Local Current Blog

jeremy messersmith on inserting his life into songs: ‘I find it therapeutic to find where those limits are and try to push them’

jeremy messersmith at the Current in March 2018 (Portraits by Nate Ryan/MPR)

After a year spent driving around to parks and and playing pop-up shows to promote his unapologetically joyful album of lo-fi solo material, 11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs For Ukulele, jeremy messersmith has finally unveiled his next studio recording, Late Stage Capitalism. Recording sessions for the album began roughly two years ago and were finished in the fall of 2016, around the time of a presidential election that prompted jeremy to set the work aside and focus on music that would more directly confront the tense mood of the times.

Although Late Stage Capitalism isn’t quite as giddy as the uke record, it’s still an overwhelmingly refreshing and uplifting listen, evoking the sugary bombast of ’60s lounge music and the sunny harmonies of pop records from the same era. Still, he isn’t afraid to go classic messersmith on us, sneaking in a few lines of lyrics that speak to darker truths, sharpened incisors biting their way through the clouds of cotton candy.

With his album release show in the First Avenue Mainroom coming up this Friday, March 30, jeremy visited the Current studios to record a session for The Local Show. We chatted about the tone of the new record, the new lowercase spelling of his name, his evolution as a songwriter, and more.

Andrea Swensson: What’s it like to put out a record a year and a half later?

jeremy messermith: It’s a little bit like stepping into a time-travel machine, but one that isn’t particularly great — like it only goes back a year and a half. It’s like, “Oh, I have to put myself in the mindset of when I wrote these songs.” And I’m a totally different person! The media landscape has changed enormously in the last year and a half, too. It’s a little funny — it’s like putting on an old pair of shoes that you really love, and they don’t fit quite like you remember.

The album that you released before this, Heart Murmurs, was a very serious record; there were some devastating moments on that album. And as I’m listening to this one it feels a lot lighter, and almost a little whimsical at times. Tell me about the journey from that Heart Murmurs to here.

I think after touring Heart Murmurs, I was just really tired of singing bummers all the time. I kind of wanted to go to a musical happy place for me, and that’s always been bands in the ’60s and ’70s, and to do something that’s maybe not afraid to be a little goofy, a little cheesy, a little [Burt] Bacharach at times. And the fun thing about that is that if you have a bunch of light-sounding songs, then you can put a bunch of very serious, sad lyrics in them, and somehow it kind of works.

I’m loving all of the instrumentation on this record. There’s some flute, a lot of instruments that you would hear on those ’60s lounge records. Is that something that you always wanted to incorporate?

Yes. Flute has always been my dream. What else do we have on the list? There’s harp, there’s flute, there’s trumpet, vihuela, a stringed instrument in mariachi bands. It’s on the track, “All The Cool Girls.”

A lot has happened in the last few years with your career, and one of those things is that you changed your name; it sounds the same on the radio, but looks a little differently typed out. I was wondering if you have any thoughts to share on that shift.

A few things: I needed to stake mental-territory for me to be a stereotypical crazy artist person. And I didn’t want to go full-Prince and change my name to a symbol, or anything. But what I did do, is I changed the capitalization of it. So it’s just all lowercase, much like an author I’ve been reading a bunch of lately, bell hooks. I liked it because in a sense, at least to me, it just looks like I’m part of everything else. It reduces the myth of one-ness, at least for me. [It] helps me to realize that I’m way more of a composite being than something singular.

How does that square with having to get up on stage at a place like First Avenue and be the star?

Oh it’s great. I just try to deflect that. I think about all the people who work and are part of the network that makes it up. I look over at my bandmates, and I think of people who have played on the records, I think of teachers I’ve had over the years. Really, I’m a composite creature. My success isn’t just my success alone. And I’d like to think that maybe my failures aren’t either.

When you wrote about changing to the all-lowercase, something really jumped out at me: You were kind of struggling with this title of “artist,” like you said, being a crazy artist that gets to do these irrational things if you want to. Why do you think it took you so long to see yourself as an artist?

I found it intimidating and daunting to think of myself that way. I think I firmly put myself in a self-imposed mental prison, or a box — a label that I attached to myself, which is that “I’m just a guy that plays acoustic guitar and writes songs.” And then working on the ukulele record was kind of a big thing for, “Wait, I can do things outside of that box. I can tour around, and I can do whatever I want.” I spent some time working on the one-act. Yeah, I can do anything I want. All of a sudden it makes writing songs seem somehow less like work or a job, and being something fun that I get to do; one of the many things I get to do.

Do you see yourself differently? Is it part of your identity in a way that it wasn’t before?

Yeah, I think that’s right. It helps me just imagine that anything that I want to do, I can do. It’s a bit of mental-trickery that I’ve played on myself, more than anything.

I like that. I want to be an artist. [laughs]

You’re welcome! I think it starts when you just say you’re an artist. Great, you’re in the club! Congratulations. Anybody can be an artist.

Something that has always jumped out at me about your songs is that whether or not they’re true to your life or fictional characters, or they’re really happy-sounding or they’re really sad, there’s always some element that just hits you in the gut. Kind of a knife-twist, where you go, “Whoa, that just got super real.” I’m wondering, how do you find those moments to insert into the songs, and how you know when they are true?

First off, I don’t really know. I don’t know how that works. When I sit down to write a song, I usually just am trying to amuse myself. A lot of times I think it comes through — when I have a song idea, the feeling that I usually have is, “Oh, that’s interesting,” or, “Oh, that’s funny.” Funny is usually the best for me, because that means that if I think that something is funny, there’s some kind of tension there, or something that isn’t being talked about in the idea, that’s why jokes are funny. So I usually start writing from the point of view of maybe a contradiction, and I’ll support that. Sometimes it lends itself to having a bit of a twist. Although I will say, I’m trying to write a little more non-fictiony as of late, and less the setting up twists, or a gut-punch, as you say.

More linear storytelling?

Yeah. Sometimes I think… Oh boy, this is like songwriting confessions on The Local Show. [laughs] I sometimes worry I can put a bit too much of a bow on it sometimes. I’ve been trying to kind of fight that a bit.

Two months ago you were playing at Icehouse for a residency there, and I came down one of the nights you were playing solo. You played a bunch of songs I’d never heard you do before, some of which were so real and so sad, that it was almost a little tough to take in. I’m wondering, when it comes to inserting things about your own life into your music, do you think about how much you share? Are you filtering at all? Is it ever too much you?

I do think about it a lot — more just from a standpoint of my own mental health. For instance, that Icehouse show was kind of me pushing all those boundaries, and I wasn’t sure — is this a song that should just be for me, or is this a song that other people should hear too, and how does that work? I left that show just completely exhausted, there was nothing left. I’m not sure. I may need to have a little bit of a tougher mental exterior for that; I may need to hide behind a band name for some of that, or something, it’s possible. I find it therapeutic, anyway, to find where those limits are and try to push them. I have to say, I’m super lucky as a performer to have a community of people who are there with me for that, whatever crazy thing I want to do. It’s super nice being supported in that way.

Yeah, if you want to sing about cats, we’re all-in.

[laughs] Especially if I want to sing about cats, yeah, you’re all-in.

jeremy messersmith celebrates the release of Late Stage Capitalism this Friday, March 30, at First Avenue with support from Monica LaPlante. Hear jeremy’s full in-studio performance on The Local show here.