Interview: Jeremy Messersmith

JeremyM_1lowres.jpgWhen I went to Austin in March to speak at SXSW, I of course saw literally dozens of performances during the rest of my time there. One of my favorites -- if not the favorite -- was that of Jeremy Messersmith, a Minnesota artist whose set on a chilly night at Central Presbyterian Church managed to both capture that chill and defy it in equal measure.

So what does this have to do with this website? Well, Zooglobble has always been a little idiosyncratic in reflecting my tastes (while it may cover a lot of artists it doesn't cover them all), and I've been listening to Messersmith's new album The Reluctant Graveyard (out tomorrow, May 4) a bunch since I was provided a copy of it a few weeks back. It's a great album, and thirteen big hit songs about death - perfect for a kids music website, right?

Well, beyond the album's appeal to adults, Messersmith has, for 3 years in a row, played Minnesota's 89.3 (The Current) Rock the Cradle event for kids alongside such artists as Adam Levy and Haley Bonar who've recorded for music for kids. So I thought it might be interesting to get a bit of a perspective on playing music for kids from someone who doesn't do it very often. Read on for Messersmith's thoughts on his musical upbringing, philosophical rambling, and the surprising lack of interest in Kermit the Frog and Spongebob Squarepants.

Zooglobble: What were some of your formative musical experiences?
Jeremy Messersmith: Well, I started the recorder at 5, maybe? I think "Baa Baa Black Sheep" was my first song.

I listened to a lot of church music - hymns, praise songs, and the like. The great thing about all that is that it's participatory. My dad would be in the front row, playing trombone; I was 3 or 4 when I was playing a wood block. They took inspiration from that Biblical text -- "Make a joyful noise" -- and thought everybody should join in.

When did you decide to become a songwriter?
Pretty late - not until college. But a friend of mine when I was a kid found me and sent me a copy of a song I "scaffolded" when I was 8 - I put new lyrics to an old melody. "A beast, a beast, rising in the east...". I must've been a jackass when I was a kid.

So how did Rock the Cradle come about?

It's the only time I've played for kids. A friend asked me and I said, you mean, like kids music? But I don't turn down gigs.

The first year, I did my stuff, kept it uptempo, had a couple covers. I did "Best Day Ever" from Spongebob Squarepants. Hoped everyone had seen the movie.

That's a great song!
Yeah, it didn't go over so well. But we had a very participatory version of "Old McDonald". Now parents say the kids think about it all year. It's a big cacophanous crowd. And sometimes they just try to stump me.

Covers are participatory in nature, but they don't always work. I did Kermit the Frog's "It's Not Easy Being Green," which the parents really liked, but the kids were "eh" about. I found out that they've retired the song because the kids didn't get the message, the journey.

It was confusing to me - I played 2 sets and in the first they weren't responding, the second was great. Couldn't figure out why until friends who were parents said, "too close to naptime" on the first one.

Would you want to record an album for kids?
Oh, I'll always leave my options open. I think Adam Levy was a little nervous wondering if recording an album for kids meant his serious career was over.

But, you know, I got my nieces and nephews that Kimya Dawson Alphabutt record, and they play the hell out of that thing - they laughed and laughed.

It's very naive, but in a good way.

JeremyM_3lowres.jpgSo I'm sure with The Reluctant Graveyard, you were aiming for the same crowd, right?

What made you want to tackle death thematically?
I'd been thinking about it for awhile. [Messersmith's previous album] The Silver City had a lot of songs about life of a commuter. Sort of a midlife crisis. So I'd been thinking about death - how do I feel about death, and so on.

I did a Daytrotter session a little while back and my favorite comment was from someone who said he didn't like philosophical rambling in his indie rock. And I thought, "Uh oh, I'm in trouble because that's all I do."

Would you rather play for adults or kids?
Well, kids have no filter, which is wonderful feedback. You're either captivating or boring. It's either the best gig all year or nobody dances, so I guess I'll keep it at that one gig.

Planning on playing Reluctant Graveyard songs? at Rock the Cradle next year?
I don't know... "Violet?". Maybe I'll do some market testing with my friends' kids. A friend told me his kid got in trouble because his kid was singing my lyric "we were easy lovers, hardly friends."

What's next?
I'm going to tour all summer long and I'll be teaching in the fall - I teach composition at a college in St. Paul, which is kinda fun.