North Carolina folk-rockers The Avett Brothers recently released their eighth full-length album, Magpie and the Dandelion — which is also their third effort with super-producer Rick Rubin, who worked with them on their breakout hit “I And Love And You.” Led by single “Another Is Waiting,” whose video premiered here on EW.com, Magpie debuted at No. 5 on Billboard 200, giving the banjo-plucking troupe their second straight Top 5 debut.
A few weeks before the album’s release, EW caught up with the band before a PBS taping at the McCittrick Hotel. Bassist Bob Crawford couldn’t participate in the interview, but brothers Seth and Scott Avett sat down with us to talk about their new music, their bird obsession, how Crawford’s young daughter is doing (she was diagnosed with cancer in 2012), and what the title Magpie and the Dandelion means.
Why are you releasing an album just a year after The Carpenter?
Scott Avett: It used to be commonplace for us. We were hard on ourselves early on. We felt obligated to put something out every year. That felt very appropriate for some reason. So the material presented itself — we realized it was there.
You’d recorded it already?
Scott: Yeah, we’d recorded most of it with The Carpenter, not thinking it would come out as an album necessarily, but maybe it would come out as singles or extra material or what not. The more we listened to it, the more we realized there was a piece, a whole there that deserved to be together and synchronized.
What made it a whole?
Scott: That’s a good question. I think maybe spending time with it made it a whole and made it cohesive for us. We spent a lot of time listening to this album after we’d released The Carpenter — still listening to these demos, still listening to these demos — and it being realized and revealed to us that, “Oh my gosh, this makes sense and could be more interesting than The Carpenter.”
Seth Avett: Here’s the other thing about this: Everyone that we played it for outside the band initially understood it as a piece. Since we did so much during those sessions and burned ourselves out so much, all of our vision around all that material from those sessions became so blurry. We couldn’t really see what it was. So it took time… to get a fresh view on everything.
As a piece, The Carpenter felt self-assured, like you knew where you stood in life. This album feels like you’re hearkening back to early albums, and you all feel sort of lost all over again. Is that intentional?
Seth: I think within each song it feels intentional. Scott has used the phrase “young wonderment,” and there’s a lot of examples of a young wonderment.
Wait, are you saying “wonderment” or “wander man?” I actually didn’t make out what you just said.
Scott: (laughs) Maybe both.
Seth: But “wonder.” It can feel more like a hearkening back [to early albums] because you’re bringing forth examples of not being assured, not being confident, learning things, being surprised and sometimes disappointed.
This is a weird question, but do you feel particularly inspired by birds? There’s a lot of bird imagery in your music and album art.
Scott: There is.
Scott: Yeah, with Emotionalism, I don’t really know why that one came about, and that one came about quick. The album artwork was done in a very short period of time to make up for an album cover that we were unsure of and that I’d spent a lot of time on and just decided was no good. So that came out, so I think we jumped the gun. But this one is more about the dynamic between a magpie and a dandelion and the characteristics between the two. The two are in songs — that presented itself to us. We realized, well, this magpie is in this song, and then there’s a reference to a dandelion in another one, and we realized the differences in the fragility, the softness, the intent of spreading a seed that a dandelion has versus this sort of abrasive and annoying thing that a magpie has — there’s a contrast there that was interesting we (he points to Scott) may actually share.
Who’s the magpie?
Scott: That would be me.
Seth: And each of us wrote those parts, so that was really interesting. [The magpie reference is in the song "Morning Song," embedded here.]
Lyrically, the bird references are there, too. Whether it’s “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise,” when you sing about a caged bird, or “Souls Like the Wheels,” when you sing about wings.
Scott: I do have something important to say about this. I think people that live in the country write a lot about it because it’s really, really relevant in their lives. When we’re at home, birds, trees, our pets, cows that are in the back yard, these are all things that are extremely present and in our face all the time, and I guess we think about them a lot. We probably write about them a lot more than we let out there. Nature is obviously a big part of country music. It always has been.
Seth: We’re also somewhat mystified — within our culture, it’s always like, “I wanna fly like a bird” — we’re mystified by something that’s so different than us. Snakes, it’s the same thing — so different from us. There’s something about dogs, deer, wolves, cows, whatever where we sort of understand what it would be like, in a way, to be like that, whereas with birds we cannot fathom what it would be like to take flight. I think there’s something, not just in us, but in our culture. That’s the sense of wonderment. We look at [birds], and we’re like, “What would it be like to jump off a cliff and just to fly?”
