If you’ve been around awhile, you might remember the eclectic Richmond musical outfit, One Ring Zero, whose leader once put out a playful album of ice cream truck jingles, appropriately titled “Songs for Ice Cream Trucks.”
Led by Michael Hearst, a Richmond native, multi-instrumentalist and composer, and Joshua Camp, they became National Public Radio darlings after moving to New York and serving as the house band for McSweeney’s nonprofit publishing house in Brooklyn for several years, as well as performing at institutions such as the Whitney Museum of Art and Central Park SummerStage.
Hearst moved to New York in the summer of 2001. He remembers one of his first introductions to the city was his wife calling him out of breath, frantically saying she had just seen an airplane crash into the World Trade Center. Now two decades later, the city has been one of the hardest hit of the pandemic.
“I feel like the last year has been a very slow 9-11,” Hearst says. “But my family was very lucky. In April, when things got insane, we stayed in Connecticut for four months in my aunt and uncle’s beautiful house in the woods.” Having a 7-year-old, he was grateful to get away from the hellish scenes and constant sounds of sirens – plus he was able to get a lot of writing done.
One Ring Zero’s best-known album is probably “As Smart as We Are,” which features Hearst’s author friends such as Dave Eggers, “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood, Denis Johnson, Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Lethem writing lyrics by request that Hearst and his partner set to music. Hearst has also toured as the opener for his friend, the heralded songwriter Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, performed the music of Terry Riley alongside Kronos Quartet and Philip Glass, and written a tribute to the music of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” for the Kronos Quartet.
Indeed, he has an impressively talented group of artist friends in New York, mostly writers and musicians. So it seemed natural that Hearst would begin writing books, too – especially after so many parents bought his ice cream truck album for their toddlers. That made him want to write a real kids record and book, he says.
“I enjoy switching up and not getting bored with any one thing – I just say yes to everything,” Hearst says, noting that he was inspired to write books after becoming friends with so many of Brooklyn’s great writers through the McSweeney’s connection. “I had an inside connection to get my writing published, but being friends with so many writers was hugely inspiring.”
He convinced Chronicle Books, a San Francisco publisher, to include an instrumental album to accompany his first book, “Unconventional Creatures,” an illustrated compendium of strange creatures that kids loved. It would be the start of his Uncommon Compendiums series, which he calls “almanacs of oddities.”
“I also grew up really loving ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and Saint-Saëns’ ‘Carnival of the Animals’ – and I collect weird instruments, so I thought I should do an album inspired by weird animals using my weirdest instruments. It all snowballed from there.”
On May 18, he releases his fourth – and likely final - book and album in that series, “Unconventional Vehicles: Forty-Five of the Strangest Cars, Trains, Planes, Submersibles, Dirigibles, and Rockets Ever,” illustrated by Hans Jenssen, a Dutch-Norwegian illustrator from the United Kingdom, who Hearst discovered from his impressive technical “Star Wars” drawings.
The new book, a Junior Library Guild selection, features such amazing vehicles as underwater battery-powered scooters, solar-powered racecars, pizza delivery drones and a hot-air balloon shaped like the St. Gallen Cathedral. One of his favorites, Hearst says, is the Turtle, pictured on the cover, an underwater barrel that was the first submersible used during the Revolutionary War. A brave guy got inside, launched it into the East River and pedaled underwater while trying to crank explosives into the hull of British warships, he says. “It was conceived well enough that George Washington approved it,” he says, laughing.
The book’s accompanying album has 47 miniature songs (“I’m obsessed with brief things,” Hearst says) varying between 17 seconds and 2.5 minutes, one for each entry. It includes guest vocalists and musicians such as Tanya Donnelly, Neil Gaiman, Bill Janovitz and Syd Straw, who sings to music from Richmond’s own Stephen McCarthy of the Long Ryders and Jayhawks fame.
McCarthy first met Hearst a quarter century ago at a recording session in Richmond and was asked, during the peak of the pandemic, to play on the song that Straw was singing, “OneWheel Electric Rideable,” about a one-wheel scooter that appears to be both retro and futuristic. “I have been friends with Syd for a long time and love her voice and whimsical avant style,” McCarthy tells Style by email, noting that he’s playing a 1965 Guild 12-string through an analog delay and using a glockenspiel on the tune. “[And] I really appreciate Michael’s sense of wonder and also that he writes music that sounds as if it could’ve been created out of a 19th-century toy museum in Prague.”
“The combination of [Hearst’s] music with Hans Jenssen’s Jules Verne-meets-Steampunk imagery makes for a charming and educational book,” he adds. And he’s right. It’s the kind of fun, informative young adult book you often see in museum bookstores.
When not making books or albums, Hearst also does film scores. A few years ago, he gave the commencement address at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he earned a degree in music composition in the mid-1990s while studying under the legendary Dika Newlin.
“She was my mentor, I loved her dearly, but she was such a strange bird. I feel like I’m a second-generation Schoenberg because of her, which is cool. As a personality, she was a big influence, not so much her music, which was terrible. … The thing that I got from her more than anything was thinking outside the box. She was a punk rocker at 75, she was incredibly supportive whereas other teachers were not.”
Over the years, Hearst has never stopped coming back to visit his hometown, for plenty of good reasons. His sister, Alex Graf, is a co-owner of ZZQ Texas Craft Barbecue in Scott’s Addition and also makes the best potato salad in town. C'mon, that tractor beam is real. Depending on how things go, Hearst says he may be doing a few events over the summer, including Richmond ... maybe.
He’ll just have to figure out an interesting way to get here.
There will be an afternoon release concert in Prospect Park in New York on May 15 from 3 to 4 p.m. with a livestream, and a free online program at New York Transit Museum on May 22 from 3 to 3:45 p.m. Visit michaelhearst.com for details.