Ben Weaver is a do-it-yourself kind of guy. The Twin Cities-based singer/songwriter not only wrote all of the songs on his Bloodshot Records release The Ax in The Oak (which hit shelves August 12), but also played his fair share of instruments, had a hand in the album’s production, and provided all of the artwork for the cover and liner notes. In a phone conversation with Ben, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the title of his new album stems from his love of “working by hand.”Ben Weaver is a do-it-yourself kind of guy. The Twin Cities-based singer/songwriter not only wrote all of the songs on his Bloodshot Records release The Ax in The Oak (which hit shelves August 12), but also played his fair share of instruments, had a hand in the album’s production, and provided all of the artwork for the cover and liner notes. In a phone conversation with Ben, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the title of his new album stems from his love of “working by hand.”
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The New York Times described Ben’s music as “…country-rooted Americana full of weary determination and aphoristic clarity, somewhere between The Band and Tom Waits.” This is an accurate description of Weaver, as his simply-sung but beautifully described musings on the everyday are intensely moving and bound to strike the emotional chords of any who give them a listen. He sees the soul in the mundane, the forgotten, and has the uncanny ability to bring striking new life to something as simple and overlooked as “a dead bird/half covered by leaves/lying in the shadow/of the curb on my street.”
Weaver’s unique talent for finding the beauty in the ordinary does not stop at his songwriting. He is also an avid poet, artist, and has even tried his hand at the laborious task of writing a short story. His book of poetry and drawings, called Hand Me Downs Can Be Haunted, is already in its third printing.
I was fortunate enough to chat with Ben about life, love and woodworking, and he showed himself to be as earnest and insightful in conversation as he is in art.
Your songs are described as “song stories about things that may go unnoticed.” Tell me about what inspires your songs, and the process you undergo in writing them.
Well, I guess I kind of feel like I’m always writing, because everything I do in my day is just sort of full of observing everything around me. I’m kind of a space cadet, so I’m always watching people and thinking about things in terms of “how would I take that thing, which, when you see it, you recognize and know what it is, but make it resonate with somebody else?” So I feel like I’m just constantly staying open to that stuff. My creative process is just being open, and it kind of comes out. I don’t sit down and say “OK, I’m going to write from 9 to 1,” it’s just keeping my mind in a certain place and when something hits me I can go and deal with it.
The New York Times compared you to Tom Waits and MOJO called you a “hillbilly Leonard Cohen.” How does being compared to two songwriting legends make you feel? Do you consider either to be influences?
Leonard Cohen was a huge influence. I discovered him when I was 14 when I watched that movie Pump Up the Volume, and there is the scene when Christian Slater’s character plays “If It Be Your Will.” It was never in the credits; they had the Concrete Blonde version on the soundtrack so I couldn’t figure out who it was. But the first time I heard his voice I was obsessed and I had to figure it out. He was a pretty strong influence from the writing perspective. I grew up listening to punk rock, but it was more about the energy than the writing process. Then I discovered Cohen and Waits and Nirvana, too, and I heard people making interesting music with words and music that matched each other emotionally. Those people were all influences on me, and I can’t ever decide if it’s a detriment or a compliment to be compared to people. I just kind of think, “Oh, that’s nice. I’ll go write some more songs.”
You have a new album, The Ax in The Oak. First of all, what is the significance of the title?
It was just a line that I came up with that I liked, which inspired one of the songs on the record. I spent a lot of time living in the woods and not living in the city during my early twenties. Then I moved to the city five years ago and the last record, I think, was me starting to write more about the wilderness of the city. I feel like this record is really my world, like the world that I invent for myself. To me it seems almost too literal, but there is something about the ax in the oak that is a really beautiful symbol of a day’s work, and also just chopping wood and making your home yours and working by hand. I don’t know, it sort of sounds cheesy I guess, but that’s the main reason.
Brian Deck, who also produced your 2007 release Paper Sky, produced the album. The result is an album that maintains your folk sensibilities while simultaneously relying on electronic influences. The combination of folk and electronic is somewhat unorthodox, but works very well. How did you and Deck approach blending the two?
Again, I think sometimes the whole reason that I am drawn to art and to music and to creative things is because I don’t ever think there is a right or wrong way. What I’m trying to say is, this is a sidetrack but I’ll come back, that I don’t like bureaucracy and I hated school and following rules and having to do things a certain way. Art is this way I can kind of go and trust this faith and follow the thread through what I’m creating and always know that it’s going to be okay. I didn’t have any idea how to [combine folk and electronic music], but I had started listening to more electronic music, and not acid music, but music with no beat, very landscapish, non-lyrical instrument noise. And I feel like the stories in the world and the things I’m interested in all happen within sound. I’m talking to you now and there are trains outside my studio and my fan is blowing and there are all these noises but you don’t think of them unless you start listening, and that was my inspiration for adding these different sounds. I did this not only because I like them, but because they are around us, even though they don’t necessarily fit. This is one reason I wanted to work with Brian, because he has a lot more experience with the technicalities of these sounds. It was great to work with someone who has a much more informed background about doing that kind of thing than I do. He’s also very good at making simple, organic-sounding records. It was a good combination.
Though you’re based in the Twin Cities, you wrote the album in Berlin. How did you end up there, and how did the change of scenery influence your songwriting?
I was in Europe doing press for Paper Sky and a friend of mine had a flat in Berlin she wasn’t going to be using, because she was moving in with her boyfriend. She said I could stay there if I wanted. I had never been to Berlin for more than a couple of days at time, so I stayed for two-and-a-half weeks. Now when I think back to it, I never knew if I was going to write or not but I guess it was kind of inevitable. I didn’t go there with that intention, but I wrote the album in the bulk of the two-and-a-half weeks I was there. All Berlin did was give me a space. I was left to my own devices every day, which is not something I’ve been able to afford myself in the past for an extended period of time. Berlin is an incredibly inspiring city; there was the right energy around me. Everyone there feels very creative, but it mostly just gave me this space to be somewhere and work.
