Interview: Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers talks about 'The Third Gleam'

Jill Riley interviews Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. (MPR Video)
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On Friday, Aug. 29, the Avett Brothers will release their eight-song collection, 'The Third Gleam.' In the run-up to the release, Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers connected with Jill Riley of The Current Morning Show to talk about the new EP and about how life has been going in 2020.

You can watch the entire interview in the video player above, and read a transcript of the interview below. A shortened version of this interview aired on The Current's Morning Show on Thursday at 8:30 a.m. (CDT). You can hear that interview in the audio player above.

Interview Transcript

JILL RILEY: Hi, I'm Jill Riley from The Current's Morning Show, and I'm really excited to be joined by Zoom video, this is just the way of the world right now.

SCOTT AVETT: It is that.

But it's nice because I'm so used to being on the radio and just hearing voices, but connecting face to face, it's something that I really miss doing in person, but, you know, this is just the way of the world right now, and so, I'm really happy to have Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers joining me.

Thank you.

How are you doing?

I'm great; thank you for having me.

Where are you right now? You look like you're in an art studio.

I am; I'm in my art studio in Concord, North Carolina, which is an old farmhouse that I gutted half of it, and inhabited it, and here it is.

Union Street in Concord North Carolina
View along Union Street in Concord, N.C. (Luke Taylor | MPR)

So, you know, right now, I mean, right now, in North Carolina, I mean, there's quite the storm going on [Editor's note: This interview was conducted on August 4, the day after Tropical Storm Isaias made landfall along the North Carolina coast.] I've never been to North Carolina, so where is Concord located? I mean, are you being affected by this at all?

No, not really.

OK.

From the storm, I'm about four hours—

Inland. OK.

I was on the coast last week, in Charleston, but it doesn't look like Charleston got it. It's funny, the hurricanes can can catch North Carolina sometimes, and they'll miss South Carolina because it's tucked in, but yeah, in the Charlotte area, where we are, they occasionally will come in. Hurricane Hugo in the late '80s was a beast for us. It was life-changing for a moment.

Yeah. Oh my gosh, I bet.

Yeah.

Well, I mean, we're talking today because you guys announced a new release, due at the end of this month, and it is called "The Third Gleam" EP, and that's the purpose of our conversation, but, before we get into talking about the new release, I watched a video of you and your brother, Seth, announcing this new release, and there was just, I imagine that it's a really almost difficult time to be talking about new music or releasing new music.

Yeah, yeah.

Even though I think it's the best time to be connecting with fans and keep the music rolling. I guess, can you talk about kind of where your head was at when it was time to release this music and when did it actually get made?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, so the interesting thing with the "Gleam" series is that it's like songs that are made in somewhat of a quieter, more sacred space, if you will, pockets away from the big noise of the bigger expression and the bigger machine, and the record was made on its own time, before the pandemic and before the rolling out of these long-lasting social injustices that we're witnessing.

Although, in hindsight, we were — I don't know what the word is — it was somewhat surreal to realize how applicable the thing was. All the songs, in some way, when the pandemic set in, we were eager to put this record out really fast, because it was ready. But we really wanted to make sure it was right and the timing was right.

We, Seth and I, are like everyone; we don't really know — we just don't know what's right. We try so hard to find what's right, and we try our best to do what's right, and we so often don't. But we want to be really honest about our not knowing what's right. So what we do is put our heads down and roll our sleeves up and do what we do, and hopefully let love and empathy and compassion — we just trust that it will be wrapped up in what we say, you know?

Yeah, I'm really glad that you say that because I kind of relate to that as a radio host, I mean, especially a public-radio host, is that I just want people to know that, in my heart, I want to do the right thing and say the right thing, and do right by people the best that I possibly can, and I think just being vulnerable enough to admit that and let people know that that's your intention, I think that's a really important thing to keep in mind, especially right now.

