Speaking in Strums
The Alcatraz Kid
About a year and a half ago I decided that Chris Koza, on the strength of his tuneful, self-produced, Elliott Smith-influenced debut album, Exit/Pesce, was the premier under-30 singer-songwriter in Minneapolisland. Koza's a real talent—please buy that record and join his mailing list—but his second album was a bit slick and occasionally overwrought and generally less memorable than his first. And so I have switched allegiances. I am a fickle man, and also a hapless Othello competitor, but let us not dwell on my many faults. (No, seriously— back off.)
About a week and a half ago I decided that Jeremy Messersmith, on the strength of his tuneful, self-produced, Elliott Smith-influenced debut album, The Alcatraz Kid, was the premiere under-30 singer-songwriter in the Twin Cities. (During the past year and a half, I was persuaded to swear off the coinage "Minneapolisland.") Messersmith writes purring ballads of love gone south (or, occasionally, north) and forlorn waltzes about adolescent science geeks, and records them in his unimpressive basement studio. His music is, in the parlance of the gyne- and homophobes of my youth, for fucking wimps. I have heard harder rocking from wind chimes. But rarely is it self-conscious or cute or feckless. Mostly it is just pretty, finely crafted, and cleverly played and arranged despite Messersmith's lack of attention-grabbing chops.
So you should see his next show and/or give him a five-album record deal with full creative autonomy. At the very least, you should check out his song, "Novocain," available free of charge on Messersmith's website (www.jeremymessersmith.com).
For those of you too lazy to take even that measure, I will attempt to entice you with the following description: First, the song pays off your Visa bill. Then, Messersmith gives two trebly acoustic guitars a bouncy strum reminiscent of the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face," over which he sings, straining appealingly on the chorus, a melody seemingly composed on a drive through the rolling hills of some rolly-hill place. (If you care to picture this drive more vividly, note that Messersmith drives an early-'90s Civic.) The melody is a happy one, in contrast to the lyrics. Summary: world supply of Novocain insufficient when pitted against narrator's broken heart.) In the background an organ drones, some spare electronic percussion hisses, and a simple counterpoint melody leaks from a bell-toned keyboard. The song's winding yet repetitive tune, coupled with the recording's impoverished fidelity, reminds me of Georgian cult idols Neutral Milk Hotel, but Messersmith says any similarity is coincidental. Any connection to the Eels' parallel alt-radio hit "Novocain for the Soul," is also coincidental, the songwriter maintains. "I try not to use the word 'soul' in songs," he adds.
Well, shit. Having just made a few phone calls, I've discovered that Messersmith's tune does not, after all, pay off one's Visa bill. Jeez, that puts me in something of a bind. Stupid! But my financial woes are of no concern to most of you, and besides, it's high time we delved further into Messersmith the Man.
MtM lives in a duplex apartment in the Seward neighborhood with his wife Vanessa, who was celebrating her 27th birthday when I visited the couple. Vanessa works with schizophrenic patients for a large health-services outfit. She also rents space in an antique shop, and so the apartment is handsomely equipped with cheap but not tacky garage-sale finds. Messersmith and I sit on the couch, and as a sort of parlor game I lob guesses regarding the 26-year-old singer's influences (some mentioned above, plus others), speculating wrong every time, with the exception of Smith.
"The music I listened to as a kid was pretty restricted," explains Messersmith in his even, open voice. "I wasn't really allowed to listen to the radio, so it was pretty much a steady diet of hymns, worship choruses, occasionally contemporary Christian music." Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Messersmith grew up in Washington's Tri-Cities of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick. His dad worked for a nuclear power plant, and his mom home-schooled the four Messersmith kids. (Jeremy also attended a private Christian school for a few years, and in his late high school years took classes at a community college.) The family's social life was centered on the local Assemblies of God church. For those inexpert on Protestant denominational distinctions, that means Messersmith was raised with Pentecostalism and its characteristic speaking in tongues, emphasis on the Holy Spirit, and late-night services. Plus lots of music, not of the staid Presbyterian cast. "At our church basically everybody played an instrument," says Messersmith, who took trumpet lessons as a boy and trots out the horn for a few Alcatraz Kid tunes. "You're playing hymns, but it's almost Dixieland, with everyone playing at once. We'd have drums, bass, saxophones, two piano players, organ—sometimes the band would outnumber the people."
"At 15 or so I started sneaking listens to the radio. But the radio stations were limited, too, so I listened to a lot of oldies. Probably I learned something about melody from those. I can't really hold conversations very well with people who've been listening to music since they were kids, because there are just huge gaps for me. I always wonder how that shaped my development."
Messersmith moved to Minneapolis to attend North Central University, where he and Vanessa met. Though isolated from Hipster Nation as a kid, he now mixes nicely with local indie-folkies such as Koza and Jeff Hanson, as well as one-man-band eccentrics such as Andrew Broder and Martin Dosh. In performance, he mainly sings and plays acoustic guitar but also screws around with samplers, Casios, and other staples of the looper-songster-possible-crazy-genius subgenre.
During our interview, Messersmith is mild-mannered, intelligent, and self-effacing. You might mistake him for a tech support worker. He is, as it turns out, a tech-support worker. But surely not for long. (Or, perhaps, forever; I cannot predict such things.) He and Vanessa and I walk over to a coffee shop for lunch. They interact the way one hopes couples will interact, which is to say, as if they are in love and seriously comfortable with one another.
Later I listen further to The Alcatraz Kid's closing song. It's a straightforward love song, a wedding song, even, sung in a Paul Simon croon—the kind of thing indie-rockers are often squeamish around. "I'll love your old skin," Messersmith sings, "love your old skin, love your old skin, I'll love your old skin," giving each pass through the line a distinctive lilt or quaver. I, too, am suspicious of sentimentality and will not credit lines such as "Our love was made to last" with great originality. Nor will I deem this song the finest or fourth finest on Messersmith's record. But I admire it: It's both crafty and sincere, and I think it illustrates this guy's talents as well as some of his artier efforts do. You've heard the one about the singer talented enough to turn the Trenton telephone directory into a very long and beautiful aria. Well, here is a songwriter talented enough to take a greeting card and make it smart and correct and pure.
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