Many of the songs on the album have a dark but hopeful tone. Do you feel this reflects your outlook on life as a whole or were the songs inspired by reactions to individual events?
I guess my whole life I’ve been obsessed with the whole beauty of the way things work in the world, which is that there’s really not anything that doesn’t have a dark side to it. And for my own personal life, and I don’t always live up to this, but I try pretty damn hard to not think of things in terms of light or dark or good or bad. There are just experiences and there are some you want to have and some you don’t want to have. The times in my life I remember the most are actually times where I’m, not literally but figuratively, broken down on the side of the road with no money. But something always comes along and you get through it, and you remember those times and I think that’s pretty true of life. You’re not being loyal to nature or to the story if you’re going to tell a story that shows just one side.
In “Soldier’s War,” you end the song with the line “to get back home is all a soldier is ever fighting for.” Was this influenced by the war in Iraq? How do you feel about America’s current political climate?
That song was written kind of, in a weird way, about my great-grandmother. It actually has nothing to do with her, but she was a woods-woman and I was imagining her in this old cabin in the woods where she used to live. And I guess I was thinking about the worst kind of longing there is: when two people are separated, but not because they don’t love each other, and how those soldiers, any soldier from any war, once they get there for the most part they just want to get home. Without thinking about politics, I was thinking about what goes on in that situation, not just in war, in life in general. What people are always fighting for is to get back home, to get to the person they want to share their time with. People don’t work at the bank because they love it; they work at the bank because they want to get home to a nice house. And I don’t want to work at the bank. That idea just kind of applied to everyone, but it was obviously the strongest image compared to a soldier in a war.
Not to knock your question, but as far as the political climate goes, I feel like everybody else does, like “good lord I’m ready to take a deep breath, I’m just so done with the way that things are here.” I feel pretty strongly to, for me at least, try not to involve myself in politics. I think it’s like I feel like I’m responsible for myself and for being creative and responding to the world through art and that’s the most positive thing I can do for the world and for myself. I may sound irresponsible, but for me art is far more revolutionary than politics could ever be.
“Said in Stones” is your first instrumental track. How did that come about?
That was kind of an accident, because I had words for that song and then we wound up recording it very differently than I had written the music, because of the beats we used. We kept listening to it before I had gone in to sing it, and then I sang it and it hit me right away. I was like, “this song doesn’t need words.”
In the album’s first track, “White Snow,” you mention poet Wallace Stevens “behind his desk in Hartford Connecticut” and playwright Tennessee Williams “look[ing] asleep but actually dead.” How have poetry and literature influenced your songwriting, and which works have had the biggest impact on you?
If I could have met anyone from literature in the world, it would have been Tennessee Williams. He isn’t so much an influence as he is one of those people that I just identify so much with-the way he worked and the reasons he worked and the way he was, I think, in terms of his art and the themes he dealt with. But when I read books, I don’t really read books for the stories. I read books for the feeling and the words, and I think I read a lot of times to get validation for the process that I use, which means when I read certain things I think, “Oh, I know that this person was thinking this and writing from this place.” It’s good to read stuff you know is coming from that same place you are. So there isn’t really one writer or work that I can cite that I feel like was a huge influence. I have just always loved words.
In addition to writing songs, you’ve been known to pen short stories, most recently for an anthology gathered by Steve Horowitz of stories written by songwriters (expected to be released in March 2009). Do you take the same approach to writing stories that you do songs?
No. I mostly write poems. I write short stories but I only ever finished one complete story, when I was asked to write a story for the anthology. That story was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The friends of mine who are writers, I always had an idea of what they did in terms of novels and fiction, but it’s a completely different process. When you write stories, there’s nothing to fall back on but words. If it’s not in the words, it will never be there. To get it in the words, it’s magic, it’s time, it’s obsessiveness. It’s a lot of overall work, you know. A lot of the songs, they tend to just come out very fast because they are so emotional, and then there’s the music. It never takes me as much time with the words for songs as it does for poems or stories. Poems and stories are just words on paper, songs have music. I think it’s a completely different process. Just because you can write songs doesn’t mean you can write stories. I don’t think that I can write stories.
You’re also a visual artist, and released a book of poetry and drawings called Hand Me Downs Can Be Haunted. You did all of the artwork for The Ax in The Oak. How did you get into drawing? Do you see a connection between drawing and songwriting?
The first art I started doing was when I was in my 14 or 15. I started painting, but I mostly painted fairly abstract, like I was the next Jackson Pollack or something. So visual art has always been pretty important to me. But when I started to draw these drawings in the book and more since then and for the new record, it was because I was realizing how visual some of my ideas were and how I would see things like shoes hanging from a power line and how I wanted to put it into a song, but also realized it was something to draw. By drawing it, it gave me different ways to describe it and could also be translated from actual shoes on a line to a piece of paper. I always really liked that translation, when you take something from real life and make it into art. I don’t think it has many similarities to my songwriting, other than it’s just recognizing something you like and doing something with it.
What are your plans following the release of The Ax in The Oak?
I am touring in August, September, and October and am hoping to start writing again. I want to get back into the studio this winter and record the next record. I also have a new book coming out the same time as the record, twice or three times as long as the last book. My biggest thing once all that stuff happens, though, is to just start writing again.
Thanks for talking with me, and good luck with the new album.
Thanks for the support.
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