That which tests you makes you stronger. Since the Avett Brothers’ last album, 2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion, Scott and Seth Avett—and their bandmate Bob Crawford—have endured a torrent of heartache and loss, including loved ones passing away, Seth’s divorce, and Crawford’s young daughter Hallie’s ongoing battle with a brain tumor. So with their new album, True Sadness (available June 24), it would be forgivable if they chose to wallow in the pain. But while True Sadness has its somber moments, the album as a body of work feels buoyant and assured, an acceptance that life indeed continues on. Influenced by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Jimmie Rodgers to Pink Floyd, the North Carolina stalwarts have never been more honest and genuine. Here, the brothers chat about short hair, getting older, and the power of a yodel.
You guys have been playing a bunch of Merle Haggard songs in your shows. Is that something you’ll keep doing?
Seth: Hell, yeah. I really can’t feel we could overdo it. There needs to be more bands covering Merle Haggard!
Scott: He was one of the greatest storytellers of all time, and he’s criminally underrated as a guitar player.
You both have short hair again. Is there something symbolic about that?
Scott: There have been a lot of times when I’ve had short hair. But sometimes it is a cleansing thing. I look at some rings that I wear and wonder why I’m wearing them, so I take them off. I guess it does sort of mean a new beginning.
Seth, you wrote a lengthy letter on the band’s website about the background of True Sadness. That’s unusual given that a lot of bands just tweet or post on Instagram.
Seth: I feel like we have a level of communication with our fans that’s pretty special. It’s something that we’ve nourished over these fifteen years. I like dialogue. Like any good relationship, there needs to be communication.
Despite the title, True Sadness feels like a giant exhale and the start of a new chapter.
Seth: You’re jacked into it for sure. As the years go by, you’re going to experience great exaggerated opposite sides of the spectrum. In April, we played Madison Square Garden and we’d been getting word that loved ones have cancer. Meanwhile, we’re about to go onstage to fulfill a dream. If I were twenty-one years old, maybe that would be the only thing I would focus on. But when you’re thirty-five, thirty-six, and Bobby is forty-six…we’ve lived long enough to understand there’s a lot of joy and true sadness that hits you daily. To figure out how to navigate that tightrope is a big part of the record.
It sounds like there’s been a lot to take stock of in the last three years.
Scott: Watching Bob, our other brother, go through all of this with his daughter, and Seth going through divorce, it definitely makes you reflect on what’s important, and what could very well be you someday. We’ve had too many significant deaths in our circle. Two aunts passed whom we were very close to and a great-aunt, as well as losing close friends. For us, cancer seems to be around every corner. The few years between our last album and now, cancer is a daily conversation.
Seth, one of the album’s highlights is the very frank “Divorce Separation Blues.” But to lighten the mood, you yodel.
Seth: The old divorce yodel! I was listening to Doc Watson, as I often do when I need to feel grounded, and one of his yodels was just speaking to me. At that point the divorce was still an emotional reality but I was just far enough away from it to be able to write about it. I don’t know why it came to me in a yodel. I like songs with beautiful melodies but with themes that are very dark. It’s like ice cream on top of blackberry cobbler—it’s cold, and it’s hot, but it’s together.
How has the songwriting process evolved for you two?
Scott: This was the first time Seth and I did a couple of writing sessions together, just the two of us, in a proper studio. Before, it was always the song has been done by the time we went in to record.
Seth: It was odd, because paying a thousand dollars a day to rent a studio was something I never thought I’d do. But now, when we’re home, the reality is you have a baby in one arm and you’re trying to do the dishes. You’re not going to be writing songs.
Did you fight or bicker over songs?
Seth: We used to. But ninety-nine percent of that is long behind us. One thing that having kids will do is make you more patient. Scott is so patient. I respect him a lot, and I’ve learned a lot from him.
With everything that has taken place in the past few years, did you ever wonder about calling it quits?
Seth: [Laughs.] Probably not. We draw so much strength from each other. Through all the tragedies and challenges, I think we keep a consistent perspective of the Avett Brothers as something that can contribute to getting us back on our feet.
Scott: We’re in this until the end.