Minneapolis singer-songwriter Ben Weaver is known for deeply imagistic lyrics and an ability to reduce songs to their bare elements.
You can hear strains of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Greg Brown in Weaver's music, and yet he still sounds totally original. The song "East Jefferson" is a perfect example.
As you listen to its spare guitar and flowing stream of images, you think about the street, East Jefferson, and whether you recognize it. It must be in the Twin Cities somewhere. Not Minneapolis, because that Jefferson runs north and south. It's got to be St. Paul.
Whatever East Jefferson you imagine is fine with Weaver. But he actually wrote the song two years ago in Charlottesville, Va., the land of Thomas Jefferson. He was on an East Coast tour and spent some time at a friend's house.
"I used to smoke back in those days, and she had this little front stoop. And we'd sit out there and stayed up really late one night just smoking," he said.
Smoking, talking, observing and writing.
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Weaver had been dabbling more than he usually does in the standard verse-chorus-verse song structure.
In "East Jefferson," the chorus is just one line: "at the end of the night." The way it's sung, it could be a coda to the previous verse or the beginning of the next verse. But when you ask Weaver, he has no idea.
"I think I'm pretty clueless a lot of the time when I'm writing."
"I never thought about it until right now," he said.
That's the thing about Weaver. He doesn't over-analyze. In fact, he's barely analytical at all.
"I think I'm pretty clueless a lot of the time when I'm writing," he said. "That song is a perfect example of how I never know what I'm doing anyways, and even when it's done I never know what I'm doing. And I felt for a long time like that song wasn't a very good song."
Weaver said "East Jefferson" didn't seem to fit anywhere. But his fans haven't had that problem. The song has probably gotten more radio airplay than anything else he's written.
On the page, "East Jefferson" looks like a poem that also functions as a song. Or is it the other way around?
"I think either one," he said. "It was written as a song. The poems that I write are almost more like lists of things that I should put into songs. And some of them make it into songs."
Many of Weaver's songs are a series of snapshots, that can be broken down individually or that sometimes add up to something bigger.
In the song "East Jefferson," there are several to latch onto. Trees whiter than ghosts. Your hair on my coat. Swings in the park. A black sky turning white just before dawn. It's up to the listener to supply the interpretation.
"That's what I think art's there for," Weaver said. "To be an open door rather than a closed door."
It's been hard for Weaver to play songs he's written some time ago with their original intensity. It's mainly because he's not as connected to them.
That hasn't been the case with the songs on his latest record, "Mirepoix and Smoke," which includes "East Jefferson." Don't ask him why though, because he doesn't really know.
Weaver plays this Saturday at Hymie's Vintage Records in Minneapolis as part of Record Store Day.