“I’m just telling the truth, and I don’t know how that can be combatted, really,” says Seth Avett. The singer-guitarist is discussing “Divorce Separation Blues,” a standout track from The Avett Brothers‘ new LP, True Sadness (American Recordings/Republic Records): “Some folks just want the dirt/And don’t even care if it’s true/Well then again who cares who’s talking/I’m worried for myself and you.”
In 2013, Seth found himself in an unexpected position, especially for an earnest folk-rocker from the mountains of North Carolina: tabloid fodder. His relationship with Dexter star Jennifer Carpenter — and subsequent divorce from his first wife — had become grist for a gossip mill that usually focuses on Real Housewives and misbehaving pop stars. Outlets like Perez Hilton and Us Weekly dated the relationship with Carpenter back to two years prior, essentially blaming the actress for breaking up Seth’s marriage, one the singer had documented on such fan favorites as “January Wedding.” Avett released a statement acknowledging the split and asking for privacy, but some fans online persisted in loudly voicing their displeasure about his personal life and, perhaps, the realization that the group might no longer play its most beloved tracks.
Seth, 35, and his brother, Scott Avett, 39, are checking in from Milwaukee, where the band (which includes double bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon) is playing the BMO Harris Pavilion. The pain of Seth’s divorce is evident during the conversation, though he brightens when speaking about his newborn son, Isaac, whom Seth and Carpenter welcomed in August 2015. This contrast, between the pain of loss and the joy of life, is a central theme of True Sadness.
“It’s really just about resolution: coming to a place in your life where you can accept the great level of sadness that you’re going to experience if you live into old age,” says Seth, who wed Carpenter in a private ceremony during Memorial Day weekend. “It has been made very clear to us that we are like our audience, so it’s not that vulnerable to talk about divorce, because a lot of people have gone through it. I feel very safe within the band.”
True Sadness might be the Avetts’ most personal record to date, as well as their most adventurous. While such pretty acoustic numbers as “I Wish I Was” and “Fisher Road to Hollywood” hew close to the group’s tried-and-true sound, the Avetts veer in unexpected directions elsewhere. Along with the “We Will Rock You”-like stomp that powers lead track “Ain’t No Man,” the band finds a surprising EDM groove on “Satan Pulls the Strings” and employs swelling orchestral flourishes on closer “May It Last.”
The musical progressiveness feels like a calculated risk for a group pushing back against being pigeonholed as one-dimensional folkies. Along with Mumford & Sons — who co-starred with the Avetts and Bob Dylan in an awkwardly presented but musically rousing “tribute to acoustic music” at the 2011 Grammy Awards — The Avett Brothers spearheaded a wave of banjo-and-bolo-tie bands in the early ’10s that included The Lumineers, The Head and the Heart and Of Monsters and Men. But after a few years and dozens of ad campaigns and film trailers utilizing songs by those groups, the aggressively peppy sound of 21st-century arena-folk quickly wore thin, even for its originators.
“We love bluegrass music and we love bluegrass bands. But we also love metal and hardcore and hip-hop,” says Scott of his group’s newfound eclecticism. “We are creative beings, we are artists, and we need to continue making things.” (As for how the brothers are responding to their home state’s so-called “bathroom bill” targeting the transgender community, the Avetts plan to keep playing North Carolina because they believe a boycott would “punish music fans for what’s going on in the media or with politicians.” )
As songwriters, Seth and Scott have never shied away from writing about their personal experiences. It’s this transparency that endeared them to super-producer Rick Rubin, who has helmed the past four Avett Brothers albums, starting with 2009’s I and Love and You, the band’s best-selling LP to date.
“The Avett Brothers may be the most heartfelt people I know,” says Rubin. “It is always a great pleasure to be in their company and see their continued mining of the inner life for the sake of artistic expression.”
The partnership with Rubin has coincided with the North Carolinians’ ascendance to headliner status at arenas and music festivals. Formed in 2000, after Seth and Scott had played together in a more straight-ahead rock band, The Avett Brothers spent most of the 2000s building a reputation in clubs and theaters as a fire-breathing live act that played traditional mountain music with punk passion. In the studio, however, they struggled to replicate that energy.
When Rubin came onboard, “that was the beginning of our professional recording career,” says Scott. While the Avetts remain one of the most exuberant live bands in rock, on their albums they have become more nuanced, favoring sweeping classic-rock balladry that wrenches pathos from the brothers’ backwoods harmonies. In 2013, The Avett Brothers’ second release with Rubin, The Carpenter, garnered the band its first Grammy nomination, for best Americana album.
Emboldened by Rubin, the Avetts eschewed their usual recording methods on True Sadness. Instead of setting up and playing live in the studio “like it was 1965,” Rubin directed them “to approach the songs in a radically different way,” explains Seth, essentially remixing the tracks as they went along to incorporate a wider range of musical styles.
Ultimately, it’s all part of growing up, and growing into their sound. “When I was younger, I just wanted to write sad songs, blues and murder ballads, but I didn’t really have any experiences that gave me the material. When you’re younger, you get made fun of for being happy,” says Seth. “Family and death — those things don’t feel good to talk about in real life, but they’re good conversations to have.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Billboard.