Michael Hearst

Composer, musician and writer

Michael Hearst is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and writer. His most recent project is a four-part book series, each book geared toward a grand theme: Unusual Creatures, Extraordinary People, Curious Constructions, and Unconventional Vehicles. Unusual Creatures was made into a PBS Digital series.

His previous album, Songs For Ice Cream Trucks is currently blared by at least 50 ice cream trucks around the world. Songs For Fearful Flyers includes voicework by fearful flyer Whoopi Goldberg.

Hearst has also composed soundtracks for the movies To Be Takei, Magic Camp, Chicken People, and The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin among others.

Michael is a founding member of the band One Ring Zero, who have released nine albums, including the literary collaboration As Smart As We Are, Planets; a collection of new compositions to represent the solar system and beyond and The Recipe Project, in which the band has taken recipes from today’s top chefs (Michael Symon, Tom Colicchio, David Chang).

Hearst has toured with The Magnetic Fields, performed with The Kronos Quartet at Carnegie Hall, and has appeared on such shows as NPR's Fresh Air, A+E's Breakfast With The Arts, and NBC's The Today Show.

Digging into the creative process, Byta speaks with artists, musicians, producers, DJs and anyone involved with music creation. A conversation about how they create, collaborate and share music. From studio setups to routines, and the first person to hear about the next 'big' work.

Where are you based?

Brooklyn, NY, USA.

How, when and where did you start making music? Are you primarily a musician or a producer, or do something else?

My mother forced me to take piano lessons when I was 7. I hated it! I told her that my teacher was evil. She had long skinny fingers and smoked cigarettes while sitting next to me on the bench. Eventually my mother conceded and I was able to quit. Only then did I really start to become interested in music … on my own. I eventually studied music composition at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. During my sophomore year, an article came out in my hometown newspaper that my former piano teacher had been arrested for plotting to kill her husband. True story!

During college (1990s) I formed an indie rock band called Schwa (and later called Fashion Central). We were offered a major record deal but turned it down. We were too scared, and not getting along well with each other. After college I got a job working at Hohner, where I tuned and repaired harmonicas. While there, my coworker, Joshua Camp, and I formed the band One Ring Zero. Originally the music was almost entirely instrumental and very much based around some of the stranger instruments that Hohner created. The band moved to New York in 2001, and began working with McSweeney’s Publishing, often referred to as the “house band.” With this we became very involved with the booming Brooklyn literary scene, and managed to convince many great writers to compose lyrics for us, which we then set to music. I also began doing a lot of writing on my own. 

While still recording and touring with One Ring Zero, I began to release solo albums, as well as books. Mostly kids music and books. I was also asked to compose music for a few films.

At this point, I do a lot of film music, while continuing to perform for kids.

Who would you consider some of your biggest influences when it comes to your “sound”?

For my kids’ music, my biggest influences are bands that I sort of feel are my contemporaries (though they’re all much more famous than me, and perhaps a little older and wiser). They Might Be Giants, The Pixies, The Magnetic Fields, Grandaddy, The Mommyheads, sprinkled with some Camillie Saint-Saens and Prokofiev.

For my film music, it’s Danny Elfman, Jon Brion, Carter Burwell, Michael Giacchino, and of course the great Bernard Herrmann.

Explain your creative process? Do you have a routine?

I have an eight-year-old boy. My schedule is very simple: I get up early so that I can get him off to school. I then head to my studio which is just a block away, and dive in with whatever I’m working on … typically three or four projects at once. Of course, I prioritise whichever one has the closest deadline. But on any given day I bounce between composing music for film, composing music for my own records, working on a new book, and of course hours upon hours of all the logistics that go in between: putting together setlists for shows, answering emails, promoting myself, paying band members, blah blah blah. And then it’s time to pick my kid up from school.

What is your “studio” setup?

I’m so lucky to have a studio just down the street from my apartment and my child’s school. It’s like Mister Rogers neighbourhood here in Brooklyn, albeit very overpriced. My studio is a room all to myself, complete with a sofa for occasional naps. The room is on the same floor as several other artists, mostly film-makers, who I sometimes even get to collaborate with. In my studio is a digital setup, and a gazillion musical instruments. There’s also a separate table/workspace for art work or construction. Right now I’m sculpting small figurines at that table for a stop-motion video for one of my songs.

What is your process when working with other people? How is collaboration different in the studio vs working remotely? 

It seems the older I get, the less I collaborate. Though I really enjoy collaborating, it can also be a ridiculous battle, and if you’re not careful it can lead to compromise and homogenization. But, more than often, two brains can make something much more powerful than one brain. So, who knows? Maybe I’m  just getting more stubborn as I age. Please let me know when I become a cranky old man.

At what point(s) are you comfortable letting other people hear what you are working on?

Depends who they are and what it is. If it’s a close friend, I’m totally fine with them hearing just about anything at any point. If it’s going out into the world, I want it to be as good as it can possibly get. I’ll spend months working on mixes and mastering (I do my own mastering) before I feel it’s ready to be launched, tweaking stuff that probably only I would ever notice. That said, I also love letting the world hear demos of songs, so long as the real version is already out.

Do you share your work in progress (streams or downloads)? Any technical frustrations?

Not so much. I mostly try to wait until the final product is ready. But as mentioned, I have gone back and released entire albums of demos and outtakes. Sometimes there is magic in the original demos that you don’t get in the final production. I certainly always love hearing demos from other musicians.

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How do you know when a track/album is finished?

A writer friend once told me that he knew he was done with a manuscript when he found himself removing, then adding the same commas over and over. I feel this is also true with music. When I get into a rut tweaking things so finite that it’s borderline pointless, it’s time to call it a day. I mean, you could go on forever. But eventually, you just have to be done with it.

How do you listen to the final mixes/mastered work?

Great question. The answer is  . . . I listen to it on anything and everything possible. From top of the line studio speakers, to bottom of the barrel cheap earbuds on my phone. Unfortunately, most people now listen to music in the worst possible way, super compressed internet files through cheap headphones. So it’s important to mix it so that it’s as good as you can get it for that stuff. But I still want to make sure the largest format of the file is also awesome. There’s no telling how we’ll be listening to music in fifty years.

How important is pre-release security when sharing new work?

I typically don’t pre-release, but not for security reasons. Just because I want it all out there and being promoted at the same time. But I honestly don’t think pre-releasing an album is any more of a security risk, especially if the album’s metadata is registered ahead of time. Anybody can rip stuff from the web, the web has also become much smarter with sniffing out what music belongs to who.

Who on your team gets to hear the final versions first and why, what formats do they each need?

First my wife and child, and maybe a few close friends. Then bandmates, manager, and my record label.

Outside of your inner circle who are the people that will need to hear the new tracks next?

The entire world, if I’m lucky! At this point, almost entirely by streaming.

Anything you are working on, anyone you are working with and want to share?

As always, I have lots of irons in the fire. A narrative kids book, a pitch for an animated cartoon series, and a pitch for a podcast series. I’m also working on the music for a documentary film called The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks. It’s gonna rule!