It is. It is. The point is, is that we're just trying. We're just trying, and I think that's where the divide, like, do you get to a point where you don't see the need in trying anymore? That's the danger, I think. That's where I don't want to slip into.

I'm talking with Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. New release, you said in a series, so it's "The Third Gleam," so there's the Gleam, Second Gleam, Third Gleam; listening to some of the new songs, I mean, it really does have a quietness and a reflectiveness for sure. Was that kind of the theme of the series, or is that really the theme of this point right now?

Yeah, that's maybe the general nuts and bolts of the series, so the idea is that in a case where an idea is put out there less developed than we would assume that it needs to stay in as simple a form as possible, and so we sort of made an agreement, early on, that it would just start with Seth and I, and keep the ideas simple, I guess in an attempt to keep them close to the source, sort of, you know?

OK.

I don't know if that really happens; I trust that it does. In this record, Bob [Crawford] came in and helped us, because it really called for that. But it really is about a quieter, I guess, bringing people in versus going out to grab people.

Sure. Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. You know, we're still in a global pandemic right now, and this has been the way of life, gosh, since, what? The end of February, early March? I mean, that's when things, at least here in Minnesota, we really started to feel the effects, and I think, you know, even across the country, but at least where I live. What has been kind of your number-one coping mechanism during this pandemic?

Well, you know, we live on a farm that has been dormant for years. We set out to make use of it years ago, and we weren't prepared, and I was just too dedicated to traveling and making work — and I still am, really — but we saw the need and the importance in sustainability. So I think busying ourselves with that has been a way to cope.

Not over-busying ourselves because, for me, I don't have the work that I had, and rest has been something that, if there's time provided for it, that I actually needed. And I didn't realize I needed, mentally, physically, emotionally. And so, to overlook that, I think, would have been a big misstep for me if there was any time for that.

With the social unrest and all that that you watch going on, that makes it harder to stay put and rest, you know? You get nervous energy; you want to be part of it. It definitely affects our sleep because we want to do something; we want to do what we want to do, and like I said, I don't always know what to do, so I think coping has been a lot of contemplative time, for me, and allowing things to slow down, and being OK with that.

Outside of being a musician and a visual artist, I mean, you're also you're just a dad, you know? And my son is four years old, and it's been easier for me to explain there's a virus out there, there's a sickness that we're trying to avoid, and we're doing our part and wearing our masks, because we want to get through this.

For me, it's been easier to explain that than, like, some of the things we've seen on the news, especially being here in the Twin Cities with everything that went on in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Oh, man…

Just, as a dad, what's it been like for you to have conversations with your family?

Yeah. I try my best to not sugarcoat anything. I try my best to speak in very direct ways to them. You know, there's a tendency, when things start getting very direct, to sugarcoat them or make them sound a little softer.

I don't know; I feel like the generations right now — I have a five-year-old, a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old — and they're so much better than we were. I think that their experience is in the right direction; it's progressing, as probably ours was, beyond our parents or ahead of our parents. Or excuse me, after our parents.

But I just try to speak really direct about it, and not be afraid to get into some of the more serious topics. Obviously, with a four- or five-year-old, I mean, there are some things that just go over their head, but with the nine- and the 11-year-old, we talk about it. At first, I thought, "You know, these kids are so much better; they don't see color." And it's just not — that's not enough. That's not enough to think that that's really how it's going to be for them.

And I can go off the rails really quick; all I know is that people are people, and then I want them to grow up loving people, and that have nothing to do with, in a lot of ways, with their advancement. That's important. I think we all are in a position where we need to — if we put our advancement aside, we start being able to get out of the way and let people do what they need to do. You've got to get out of the way and let them; this isn't up to you. You better just move! You're not going to do this; you don't control this.

Sure.

But, I mean, I get out of my league really quick; I don't know. I'm just trying to listen and trying to be good, and do my part.

Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers, talking to me here on The Current. I'm Jill Riley, host of The Current's Morning Show. The Third Gleam is the new release from the Avett Brothers, and just talking a little bit about spending time during the pandemic resting, spending time with family, and you know, I really feel like, at least for me, and you probably feel this, too, kind of just being in this reflective period, I know that I've talked to a couple musicians about just a really tragic loss during this pandemic, and that would be John Prine, who succumbed to COVID-19. And I was revisiting the Avett Brothers' cover of "Spanish Pipedream"; I think you guys just did such a good job with that song, and I loved that tribute, because it was such a great moment for a new generation to be introduced to John Prine. That was a really special tribute album when it came out.

Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows
Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine (Oh Boy Records)

Aw, man. Yeah. It was such an honor to be a part of it. The funny thing was, I was just thinking about this, and I did a little interview a couple days after he passed, I had no idea how connected we were to John Prine: in his humor, and in his— I guess, just where he was coming from, but I felt unified with him, but the thing was, I had not gotten into his music until they approached us and said, "Hey, we assume you're fans of John; we'd love for you to be part of this tribute," or maybe they said, "John would love for you to be a part of this tribute," and we were like, "Well, we're not that familiar; we need to hear it."

And they sent us his entire catalogue on CD, and the first song I heard was ["Spanish Pipedream"]! And I was like, "Well … there it is!"

That was perfect; it was fitting. Yes!

I mean, from there on, I was like, "Well, we are a part of this." He's one of the fathers of all this. Like, he did it well before us, and he's teaching us, and we're part of it. And I couldn't believe how connected we were to it, and then meeting him, and him very much being just like a family member, just, like, have us onstage, have my dad onstage. I mean, he talked to us like he was one of our cousins or uncles or whatever! It was unbelievable. Unbelievable.

When was the first time you met him? Was it at some kind of festival? Was it kind of a planned thing where you were going to play together?

Missouri? Yeah, it might have been Missouri that we met, the first time we met him. But the first time I played, sang with him, was at Red Rocks, and we did a couple tunes there. That was the door just flung wide open. So easy; so easy. He just made it so easy, made me so comfortable. Made me feel like I was just a million bucks. And I know that was just, it probably was intentional, and he probably didn't have to try! (laughter) It was incredible. And then we did it again in Mexico. I mean, it was so easy. So easy with John.

Talking about John Prine with Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. So, you can't see this on the radio, but of course, if you're watching the screen right now, there's a special appearance.

Yeah, Brogan.

From your dog! Who is this?

This is Brogan, the old English Sheepdog. (laughter) He's doing his job herding right now.

Yeah, I was kind of wondering, I was like, "Either he has some sort of comfort object that he's sort of squeezing during this interview, or there's an animal down there." (laughter)

(laughter) No, this dog is so instinctive; like, he is such a herder. He has so much anxiety if he is away from his family. He's just like, "Man, I gotta check my kids, and if the kids aren't there, then I've gotta check Scott." He's a good guy.

Well, it's nice to see him. It's been really fun doing interviews like this, to be able to just get a peek into people's lives, and sometimes you see the kids run by.

Yeah!

Sometimes the dog makes an appearance. I had the opportunity to interview Mavis Staples, and she had to get her door because it was her niece visiting her at the time.

(laughter)

It's just kind of fun to get a look in as we've been spending so much time at home.

Zoom is good!

Yeah!

Zoom has been good. I mean, there has been some improvements to some of the meetings and whatnot. I mean, it's interesting. It's definitely, we'll be able to use it as a tool from here on out, regardless. There's some good things happening.

I think so. Hey, is that the studio that you used when you did the cover for Brandi Carlile's record, By The Way, I Forgive You?

It is.

Yeah?

In fact, that black curtain up there is what I had her sit in front of. I have yet to take it down.

Oh really?

Yeah. To get the dark lighting in here.

By The Way I Forgive You
Brandi Carlile's 2018 album, By The Way, I Forgive You,, features a portrait of Carlile painted by Scott Avett. (Elektra Records)

It's an incredible album cover; I mean, it's just an incredible album.

It is that.

But you did a great job with that.

Well, thank you. Thank you.

What's behind you right now? What are you working on?

Well, this, I'm not working on this; these are test prints.

OK.

These are screens. Actually, those were attempts at the cover work for Closer Than Together before it became what it was, I was working with these eyeballs and this idea of an eye. And so they are actually just screens that are just dormant right now; I'm waiting to see where they will get used.

And then there's one of my sons' paintings. That's the five-year-old's painting of his brother, and this is a painting by Ian Felice from the Felice Brothers.

OK! Very nice!

I have several of his pieces. He's a brilliant artist.

OK.

A brilliant painter. So poetic. So good.

Yeah, it's so great to get a look in and, I was just wondering, "What's this painting at the top, and what are you working on behind you?" So again, this is just a cool way to, again, even for fans to kind of just get a glimpse into your space that they may not have gotten before.

Sure. No, it's nice.

You just used the word, "dormant," and I was just thinking, you know, the Avett Brothers, it's great to put on the records, but to get out and be in front of your fans.

Yeah.

I mean, you have such a big following, especially for the live shows. I don't know if the plan is to just kind of resume in full, fingers crossed, next year.

Yeah.

Do you guys have something coming up this month, though? Are you going to do some kind of drive-in concert did I see?

We are. We are on August 29 at the Speedway here in Charlotte. It's a way — you know, the template looks safe. We really worked hard to come up with a way that we could provide safety for people to come out in their cars. And if people follow the bulk of the guidelines, it'll be a successful situation. And there's some other people have done it around the country; some of them have not been as successful, and I can understand how that could happen, you know?

We're all, once again, here we go, back, we're all just trying to figure out how to go through it and not hurt anybody doing it. So yeah, but it's a drive-in show. We have a huge screen there at the Charlotte Motor Speedway that we're going to be performing in front of.

But it will be just Seth, Bob, me and Joe for this show. Just because our traveling situations are not as what they were. So, but yeah, we'll see about next year; we have high hopes.

You know, the future's bright; we're just — I mean, it's all in how we look at it. We've just got to weather the storm.

Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. "The Third Gleam" is the new release. And we've been playing a song called "Victory" on The Current. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about this song, "Victory": Where did the inspiration come from? And when did you know that it was finished and it was ready to be recorded?

The Third Gleam
The Avett Brothers, "The Third Gleam" (Loma Vista Recordings/Concord)

Sure. Going back, the "Gleam" series songs are finished much earlier than I think on some of our other albums because we push those further; we spend more time developing them and adding things to them. In these, we try to stay close to that inception. And for the song "Victory," it really, for all four songs that I added to this record, my head was in two places. Overall, one, musically, I was very moved by, I was listening to Mickey Newbury, and just taken in. All that gentleness and the intimacy of his songs.

And two, I was, I have been just knee-deep in Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr, going further back to The Cloud of Unknowing, and Christian mystics.

As for the song, "Victory," that song is really about two things: one, the chorus is about really understanding that we are already in a place of victory, and the egoic trip that I have been on, and I'm sure I'm still on, that I will undoubtedly lose, and that it's kind of an aspiration of accepting that defeat. OK, I am eventually going to bow out and dissolve into victory.

And the part about the physical, "the broom grass" and all of that, was really just checking in and dialing into those spontaneous, as James Finley would say, "spontaneous contemplative moments" that I have; I had a lot as a child, just moments of quietness. Times where I was, I had the privilege of being alone and being quiet and being good with that. I wasn't making anything; I wasn't producing anything; I wasn't chasing anything. I wasn't worried. And I was at peace and one with everything that was around me. Those are the two things it's about. It's really about oneness.

You are listening to The Current. Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. Thanks for chatting! This was a lot of fun.

Yeah, thank you so much.

External Link

The Avett Brothers - official site

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