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Q&A: Lyrical Food With Clare Burson

Clare Burson does not seem the least bit tired of talking about cheese. Which is a bit strange, considering how much attention one notable possession of hers — a 117-year-old wedge of cheese-turned-family heirloom passed down from her great-grandfather — has garnered (including but not limited to a story in the New Yorker. The singer songwriter is so passionate about food, particularly as a lens through which to understand her family’s history, that she hosted a food and music pairing event as the release party for her latest record, Silver and Ash (Rounder Records, 2010).

A sparsely beautiful narrative work, the album, traces Burson’s maternal grandmother’s escape from Germany in 1938. The event, which was co-hosted by history-focused gastronomist Sarah Lohman, featured four courses. Each was inspired by a different stop on Burson’s family’s journey from Germany in the ‘30’s to present-day Brooklyn. Guests dined while Burson performed the deeply moving song cycle with her guitar at the front of the room.

Listen to a sample from Silver and Ash:

So, suffice it to say, Burson is a lover of food, and a musician committed to taking eating seriously as something that both enhances art and provides a window into history. From the snacking habits she developed during her two-year stint in Germany to weekly Shabbos fried chicken, she has a lot to say about the role edibles play in her life and her songs.

It’s only appropriate, then, that I discovered Burson’s music over crispy homemade ginger cookies and drinking potent afternoon coffee. The pairing was appropriate — the spicy and sensory snack was a perfect complement to the whispered intimacy of Burson’s voice and the sensory nature of her lyrics.

Temim Fruchter: Your album, Silver and Ash, has been out for a few months now. What’s your relationship to the record like now?

Clare Burson: I think I’m finally able to let go of it a little bit and to write songs that aren’t as based in history. I’m actually starting to break into the present again with my writing and looking forward to new projects. So I do feel a little bit of distance from it, but in a good way.

I know you collaborated with Sarah Lohman on a food and music pairing record release show this past summer. And that you’re somewhat famous for owning a 117-year-old piece of cheese that’s also a family heirloom. Was food on your mind when you wrote this record?

The wedge of cheese was actually the initial inspiration for Silver and Ash, before I realized that the songs were going to be delving deeper into the life stories of my maternal grandmother. The idea for the food event came from reading Sarah’s blog and thinking about how both food and music can make you feel like you’re traveling back in time. Food is also such an important part of my life and my Jewish upbringing — smells and tastes often bring me back to having Shabbos dinner with my grandparents — so it was a great match. It was also a way to give people a fuller experience of the music — I love how both music and food can open up larger conversations about issues that are important to us.

And you traveled as part of the process of writing this record, right?

I did. I spent two weeks by myself in Eastern Europe. I went to my paternal great grandparents’ little town and was struck by how rural it was. [But] I felt a lot of kinship with this little town in Lithuania – the stream going through the town and the reeds along the banks and the quiet.

What were those travel experiences like food-wise?

Well, I lived in Germany for 2 years at the end of (and right after) college and I loved the food there. Believe it or not, it was there that I finally started eating vegetables! Plus there was always abundant bread, cheese, yogurt, knoedel [potato dumplings] and chocolate.

How about in Eastern Europe?

There, my culinary experience was less satisfying. I had exactly two delicious meals during my 2007 trip. Mostly, though, I think of the cheese and crackers that kept me nourished and the potato pancakes and greasy meat that I avoided in restaurants.

You’re originally from Memphis. Are there food traditions you’ve brought with you to NYC?

I’ve told my husband that when we finally move into a bigger apartment we’re gonna host Shabbos dinner with my grandmother’s chicken soup recipe and fried chicken — we had fried chicken every Friday night, which was pretty awesome, now that I think about it! We host Passover at our tiny Cobble Hill apartment and we make my grandmother’s chicken soup and her brisket. But I also really love the food here in New York.

Do you have any go-to songwriting nosh?

No, it gets in the way when you’re writing songs if you’ve got stuff in your mouth! But I can tell you, one of the very first songs that I wrote was an ode to chocolate. It was at a time when I didn’t really feel comfortable writing about sex. I didn’t really say what the song was about, but it was both about sex and chocolate.

I’m guessing you get to have a lot of conversations with people about food stuff their families have passed down through generations? Ever met someone else who has an actual food artifact like you do?

No, but when Sarah blogged about the cheese and there were a handful of people who wrote her and said that their family had passed down tomato seeds that originated in Sicily. There was also a story about a very very old cracker. But I don’t think anyone had anything quite as old as the cheese.

What’s on your plate for 2011? Any more culinary collaboration in your future?

I’m so excited to be appearing on Last Call with Carson Daly with my band on January 18th, and then more touring in the spring and summer – and of course, more writing. I’d love to do more food events – though probably not until the fall. I love thinking about different ways that music – combined with something like food or visuals – can help people experience the world.

Catch Clare Burson on Carson Daly on NBC in February, for details follow her on facebook.

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