Ben Weaver: Where mirepoix meets music

The singer-songwriter gave up the road for the kitchen and cooked up a heavy new album.

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Singer/songwriter Ben Weaver: "One of the things I'm most impressed by is vulnerability."

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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It usually goes the other way around. A musician works in a kitchen to get by but dreams of becoming a troubadour, roaming the globe in search of inspiration.

After a half-decade of living that romantic life and establishing himself as one of the Twin Cities' most masterful songwriters -- comparisons to Leonard Cohen, Steve Earle and Greg Brown abound -- Ben Weaver wound up going in the exact opposite direction. He quit the road to go work in a kitchen.

"I hit a wall and couldn't write anything for about a year, and I knew I needed to get a job," Weaver, 31, recalled. "I wanted something I could be interested in and inspired by. Food was the obvious choice."

A year and a half after he put down his guitar and picked up a chef's knife, Weaver is back doing what he does best -- although the fact that he worked for two of the most respected foodie joints in Minneapolis, the Corner Table and the Craftsman, proves he must be a decent cook, too.

His new album, "Mirepoix and Smoke" (in stores Oct. 19), is a stark but stirring collection sparked by his experiences crafting food instead of music. Not only is he passing along that inspiration on record, he's also showing it off onstage.

Thursday night, he kicked off a thematic three-night residency at Bryant-Lake Bowl by inviting up friends from the food world to discuss where they find their inspiration. This was the "Food" installment of a series dubbed "Tramping With the Pioneers." It continues next Thursday with a "Words" show featuring "Dear American Airlines" author Jonathan Miles and some of his favorite writers. The "Music" finale is Oct. 8 with the Pines as guests.

"Part of the idea was to show off the main ingredients that went into this record," Weaver said. "But I also felt like, especially in the Twin Cities, people often haven't known what to make of me. This was a way of showing off my aesthetic."

The title of "Mirepoix and Smoke" refers to the onion/carrot/celery mix ("meer-pwa") that's a basic building block of soups and sauces. Along with his daily cigarettes, mirepoix was the smell Weaver couldn't wash off his hands for all those months he worked in restaurants.

"It's the basic thing every cook learns to make at first," he said. "It sort of became the foundation to everything I learned in that time, too."

"Mirepoix" is Weaver's fifth disc and second release on Chicago alt-country label Bloodshot Records (Justin Townes Earle, Waco Brothers). He recorded it with producer Neil Strauch (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) and only one other collaborator, Chicago pianist and backup singer Erica Froman. Thus, it's his rawest album since 2004's buzz-maker "Stories Under Nails," but its tones are warmer and the melodies are rich -- especially when Weaver plays earthy banjo alongside Froman's ethereal voice.

Like all his CDs, the lyrics linger in the air and simmer like a good stew. Take the way "Drag the Hills" evokes the kitchen burns on Weaver's arms: "I'd rather have scars from the life I lived / Than have none from the one I missed." In "While I Am Gone," he's lonely: "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."

Weaver has also published two poetry books in recent years, in addition to his steady touring (more than five months of 2008 was spent performing overseas). When he's home, he can frequently be seen with his sons, Henry, 8, and Frankie, 5.

While he's clearly not singing pop songs, Weaver is a bit put off by the idea that he's only a dark, miserable songwriter. There are plenty of uplifting moments on "Mirepoix" to disprove this.

"I think it's mainly because of my voice," he said, referencing his guttural, gravelly singing. "Sometimes I'm even surprised by it. I'll hear myself on the radio and be like, 'God, no wonder everybody thinks I'm depressed.'"

Not exactly selling his happy side, he added, "One of the things I'm most inspired by is vulnerability.

"An expression I've been using for a while is, 'Death for the sake of food,' meaning when something dies, something else can eat it for nourishment. Even a lot of my music before this record was all about that."

Don't Lookbook back

As break-ups go, Lookbook stayed pretty classy. Both members of the synth-pop duo cited unspoken personal differences as their demise came to light late last week -- and then they really didn't speak of them. Said singer Maggie Morrison, "With it only being the two of us, there needs to be an extremely strong relationship -- and we didn't have that."

Grant Cutler downplayed the split as no "big, dramatic thing," and stressed the positive: "I'm proud of all the music we've been making," he said, suggesting recent recordings could still surface. First, though, his debut EP as Grant Cutler & the Gorgeous Lords will arrive with a party Oct. 20 at the Turf Club. Morrison is also writing solo material and performing every Wednesday at Nick & Eddie with the electronic improv act H.U.N.X.

Extended plays

Close behind Rogue Valley as the most productive local act of 2010, Ed Ackerson (Polara) and Ashley Ackerson (Mood Swings) are promoting "EP#3" by their deliciously retro new band BNLX Saturday at the 501 Club with Red Pens (10 p.m., $5). "Feels like I've been here before," the husband/wife duo sing in the opening track "Blue and Gold," one of four cuts that will indeed sound familiar to fans of J&MC, E&TB or MBV (in keeping with the capitalized abbreviation thing). ...

Also touting a new EP called "Brother's Eyes," gear-headed newcomers the Farewell Circuit perform Saturday at the Turf Club with a gray, drizzly tone that's part Coldplay and Death Cab, and entirely elegant. Frontman Danny O'Brien shines through with a soft, pretty voice that could easily be mistaken for a woman in songs such as "Iron Cheer Empire."

Random mix

Off With Their Heads, P.O.S., Building Better Bombs, 20 Dollar Love, Ugly Fat Kids, Total [Bleeping] Blood and 22 more acts produced total [bleeping] chaos for "My America: A Tribute to Quincy Punx," a new album available via CrustaceanRecords.com. It includes such gutter classics as "Eat a Bowl of [Bleep]" and "[Bleep] You (If You Can't Take a Joke)" and benefits the West Memphis Three legal fund. The Punx themselves play their first show in five years Friday at Station 4 to tout the CD. ...

Without much hype or press, Atmosphere's dual-EP, "To All My Friends, Blood Makes the Blade Holy," crashed the Billboard charts at No. 37 on the main album chart, No. 9 in digital albums and No. 5 independent releases. ...

Please don't offer Mark Mallman a beer out of your cooler if you see him tonight along with "Star Wars" at the Lake Harriet Bandshell, another Vita.mn Autumn Music & Movies show (8 p.m., free). Mallman swore off alcohol weeks ago and is even reportedly jogging to get in shape for his 78-hour Marathon 3 concert, Oct. 7-10 at the Turf Club.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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  • Audio: "While I'm Gone," by Ben Weaver

    Tuesday September 21, 2010

    "While I'm Gone," by Ben Weaver, off the CD Mirepoix and Smoke

  • Audio: "Split Ends" by Ben Weaver

    Tuesday September 21, 2010

    "Split Ends" by Ben Weaver, from the CD Mirepoix and Smoke

  • BEN WEAVER'S TRAMPING WITH THE PIONEERS

    Thursday: "Words" with Jonathan Miles, Dobby Gibson, more.

    Oct. 8: "Music" with the Pines.

    Where: Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St., Mpls.

    Tickets: $8-$12. BryantLakeBowl.com.

    HEAR

    samples from "Mirepoix and Smoke" at startribune.com/music

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