@16: On the cusp of stardom, local favorite Jeremy Messersmith keeps it minimal

On his new album, “Heart Murmurs,” Twin Cities musician Jeremy Messersmith tackles the topic of love, which he admits, “I’ve sort of been baffled by for awhile. Like, wait a second, what is that exactly? I’m still really confused by it.”
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I was having a conversation with (Glassnote founder) Daniel (Glass) … and he was like, ‘Look, we may fight about things, but I want you to know that you’re the artist and you’ll win every single fight.’ And I was like, ‘I’m sold!’

Editor’s note: This marks the fifth installment of ThreeSixty’s “@16” series, where our teen writers interview Minnesota newsmakers and difference makers about life as a 16-year-old high school student.

Whether he’s playing the main stage at First Avenue, opening for Neko Case or signing a deal with Glassnote Records, Jeremy Messersmith has made his mark as one of the most accomplished singer/songwriters in the Twin Cities.

But he hasn’t let success go to his head.

After all, Messersmith remembers what it was like to play shows in cafés for only ten people. Sometimes just a bartender.

Not that playing sold out shows feels any different to him now. Messersmith is still doing the same thing he’s always done, just for more people and with more media attention.

“It`s not like I now have a collection of ivory backscratchers,” Messersmith joked.

Often infusing elements of Elliott Smith, The Beach Boys and The Beatles into his music, Messersmith tells stories through his songs—each album dedicated to a phase of his life or challenge he’s facing. Recently, he released his new single “Tourniquet,” an upbeat, lullabye-like pop song that uses the tourniquet (“When there’s nothing left to do, I will hold you close and wrap my arms around you”) as a metaphor for love.

For Messersmith, the trick to finding success in music was “just to be wonderfully obsessed with whatever it is you love doing. I had to suck for a long time. And you just have to do that. You just have to be OK with sucking.”

Since releasing his last album—“The Reluctant Graveyard,” which NPR named one of its top ten albums of 2010—Messersmith has taken his already successful career to the next level. He organized a set of popular “supper club” tours at audience member homes, signed to New York-based Glassnote Records (home of Mumford & Sons) in March, and put the finishing touches on his new album, “Heart Murmurs,” which will be released with a headlining First Avenue show on Feb. 22.

Before touring with BOY this fall, Messersmith spoke to ThreeSixty reporter Simone Cazares about growing up as a teenager in Washington, immersing himself in the Twin Cities music scene, and how he’s assessing himself not just as a musician, but as a person.

What was it like growing up in Washington as a teenager?

Well, I grew up in rural Washington, kind of by Yakima in this place called the Tri-Cities. I grew up in this little town called West Richland. It’s a desert for one, so there aren’t really any trees that you would associate with Washington. The two main industries are basically agriculture, a lot of farms, and Hanford Reservation, where basically the U.S. was in a hurry to build the atomic bombs for the Manhattan Project. They found all this plutonium in the (Hanford) desert, but they didn’t really know what they were doing, so it ended up being this huge environmental disaster. It’s also where they ended up storing nuclear fuel rods and things from our Naval fleet. It’s been a little bit of a mess, so virtually everyone working there was either a farmer or a scientist doing cleanup stuff.

What do you do for fun in a place like that?

Well, I think generally what you would do in any small town. I went to see a lot of movies, well the ones that would come there. So no art house stuff. I don’t know, I feel like I was a little bit different in that I was a geek growing up. I wasn’t really into sports so much. I played baseball until I was about 15 and then realized I was like, terrible at it. So for me, I was kind of playing a lot of video games, bowling, mini golf, stuff like that. I was really involved with church too, so I spent a lot of time there.

You were also homeschooled. Did that affect you in any way?

(With a smirk). I think it affected me. I mean, I think a lot about how homeschooling has affected me. I was homeschooled from when I was in Kindergarten until I was 15 … when I went to do post-secondary at a community college. I guess one of the benefits (of homeschooling) would be that it kind of turns you into a self-starter. You do all your own work. Well, I mean, I had my parents pushing me to do things, but it teaches you to figure out your own systems on how to reward yourself, because your time ends up being unstructured. The down side is that you miss out on hanging out with people your own age, and at least for me, there was the lack of other viewpoints in a huge school setting. My parents were Christian fundamentalists. I was raised strictly in that worldview. It wasn’t until I got to college that I was exposed to a lot of other ways of thinking.

