Sometime cook serves up stark music
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
Musician Ben Weaver's new album was inspired by his time spent cooking in a restaurant.
Musicians in the kitchen can be a fleeting affair.
The late great singer-songwriter Alex Chilton was a dishwasher for a while in New Orleans. I still use my Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme aluminum cookware from the mid-1990s, though they now have bigger fish to fry.
But Bloodshot Records singer-songwriter Ben Weaver is serious about his recent 18-month stint in the kitchen. Weaver, 31, dropped out of music in the winter of 2009 to work at the acclaimed Corner Table and Craftsman restaurants in his hometown of Minneapolis.
He then recorded "Mirepoix and Smoke," the seventh and most minimalist album of his career. Mirepoix (pronounced meer-pwa) is the onion-carrot-celery mixture that is an essential base of soups and sauces.
Weaver will appear with a band at 8 p.m. Saturday at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport.
Even though the New York Times raved that Weaver is "Americana full of weary determination and aphoristic clarity, somewhere between the Band and Tom Waits," (check out Waits' "Nighthawks at the Diner") Weaver wanted to get away from music.
"My roommate owned a coffee shop and was doing a specific espresso and single-origin coffee," Weaver said by phone from Minneapolis. "He was doing espresso machines for the Corner Table. That was my only real connection to anyone in restaurants. So I went to the Corner Table and told them I wanted to take some time off music and learn about food."
Weaver paid his dues by working free for a month.
"My obsession started pretty much the first day," he said. "I showed I was capable, then I got hired as a day prep cook."
Weaver wrote most of "Mirepoix & Smoke" while working at the Corner Table. The atmospheric record features Weaver only on vocals and banjo, accompanied by Chicagoan Erica Froman on piano and harmony vocals.
The music's stark nature highlights Weaver's economical wordplay. In "While I Am Gone," he sings, "Chipping away at the ice around my boat/Had to punch a new hole in my belt/Without a fire, without you/Black as a mussel shell . . . ."
That's good stuff.
"The whole process, with me having to get a job after not having a job for seven years, and having to do something where the show's not about me was an amazing experience," Weaver said.
"I learned a lot about myself. Cooking helped me remember the importance of fundamentals. A tomato by itself tastes pretty good. You can do all kinds of things to make it not taste like a tomato, but I started to get interested how things are on their own."
While at the Corner Table, Weaver met James Beard Award winner Mike Phillips, who at the time was executive chef of the Craftsman. Phillips spoke about food at Weaver's "Mirepoix and Smoke" record release party last month in Minneapolis.
Once the record was finished, Weaver was hired at the Craftsman, where he specialized in charcuterie.
"We were butchering half pigs," he said. "I did a bit of the curing, which I found to be incredibly inspiring. I was lucky to find chefs that were open to my ambition. The whole thing just fed itself."
The chefs knew of Weaver's smoky North Country voice and incredible eye for lyrical detail. The late Mississippi novelist Larry Brown was a Weaver fan. Weaver returned the favor by appearing on Bloodshot's 2007 tribute to Brown.
"I'm not a celebrity," Weaver said. "It's not like having Jeff Tweedy in your kitchen, but there was an element where I wasn't straight out of culinary school and I had a different sensitivity. Once they saw I was capable of working hard, that was something they liked having in their kitchen."
Weaver is not currently working in a restaurant. In August, Phillips left the Craftsman to start Green Ox Foods, which will produce locally sourced specialty meats and pub fare such as bacon, ham and sausage.
"I'm hoping to work with him at some point," Weaver said. "Unfortunately, music and cooking are both time-consuming things and both involve working at night. But cooking has become very important to me and is definitely something I will pursue."
Are the songwriting disciplines of economy and picking and choosing the same in cooking-
"I tend to believe everything in general is related," Weaver said. "One of the standout things is the way a craft, an art or a life has this duality where it gets harder as you learn more, but as it gets harder, you know more. You start writing songs and they're not very good, but you get better at learning how to observe details. The door gets wider to let that stuff in. I found that to be very much the same with cooking.
"A lot of it is what you are open to let happen - learning what things relate to each other and what things don't. And trusting the instinct that the ingredients in cooking or in music have a life of their own. Ultimately, your job is to bring them out into the world."