Last fall, Ben Weaver found himself in need of a day job for the first time in about seven years. The 31-year-old singer and poet had a break between albums and wasn’t touring at the moment. With a family to support, he needed something to pay the bills.
But he was determined not to take just any old job for the cash. “I have kind of a rule not to make money from anything I don’t love doing,” he says. So, although he didn’t know the word at the time, he decided to stage — take an unpaid kitchen internship — with his friend Scott Pampuch at Corner Table in southwest Minneapolis.
Plenty of artists find themselves waiting tables or searing steaks while they focus their mental energy on their art, but Weaver decided to put the same energy into his new career in food that he does into his music.
“I don’t really do things halfway and I was really passionate about food and learning,” he says.
That first professional kitchen experience led Weaver to a stint at one of the most respected kitchens in town, at The Craftsman (he left at the end of this summer). But it also helped Weaver find a whole new creative process for himself. His seventh album, Mirepoix and Smoke, was born in part on the line at The Craftsman. While he doesn’t sing any ballads of noble sous chefs or hymns to seasonal produce, the rawness of life in the kitchen — the fact that restaurant cooking is plain, old hard work — infuses the music.
The album’s title comes from “Split Ends,” a song in which you can hear the end of youth and the beginning of adult disappointments and responsibilities: “The ties that bind left you untied / The hair burned off your arms / Behind a six-burner stove in a dirty white coat / Smelling of mirepoix and smoke.”
Images of nature fill nearly every song — rivers, over and over again, and mountains, falling snow, and iced-in boats — images that, for Weaver, are also connected to food and cooking.
“I’m really interested in alchemy and transformation and magic and wildness,” he says. “At Corner Table, most of the food we were cooking with was coming from the person growing it. The relationship with the history of the food and the story of the food — I love that. I started cooking in the spring and I watched them go through the vegetables as they progressed throughout the summer: There are tons of tomatoes and then all of a sudden there just aren’t tomatoes any more.”
Weaver describes the making of this album as “more immediate, every part of it was,” from the physical connection with his work to the short, three-day recording session to the spare instrumentation.
“Learning something I didn’t know and having to start at the beginning, that brought me back to when I was really young and listening to folk songwriters and the blues and the stories that these people were telling and the raw energy of their telling it,” he says. “Subconsciously, that drove me in that direction as well.”
To celebrate the release of Mirepoix and Smoke, Weaver is coming back to the kitchen, and bringing his literary, musical, and culinary worlds together. He has invited friends and colleagues to join him at the Bryant-Lake Bowl for three multidisciplinary shows billed as “Tramping with Pioneers.” Mike Phillips (above), under whom Weaver cooked at The Craftsman and who is offering artisanal cured meats at his new endeavor, Green Ox Foods, will talk about charcuterie; Andrew Kopplin, of Kopplin’s Coffee in St. Paul, will offer his thoughts on artisanal coffee; authors Jonathan Miles, Dobby Gibson, Juliet Patterson, and Lightsey Darst will read from their works; and Weaver will perform with his old friends The Pines.
Weaver says he hopes his audience will sense the connections he feels among the various disciplines.
“In taking a little break from music I was reminded that I’ve always been a person who does a lot of different things and they don’t have to be separate,” he says. And, really, these parts of his life really aren’t so different after all. “Learning to cook is like learning to play guitar or learning how to be on tour. Things are so connected. It’s just a matter of the medium.”
After the release, Weaver is headed out on tour to promote Mirepoix and Smoke and plans to start working on another record in the spring, but he isn’t done with the culinary world altogether.
“I would like to do something with food again,” he says. “But it’s just too hard to work in a kitchen and promote a record at the same time.”
Tramping With the Pioneers: Food
September 23, $8 advance, $10 day of show
Hosted by Ellen Stanley of Red House Records and host of KFAI FM’s “Womenfolk”
Mike Phillips speaking about charcuterie and sustainability, Andrew Kopplin speaking about single-origin coffee and small-batch roasting, Ben Weaver performing and speaking about how food, nature, and working in a kitchen inspired him.
Tramping With the Pioneers: Words
September 30, $8 advance, $10 day of show
Hosted by Andy Sturdevant, editor of South 12th
Readings by Jonathan Miles, Dobby Gibson, Juliet Patterson, and Lightsey Darst. Reading and musical performance by Ben Weaver.
Tramping With the Pioneers: Mirepoix & Smoke Record Release Show
October 8, $10 advance, $12 day of show
Hosted by Ben Weaver
Music by Ben Weaver and special guests The Pines.