Seth Avett: The Dynamics of Light

“I’ve seen the reward in my own life for accepting who I am.” – Seth Avett

I set my sights on talking to Seth Avett after hearing an interview with him. In it, Seth said that it took him eight years to write the song, No Hard Feelings. That gave me hope. You see, I struggle with how lengthy my creative process is. Whether I am painting an illustration or writing an essay, I’m slooowww. True my paintings are extremely detailed, but it seems that there is no good reason for my writing to dribble onto paper at a turtle’s pace. Over the years, I have frustrated myself by trying to speed things up and then beat myself up when I couldn’t. If Seth was okay with the length of time it took for his masterpiece to come to fruition, perhaps I could be okay with my process. Letting the still, small voice within have its way has paid off for him. 

When I got Seth on the phone, I was surprised that he immediately understood the premise behind my Porch Light Profiles. Most creatives that I interview are a little confused about what “living from their inner light” means, even though that’s exactly what they are doing. But not Seth. He admitted to, after some trial and error, coming from the heart with The Avett Brothers. 

At the beginning of their musical collaboration Seth and his brother, Scott, assumed that they would need to become something that was against their nature. They put their attention on being a rock band, like Sound Garden or At the Drive-In.

As Seth put it, “Basically we tried to be like something we had seen on TV.  And then when that fell apart, Scott and I had to start over. We simplified and started writing songs leaning towards what came to us naturally, from the actual region that we’re from. It all kind of started falling into place immediately.”

There were a couple of milestones Seth credits to bringing about this shift in focus. One was discovering American roots music from North Carolina. The other was meeting bluegrass legend, Doc Watson. Seth had met Doc when he was around 14 but didn’t apply the knowledge he had acquired from him until some years later. Witnessing Doc play acoustic guitar and sing on stage, opened up Seth’s mind to what makes a powerful musical performance. Power doesn’t come from volume. Power comes from character. 

Seth learned early on that the only thing he could offer to the world was himself. He never bought into the notion that getting a degree and then plugging into a 9 to 5 job was the only pathway to success. Getting to know and be himself is what turned out to be his formula for success.

“Right, totally! And that is at the root of every, every great thing there is. The reason Stevie Wonder is Stevie Wonder is because he was himself, you know? And Tom Waits and Randy Newman. All the great ones have found a way to just be themselves and find the most purest way to present from who they genuinely are.”

Early on in our conversation it was apparent that Seth has a spiritual foundation. You can hear it in the Avett Brother’s lyrics, too. I think that’s why they have such a strong core audience. More than ever people ache for that. Seth agreed.

“Well, I know I certainly do. I am infinitely benefited by discovering and really spending time with music that’s honest. And that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily positive. I need that too, but it’s good to listen to and hear the darkness. The darkness is true, and I think it’s good to take part in that. It’s important to take part in all of the dynamics of light. I personally need music, and not just to tap my feet to. It’s part of my spiritual practice and my discipline. I need it on a daily basis. It’s just part of my health so I enjoy being in a position where I might be able to provide some of that as well. I hope I can. I feel like it’ll be one of the great honors of my life if I’m able to take part in an effort that provides that for any number of people.”

Giving back is part of the bedrock of Seth’s upbringing. His grandpa was a minister. For Seth and his brother, music is their own spin on bringing people together. Albeit in a different, more expansive way.  “Well, we’re very thankful to be a part of the flock. We’re thankful to be connected to the people that come to our shows and let us know it’s important to them. They in a very real way, are giving us fuel.”

Seth honors that there are many pathways to God. He describes his spiritual practice as being  wide open. 

“I believe that I have an indescribable, inarticulate dialogue with God. I don’t hear voices though,” Seth jokes. “I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I do feel that I have an ongoing dialog with Providence and I use any spiritual guide I can get my hands on. Some of them are Christ’s teachings or are based on the words of the Buddha. And Ghandi, certainly. And Martin Luther King.” And he adds laughing, “Andy Griffith.”