Do you wish you would’ve gone to a regular school?

Well, (my parents) did take me to band and music classes—because band was something that they enjoyed when they went to public school. So, for an hour a day, I would go hang out with kids and play trumpet. But do I wish I (hadn’t been homeschooled)? Well, a lot of the time I do. It’s sort of like asking, ‘Do you wish you hadn’t gotten spanked as a child?’ No, I wish I hadn’t gotten spanked as a child. But at some level, I think it’s made me who I am, so I can’t really discard it. But would I homeschool my kids? If I had kids? Probably not.

You mentioned participating in band at a junior high school. Had you always been involved with music?

The church I grew up in, the denomination was called the Assemblies of God. They were known for a kind of rambunctious music. It was very participatory, so I remember when I was six or seven, my dad would sit in the front row, pull out his trombone and play along with hymns and stuff. I remember being given like a block, a shaker and a tambourine as a small child, and it was kind of very participatory in that way, which was one of the best things about it. I mean, obviously I played in church every single Sunday. And usually Wednesday nights … but it was a very small church, so half the time there were more people in the band than in the pews. Which is very funny to me.

After high school, you left Washington and moved to the Twin Cities. What was that like?

Well, it was awesome, because this was, like, a big city! It had skyscrapers and everything, which was kind of amazing. The funny thing is, that even now when I go to New York, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is a big city!’ I remember after living in a desert, it being really cold my first few semesters. But it really took a few years for it to turn into a home for me. Maybe two or three years. Basically once I finished college I started playing shows around town, and I felt like, yeah, I was kind of wrapping my head around it.

When did you start establishing yourself in the Twin Cities scene?

Let’s see, I graduated college in … 2002. Then I put out my first record in about 2006. Kind of immediately after I got out of college, I started playing with some bands. I played lead guitar for … kind of like a hard rock band. Then I was trying to do my own band thing for a while, but then one day, my minivan got stolen. And I was like, ‘Well, I can’t haul anybody’s stuff anymore,’ so I just decided to be a solo artist. I started playing acoustic guitar more instead of trying to do electric guitar. It really rooted me in writing songs, because I wasn’t relying on super guitar effect pedals to do things. Instead, it was like, ‘Oh, if you’re playing acoustic guitar and singing, then you really have to work on your singing …”

So I started playing shows, and the one place that would take me was called the Acadia Cafe, which used to be on Franklin and Nicollet … and it was really the only place in town where you could book a night without having to send in a demo. You could just say, ‘I’m a musician. Can I get a night here?’ And they would just be like, ‘OK.’ As long as you brought in some people, like five or six friends, it was generally OK.

I started playing at the Acadia about once a month, and really, grabbing any other kind of gigs I could get. So I played at coffee shops, open mics, I would just play for, like, anyone. I wasn’t picky. The whole time, I was just learning how to write songs. I mean, for the most part, nobody was really at any of my shows. I’d be lucky to play for, like, ten or 15 people. And that would be an amazing night. So, at the time, I was working at Dunn Brothers and playing some shows. And then I started doing bedroom recordings. And then eventually, I finally got a bunch of demos to make my first record.

That was the first thing that got me any kind of press. I got a write up in City Pages. I went from having like five people at shows to it being packed! And ever since then, there have been people at my shows, which is kind of nice.

How do you assess where you’re at now?

I feel like I’m constantly assessing myself, although it’s mainly not on my career. Because that`s just what I do. It’s more about, ‘How can I be a better person? What can I do in the grand scheme of things to help mankind?’ I spend a lot more time thinking about that, and thinking that the world is a really complex place. If I can do right by it and leave it better off than when I showed up on the planet, well, that can be a little challenging. So I’m always thinking about how I can get the most bang for my buck.

How about musically?

Well, I’ve put out three full-length records, including an EP. I have a record coming out this February. Everything feels pretty much the same. Every couple of years, I gather up 11 songs and put together a record. I mean, I kinda keep roping in a few more people, but really it still feels the same. I try to do something that’s interesting, new or different to me. To me, I think as an artist, the easy thing to do is just do what you’ve always done. Being yourself, you are always going to do the same thing you’ve always done. I like to at least try to do something I’ve never done, and then hopefully it’ll grow and I’ll incorporate it into my artistic process.

Is (recent EP) “Paper Moon” a preview of what’s to come with the new album?

