Q&A with Jeremy Messersmith

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Originally, I went to see Jeremy Messersmith play just so I could go to Atlanta’s famed venue and city fixture, Eddie’s Attic.  I got there early, though not really expecting a crowd since it was a Wednesday night, and I was fortunate enough to run into Jeremy as soon as I got there.  Traveling solo, and with this being his first time in Atlanta, it turned out to be me, him, and a couple of beers before the show.

Messersmith is most well-known and followed in the northern part of the country, garnering impressive followings in Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York.  Currently touring in support of his latest album and the final segment in his trilogy, The Reluctant Graveyard, the show turned out to be a lot of beautiful, and a lot of death.

His music is better live than on his album, which is not a dig at his recordings, but praise for his demeanor, composure, and sound as a solo artist on the road (a band accompanies him back home).  Most impressively, Messersmith records layers of his instrumentation on loop pedals—slapping his hand against the neck and body of his guitar, shaking the tambourine, and playing a miniature keyboard.  He straps a harmonica around his neck and turns his head from the mic to whistle the momentary interludes between verses in the song “Organ Donor.”  He’s humble and funny, stopping close to the end of his set and prefacing another sad song with the statement, “In case you haven’t had your quotient of heartbreak this evening…”  What I most enjoy about Messersmith’s latest album is that while it’s sad in nature, it houses a sound that is rooted in chamber pop’s qualities: playful, carefree, and in the mood to carry on.

I had the opportunity to interview him a few days before the show, and I encourage you to check him out live if he’s coming to your town.

Beth:  Were you interested in music from an early age?

Jeremy Messersmith: I was a kid, so I was curious about a lot of things, including music. I remember learning to play the recorder (doesn’t everyone?) when I was about 5 or so. Music was so intertwined with everything growing up, from sports to church, so it just seemed like something everybody did.

B:  Were you pursuing music during college?

J: Eventually. I was undeclared for a long while, thought about majoring in film or biblical studies, opted for computer science and finally found my way to music! I was one of those 3rd year seniors.

B:  How did your band come together?

J: I met Andy Thompson (drums) at Dan Wilson’s house (Semisonic, Dixie Chicks). He was giving a piano lesson to Dan’s daughter and we ended up chatting and hitting it off. Dan Lawonn (cello, keyboard) is an old college mate; Brian Tighe (The Hangups, The Owls) is a Minneapolis music legend, so I feel really fortunate to have them helping me out.

B:  Born in Charleston and having grown up in Washington, do any influences from those places contribute to the music you’ve been making?

J: I’m sure they do, but I’m not sure how!

B:  What inspired The Reluctant Graveyard (aka a collection of sad-natured, death-centric songs)?  Was there a specific event, or was it just an exploration in your story/ song-writing craft?

J: I’d been challenging my own ideas about an afterlife and I came to the conclusion no one can have any idea if there is one, and there probably isn’t (or certainly no evidence for one in any case). All of the sudden, death becomes a little more permanent, and more important! It was a good way for me to wrap up a thematic trilogy and also work out what I thought about death.

B:  How would you describe the progression of your music from The Alcatraz Kid to The Reluctant Graveyard?

J: It’s a progression from the basement to the recording studio. Hopefully I’ve learned to play the recording studio as an instrument. The Alcatraz Kid was basically just me singing and playing guitar in my basement. The Reluctant Graveyard has a full band and string section. I hope the songs have gotten a bit stronger over the years too!

B:  Your latest album is hailed as the final installment in your trilogy… what does this mean for your future albums?

J: I’m not sure how much more I can do in the pop music genre. Just for my own sanity I think I’ll try making some different kinds of music. I’d love to experiment with short and long form musical pieces. Or maybe I’ll finally write my novel.

B:  I love that you did a scavenger hunt in Minneapolis via twitter… I’m sure you’ve discussed this before, but how has your activity through social media helped to propel your fan base?

J: Social media is great for increasing the amount of contact you can have with fans. I’m pretty approachable in real life and online, so people don’t think twice about asking me a question on Twitter or posting some photos they took on Facebook. I just wish it had been around when I was younger!

B:  I know that it’s way tougher these days to make money through just records (and your digital downloads are on a pay-what-you-want basis), so it’s definitely a good thing to get your songs picked up for TV shows and commercials.  But do you ever wish that your music hadn’t made it to certain shows?

J: I’m not too possessive of my songs. Once I write them and put them out into the world, they aren’t really my songs anymore–in fact, some people may be even more attached to them than I am! I have yet to get something placed in a totally grimace-worthy show, probably a testament to my publishing people!

B:  You’ve been insanely busy since May 1 with your tour… what’s on your schedule for the rest of the summer?

J: I’ll be traveling all around the US for the rest of the summer, but here’s what my daily schedule looks like: wake up, drive 4-8 hours, play a show, crash on someone’s couch, repeat.

B:  You got to play with The Mynabirds in Minneapolis… how was that?  I think what Laura Burhenn is doing is absolutely fantastic.

J: It was amazing! “The Numbers Don’t Lie” is a hit song if I’ve ever heard one. I think they’re gonna go far.

B:  Who are you listening to these days?

J: I’ve been listening to a lot of Brian Eno, Grizzly Bear and Neil Diamond. I love me some Neil Diamond.

B:  If you could collaborate with any two artists/ bands (live ones!), who would they be?

J: Well, my first choice would be some sort of undead collaboration, but since we’ve narrowed it down to 2 living artists, I’d say Banksy and Girl Talk.

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