Musicians don’t always stick to music; often, musicians are “multipotentialites,” as in, people with multiple creative pursuits. To learn more about the different passion projects our favorite musicians find comfort in and promote their work, we created our ongoing series Labors of Love.
For this installation, we got to talking with Lira Mondal, a pastry chef and punk musician who currently fronts Sweeping Promises alongside her longtime partner in music and life, Caufield Schnug. Sweeping Promises’ debut record Hunger for a Way Out stunned me with arresting hooky guitar lines, fuzzy synths, and punchy vocals that make for a spellbinding record and high-energy performance.
Lira’s creative edge reverberates throughout the running bass lines she constructs, but she’s also a master in the kitchen – after getting her degree in music, she found her passion by challenging herself to create illustrious pastries and chocolate delicacies. We got the chance to hear her story of coming into her pastry chef career, finding ways to make space for herself and other game-changing women in the culinary arts, and her at-home bean-to-bar chocolate project that she can’t wait to restart in her new home in Lawrence, KS – check it out below!
Slumber: What similarities and differences do you sense of how you create musically versus how you create in the pastry/culinary arts world?
Lira Mondal: One similarity would be that whenever things are going really well, you enter a flow state. That’s when you know things are going really well. With songwriting, it seems to be automatic to the point that we don’t know that it’s happening. That happens with Caufield all the time. When we come up with something we really like, we instinctively feel like we need to lean into it. That’s built on the basis of writing a lot of material together. Later on, when I got really comfortable in the kitchen, I got more comfortable with intuitively combining flavors or having a thought and running with it because I had a stable foundation to work off of. In that way, they’re similar. I’m now at a point in my life where I have a lot of experience with both practices. I feel free to riff, as it were.
They’re very different for me since I have been songwriting like this with Caufield for 13 years. That’s longer than we’ve been dating – we started making music first! In that sense, I’ve always had a creative collaborator I could bounce off of or take advantage of because he’s incredibly talented. With baking, it’s my own thing. It’s where I’m just able to explore my own sensorium. I’m just grounded to the world there. I love things that smell good, taste good, and I love eating. I love making things for other people to eat. I feel like I’m more independent in that space because it’s all mine, but then of course I get to share it!
“I’m lucky enough to have worked alongside strong, talented, creative, game-changing women throughout my career. I am honored to have learned from these other individuals who weren’t douchebags.”
Slumber: That’s the best part! When did you first take up culinary work, and what made you pursue pastry and chocolate?
Lira: There are many prongs to this fork! This first tine goes back to my junior/senior year of college. My friends and I were close but we lived across campus from each other. On weekend nights, we would have dinner parties where we’d dress up and feel learned. The quickest way to feel that at that age is to dress up for a dinner party. Food blog craze was at its absolute peak, in my opinion, in the early 2010s, so I was devoting more and more time not studying and looking at food blogs. I had a Tumblr that I haphazardly maintained of beautiful photos of buttercream flowers and towering cakes and choux pastry. I remember making these salted caramel cupcakes for dessert one night. I remember slightly burning the caramel and still deciding I was into this.
A couple months later, I got really into making macarons. After the 5th time, they finally came out right, I was so full of joy for getting them right that I realized I was not in love with going to graduate school for musicology in the way I was with baking. The joy wasn’t as immediate. I felt like I had to go to grad school, like I felt there was some familial pressure. My dad is a professor and my brother pursued a PhD program. At the same time, Caufield was applying to PhD programs and got into Harvard, and he really wanted that, so he was very excited. He really wanted to be an academic. I wanted to make macarons and all kinds of treats! We had several heart-to-hearts where I was like “I don’t want to do this the way you want to.” Caufield said, “Yeah, no shit, you should be baking!” So we decided we’d move to Boston and he’d go to Harvard and I’d try to learn as much as I could in Boston & Cambridge.
