Jeremy Messersmith releases the final chapter of his pop trilogy

Singer-songwriter opens up about life, death, faith, and The Reluctant Graveyard

THE MIDTOWN GLOBAL MARKET is an exercise in sensory overload. At noon on a weekday, each of the vendors' stands is bustling with business professionals and families ordering up lunch, and a dizzying array of aromas and bright colors and sounds demand attention at every turn. Children are crying, hurried women are impatiently raising their voices, and flustered servers are dishing up tamales, hummus, falafel, cupcakes, and tarts to growing lines of hungry patrons.

In the middle of the mayhem, perched at a high-top table in the cafeteria, sits Jeremy Messersmith, quietly finishing his lunch and perusing updates on his iPhone as if barely aware of the mayhem swirling around him.

The sterile rows of tables in the dining area may not seem like the ideal setting for honing one's artistic craft, but for Messersmith it's home to many of the writing sessions that led to the songs on his third and most recent record, The Reluctant Graveyard. If anyone can focus on lyrics and chord changes in the noisy epicenter of multiculturalism that is the Global Market, it's him.

The Reluctant Mister Messersmith
Nick Vlcek
The Reluctant Mister Messersmith
Playing the First Avenue Mainroom in February
Steve Cohen
Playing the First Avenue Mainroom in February
Messersmith and Andy Thompson at the Library studio
Steve Cohen
Messersmith and Andy Thompson at the Library studio
Phillip Santillan

Centered in the maelstrom, Messersmith is the calmest person in the room, and it's a superlative that doesn't just apply to the day we meet in the Global Market. There's something even-keeled and measured about Messersmith that makes him extraordinarily approachable and easy to be around, so much so that when asked to identify his defining characteristics, four of his closest musical collaborators replied with words like "gentle," "kind," and "humble" (not to mention "a total nerd").

That sense of accessibility has also translated to his musical career, as his tender, pure alto-tenor and honest-not-earnest lyrics have earned him a sizable contingent of fans in the Twin Cities that will surely fill the Cedar Cultural Center this Friday for his CD-release show. As he prepares to embark on his first major tour in support of his new '60s-influenced pop record, Messersmith invited us into the studio, out to the Market, and back through his past to learn more about the making of what he says could be his final singer-songwriter effort.

LIKE SO MANY RECORDING STUDIOS in Northeast, the Library is tucked inconspicuously into the corner of an expansive warehouse, its entryway one of a long line of nondescript doors that look like they could just as easily open into prison cells as artist lofts or practice spaces. But once inside, the space is laid out like some sort of nerd haven, with bookcases devouring most of the wall space and an old, creaky ladder resting in one of the corners, the center of the room a maze of area rugs, guitar cords, drums, stools, and stands.

It's a cold, bleak Saturday morning in November, and Messersmith is deep into the recording process on The Reluctant Graveyard with multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Andy Thompson.

"The books absorb a lot of the sound," Messersmith says, marveling at the intersection of form and function in the unique recording space.

He is hunched in a corner, looking over a box of pastries and fiddling with a laptop while Thompson examines a to-do list for the day's session. The pair are calm yet serious—downright scholarly—as they begin to work, and though they are the only two musicians in the space, they are not alone. As with their previous days' efforts, today's recordings will be webcast via streaming video, and anywhere from 20 to 100 fans at a time will flood a video chat room to type words of support or feedback and listen intently to even the most mundane of their studio tasks.

As the recording sessions move forward and the album nears its release, Messersmith has continued to pull back the curtain that separates him from his followers, inviting fans to watch him record his album, crowd-sourcing input on his business and distribution decisions from his Twitter followers, and even organizing a citywide scavenger hunt as a way for listeners to track down and listen to his album before it was released.

"He's constantly on his iPhone Twittering or Facebooking and building his network," says guitar player Brian Tighe. "Having been in the music scene for a long time, it's really impressive to me because promotion is really hard, but he finds a way to do it that's actually interesting and very human."

"Over the last year I've been trying to embrace the internet as the medium for releasing music," Messersmith says. "And on the internet, content is king. You've gotta protect your rights as a musician and the copyrights and all this stuff, but I'm more of a child of the internet, and information has got to be free—it is anyway—and you should maybe just try to embrace that and figure out some way to entertain people."

