Back in the early days, Scott Avett says he answered every fan email, read everything written about The Avett Brothers. He remembers a review that characterized the group as writing “small songs” and thought that was a great thing.
“They (the songs) were coming from a couple of guys who had very small worlds,” he says, “and as we traveled those worlds became larger. It’s a good thing, but hard to accept when you’re looking back. The innocence blows me away. Over time, your scope becomes broader.”
That broader, deeper focus, natural as the brothers in the band mature, is evident on their latest, “The Carpenter,” and its major label predecessor, “I And Love And You.”
“We just write from our perspective,” Avett says of the band based in Concord, North Carolina that returns to the Norfolk area with a show at nTelos Pavilion at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 22. “I think that’s what all art is, the description of something we experience or feel.”
Avett cracks that the band talked about making a fun record the last time out, but he’s not so sure it’s all grins. Mortality is addressed from the opening song, as they sing: “If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die.”
But then the group, for all its wild, barely-contained live shows, has always produced thoughtful, if often winking albums. See “Live and Die,” “Paul Newman vs. The Demons,” and “Through My Prayers” on “Carpenter” as well as past efforts like “Die Die Die” and “Salvation Song” contrasted with the “Pretty Girl” series of tunes.
“I guess that’s the ultimate thing we all try to swallow, this acceptance of goodbye, “ he says. “Our group constantly talks about these spiritual endeavors, these elements friends of ours have, family members have of facing of goodbye. Man, maybe we’re just overly morbid about these things. The idea is that the only answer is to be able to release and let go and surrender.
“It’s just a heroic human struggle and we’re just like every other person on the planet,” he adds. “We’re sharing that with people.”
I mention that the most compelling songwriters address those issues time and again, and Avettt agrees. “Even in the lightest pop songs, the best ones, you get these hints you get a glimpse into this spiritual needing or hope or journey this person is on,” he says.”
As the band was putting the final touches on “The Carpenter,” they learned the 18-month-old daughter of Bob Crawford, the third Avett brother, had been rushed to the hospital with convulsions and was suffering from brain cancer.
It seems several of the songs on the album had been written addressing that, but Avett says they were completed by the time they got the news. “It was almost like we were preparing for something and we didn’t know what it was,” he says. “It has affected the performing of those songs and what they mean to us. It’s validated and solidified the meaning of them.”
For Crawford, there is “no resting, no peace when it comes to caring for her,” he says.
I mention that whatever musical label you apply to the Avetts – and they prefer rock band – their songs are personal, emotional, and that must take a toll over time, going back to that deeper well again and again.
“You become protective over such tragedy,” he says. “We may be more guarded about some of those personal things so we may write them in code when it comes to what’s ahead. Then again, we may write them in frank ways.”
“Not that I really believe in any of this stuff, but I’m a Gemini and its true one day I’ll be like I will throw it all out there. I do believe on most days that is the way I should be, as open a book as possible. That’s the safest and most honest way to live. There are moments of darkness where you really don’t want to throw it out there, don’t want to talk about it at grocery store because that will happen.”
He quotes Eminem that if you open up these topics, they will be discussed. “So it becomes this dialogue between us and the people,” he adds. “You just have to keep your energy up and be willing to keep coming back to parts of me. I try to stay an open book All it takes is energy. If I take care of myself, I’m good with that and I’m willing to be wide open. I’m really proud we write from that place. Those are the songs that always move us.”
The brothers grew up in Concord, N.C. listening to a typically evolving play list. Their mother taught reading and their father was a welder who played country guitar. Scott remembers listening to the family’s eight-track player churning out John Denver, Three Dog Night and Dylan — obscure Dylan, or relatively obscure Dylan like “Desire.” As he got older, he became attached to Michael Jackson, Hall & Oates, Tom Petty, The Cars. And then it was on to hard rock, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Hendrix and the grunge scene.
One critic may have put it best. He called the Avetts “a band that exploits the tensions between the rustic Old South and the cosmopolitan New South, between rootsy bluegrass and rowdy punk rock, between reverence and irreverence.”
The band is Scott on banjo, Seth on acoustic guitar, Bob Crawford, the Yankee in the crew, on upright bass. They play unabashedly emotional, smart, music. At times it’s intense, acoustic instruments driven to the limit. At times, it’s joyous pop as well as tender and thoughtful. Giving it some sort of tag is ultimately misleading.
What moved the Avetts up the charts were a series of albums starting with 2007’s “Emotionalism” followed by their move to a major label with “I and Love and You” and then “The Carpenter.”
That evolution, what Avett calls “a key change in our path,” came after producer Rick Rubin reached out the group and invited them to his Malibu home. He told them he loved “Emotionalism” and if the group wanted to work together or just talk about songs, he’d love to do it. “That was kind of a perfect storm,” he says. “We were thinking we needed to change how we were looking at things.”
What they found in Rubin was a huge music fan, excited about new and old discoveries who gave them a valuable set of outside ears. He also gave them access to a world of musicians and engineers and the major label machinery.
His biggest influence, Avett says, was getting them to take more time, enjoy their craft. “We needed to figure out how to focus and slow down. Rick helped us do that, to put more focus on a group of songs and allow them to be what they needed to be instead of releasing them too early,” he explains.
One example is the title cut for “I and Love and You,” which started as a narrative verse inspired by Avett’s love of all things Townes van Zandt.
“Rick simply said, ‘Man, I don’t know what’s happening in that song, but it’s making me feel good. I don’t know what some of these things mean. I don’t have to. I just know they’re mysterious in that timeless way.’ In so many words, he said I heard this in the song and I’m yearning for that to happen again. That was something Seth and I could relate to, could understand.”
Rather than throw away the verse, they reevaluated and went back to work on the song.
With “The Carpenter,” Avett says they dissect songs in even more detail. But they are careful to maintain that balance between laboring too long and not laboring enough.
“Some songs take time. Not every song does. Some get worse with time,” he says. “There are these sweet spots you find in them and capture. Then there’s 100 more sweet spots within the same song when you’re playing live. “
“That’s the game, that’s the trick,” Avett adds. “Is this song great as a crazy, unhinged comment or does it need to be wrangled in and changed? Every song is a different character in that regard.”