MADISON, WIS. – On the last day of the first leg of what will be his most demanding year of touring yet, Jeremy Messersmith had to use The Force to get through it.
He and his band started the morning on an urban duck farm in Detroit (found on AirBNB.com, his new “secret weapon”), stopped in Chicago for a midday gig at one of the nation’s top ad agencies (Leo Burnett), and 430 miles and nine hours later made it in time for sound check at the top club in Madison (High Noon Saloon).
To ease the numbness in the van along the way, the Minneapolis pop craftsman introduced his new keyboardist, Sarah Elhardt Perbix of Cloud Cult, to probably the greatest thing he’s ever known in his 32 years on Earth.
“She made it through ‘New Hope’ and halfway through ‘Empire,’ ” he reported as he put his guitar case down inside the empty club. Holding his hands up in projected shock and awe — Perbix had never seen any of the “Star Wars” movies! — he added in a defeated, near-whimpering tone, “She actually fell asleep during ‘Empire.’ I just … ”
Perbix might’ve been kicked out of the band for that, but Messersmith needs a reliable group more than ever. He just released the biggest album of his career — big in both the professional and musical sense.
Loaded with elegant but often burningly electric love songs, “Heart Murmurs” is the most pristine guitar-driven pop album out of Minnesota since Semisonic’s heyday.
It’s also the perfect record to test how big a deal the soft-voiced, tenderly edgy singer/songwriter might be outside Minnesota. The album is Messersmith’s first under a new deal with Glassnote Records, the New York label behind Mumford & Sons and fellow indie-popsters Phoenix and Chvrches.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Messersmith said of the deal, citing Phoenix as “an act that had been doing its thing for a while, and [Glassnote] brought them to another level without really any heavy-handed tactics.”
If the Twin Cities were Messersmith’s test market, then Glassnote should also be optimistic. Back home, he joins the elite cast of local acts to play multi-night stands at First Avenue with shows Friday and Saturday (limited tickets remained at press time for Friday night only). Not one but two singles from the new record have been in steady rotation at 89.3 the Current for months: the boomingly hooky “Tourniquet” and the moodier, more idiosyncratic but similarly catchy “Ghost.” The Current’s program director, Jim McGuinn, even had a hand in bringing Messersmith to Glassnote’s attention.
Being a big deal in the Twin Cities doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot on the road, though.
On one hand, he sold out the Mercury Lounge in New York and did valuable radio gigs and other promotional to-dos in nearly every town on the three-week trek, which also included Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal. On the other hand, they played to less-than-half-full venues on weeknights in Detroit and Madison.
In Columbus, Ohio, they wound up in a metal bar with a railing on the stage designed for making Axl Rose-style “power stances” over the crowd. Messersmith tried it out during “Hitman,” the most climactic track on his new record.
“He screwed it up and looked pretty damn awkward,” guitarist Peter Sieve said, shaking his head.
Messersmith is faring much better at standing up to the pressure of a career-making kind of year. “He’s as cool as a cucumber about this,” said Sieve, who’s also a member of Rogue Valley.
The singer’s longtime drummer and co-producer/arranger, Andy Thompson, said, “Jeremy is very good at keeping low expectations, and being happy with them.” As for his own expectations, Thompson noted, “The record had only been out a week, and we were already seeing people singing along to almost every song. I think that’s as good a sign as anyone could ask for.”
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At Perbix’s expense, the “Star Wars” themes repeatedly popped up on guitar during sound check at the High Noon. The best joke, however, came when Thompson asked to tweak one part in the new album’s rousing opener, “It’s Only Dancing,” to add a little more oomph.
“Are you asking permission to rock out tonight?” Messersmith asked. “I don’t know. We’re going to have to go to committee on that.”
The self-described wuss-rocker made a conscious decision to amp things up on “Heart Murmurs.” (The bulk of the record was finished before he signed with Glassnote.) He said, “When we played First Ave after the last record, I realized I only had four songs that actually rocked.”
That album, “The Reluctant Graveyard” (his third), was all about death, and yet many of the songs proved to be surprisingly upbeat and sweet. “Heart Murmurs” is less so.
“I tried writing a bunch of happy love songs this time,” Messersmith told the High Noon crowd a few songs into the set. “About half of them are that, and the others are the heartbreaking kind. Sorry, it’s the best I could do.”
Talking backstage between sound check and set time, he explained how the love-song idea was a reaction to the death-song idea.
“A lot of people liked that record, but even some of them were like, ‘What’s with this death theme?’ ” he said. “So yeah: I wanted to do something intentionally more accessible. Everybody likes a good love song.”
He cites the 1999 three-album opus “69 Love Songs” by New York’s Magnetic Fields as his primary influence — “how it can go from playful and incredibly goofy to heartfelt and serious in just a few songs,” he said. Still, he added, “I realized there’ve been so many love songs written, the only real way I could bring something new to the equation was to keep it personal.”
And that’s the real surprise of “Heart Murmurs”: Nearly all of the songs are pulled from real life, in one way or another. It’s a bit of a shock given the darker and really kind of twisted tone of such songs as “Bridges” (sample lyric: “I’m gonna hurt you, make you cry / Only thing I need is time / I’m gonna hurt you, bleed you dry”).
There’s even a personal story behind the swooning, goosebump-inducing piano ballad about falling in love with a guy named “Steve” (see sidebar). The song’s gay subtext isn’t autobiographical, but it’s not unintentional either, coming from someone whom R.T. Rybak asked to lead the music for the first round of same-sex marriages at Minneapolis City Hall.
Asked to explain if and how the new songs relate to his own marriage — wife Vanessa recently shut her Blacklist Vintage store in south Minneapolis and plans to travel with her hubby on a promotional solo trek to London next week — Messersmith uncharacteristically clammed up.
“I really don’t know how to address that yet,” he said. “Vanessa and I have talked about it, and at some point you think, ‘I don’t want to put everything out there.’ ”
He offered up plenty about himself, though. “I’m not incredibly skillful when it comes to emotions,” he said. “I’m an introvert by trait and profession. Songs are a way for me to process and understand things.”
Part of the processing in this case reached way back to his conservative Christian upbringing. He originally moved to Minneapolis from his native Washington state to attend a Bible college, North Central University. While he’s hardly the long-lost, bespectacled, bow-tie-wearing member of Mötley Crüe — his semifamous drunk tweets during the Grammy Awards are about as wild as he gets — Messersmith did forsake his Christian past before turning to songwriting for a career in the mid-’00s.
“It played out a lot more on this album than I’d probably like to admit,” he said, noting that the theme of love songs “takes on different meanings when you start talking about it in Christian terms, and what does and doesn’t constitute love.”
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For the last night of a tour, the lack of debauchery was comical. I caught bassist Ian Allison sneaking into the bathroom pre-show — to floss his teeth. After the performance, he and Sieve snuck out an item from a secret stash in one of their guitar cases.
“They’re cake pops,” Allison excitedly explained, pulling out a lollipop made of red velvet cake with hardened white icing. They were the handiwork of cellist Dan Lawonn’s wife, a pastry chef (a profession Messersmith himself has dabbled in).
While his band, um, partied, Messersmith made a convincing extrovert, posing for pictures and signing CDs and posters. It wasn’t a large audience, but it seemed like more than half of them hung around.
Once free, he talked a bit about his plans for the First Ave shows but didn’t want to look too far beyond that. “Whatever happens this year, I plan to be making music the rest of my life, hopefully in one sustainable way or another,” he said.
There are those low expectations. He was at least highly confident in one regard: Perbix “doesn’t know what she’s in for.”
Oh, to be young and unaware who Luke Skywalker’s father is.