A couple of years after we’d been living in Somerville, I got an apprenticeship at a little bistro in Cambridge. I helped out with the savory cooks. One day, I had to break down an entire bucket of lobsters. They were already dead, but I had to take the meat out of the claws for a couple of hours. I was so sad. I could not do savory cooking. I knew I had to move into pastry. I wouldn’t have to kill or chop the faces of any animal again. From then on, I got a job at a bakery/cafe as a barista and eventually I switched sides to the bakery and worked my way up from there.
Slumber: What are some confections you’ve been especially proud to have created?
Lira: Over the pandemic, when we moved to Austin, I developed a Thai tea-boba cake that I really love. I cannot wait to make it again. It’s a brown sugar cake with a Thai tea buttercream frosting and filling. I had these Thai tea merengues as well Brown sugar boba dripping all over so the brown sugar syrup was falling all over. It was really delicious. It wasn’t too sweet! One thing I learned from one of my former pastry chefs is that you gotta add more salt than you think you need because it’s all about balance. So, I’m very liberal with salt in sweets.
Slumber: Can you tell us more about the bean-to-bar chocolate project?
I used to work at E.H. Chocolatier in Cambridge, a woman-owned, beautiful boutique chocolate shop. I was always obsessed with chocolate, but that’s a spot where it really came to a head. I was in this gorgeous loft kitchen space full of chocolate temperers and chocolate smells, roasted nuts, marshmallows, so much more. I got really into making bon bons because that was a huge part of our work. It was all tons of huge tables, 8-foot long frames covered in ganaches. I took love of making bon bons and ganaches to my subsequent pastry chefs jobs. When we moved to Austin, I saw these bean-to-bar chocolates everywhere, so I read up on it. It’s not too, too difficult to get into bean-to-bar chocolate making. I invested in a chocolate grinding machine (a rotating base and two granite wheels that crush the beans) and found this direct trade website called Meridian which is based in Portland, Oregon with fair trade farmers around the world doing direct-buying from good farmers at good prices. I bought raw cacao beans from India, Vietnam, Ecuador, and Colombia. I roasted the beans and almost destroyed my blow dryer taking the papery shells off the beans, then I crushed them up. After you do that, you add sugar and cocoa butter, then 24-72 hours you have beautiful, lush, viscous chocolate. I was in the process of building a business when Sweeping Promises took off. I was thinking of starting a little farmers’ market thing. He made a website for me and took photos.
“With baking, it’s my own thing. It’s where I’m just able to explore my own sensorium. I’m just grounded to the world there. I love things that smell good, taste good, and I love eating. I love making things for other people to eat. I feel like I’m more independent in that space because it’s all mine, but then of course I get to share it!”
Slumber: Do you have any particular music you like to listen to while baking or working with chocolate?
Lira: No! I just like the sound of the kitchen. I like the ambient whirr and hum of machines and ovens. I think that not only is the equipment so loud that you can’t hear much, I feel like listening to music is my way of being in another world. My most treasured moments are the commute home from work — which, as much as I loved working in kitchens, after 8-12 hours it’s enough. I will say – I was a sous chef at a huge, venerated steakhouse in Boston. I worked alone on Sundays at that steakhouse with hours of solo prep time. I’d have the pastry kitchen all to myself. I can remember listening to Bjork really loudly and cutting biscotti. The savory chefs were listening to something more masculine or, like, ‘90s nu metal. There’s a place for that, but I loved having this ultra-feminine pastry kitchen. I’m shooting myself in my foot by suggesting there’s a gender divide there – there’s not really a gender divide in these kitchens – but it was funny to me how much machismo there was over there versus in my pastry kitchen on a day like that.
Slumber: Speaking of machismo — one challenge in many creative professions, but perhaps most loudly in food- or culinary professions, is that the work environment can be hostile (masculinist, racist, etc) with scary low pay. Do you have any advice for readers looking to enter these spaces as someone who has worked professionally in pastry and chocolate?