Well, yes and no. As far as the process goes, well yeah, because it’s kind of how I would like to make a record. Every time I make a record, it’s kind of a reaction to the last one. But “Paper Moon” is actually the most recent one I’ve recorded, because the new one that’s coming out in February, the bulk of it was recorded before “Paper Moon,” and then we did a bunch of touchups and added a few songs afterwards. So I think the new record, coming out, probably sounds more like “The Reluctant Graveyard,” but there were a few things we stole from “Paper Moon” production wise.

You recently signed to Glassnote Records. How have you been able to deal with the pressures of that and stay true to what you want to do instead of what everyone else says you should do?

Well, I was very, very picky with what label I signed with. I’ve been approached by a few labels over the years who were interested, a couple of big ones, a few majors. And I just always said no. It would have been an artistic compromise. Giving up too much control. But Glassnote, they’re really artist-centric, and they’re actually a small label. They’re kind of getting bigger now, with Mumford (& Sons) exploding, but they’re still very artist-centric. They like to sign bands and artists who are maybe a little bit different than the mainstream. Big respecters of the process.

I was having a conversation with (Glassnote founder) Daniel (Glass) … and he was like, ‘Look, we may fight about things, but I want you to know that you’re the artist and you’ll win every single fight.’ And I was like, ‘I’m sold!’

I imagine it feels good to be in a place where you’re free to explore what you want with your music.

I must say, it doesn’t really feel any different to me … I haven’t really changed. Although it seems like it’s changed people on the outside, their perception. Like, ‘Oh Glassnote! That’s a really big deal.’ I’m like, ‘I guess so.’ It seems very normal to me. I just don’t get excited about that kind of thing.

Do you dwell on particular themes when you write and record?

Well, I usually end up tackling a heavy theme when I do a record. Usually because it’s something I’m trying to tackle in my personal life. ‘The Alcatraz Kid’ is kind of like an adolescent-growing up record. ‘The Silver City’ is well, I had gotten a job doing tech support and I had an office. A little like a middle-aged thing, kind of imagining myself going down a career path. And then ‘The Reluctant Graveyard’ was kind of a leftover from an existential crisis. What happens to people when they die? And what do I think about the universe? The new record is all songs about love. I’ve been sort of baffled for awhile, like, wait a second, what is that exactly? I’m still really confused by it.

You have a computer science degree. How did you get from there to a music career?

Well, my parents were kind of like, ‘Look, can you at least try and do something real before you go out and do these artistic things?’ The funny thing is that most of the musicians I know and work with, especially some of the sound engineers, are also super computer geeks. And they are very comfortable working with data systems or operating systems. I don’t know, it seems like there is definitely a math/computer geek crossover into music. I learned a lot. I remember the first couple of computer programing classes I took where the goal was to be able to program computers using as little code as possible. So basically, you want to be super, super lazy. And I was like, ‘This is amazing! This is my calling. I can totally do this!’

But that kind of minimalism, not using more code than you need to, is something that I very much apply to my songs, as well. And I think I’m somewhat known as a songwriter, which implies, like lyrics, you know. But I’m actually very minimal on lyrics. I try to cut out words that I don’t need. I think it’s the only form of writing I’m actually good at. Because I’ve done some reviews and articles, that sort of thing, but I’ve never been really happy with the way they came out. For me, it’s just too many words.

Do you have any influences in terms of lyricists who spoke to you in that minimalist style?

Elliott Smith is a good one as far as packing a lot of emotion. I think he was a great lyricist, but … his chord progressions are incredible. I think that carries a lot of weight. That was a big one.

John Lennon would be another one, as well. His rule kind of was, ‘If you’re writing rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, then you just try to say whatever you gotta say as simply as possible.’ And that’s it. Like, you don’t try to fancy it up or dress it up. You just try to say what you’re saying very, very simply. That can be a hard thing to do. Finding just the right word is such an agonizing experience sometimes.

— This is an edited transcript of ThreeSixty’s interview

THE MESSERSMITH FILE

  • Profession: Musician, signed to Glassnote Records
  • Age: 34
  • High school: Homeschooled
  • College: North Central University, Minneapolis
  • Best advice for teenagers: “Be wonderfully obsessed with whatever it is you love doing. Just do it. I mean, the only way you’ll actually get better is if you spend lots of time just doing it … That’s going to apply to any field you go into. The more you do it, the better you get at it. You have to come out of your shell a little bit and discover what you’re really good at.”
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