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The Avett Brothers: Big Questions

©American Recordings
Avett Brothers (©American Recordings)

The folk-rock siblings look beyond pop tropes for new songs

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

On the Avett Brothers' seventh album, "The Carpenter," the North Carolina-based group led by Scott and Seth Avett, addresses life's big questions about life and death, love and death and fear and death. Did we mention death?

"It's funny, we can't actually consider [death], we can only pretend that we can consider it until we're right up to the jumping-off place," says Seth Avett, "but I think it's a healthy thing to consider without too much despair."

Even though the Grim Reaper has his moments on "The Carpenter," he's competing with the gloriousness of life, including on "A Father's First Spring" -- about Scott becoming a father -- and the boundless entanglements of love that bring both joy and heartache in equal measure. Throughout, the stories are wrapped around gorgeous acoustic folk-rock melodies that pulse with great noise and energy.

For "The Carpenter," the Avett Brothers reunited with Rick Rubin, who produced the group's breakthrough album, 2009's "I and Love and You." Seth Avett talked to MSN Music about making the album, the joy of playing live, and, oh yeah, death.

MSN Music: The lyrics on this album run the gamut of human experiences: love, death, hurt, anger, temptation ... Was there a litmus test for the lyrics?

Seth Avett: We never think in terms of writing for a record. We're the kind of songwriters where it's happening all the time. We think more in terms of what are the songs that make me excited right now or have been gestating for a few years and are ready to see to the light of day.

The litmus test, so to speak, really comes down to if I'm hearing the same thing that Scott's hearing or if one of us is hearing something the other one isn't, as far as, "This one's great, we've got to bring this on through"... We have to be behind the song 100 percent because we're the ones who are going to be out there playing them every night and we take that very seriously.

A lot of the songs here are about gotten kicked around by life. Could you have made this album when you were in your 20s?

This record? No possible chance. No way. I'm 32 now, Scott's 36, [Bassist] Bob Crawford's 40. You get to these ages and beyond and life is going to kick you around plenty. You're going to see cancer and death and joy and life and people just screwing each other over and bad luck and whatever. The older you get, the more of that you see. At some point, you hopefully become resolved to it and become OK with it, but it would not have been possible to even have any of the inklings, any of the thoughts, that went into the record [earlier].

Bing: Avett Brothers videos, songs and more

There's a lot of death on this album. Are you thinking about death a lot?

Apparently I am ... I'm becoming more and more fatalistic. I didn't realize that until later. I hope it's not too much of a downer, but, yes, it's certainly on our minds.

The issue is addressed most poignantly on "Through My Prayers," which deals with the vagaries of grief and regret after losing someone. What specifically inspired that song?

It's written in first person, but the sentiment is for someone else -- a dear friend of mine, who had a parent pass. I wrote the whole song in probably 10 minutes. Sometimes they come like that. It's just being sort of set into your heart and into your mind and you take a piece of paper up and a pen and write it down right now. It wasn't like, "I think a nice gesture would be to write a song." It hit me hard and it hit her hard and it was something that just came upon me and I had to write it down.

You recorded this album in your home state of North Carolina, in part, so you could be close to your families. The band has been very open about Bob's young daughter and her struggle with brain cancer. How has it affected you?

It should be said that no matter how much it changed my life, I'm completely peripheral in this whole thing ... It's changed the way I look at everything. It's kind of cliche, but you have to live as if, at any moment, things are going to change, because they are. We have to become resolved to the fact that any time a tragedy is not going on, we need to be really thankful because, really, all we're doing is biding our time between tragedies ... It's been a reality check for when I am unhappy about small things to remember that there are bigger things and I just need to know that ... sometimes it's easier said than done.

There's such a sense of joy when the band is on stage. When is the last time you looked over at Scott and thought, "Can you believe that we get to do this? " or is that long gone?

(laughs) It's kind of long gone. I won't say that it's nonexistent  just every now and again, I'll have a moment like that ... I don't know, it all just moves so fast. For the most part, I'm just lost in the rhythm ... I am engaged with the audience and getting everybody to laugh because I'm really having a good time.

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Some of your fans have reacted negatively to your involvement with NASCAR or your ads for the Gap. Does any of the backlash surprise you?

It does not surprise me, though your telling me that is about as close as I come to engaging to it ... I don't look at the message boards, I don't look at the comments on YouTube. I just very purposefully stay away from all that because I'll look at 1,000 compliments and see the one thing that's negative and I'll put it in my heart and I'll never let it go, you know.

One of the album's most striking tracks is "Paul Newman vs. The Demons," which addresses wanting to walk through the public eye with grace. Why Paul Newman?

He's my favorite actor, for one, if i had to pick one. He was the ultimate: unnaturally handsome, incredibly talented, he had the option to just be pompous and conceited and all that and he was an angel. He had his own demons, but on the whole I think we are all aware that he did more good than not good. He did it in such a huge way and selfless way. We need to get behind that spirit and be like that, especially for people like me and Scott or Bob or whatever, where people are looking at us and saying "Those guys are so good looking or talented" or whatever. Figuring out a way to let that sort of glance off of you and focus whatever attention you've got towards doing something that's actually good instead of just being cool.

Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.

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