Lira: I’ll preface this by saying that I’m lucky enough to have worked alongside strong, talented, creative, game-changing women throughout my career. I am honored to have learned from these other individuals who weren’t douchebags! The scary low pay and the fear of any kind of unionizing or questioning authority is a lot to navigate. My advice would be that, if you’re going to enter any sort of kitchen position, you need to know what side your supervisors stand on so you can trust they’re advocating for you. Don’t sacrifice your body or life for a job. If you’re feeling like your supervisors aren’t in your corner, they probably aren’t. Restaurants are hard. With the pandemic, I feel like we’re seeing a sea change in kitchen culture and workers are realizing that their skills are worth more than the low pay or inhumane hours they’re being given in these stressful environments. I think finding other people who are committed to changing that culture is worth it.
Slumber: Going back, what motivated your interest in pursuing music?
Lira: It was something that was always in my life. I always sang. It was one of the first things I did as a child. I sang along to the radio. As soon as I could talk, I could sing (according to my mom). I was involved in choirs and choral singing from first grade all the way through college. I always loved music, too! Both of my parents emigrated to the US from Bangladesh and brought a love for music and poetry. I was surrounded by it, constantly. I always wanted to be in a band. I grew up in a small town in Arkansas, so I felt like I couldn’t do that, and then I realized I could do it in college. I started playing bass when I was 20, pretty late by many peoples’ standards. I previously took piano lessons and had a dalliance with the clarinet in middle school, but before then I didn’t pick up a bass until I was 20. My voice is my primary instrument. It’s never too late to pick up any instrument!
Slumber: What other forms of art or creative expression really inspire you? Are there any particular creators (musicians, visual artists, chefs, etc) who inspire you?
Lira: There are so many! One of my really good friends, Jessica Bardsley, is an experimental filmmaker. She visited us in Austin earlier this summer because she’s working on her first feature-length film. She brought me and Caufield to a bat cave outside of San Antonio with about 13 million bats emerging, which was such a memorable experience I’ll keep for my whole life.. Her films are these really gorgeous amalgamations of feminism and atmospheric, water-centric, flowy obsessions that she tracks. There’s lots of nature in the foreground. Her films are very beautiful. Also, she’s a cool person, so I am glad to say she’s a friend of mine. It’s really mysterious, enchanting, visceral, and heady.
I am so, so excited for Haunted Chocolatier because I got really into playing Stardew Valley. In that game, I was so charmed by all those nods to international cuisine with some really fancy produce! You could make sushi! You can make mead, wine, caviar, so much more. So when I started a bean-to-bar project I was considering creating Stardew Valley-inspired bonbons and hard candies. I had this menu of things I wanted to make. That was a major source of inspiration! I wondered if any hardcore Stardew Valley fans would buy them on Etsy. Now that Haunted Chocolatier is a thing, I think I should go for it. That was a major source of inspiration!
Slumber: You and Caufield have been called “serial band-starters,” and I can think of a few of your previous projects that have really spoken to me (Mini Dresses and Dee-Parts, for sure). What’s it been like for Sweeping Promises to gain this kind of recognition?
Lira: Amazing! I can’t really describe it! I am so grateful that people are into it and that they came and saw us play on tour. I am very, very happy that we made something that resonated with people. My biggest goal is to keep on doing that. It makes me feel like I’m doing something good with my time here on Earth!
“It is, in my opinion, really beneficial to have one passion that counterbalances the other. If you’re stuck against a wall in one, it can be helpful to channel that energy into the other for a while.”
Slumber: What excites you the most about Sweeping Promises’ future?
Lira: The idea that there seems to be a future. We now have a space where we can engage with every idea that pops in our head in the studio at the back of the house. We’re excited to tour the UK and Europe next summer! I’m really, really excited; that’s a dream come true. I love the possibilities of new music and new connections.
Slumber: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to pursue multiple seemingly disparate or competing creative passions?
Lira: It is, in my opinion, really beneficial to have one passion that counterbalances the other. If you’re stuck against a wall in one, it can be helpful to channel that energy into the other for a while. It makes life more fun to have multiple passions like this – stressful at times – but a great way to channel your energy in different directions. You keep yourself on your toes!
Listen to Sweeping Promises’ latest single released via Sub Pop and Feel It Records, “Pain Without a Touch,” below: