Q&A: Michael Hearst of One Ring Zero and The Recipe Project

Brooklyn duo One Ring Zero — multi-instrumentalists Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp — are known for finding their lyrics in unconventional places. In 2007, they released As Smart As We Are (aka The Author Project), an album with lyrics written by big-name authors like Jonathan Ames, Margaret Atwood and Dave Eggers; last year, they wrote songs about the solar system, and you can probably guess what Hearst’s Songs for Ice Cream Trucks is about.

Their latest, the just-released book/album combo The Recipe Project, was the biggest challenge yet: Take recipes from rockstar chefs like Mario Batali, Michael Symon, David Chang, and Isa Chandra Moskowitz, and put them to music — word for word — in a genre of the chef’s choosing. Among the results are Moskowitz’s recipe for electropop peanut butter brunettes, Tom Colicchio’s R.E.M.-channeling creamless creamed corn and Chris Cosentino’s rap-rock “brains and eggs.” In the book, the recipes are accompanied by interviews with the chefs, as well as essays from notable food writers about their own culinary and musical journeys: A couple of my favorites are Kara Zuaro’s story about a touring Chicago band and pop cake (which I’ve made before!), and Emily Kaiser Thelin’s about being the only girl working in a London kitchen.

I chatted with Hearst about using other people’s words, why he (perhaps surprisingly) doesn’t like recipes, and what happens when you give Mario Batali a cookie.

When did you start working on the project?

We started working on it probably about four years ago. Just about two years ago or a year and a half ago was when the publishers came on board and actually decided to make this thing happen. My brother-in-law is [chef] Chris Cosentino…and I think both Chris and I joked at some point about how it would be fun to do an album like One Ring Zero’s Author Project that we did a few years ago, but with chefs. I [said] it’d be really hard to do but I’d try it and if I could get enough chefs on board, it would make sense.

So I had the seed planted and then it was a combination of getting the recipe from Chris and doing his song and also at the same time meeting Pam Lewy, who was Mario Batali’s assistant. There’s a little pastry shop just a few blocks away from where I live in Park Slope…and I actually convinced [my good friend] to let me work there. Pam Lewy would come in there quite often and I became friends with her and asked her what it would take to get a recipe from Mario Batali and she said, “Um, some of those cookies would probably do the trick.” So once I had Chris and Batali, it’s kind of how it got going.

Did you record the first song with Chris’s recipe to shop the idea around when approaching other chefs?

That was part of it. Some of it was just for our own sake to see how difficult it would actually be and to see if it was feasible, and once we had that song and Batali’s song, we realized we could do this. It was useful to have those two songs to [be like], “Here’s what it sounds like, here are two names already, do you want to join in on this project?”

How have the chefs been involved in the songs?

It varied from chef to chef. Pretty much all of them gave us a suggestion for music style when we asked what style of music would they want to hear their recipes as. In some cases we received two or three different recipes from the chef, which made life easier for us because we could pick the one that could fit better into a song. The whole thing was really hard; honestly, it was one of the most difficult things we’ve done, to take a recipe and put it to music. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s just the wording: There’s nothing that rhymes, the verses are all different lengths and some of the words are not words lyricists would necessarily pick. Trying to make the album interesting when every single recipe is essentially a list of ingredients and a list of commands of how to put those ingredients together…how do you do that and set it to music? So in some ways having the chefs choose musical styles helped make this album listenable. It keeps it interesting and also even adds to the flavor of what the recipe is.

Which song was the most difficult to write?

Oh, without a doubt it was Aron Sanchez’s duck breast and dulce de leche ancho chile glaze. It’s a long recipe, which is just a lot of work for us, and then he wanted banda music — which for us is very exciting, we love banda, and when else are we going to get to write a banda song? But it also proved to be an incredible challenge to pull that off.

Are all the songs word for word from the recipes?

Yeah. We didn’t cut any corners. I’d say the only slight difference we did was in a few songs we didn’t include the “one, two, three.” Like in Batali’s we actually did it — we thought it’d be funny to shout out the “One!” “Two!” but we figured it’d get old for every song.

This isn’t the first time you’ve put other people’s exact words to music, like with The Author Project. How was this process different from others?

I’ve always been fascinated with taking words that aren’t my own and setting them to music; in many cases, words that you would never in a million years think went to music. And that’s the thing I’ve always been intrigued by. When I was in music school I did a whole operetta where I went through a phone book and found the names of every grocery store in every major city throughout the country and had a choir sing it. That sort of thing is fun. I just love seeing how you can do that — take certain things, even a paragraph from a book, and just try to set it to music, and it was definitely that times 10.

With The Author Project, those were more lyrics for the most part. And some of the authors were also musicians and had some experience writing lyrics, so that was by far easier. There were exceptions, like in the case of Jonathan Ames, he had no idea how to write lyrics. He wrote us a two-page story and it was just too much, and he chopped it down to half a page, which was too much, then chopped it down to a quarter page and [we asked], “Can you just make one sentence rhyme in there?” And he wrote one rhyming phrase in the chorus of the song.