During the recording session on that November day, Messersmith stopped every now and again to acknowledge his online audience, occasionally asking for input when he was feeling indecisive. "I remember asking, should I sing this certain word this way or this way? And people had very strong opinions about it, so I sang it that way, and it seemed to work just fine," he says. "It was kind of freeing, in a way. It was like having people there as an impartial third party."

Likewise, Messersmith approached his latest record with an emphasis on teamwork, inviting longtime collaborator Thompson, along with Tighe (who plays in the Starfolk and has fronted popular local bands like the Owls and the Hang Ups) and cellist Dan Lawonn, to write their own parts and help steer the direction of the record. But unlike his sophomore album, The Silver City, which embraced the quirky blips and bloops of tiny Casio keyboards, looping pedals, and laptop beats, Messersmith opted to work within a decidedly vintage framework for the Graveyard sessions.

"I'd been sending mixtapes to Andy and Brian, like, hey, I really like these, we should do something like this," Messersmith explains. "Basically we wanted to focus on a '60s sound. Like using ProTools but trying to incorporate as much of a recording mindset and methodology of the '60s as possible."

"When you're recording in ProTools or any digital studio now, you have limitless tracks and limitless takes, so you end up playing something, and you play it like 10 times, and you splice together micro-takes in order to get one master, awesome take," he says. "And it also tends to be very additive, and it turns into a lot of monotony and over-produced stuff. So we kind of wanted to do the opposite."

"He was adhering to 'dude theory,'" Thompson explains. "Which is what Mike Doughty calls it—if it can't be played by the four dudes in the room, then it's not on the record. And we didn't use any instruments that were made after 1970."

Ever the studious musician, Messersmith spent a lot of time leading up to the recording sessions researching classic '60s recording techniques, specifically those employed by Beatles producer George Martin. As if to throw himself into the new role, he even revamped his appearance, trading in a folkie beard and giant vintage '70s eyeglasses for a coiffed James Dean 'do and black-rimmed Mad Men-era frames that seemed to symbolize his next artistic reinvention.

"Jeremy has enjoyed comparisons to the Beach Boys and the Beatles for a while, and this record capitalizes on that sonic potential," remarks Lawonn. "Besides the deliberate references to '60s pop and rock music, the greatest difference in this record is the collaborative effort involved. Rather than tracking all sorts of musical components separately, we tracked a lot of things live, together. I think that that adds a certain amount of energy to the record."

Lawonn says one of the more surprising decisions made in the studio was to leave in the mistakes, no matter how glaring they may have seemed at the time. "He gave us the freedom to not have to fix all of the little mistakes in the recording process, which was interesting and odd. I'm not a very good keyboardist, so there were a lot—seriously, a lot—of flubs on my part throughout tracks such as 'Violet!' and 'Deathbed Salesman.' He let those stay in."

"There's mistakes all over the record," Messersmith agrees, and adds with a smirk, "but it's the only thing that separates us from robots, the mistakes we make."

WHEN A PERSON DIES, his or her entire life is summarized in a 10-minute eulogy. When one of Jeremy Messersmith's characters dies, that life gets wrapped up in a song—and though the narratives are mostly fictional, each of Messersmith's heroes is memorialized over the course of three verses or three minutes in a more complete and heartfelt way than most us of could ever hope to be remembered at our funerals.

On The Reluctant Graveyard, not every character is dead—yet—but death is certainly on the minds of each of these distinct and poetic protagonists.

"Life's a game we're meant to lose, but stick by me and I will stick by you," a young woman muses to her lover and a row of cold, stark cemetery stones in "A Girl, a Boy, and a Graveyard," while a sympathetic criminal tells the tale of his demise on "Dillinger Eyes," and a young child on "Toussaint Gray, First in Life and Death" may or may not have died on the way home from school in an effort to not be the last kid home.

"I'm the repo man and nobody weeps for me," another already-dead character laments, his whole sad life trod from beginning to end in nine sparse lines, and "John the Determinist" gleefully brags, "Oh, you silly things, I've got you figured out!" before plunging to his own death.

If it sounds depressing, rest assured, it is—but it is a comforting devastation, stretched over 11 tracks that seem to ponder the tragic nature of humanity with a slightly removed, philosophical bent.

"His lyrics are really personal, but you are kept slightly at a distance," says Dan Wilson, a well-known local songwriter who produced Messersmith's second album. "Partly because he seems really smart, and partly because he doesn't use the standard emotional trickery that is the Hollywood norm... Jeremy just avoids all those tricks, either for other tricks that we don't know as well or his own tricks that we don't know at all. I mean, he stabs you often enough through the heart, but it's never at the moment when the strings have all suddenly disappeared except for the high violins. It's always something un-cliché."

Even the most autobiographical track on the album, "Organ Donor," takes a bit of unpacking in order to trace it to a more personal revelation about Messersmith's own life, though its lines become more profound when read in the context of his back-story.

I was born in a mortuary

Full of worry

Ice water in my veins

Gave my heart at the school library

Never knew her name

The son of a nuclear scientist and a home-school teacher, Messersmith spent his childhood in Kenwood, Washington, which "happens to be the second-most-polluted place on planet Earth," he states matter-of-factly. "Virtually everyone in town either works agriculture, growing apples, or they are scientists working to clean up nuclear waste and figure out what to do with it, because no one knows what to do with it. My dad worked at a nuclear power plant. I grew up there until I was 18."

Messersmith is a self-proclaimed "recovering fundamentalist," raised in a strict Christian household by parents who logged many hours at a nearby Assemblies of God church, where they would encourage him and his three siblings to pick up musical instruments. "I was the trumpet, my dad would play trombone, my mom would play clarinet, my sisters would play oboe and bassoon," he says. "We were sort of like a Holy Roller church, so people would be speaking in tongues a lot. The church was actually in the middle of a field. Usually the people playing, especially on a Sunday night, would outnumber the crowd."

Lost my tongue in the sanctuary

"Heaven spare me!"

Hands raised above my head

Sent my brain to the seminary

Never seen again...

After spending his childhood being home-schooled with his siblings, and his teen years studying at a nearby community college, Messersmith left home at 18 to attend the Assemblies of God-affiliated North Central University in downtown Minneapolis ("Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker went there," he notes), where he first met his wife, Vanessa.

Around the time Messersmith was finishing college, he says he could feel things beginning to shift. "I was still a Christian through college, and then I ended up taking this New Testament class with a professor at school who knew Greek. We had to write a paper on some passage of scripture, and there was one section, it was First Corinthians 11, and the whole segment was traditionally translated into something basically about 'women should cover their heads and be modest in a house of worship,' and I was like, okay, I'll take that one. Sounds like that'll be easy to write five pages on.

"Then I actually started doing research on it, and basically nobody has any idea what that passage means. In Greek, it's like gobbledygook. Nobody has any clue. They think the scribe—you know, scribes would occasionally write notes in the margins, they think that somehow the notes in the margins made it into the oldest text that we even have, so basically people have translated it to mean whatever, and it just doesn't mean anything. And a big part of being a Christian fundamentalist is that the entire Bible is the exact word of God, a gift to man. And I was just like, well, if it's God's gift to man, you'd think he would have done a better job."

Drained my blood at the mortuary

No more worry

Ice water in my veins

Took my bones to the cemetery

Where they still remain

"I remember thinking, well, what if God doesn't exist at all? It sort of made me all panicky to think about it at first. And then somehow it just seemed like, uh oh, probably not. Or even if there is [a God], for all intents and purposes, I'd like to behave as if there isn't one. And it just felt incredible. I remember just breathing deeply and being like, all of this stuff, my past, my childhood, I just felt lighter. I can live life however I want, and it's great."

So swing low

Grey bones

I don't know

If I'll ever be whole again

'THE RELUCTANT GRAVEYARD' is Messersmith's third album in four years, and the final chapter in what he calls his "pop song trilogy." Since emerging onto the local scene in 2005, Messersmith has established himself as a prolific and highly accessible songwriter, gaining a large following thanks in part to radio support from 89.3 the Current ("They're the only reason anybody's heard of me," he jokes) and hours logged on stages around town. Attend one of his packed shows now and it's easy to forget that just five years ago Messersmith was playing singer-songwriter nights at the old Acadia and handing out burned copies of demos dubbed the Paper Bag EP.

