On a mild Wisconsin day last June, Scott and Seth Avett and their longtime band member Bob Crawford, spoke and sang to a modest but spellbound audience of songwriters and musicians at the inaugural Between the Waves Conference.
Later that night, the American folk-rock band from Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, would take the stage at Breese Stevens Field in Madison, playing for thousands of adoring fans.
But for that afternoon, the Avett Brothers shared music and conversation in a remarkably intimate session.
They shared deeply personal moments, from the birth of a child to experiencing depression. They told hilarious stories, including one about auditioning for an acting role with Anne Hathaway that had the audience in stitches.
They spoke deeply and thoughtfully about songwriting, mentioned favorite authors and artists, recommended music, and talked about the necessity of creativity.
And when they weren't talking, they sang and they played.
Seth Avett set a friendly and funny tone, warming up the audience right at the outset: "We were brothers from the beginning, but we didn't become friends until I was maybe 14."
They talked about sending cassettes back and forth when they first started writing together, and shared an example of one of those early songs.
Once making music together became a high priority, Scott and Seth Avett had to make sure they set aside time for songwriting. The brothers have countless interests outside of their band. That plus nearly constant touring leaves little time for creativity. The Avetts literally book time on their calendars to work and write together. Without that intentional time management, their nine-plus albums would simply be pipe dreams.
But time constraints weren't the only bump in the road the band has faced.
"No Hard Feelings," is a song that didn't start out so well. It's one they say, had to be hashed out.
In fact, it sat with its first line — "When my body won't hold me anymore; And it finally lets me free; Will I be ready?" — in a voice memo for a very long time before developing into the song it is today.
Honesty, transparency and vulnerability permeate the Avetts Brothers’ music, and Seth Avett emphasized how important those qualities are for anyone interested in songwriting. They cited musicians they admire who are able to to be brutally honest in songs: Loudon Wainwright III, Will Oldham, John Prine and Greg Brown — writers they described as vulnerable and open, whether someone is listening or not.
They spoke at length about their songwriting process. It starts with the two of them coming together with ideas, then Crawford joins them; they try to keep it as non-formulaic as possible.
"Seth is more musical than I am. Bob’s more musical than I am. I lead with lyrics ... I will come up with melodies in my head, but for me it’s usually a concept of lyrics," Scott Avett said.
For Seth Avett, "The trick is not falling in love" with early versions of songs before the refining process gets underway. But occasionally a song does come fully formed. That was the case for a song he wrote in the hospital room with his 12-hour-old son, born via C-section.
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Jumping off of the story about his son, the band opened the floor for a Q&A session with the audience. Appropriately so, the first question was about family life.
Scott and Seth Avett acknowledged having grown up in a loving, stable family, where there was value placed on education, but also on manual labor.
"Learning how to use a hoe, to string beans and use a hammer was important ... we were helping at three and four years old," said Scott Avett. "Our parents made us believe if we could strum a guitar or a banjo, we could get in front of somebody and play."
"They presented a world where things were achievable ... Dad always said you can be the best at whatever you want to try," Seth Avett added.
While the band had already touched on songwriting, many audience questions veered toward the art.
Scott Avett talked about deeply personal songwriting, referencing a song he’s currently working on about depression. He took the audience through the inspiration for the song — "Am I Sad or am I Sick?" — his feelings, its visual cues and where it is so far in the process. "All of a sudden this beautiful thing becomes a wall and you can’t get out of bed," he said.
Seth Avett emphasized how important collaboration is, pointing to one of their biggest hits, "I and Love and You." In its infancy, the song didn't have a chorus, but when producer Rick Rubin heard the song, he noticed a line he thought should be repeated. That chorus is now iconic.
"I generally understand the chorus to be, in the parlance of our times, the thesis statement, the thing that binds it all together," Seth Avett said. "Aesthetically, it tends to be the most catchy part of the song."
Collectively, they praised Rubin as one who, "guides with a very soft voice and a very calm sensibility."
Seth Avett noted that "it works for us that he’s not particularly musical — what interests him is spirit and feeling; what’s natural and unnatural; what’s exciting; how far is too far — those kinds of concepts."
Rubin's role as a producer comes through in their newest album "True Sadness," which has a lot more sound and power than previous releases.
"It’s dishonest to not use what the computer has to offer," Scott Avett said. When working on the album they recorded both acoustic and remixed versions of the songs, then synthesized the two — raving about the huge talent of fellow band members who bring those sounds to life on the road.
As for what the band is listening to now: Brother Ali, the Wood Brothers, Dr. Dog, the Felice Brothers, and Bon Iver's latest record all made the list.
Crawford is a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, and as he explained, the band had the opportunity to recreate an entire Grateful Dead set for a concert.
"I told the guys, it’s been 16 years together, this is my one thing," Crawford said. Seth Avett jumped in saying, "It was a lot of work, but we’ll never be the same band ever again. That’s how we break open the new boundaries."
After 90 minutes of sharing their time, talent and spirit, the threesome played a final song — one that Judd Apatow recently created a documentary about.
Watch the full session with conversation and music here: