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It's a frigid, nose-chapping winter night in Minneapolis. A traffic light pole lies obliterated in the snow at the intersection of Groveland and Hennepin Avenues. Warmed by the hearth in a nearby restaurant, Jeremy Messersmith sits comfortably at a candle-lit table. His face shows anticipation for the cocktails about to be served to us. Not a shabby way to warm up.
After briefly recalling a long night with friends and a bottle of tequila, the 34-year-old musician says that his first full-length album in four years, Heart Murmurs, is titled after his own defective ticker. In his late teens, Messersmith was told by doctors that his heart really is somewhat broken — not long after he was hospitalized when his lung deflated "like a little meat balloon."
"Your chest cavity fills up with air instead of your lungs, and you're not breathing, so you feel like you're dying, and your fingertips get tingly, and you have chest pain, whatever else," he says, as his spectacled eyes carefully monitor my shock. He seems to be enjoying this anecdote. "I'm like, 'Oh fuck, I'm so gonna die.' I write about medical stuff a lot in my songs, like 'Organ Donor,' 'Tourniquet,' any of that stuff. It's just deep in me, I guess."
JEREMY MESSERSMITH plays Heart Murmurs release shows on Friday, February 21, with Rogue Valley, and Saturday, February 22, with Carroll, at First Avenue; 612.332.1775
In between measured sips, Messersmith spins out short, medium, and long stories about how the particulars of his life and a job title he never particularly liked become inextricable. Over the past decade, this utilitarian singer ("With a slash, or a dash, or whatever") songwriter's following has grown enough for him to quit day jobs — including teaching workshops at McNally Smith College of Music — and get backing from the same label as Mumford & Sons, Glassnote Records.
Production-wise and topically, previous efforts The Alcatraz Kid, The Silver City, and The Reluctant Graveyard chart Messersmith's exponential growth into a master craftsman. Melodramatic pop confined to his acoustic guitar gradually ballooned to a roomful of players — notably the Hang Ups/Owls frontman Brian Tighe and studio pro Andy Thompson — who've advanced his words from plain text to detailed calligraphy. But often, he notes, the hashtag "esoteric" was applied.
"I was like, 'What if I tried to do a record that dealt with super classic themes?'" he says. "I always did like love songs, and 90 percent of songs are love songs." With more distorted electric guitar, kick drum, and sheer volume than any previous Jeremy Messersmith album, Heart Murmurs just rocks — in the Bruce Springsteen or Thom Yorke sense. (Though explaining the emotion shaping the album's first single, "Ghost," requires a lengthy Star Wars comparison.)
Even sans quirky characters like a deathbed salesman, Messersmith still finds ways to insert plot twists. Take the seedy motel, cheap cologne, and boxed wine of "I Want to Be Your One Night Stand." The lyrical evolution from a lurid affair into a married couple rekindling their flame elicited a lot of surprised laughter when he played it for guests at about 50 house (or as he dubbed them, "supper club") concerts in the fall of 2012.
Elsewhere, heteronormal gender preferences get even more bent. His narrator consoles "Steve" after a breakup with a woman, and then asks, "Kiss me under the moonlight, won't you?" This song — like several others — can be traced back to Messersmith's teen years in the Pacific Northwest. The conservative leader of his teen youth group had typed "God created Adam and Eve — not Adam and Steve," in an online LGBT forum, and "we thought that was the funniest thing we'd ever heard."
"I feel bad that I thought that for all those years," he continues, concern tightening his face. "I feel like I have something to atone for.... So I created 'Steve.' At one point, it was like, 'Is that your coming-out song?' And I was like, 'No, but I've thought about Adam and Steve for a number of years,' and it just came out."
His expression softens when asked about the early hours of August 1, 2013, after same-sex marriage was legalized in Minnesota. In the "coolest wedding gig I've ever played," he joined in serenading the first couples to take advantage of the law at City Hall in Minneapolis. When Trip Shakespeare vets John Munson and Matt Wilson played Elvis's "Can't Help Falling in Love," the whole room started singing along and dancing.
With just his words, the memory reassembles so vividly I see the couples lined up on the table between us. It's not a song, but the desired effect comes through anyhow. Maybe it's the bourbon talking, but it's still a neat trick.
"It was like...," Messersmith takes a long pause. "Fuck me, I'm going to start crying," and as he says this, he lets a few tears go in spite of himself. "It was very old couples just bawling and smiling and laughing, and very happy. I was just so happy to be there. Fuck, I wonder if I ever cried during an interview."