With our interview winding down I had made my way to the question I was hoping would help bring me peace.

“I do love your song No Hard Feelings. To me it encompasses all you’ve spoken about. I heard you say that it took eight years to write. When you were writing it, were you ok with the song coming at its own pace? It sounds like the first lines were downloaded  and then you gave the song a rest. Later on another phrase would come. Is that how it worked?”

“Yes. The first few lines of No Hard Feelings came to me immediately. I was almost in tears, you know? It sounds ridiculous to think about starting to weep about what you’re writing. You know, the song is a death letter. To think about everything going on in the world without you, to think about being alone and stepping away from all these people you love so much…. It’s difficult, you know? The first few lines came to me while I was driving through Statesville, North Carolina. I’m left-handed,  so I’ve got a piece of notebook paper on the console. I’m driving with my right-hand on the steering wheel, crossing my arm over, trying not to wreck and feeling super emotional while I’m driving. And trying to continue to drive back home through the mountains.

Writing No Hard Feelings was a very intense experience, and I was not gonna rush it. It took eight years to write because it took eight years for it to visit me enough times for me to understand what the song was in its entirety.”

Seth went on, “You know some songs are just about having fun or are avenues for being clever. This is a bit of a cliché thing to say, but there are some songs that are more of a channeling than a creation. Sue, I had a phone call from a dear friend about a month ago. She works at the airport in Charlotte. When I answered the phone, I was expecting her say that my flight was overbooked or something. She called to tell me that there was an employee at the airport who passed away. He was loved by everyone, just loved. Adored. And 500 employees from the airport went to his funeral because they were so affected and so connected to this person. She let me know the only song that was played at the funeral was No Hard Feelings.

Her call came at the very beginning of the day. I was not in a deeply spiritual place at the moment. It immediately hit me and I slowed down and stopped. I just listened to her. She made me promise that I would thank anyone that was involved in the recording of that song. To let them know how much it meant to her and to all the people at the funeral. So I promised her I would. Then it hit me. I realized that song is for everyone. Even from the earliest moments of writing it, it was not mine. You know?  It’s like the song Hallelujah. It’s not Leonard Cohen’s and it’s not Jeff Buckley’s. It’s not anybody’s song who sings it. That one is for everyone.”

I think that Seth is right about that. Some songs, or paintings, or books are for the whole world. I think it’s remarkable that he was trusting enough to not to try to force the song into being. He allowed it to flow. At its own pace. As he matured the song was crafted from a broader perspective. Life experiences shift the way you think. 

“I’m thinking about how I would’ve treated that song when I was 22. But you know, God would never have given it to me then,” Seth laughs. “I believe you don’t have access to anything that you’re not ready to have access to.”

That was all I needed to know. It’s not necessary to try and force your creative project into being. Whether it’s meant to be shared with the masses or for your eyes only, let it unfold at its own pace. Creativity is a gift to be enjoyed and is always completed in perfect timing. 

A couple of months later as I watched The Avett Brothers perform from front row seats, I noticed something. More than once Seth placed his hand on his heart when the words he sang especially moved him. Yes, coming from the heart serves Seth Avett well. 

No Hard Feelings – The Avett Brothers

When my body won’t hold me anymore 

And it finally lets me free 

Will I be ready? 

When my feet won’t walk another mile 

And my lips give their last kiss goodbye 

Will my hands be steady?

When I lay down my fears 

My hopes and my doubts 

The rings on my fingers 

And the keys to my house 

With no hard feelings

When the sun hangs low in the west 

And the light in my chest 

Won’t be kept held at bay any longer 

When the jealousy fades away 

And it’s ash and dust for cash and lust 

And it’s just hallelujah 

And love in thoughts and love in the words 

Love in the songs they sing in the church 

And no hard feelings

Lord knows they haven’t done 

Much good for anyone 

Kept me afraid and cold 

With so much to have and hold


When my body won’t hold me anymore 

And it finally lets me free 

Where will I go? 

