Ben Weaver's Mirepoix and Smoke

Nature is his muse on harrowing new album

For more than a decade, Ben Weaver has cultivated riveting albums seemingly straight from the soil. From his earliest foot-stomping folk-blues releases to later, more lavish rock-inflected efforts, Weaver's muse has always been earthen, staying true to his self-appointed role as keen-eyed wildlife chronicler even as his sound shifted.

Weaver's seventh album, Mirepoix and Smoke, is pure pastoral, a melodic and meditative acoustic collection that finds his gravelly, Tom-Waits-indebted croak now complemented by a heretofore hidden and lovely upper register on tracks like the album-opening "Grass Doe." Deftly mixing confessional balladry ("Drag the Hills") with acute character sketches ("City Girl") and impressionistic nature journal jottings ("The Rooster's Wife"), it's a new high-water mark.

An ever-restless artist, Weaver embraces creative release in multiple mediums, from the written page (he's an award-winning published poet and short story writer) to the kitchen stove (much of the new record was inspired by his new gig working as a prep and garde manger cook at the Craftsman). He's brought all these loves together for a three-week residency at the Bryant-Lake Bowl dubbed "Tramping with Pioneers," featuring some of his favorite cooks, authors, and musicians in a public meeting of the minds.

Weaver: Over his writer's block
Jonathan Levitt
Weaver: Over his writer's block

Weaver took time out before the final installment of "Tramping," which doubles as Mirepoix and Smoke's official CD release show, to talk with City Pages.

City Pages: Your previous albums had grown increasingly layered. By contrast, Mirepoix and Smoke is cut to the bone, essentially just your voice accompanied by acoustic guitar or banjo. What prompted you to strip everything back?

Ben Weaver: I never really believed in writer's block before, but when I was trying to write this record the songs just weren't coming at all. There was something different inside myself that I couldn't initially identify. In the past I always wrote from a romantic perspective. I knew I wanted something more real this time, but I didn't know how to get there. Once these new songs finally came they were so much more personal. I knew I was headed in the right direction. They felt complete as written so I didn't feel the need to have the studio be its own instrument like I had on the last record. I wanted to have that same feeling of immediacy in the recording that I had when I was writing. I hadn't tapped into that first-take kind of energy in a long time and that was very exciting to reconnect with.

CP: How much of that writer's block do you attribute to upheaval in your personal life at the time? Your press kit is very up front about your divorce and re-entering the workforce for the first time in seven years.

Weaver: [Going through my divorce and getting a new job outside of music] was probably why it took me so long to start writing songs again. It was hard for a long time because I needed to take my time to make peace with my past and have enough new experiences to give me some perspective before I could actually deal with any of it, let alone write songs about it. A lot of my writing comes from memory, but not necessarily things that specifically happened to me. I always have to get enough distance from my own life before I can learn from the experience and abstract it and paint it into something else.

CP: You live in the city, and touring constitutes hopping from one urban enclave to another, yet your music continues to be informed heavily by images of the wild. How do you keep that connection with nature alive?

Weaver: Nature was way more present in earlier parts of my life; I spent three and a half years living in Grand Marais. Now, because of my job and my kids I need to be in the city, but I still try and stay connected to nature as best I can. I walk like a crazy person, so that helps. I'm always outside with my dog [laughs]. I definitely don't want the urban explorer tag or anything, but I like discovering hidden places in the city. I spent a lot of time last winter just skiing and exploring with my dog along the Minnesota River Valley. It was hugely inspiring.

CP: It appears you've found a similar passion now for food. Did you anticipate your new job having such an impact?

Weaver: Working with food was kind of the obvious choice for me. I liked cooking at home and knew that food was a new passion I could immediately obsess over, which is basically the way I'm wired, so I found that appealing. I didn't want to take a job that I couldn't love and learn from. I found the work immediately inspiring. It got me thinking much more connectedly about all aspects of my life.

CP: A lot of musicians talk about other jobs being a creative drain, but it sounds like it's turned out to be just the opposite for you.

Weaver: I think the experience of working for somebody else again was really important. It got me out of that whole narcissistic notion of "the artist's life" and being "above" working a regular job. There's certainly a lot of pride that can be had in that kind of existence but for me working a different kind of job exposed the flaws in that way of thinking and made me realize that's not really how I want to live. I really embraced working. I was all about learning and saying yes to new things. My new work has me feeling so much healthier and connected to the world around me. It's definitely changed how I view my music. I want to use my music to do more than just promote myself. I want to bring separate artistic worlds together.

BEN WEAVER plays a CD-release show with The Pines on FRIDAY, OCTOBER 8, at the BRYANT LAKE BOWL; 612.825.8949

 
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