"I saw him play at the Acadia, he was doing a solo-song-night kind of thing, and I was super excited," says Dan Wilson. "I asked him if he wanted to send me some songs and I would tell him what I thought. So we ended up having a couple really long conversations about songs, and we decided to do some recording."

When asked if he normally extends such a gracious hand to up-and-coming songwriters, Wilson laughs. "No, he's really good! Most things that people make are all the same as everyone else makes. It's all the same, and it's all nondescript and kind of depressing. And Jeremy's stuff was already amazing."

The two musicians eventually started dabbling in the studio together without an explicit goal in mind, and they spent the better part of three years working off and on recording what would eventually become Messersmith's second album, The Silver City. But halfway through the project, Messersmith decided to step back and finish hammering out some demos himself, releasing his home-recorded full-length, The Alcatraz Kid, in 2006.

The Alcatraz Kid is an innocent record. Songs focus on the jarring adjustments that happen during the transition to adulthood and the gut-churning heartbreak that comes with loving someone foolishly yet completely. The album is painstakingly personal at times ("Some of the songs are sort of embarrassingly confessional," he admits now), and they still coax some of the strongest reactions from crowds at shows. "Beautiful Children" is so stunningly honest that it routinely causes audience members to laugh or cry at the punch line, depending on their willingness to show emotion in public, and "Novocaine" could easily be the theme song for this generation's televised teen drama. In face, "Miracles," a song written at the same time as the tracks on The Alcatraz Kid but saved for the next record, was recently featured on an episode of Ugly Betty.

Once he was back in the studio, The Silver City took on its own themes, circling around the grind of a workaday life and the peace that comes with finding a soul mate. Though Messersmith's songs of heartbreak strike a chord with fans, his songs about finding true love are equally poignant, the result of a contented marriage with his wife and best friend, Vanessa.

Jeremy says they have been married "four and a half years, it'll be five in August. We met the first week of school, so that would be like 10 years ago." Though they didn't date in college, Jeremy remembers his first encounter with Vanessa vividly. "I met her the very first week I went to college," he remembers. "She seemed sort of insane and interesting. I was—I still am, for the most part—very reserved, and I just found her to be exciting, and very much outgoing when I wasn't. She started wearing these long jean skirts, and she had dreadlocks, and she was always wearing this orange Tang T-shirt."

Vanessa now co-owns a vintage clothing shop in south Minneapolis (Blacklist Vintage on 26th and Nicollet) and is a familiar face at most of Jeremy's local shows. Anyone who has witnessed the pair interact can see that they are old souls born to be around one another, teasing and flirting and blurting out whatever needs to be said without the slightest hesitation.

"She's the person I wake up at 2 a.m. and say, 'Hey, do these lyrics suck? Does this work for you?' She's basically my creative foil. She's the person I bounce ideas off of. So she's probably the single biggest influence on my songwriting. Basically, if it doesn't work for her, I don't put it out, or it goes back to the drawing board."

The Silver City was a drastic sonic shift from The Alcatraz Kid, trading in the lo-fi bedroom sound and childlike imagery for grown-up ballads with slick, hi-fi pop sheen, but it was an about-face that has now become customary each time Messersmith steps in the studio. And with The Reluctant Graveyard barely back from the presses, he's already looking forward to the next project, whatever it may be.

"I've tried to make the process of making each record different, because I think that's a big deal," he says. "This will probably be the last record, like this anyway. It feels like I've been doing one thing for three records, trying to get better at it, and I don't know how much better at doing that I can really get. I just kind of want to try something else. If you're an artist, you should try to do something new.

"I've got a couple ideas for more bizarre projects. Basically trying to move the form to something else." He looks around, eying passersby and smiling mischievously. "Don't tell anybody this. It would definitely be something that could never be played on the radio. Ever."

JEREMY MESSERSMITH plays a CD-release show with the Mynabirds on FRIDAY, MAY 7, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674

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