What do you get out of doing these types of themed albums that you wouldn’t get out of making a more conventional set of songs?

I kind of love both. For every sort of themed project I try at least one album that has no theme. And I’m constantly writing songs in between that are not part of anything, and film scores and stuff like that. As far as the theme thing, I love having guidelines to work under. To me, that’s just really fun. I’ve always loved building models when I was a kid and having these guides to follow and setting those for myself. It’s also a chance to dive headfirst into studying a subject. With Songs for Ice Cream Trucks I dove headfirst and learned everything in the world about ice cream truck history: what was the first ice cream truck and what did it play and that sort of stuff. And The Author Project, [we were getting into] the literary community. It’s a lot of fun; it’s almost like setting up a college course for myself in order to jump in and also get to know the community. I love to cook; I’ve always been fascinated with the culinary world. So that was kind of a no-brainer for this to be the subject of a One Ring Zero project.

As far as guidelines go, is that at all how you are in the kitchen? Do you prefer to follow recipes?

I actually hate recipes [laughs]. I love recipes but I hate to follow them. I collect cookbooks and subscribe to food magazines and love to look at recipes, flip through the pages and see the ideas and dishes, but when it comes to cooking I put them aside. To me they are sort of like great ideas and starting points, and then I make it my own.

What’s your relationship with food and how has it been a part of your life?

My brother Ben and I grew up very much as latchkey kids in the ‘70s — divorced parents, mother had gone back to college and was working — and we were forced to cook for ourselves. And I think there were just so many microwave burritos and TV dinners we could stand, so at a young age we started to figure out “Oh, eggs taste better fried in butter than oil” — just little things, and by the time we were in high school, quite often my brother and I were making dinner for the family. So I’ve always loved to cook and for me it is an art. I love having friends over and entertaining…and I try to immerse myself in different cultures and ingredients.

What personal connections do you make between food and music?

The first one that comes to mind is just the idea of what you listen to while you cook, what music is inspiring to you, and it can also be just entertaining in general. I’m also overly sensitive to what restaurants are playing. A restaurant to me is 70 percent food and 30 percent decor and ambiance, which is part of the music. If I go into a place that’s amazing but it’s an echo chamber, I get pissed off. That, to me, ruins the experience. And as far as cooking, chefs in the kitchen constantly listen to music if they’re allowed, and I think that is a big point of interest aside from what’s being played on the floor. And then there’s the bigger angle of looking at all this and how is the art of music similar to the art of cooking process, and I feel like all that stuff is explored in the book. [Chris Cosentino says], “I know what songs I like and why I like them, and I apply that to cooking.” And that, to me, is very fascinating, that sort of comparison level of what makes something entertaining or interesting.

What do you like to listen to while you’re cooking? Does it change depending on what you’re making?

When I have friends over, I typically invite them over in mid-cooking process so I can have friends in the kitchen with me and put them to work, so what I pick to play largely depends on who I’ve invited over. If I’ve got a friend who I know is gonna hate indie rock or whatever, I’ll put on some Duke Ellington or something. Or if my indie-rock friends are coming over I’ll put on Magnetic Fields. My playlist is all over the place. If it were totally up to me, maybe I’m just getting old but I definitely have found that instrumental music is more my thing.

How did you go about choosing whose essays to include? Did you reach out to people individually?

Yeah, we did. The album was probably two-thirds done when we first met Leigh Newman and Elizabeth Koch, who are the fabulous team behind Black Balloon Publishing who put this thing out. From the beginning I knew this was gonna be an awesome book/CD combo and realizing that CDs are a dying animal, you need something more to make the album still a fun physical thing to buy. [But] the idea of just having 10 or 12 recipes wasn’t enough to fill a book. So I think Leigh was really adamant about trying to get some essays in there. She comes from a more literary background, and I said “Yeah, sounds great.” That was probably the easiest part. I already had a lot of friends from Edible and my friend Emily Kaiser Thelin who had worked at Food & Wine, and getting them involved was super easy. I think Leigh knew Melissa Clark and reached out to a few other people. I thought it’d be fun to ask Michael Harlan Turkell who’s a photographer but I’ve seen his writing and I know he’s a great writer. Jonathan Dixon’s a friend of mine, I’ve known him for years; Kara Zuaro, I just loved her book [I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen with Your Favorite Bands].

What surprised you the most while you were interviewing the chefs?

I was surprised and delighted over how excited the chefs got over the idea of the correlation between food and music. [We thought] it would be like pulling teeth in trying to get them to talk about how music has inspired them, but most of them were just so excited. I think that has to do with — and it’s true with The Author Project, too — going into a territory that was not the normal for them. I mean, we’re going to take this recipe and set it to music, how exciting is that? … When I finally get the emails when the process is done and they received their copy of the album and the book and they see it and say, “this is awesome,” that is sort of the ultimate [reward].


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