Will the trade winds take me south 

Through Georgia grain or tropical rain 

Or snow from the heavens?

Will I join with the ocean blue 

Or run into the savior true 

And shake hands laughing 

And walk through the night 

Straight to the light 

Holding the love I’ve known in my life 

And no hard feelings

Lord knows they haven’t done 

Much good for anyone 

Kept me afraid and cold 

With so much to have and hold 

Under the curving sky 

I’m finally learning why 

It matters for me and you 

To say it and mean it too 

For life and its loveliness 

And all of its ugliness 

Good as it’s been to me 

I have no enemies 

I have no enemies 

I have no enemies 

*Coming up next: Author and artist extraordinaire, Kimothy Joy.

All rights reserved.

*Click  to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

Scott Avett: The Mining of a Soul

“There is no question – God created me as an artist – do I know? No just suspect. But my suspicion is strong.” – Scott Avett

Before I made my way to my seat to watch The Avett Brothers perform, I was given clearance to go backstage and have an impromptu photo session with Scott and Seth. Whenever possible, I like to base my portrait painting on pictures that I take. We were led into a windowless room when Scott had the idea that we should go outside. The lighting would be so much better. I appreciated his understanding of the artistic process. My friend, Danette, was along for moral support and began telling the brothers what a fabulous painter I am. They were instantly curious about what medium I used. They acted as if it were understood that I’m no amateur. I liked the level of respect they gave me without ever seeing a stroke I had painted. Clearly, Scott and Seth had been raised right. They reminded me of my own boys, unfailingly cordial to their elders. The thought occurred to me that I wouldn’t mind being their mom. Then it hit me, “Is there such a thing as a ‘mom crush?’”

Even though the brothers are a duo, I am doing two separate profiles on them. I’m going to start by focusing on Scott in this one. He lives in rural North Carolina, adjacent to the farm were he was raised. He and his siblings all have land connected to their parent’s. To Scott the land is sacred. There is a kind of comfort born in knowing that your children roam the same woods that you did as a child. When he is not on the road, he has time to devote himself to what could be called the canvas of his home.

“I was just talking to my wife about that yesterday. Since we aren’t touring, I’ve shifted my focus into getting involved with the farm that we live on. I was seeing it just like I would see making an album. I was expressing myself with a piece of land, just like I express myself through music or art. It’s just another creative medium, another approach, another thing to work with.” 

Besides Scott’s family dwelling, there is a small ranch style home on his property. His art studio is housed in it. Painting is another medium he makes use of when he isn’t traveling. He is an accomplished visual artist. Now in his forties, Scott is mindful of giving time to each of his creative gifts. On the day we spoke, he had scheduled the hours between 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. to paint. Without discipline he admits he could easily be distracted with sound checks, phone calls and the like. Scott is training himself to concentrate on the job at hand. “It’s all about the efficiency of time,” he says. “It’s what I’ve got to do to make the space to let the magic happen.”

And his paintings are magic. Scott’s art comes from the depths of his soul. He creates from what he honestly experiences. “That is how God works through us. We have to trust that.”

His oversized portraits of the people he loves most (himself included) stop onlookers in their tracks. Scott’s most often painted subjects are his wife, Sarah, and their three children. Although documented in banal settings his brood looks anything but ordinary. I marvel at Scott’s ability to encapsulate energy with his brush strokes. And in the age of body obsession and plastic surgery I marvel at the vulnerability of Sarah to allow herself to be captured as she is. Not many women would permit their image to be on display without make-up, breasts exposed. The honesty of it is somehow comforting. If the real Sarah is enough we all are enough.