The album opens with “Open Ended Life,” and there’s two ways someone could interpret this song. The first is from a musical career perspective, where you always want to be able to evolve and move within the industry quickly and fluidly. The other way to look at the song is as a sarcastic rejection of the idea that you don’t need to plant your roots anywhere in life. Is it supposed to lie between those two ideas?
Scott: Yeah, maybe they cross paths, those two things. If it’s career or art that you pack up and leave, it’s much like leaving a place, and maybe you do that more than you should. And then in little daily routines, being able to scrap something and let it go and leave it behind. Overall, it mainly was about being told by my dad, “Get an education because if you put all your chips in one thing, it’s not guaranteed to work out.” So I would think, “I’ve got to be able to quit at any time.” And I’ve always thought that I would quit next month or that next month I’ll change. And I still have this thought that I’m going to just change everything I do at any moment. I don’t know why, but that song is very literal.
As a band, you haven’t had an especially “Open Ended” existence, at least not in your relationship with your fans. It’s been really consistent.
Scott: It has been. The reality is we work really hard to be balanced. You’re probably helping me realize that that song, it’s a reminder that maybe it’s not like that at all, that maybe the song is somewhat of a pipe dream.
“Souls Like the Wheels” is a song you released on The Second Gleam in 2008. Why bring that back for this CD?
Seth: Well there’s a couple reasons for that. One, we like the idea of paying homage or using the same tools as [other artists]. There’s one live track on Neil Young’s Harvest, and it finishes, the crowd goes nuts, and it just goes right into the next song. It’s super effective. There’s a Gillian Welch record, The Revelator, and she does the same thing. There’s just one live track. We felt like it fit with the mix. It also was the way to take the Dandeion reference, as far as something gentle and fragile, and taking that as far as you can in one direction because that song really feels like it’s just about to fall apart. So that felt like another way to really push the extremes.
Scott: The third thing is, when I was pitching the song, we had a lot of recordings of these condenser microphones where Seth and I would just do a song. So we listened to a long list, maybe 60 recordings, of what might be good for this live track. Conceptually, Seth, Bob, and I are, at times, in extremely different places. On stage, everything has never been more together, but outside of that sometimes, we’re in completely different places. Our priorities are different, our obligations and responsibilities are different, our focus is completely different. And that song is a beacon in a room full of solitude. It is a very solitary song. It’s Seth alone. It’s the only time the song has ever been played live for anybody.
When was it?
Scott: It was in St. Louis in 2012 at the Fox Theater. [Fortunately, someone captured the moment, embedded below.]
Why don’t you ever play it, Seth?
Seth: I’m not sure. Well, I guess I am sure. I know what has made me say, “You know I should play that song,” and then never pushing through. It’s a very personal song to me, and it has gained a new meaning in my recent life, and it’s just a very, very personal song. Technically, it’s very different from any other song we’ve ever done and also it calls for a room that has at least the potential of getting in the moment with you. It’s an interesting recording because there are a lot of people who are holding their breath and there are a lot of people that are yelling and stuff.
It has the feel of an Avett Brothers concert. When I saw you last year in Central Park there were people in front of me smoking pot and people behind me talking about a Tim Keller sermon they’d heard that Sunday.
Scott: Exactly. That’s great.
Seth: Our shows the perfect crossroads between the scholars and the tailgaters.
Scott: We know of fans that are friends that are complete left and complete right.
And finally, how is Bob’s daughter doing? The video you released earlier this year about her struggle in St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital was heartbreaking.
Scott: It’s just a constant struggle. They’re constantly helping her and tending to her. It’s a day by day situation, and they’ve got scans every three months so they go those and hold their breath, see if she’s clear, and then go back home.
Seth: It’s a life-long shift. It’s not like the other quote-unquote tragedies. It’s impossible to describe it in one simple word or phrase because so much has come out of it — positive and negative. We have never expereienced such an earth-shifting moment. You can’t really talk about it in past-tense. When I was 18, 20 or whatever, you talk about a breakup like, “Oh this is the worst thing that ever happened,” but it’s in the past. It happened, that’s it. Hallie presenting brain cancer — that’s not in the past. That lives in the past, present, and future so there’s no short answer. But a big part of the learning experience about that has been watching positive things come out of it as far as education and union between so many people, when in the moment of the event first happening, it didn’t feel like anything good could ever come of it.
ALSO READ: Our in-depth Q&A with the band last year.