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  • Sue Shanahan

Seth Avett: The Dynamics of Light

Updated: May 2, 2023

“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 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 theywere 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

-The Avett Brothers

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

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