“Motherhood” 2012
“Fatherhood” 2013

In the loft of the ranch, is a recording studio. Plenty of magic materializes up there too. Recently the band released their eleventh album, “The Third Gleam.” The songs were written before the pandemic and unrest of 2020 but you’d never know it. The lyrics give voice to the collective struggle of humanity making sense of a world unhinged. The album does not leave the listener without hope. The chorus of track 4, “Back into the Light,” is a worthy mantra for anyone who feels overwhelmed. Listening to Scott and Seth sing it is a sure fire way to keep despair in check:

“Sometimes I don’t see love in anything

And just when I surrender to my shadow

I snap out of it, and step into the light

I step back into the light.”

Having crossed the threshold into the second half of his life, Scott has become an increasingly thoughtful man. He is deeply spiritual but not in the conventional way. Lately he has been immersing himself in the teachings of Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr. When I ask which religion he subscribes to he responds, “I think I would say what Woody Guthrie said when he was asked that question, ‘All of them.’”

Scott’s take on listening to the heart is that it’s the same as listening to God. He admits that he hasn’t always honored that connection with much discipline. “Getting involved in the general idea of following the inner voice, that’s a very recent endeavor for me. But I think that I have been nonstop dabbling in it forever. You know, for as long as I’ve lived.“

Having parents like Jim and Susie were the cornerstone for what would eventually become  heart-centered living for Scott. He was always supported in being himself. There were never any expectations for what career path he should take. Hard work was honored in their household. Scott and his siblings were encouraged to follow their instincts while their parents simultaneously followed their’s. The family attended church on Sundays. In order for their children to believe in themselves they needed to believe in something greater than them.

Scott is grateful for the stable foundation he was given. “We’re all so privileged that our folks loved us and said you are a sweet child of this planet. A child of God. You are. You are. And go be that.”

With that kind of support, Scott never had a need for a master plan. He was comfortable coming from his center and going through the doors that felt right to him. To many, not having your future mapped out, sounds counter productive. Not so for Scott Avett. He toured with his brother for the first time when he was twenty-six. He was in the midst of shutting down a gallery that he’d opened. He walked through the door of expressing himself musically without giving thought to how much time it would take from his career as a visual artist. If he had considered that he may have done things differently. 

“So I guess in that regard, not having a master plan and focusing on what was before me worked for me. I always needed to be free to know that I was following an instinct and creating for some purpose that I saw as sincere, that I saw as true to my inner voice.” 

In the 2018 documentary, “May it Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers,” viewers are given an inside look at the band from their origins to a collaboration with legendary record producer, Rick Rubin. At the closing of it, their father gives evidence as to why his sons are so grounded.

“They have a job; this job happens to be making music, and they happen to be fairly popular with it. That ain’t the end of the world. It’s nice to be successful at your job. I mean if you were an accountant, or you were a plumber, or you were whatever, it’s nice to be successful at it, but you can’t let that go to your head.”

When the end of my 30 minute interview was approaching, Scott’s publicist broke in to say it was time to wrap things up. Being reeled in always makes me nervous and I told him so. I had so many more questions I would have loved to ask him. Instead of ending the conversation Scott extended it. He said, “Don’t feel rushed. Let’s do another. Let’s do one more before you have to go.” I was touched. It confirmed to me that what I was told is true. Scott Avett is a kind man.

I told him, “Originally my final question was going to be, ‘Is doing what we love and answering our calling the same thing?’  But talking to you made me wonder if our true calling is just being ourselves. Everything else stems from that. Does that make sense to you? Can you give me some feedback on that?” 

“Yeah it does. It does. I do think you are dead on, Sue. I think regardless of what my calling is I’ve got to be true to myself. I’ve got to be myself, and one step further, I’ve  got to go out there and try to do things that have love at their core. But make no mistake, I’ve got to serve me first, you know? I have to. And that doesn’t always look like love to the world, but it looks like love to me. 

Yep, it’s official. I have a “mom crush” on The Avett Brothers.

*Click  to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

*Coming up next: Singer-songwriter, Seth Avett, member of the American folk rock band, The Avett Brothers.

All rights reserved.