does not have is some of that uplifting quality of “No Hard Feelings” or “Murder in the City.” “Through My Prayers” is just a really sad song. It’s super true, but it’s super sad. The glimmer of hope in it is highly spiritual, and it’s not as available for what we want, which is just a little bit of an uplifting moment. So I think that’s sort of the reason that it hasn’t grown in the same way as others. But nevertheless, in my soul it’s an important song. And I’ve been very fortunate to learn that it has made its way into other people’s grieving process as well.

“We Americans”

The conversation about being an American, and America as an entity, is in our face all the time. It’s like if you live in New York, half the conversations are about New York. It’s just in your face, and when you’re in America—same thing. Everything is about us and either our victories or how despicable we are. The conversation is exhausting, and it’s always there. That’s part of my life and your life, and it’s a vast, vast conversation. I think the song is more or less a response to the unfortunate loss of our perspective in terms of history, and through that lens trying to offer a bit of scope and a little bit of hope, as well. Because we don’t look back far enough in terms of looking for explanations for something that we might have complained about. And I think it’s important to keep those things in the conversation. It’s important to remember how complex it is, to identify with a nation, any nation or any group. You have to take wholesale any ideology, whether it’s from a tiny little group or one that contains millions. It’s complicated, and you’re signing up for some disappointment from people that claim to be of your same ilk or of your same fabric. I could go on and on and on, but basically the song was an extended comment about our history, how complicated it is to be an American and to remember that we have so much love and we have so much strength and strength to love, that it’s a beautiful thing and that we can use it for beauty.

“Tell The Truth”

That’s one of two songs that we actually recorded at my home in North Carolina, which I’m super excited about ‘cause that’s never happened. We always make the demos either at my house or wherever, work somewhere close by, and then we’d go record them again. But those two, the ones we made at my home, are the ones on the record, so I’m super excited about that. But “Tell The Truth” is largely coming from Scott’s perspective. It’s one of these songs where one phrase is like the thesis statement. I think it’s a powerful concept that if you will just tell the truth to yourself, the rest will fall in place. And then aesthetically, we love the band Dr. Dog. While we were making it, Scott and I were talking about how great all their vocals are. We listened to Dr. Dog, listening to all these layers—they’re just so awesome. Like, “We need to try to make layers like Dr. Dog’s.” That’s kinda why the song sounds like it does.

“C Sections and Railway Trestles”

That’s one of probably three or four songs in my life that basically the entire thing was written in 10 minutes, 20 minutes, something like that. It just blew through me in the hospital room, within the first day and a half of my son being born by emergency C-section. It was a time of great emotional downpour. It was so intense and so scary and so beautiful and so exciting, so troubling, worrying and all that. After a long labor and all the fear and excitement and everything, it just happened so quickly because the inspiration was just so palpable and so powerful. I was so tired and hadn’t slept and also concerned for my wife and for my son. I was just so exhausted and also so inspired. I felt like for a brief moment, I could see the future. So I just wrote all the lyrics out in a torrent on my phone in a little note section and then found the melody later.

“When You Learn”

Perhaps the most tender recording we’ve ever made. It’s really a comment about not needing to achieve some certain thing to deserve love, how we—how me, you, the people that connected this call, the people that are in that Subaru down there in the parking lot—every single one of us deserves love regardless of what shameful things we’ve done, what questionable things we’ve done, what selfish things we’ve done. We should not believe that we’re in a place where we don’t deserve love. We still deserve it. We always deserve it, and we should always give it. And we should always assume that others need it. In a way, it’s a simple concept. But I feel like as humans, we tend to overcomplicate it.

“Bang Bang”

It was just a moment of me being horrified by a movie preview and just being so aware of how casual murder is presented. I’ve enjoyed action movies and all that, but I was exhausted with it and nauseated by it. It just seemed very real to me that there’s a lot of ways to poison yourself. There’s a lot out there in the world that has been filmed that is just poison for the eyes. It’s just no good. At some point I saw the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and he supported a lot of what that song comments on. It reminded me how right of a sentiment it is. The reality is some people are more susceptible to this nonsense than other people. And we really don’t need videogames where people are blowing each other’s heads off. We just don’t need it. It’s garbage. It’s not helpful. So I just had a moment of needing to say that.

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