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Words and Music

Two former Richmonders collaborate with some of the world’s best-known authors.


How did an arty klezmer-pop band of Virginia Commonwealth University graduates wind up in such company? The way Hearst tells it, the project sort of fell together. “I’ve never really considered myelf any more in the literary world than anybody else,” Hearst says.

Soon after moving to Manhattan in 2001, Hearst sought out a small store he’d heard about that was co-owned by Dave Eggers, author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” which Hearst admired.

After scouring the Park Slope area in vain for days, Hearst finally noticed a storefront with no sign. The front window presented only a washtub filled with dirt and a few grubby sprouts. Hearst entered to find a “little teeny place,” perhaps 6 feet wide and 12 long, he recalls, “with merchandise stuck in little cubby holes — odds and ends, randomly priced: birds’ feet, ferret food, dirt from around the world.” A counter with a cash register loomed 6 feet above the floor. He had found Eggers’ store.

Hearst pressed a copy of One Ring Zero’s homemade CD on the store manager, and the band’s unique blend of circus instrumentation and faux Eastern European melodies evidently struck a chord. Soon Camp and Hearst were playing regularly for readings at the store by some of the best-known writers in literary fiction.

At one of the readings, author Rick Moody asked One Ring Zero to improvise music while he read the first chapter of his book “Purple America.” The writer and the duo struck up a friendship. “I hadn’t even read ‘The Ice Storm’ or seen the movie,” Hearst confesses. “So I went home and read the book and rented the movie. Now I’m a huge fan.”

The next step seemed natural, Camp says: “Neither one of us feels very comfortable writing lyrics, so we thought, Wow, having Rick Moody write us lyrics would be amazing.”

Moody, who had written lyrics for other bands — “I wrote for anyone who asked, just about,” Moody says. “It’s good practice to write in meter, and it’s a good distraction from writing fiction” — quickly agreed to come up with words for three One Ring Zero pieces.

“They had some songs all ready to go, and I did the very curious thing of matching the lyrics, syllable for syllable, to the melodies already written,” Moody says. “It was really fun.” Two of Moody’s songs appeared on One Ring Zero’s self-released 2002 album “Memorandum.” What Moody calls his favorite of the three, “Kiss Me, You Brat,” is on their latest project, the author project CD.

Hearst began thinking of other writers. He asked Eggers for lyrics, and “about 20 seconds later,” Hearst says, Eggers responded with an e-mailed ditty beginning: “If I were a volcano I’d want you to jump/Jump into my yellow/Jump into my hot yellow/You person made of bones.” (“I love it,” Hearst says. “But I think he’s having second thoughts.”)

Armed with lyrics by Dave Eggers and Rick Moody, Hearst began in earnest to compile a roster of authors for a full-length album.

Camp and Hearst had met Daniel Handler and A.M. Homes through the McSweeney’s store appearances, so he asked them; they agreed. Handler, a longtime musician and occasional accordionist for the Magnetic Fields, sent back lyrics that begin: “If I had a radio for everytime you said you loved me so/ I wouldn’t have a radio at all,” and grow progressively more aggressive (and expletive).

“It seems only natural that someone sulking in their room over a loved one would grow bitterer, if that’s a word,” Handler explains in an e-mail from his home in San Francisco. “Also, although there’s no mention of alcohol, I think bourbon is clearly implied, which would add to the bitterness.”

Did Handler have any idea what music would fit his words? “For some reason the lyrics made me think of the Go-Go’s, whom I don’t like, particularly,” Handler replies. “One Ring Zero, more sensibly, turned them into a sort of Go-Go’s cover band one might find in a sulky suburban youth center in Transylvania.”

From there, the project snowballed (“Most writers I know are music geeks, because we sit around all day listening to CDs,” Handler points out). Hearst found an e-mail address for Margaret Atwood, who agreed to write some words. Being a fan of the austere surrealism of Paul Auster, Hearst pressed a copy of his CD and a request for lyrics upon Auster’s assistant at a public reading, and much to his surprise, soon received an enthusiastic phone call.

Another musician in Magnetic Fields brought Neil Gaiman into the project, and Gaiman — known for books featuring villainous disembodied hands and nightmares come to life — contacted Hearst.

“I liked the kind of lineup he [Hearst] was putting together,” Gaiman says from his home in Minneapolis. “It was sufficiently odd enough to be interesting. It’ll be a great Trivial Pursuit question someday: ‘What does Margaret Atwood have in common with, say, Daniel Handler?’”

Gaiman wrote a mournful lyric titled “On the Wall” and sent it to Hearst, though not without some misgivings. “It’s a little like sending your kid off to school and not knowing if it will come back with a tattoo,” he observes.

A few months later, he received a CD of the entire project in the mail. “I was just really pleased,” Gaiman says happily. “It was something like a sort of cabaret version of They Might Be Giants. It’s literate. Genuinely funny. And it’s odd. It feels like being in a very cool author anthology.”

What’s next for the project? Finding some way to put it out. Despite some enthusiasm from independent labels, none has agreed to pay for pressing, distribution and the many expenses of sending a CD into the wide world. “The sad truth is, there’s no money for the arts at all right now,” Hearst says. “This is the worst possible time to put out a record.”

Still, Hearst remains hopeful that his roster of wordsmiths — and, of course, the music itself — will find a home someday. In the meantime, he’s keeping busy. One Ring Zero is preparing to record a full album with words by Paul Auster, to be sung by Auster’s teenaged daughter.

And Hearst has been inspired to take on a new avocation. “I’ve gotten really into writing,” he confides. “My guess is that I’m pretty mediocre and amateurish. But I’m about 200 pages into a full-length novel. Writing a novel is a monster of a project. I know what it takes to do a record. But writing a novel is a monster.”

Camp declines to follow suit. “I’m not as brave as Mike,” he says, chuckling. “I think I’ll stick to what I know.” S<>/b>

For more information or to hear a track from The Author Project go to ~urbngeek/authorproject.htm.

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