It took two years of songwriting, three months of demo-ing, one long weekend in a studio and six more months of home recording and mixing to create Jeremy Messersmith’s new album.
After all that, the Minnesota pop/folk craftsman only had to wait two days for his record label to greenlight the release. The folks in New York heard it and loved it.
“Things are gonna get real busy next year,” Messersmith said with equal parts elation, trepidation and (it turned out) naiveté.
That was on Aug. 30, 2016. “Next year” became the year after that. The record’s spring release became a fall release, then spring again, delayed by two very unforeseeable developments: an impromptu ukulele album made in response to the presidential election, and a legal hang-up involving none other than Neil Diamond.
The Star Tribune was on hand through most of this odyssey. We followed the making of Messersmith’s LP from the earliest demos in fall 2015 to the moment Messersmith first held a copy a few weeks ago.
“I feel like my arm has been in a cast for over a year, and I’m just now getting it off,” he stated flatly.
He’s one musician for whom albums still mean something; almost everything, in fact. His prior records were thoughtfully built on specific themes and sonic palettes. They didn’t come easily.
We knew all this going in. But we were still surprised by the amount of time and precision — and, in one song’s case, a resolute abandonment of planning — that went into making an album like this, with often dark lyrics shrouded by bright arrangements and light humor.
With its official release party coming Friday at First Avenue, it’s finally time to recount the creation of “Late Stage Capitalism.”
Oct. 22, 2015 Messersmith abode, Richfield
He looked like just another guy working from home in the digital age: slippers on his feet, tea mug always on hand, hair a little disheveled, occasional conversations with the cat.
The workspace was new, though. He and his wife, Vanessa Messersmith, bought a ’50s rambler just outside Minneapolis. One of the first renovation projects was converting the basement into a workable (if far from hi-fi) recording studio. Then came the album.
It had been almost two years since his previous album, a pretty typical cycle. He played Letterman, Bonnaroo, Europe and many points between in the interim. But he kept writing songs. Always writing. Always looking ahead to the next one.
With royal blue wallpaper, gold fleur-de-lis stenciling and shelves of books (good acoustic treatments!), the home studio feels a bit like a Victorian mansion’s library. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first basement tapes sounded calm, regal, bookish. Boy, how some of those songs would change over the next few months.
Scrolling through titles on his MacBook, Messersmith listed off the time and place of each tune’s writing.
A grandiose ballad imagining alien impressions of Earth, “Once You Get to Know Us” came from a session in Los Angeles with friend and mentor Dan Wilson. The serene “Don’t Call It Love” was scratched at the last minute from his previous album, “Heart Murmurs.” Others came from a writing retreat to a famous author friend’s woodsy Wisconsin estate (he didn’t want to name-drop who).
“I have about 12 [songs] in the mix now, and I’ll probably have a handful more by the time we start recording,” Messersmith said.
The recordings — mostly done on his Mac via the ubiquitous GarageBand program — were all him; just acoustic guitar, voice, a little piano. A few were even recorded on his phone.
“I like to keep them raw and basic, because that leaves plenty of room for the other guys to work their magic,” he said, talking about the bandmates he would heavily lean on over the next few months (and then rarely see for most of 2017).
His band was one of the few constants in Messersmith’s career at that point. He split with his longtime manager after “Heart Murmurs.” Also, the New York label behind that record, Glassnote, only signed him to a one-album deal and was not obligated to release the next one.
“I’m really not sure if they’ll want it, and I’m kind of expecting they won’t,” he said. “I’ll probably figure out a way to release it myself, if not.”
One thing he did seem remarkably sure of: what style of record he wanted to make.
“Like a soft, pretty, harmonious, ’60s folk-rock record,” he said, dropping names of acts he hoped to emulate, including Simon & Garfunkel, Chad & Jeremy, Nick Drake and Nico.
In the end, the record mostly sounded nothing like that.
‘I hear a dulcimer’
Dec. 3, 2015 Messersmith’s house
The magicians arrived.
Messersmith called in his two most trusted collaborators, producer/utility player Andy Thompson and guitarist Brian Tighe, to help flesh out the songs. They met once a week for three months to comb through the demos.
Acoustic guitars in hand, the trio frequently suggested other instruments to layer in or worked on vocal harmonies, writing down notes for the “real” recording studio sessions.
Two words in “Don’t Call It Love” prompted a suggestion from Tighe: “That seems like a nice part to exploit.” The three musicians then spent five minutes singing the words “went away” in unison, using varying pitches and inflections.
Thompson later noted that the song clocks in at just three minutes. “Do you think it needs another verse?” he asked.
Messersmith shrugged: “Nah, that’s enough.”
Feb. 14, 2016 Flowers Studio, Minneapolis
The reason bands still pay for fancy recording studios isn’t to make perfect-sounding albums. Imperfection is sometimes just as important.
The boom from the drums in the high-ceilinged rooms. The buzz from amps that can be cranked in soundproof spaces. The unpredictable moments spawned from musicians being in a room together. All things you can’t get when working in a basement.
Messersmith pushed that idea on his third and final day working at Flowers, the Uptown recording studio owned by veteran Polara/BNLX rocker and producer Ed Ackerson.
Flowers is a midrange studio price-wise, but Messersmith still wanted to limit his time there. At that point, all of the album’s funding was up to him, and so was paying studio engineer Peter Anderson. Hence all the prep work beforehand, including a long weekend of rehearsals with his full band.
It paid off. The band nailed three or four of the songs relatively quickly in the first two 12-hour days. They spent a few hours experimenting with arrangements on a couple of other tracks, playing off the studio’s special sonic backdrop. Ample time was left for Messersmith to rework many of his vocal takes in a separate sound booth, including the track that would be the album’s first single, “Purple Hearts,” a sweeping orchestral-pop gem.
Still, at least one song was intentionally kept unprepared: a charmer of a Midwest anthem-in-waiting called “Fast Times in Minnesota,” in which a woman named Phyllis tries to stay between the ditches of life.
Messersmith wanted his band to sound similarly precarious. He asked his band members to play musical chairs, and cellist/pianist Dan Lawonn somehow was relegated to drums for the one and only time in his music career.
“I really don’t know what I’m doing,” Lawonn confided.
“Perfect,” Messersmith deadpanned. And after three or four takes, he deemed the song perfect, too.
Harmony and overdubs
April 2016 Andy Thompson’s house, southwest Minneapolis
Musical millennials John Mark Nelson and Kara Laudon had been off the road only two days — touring behind Nelson’s own album — when they were back singing together.
Messersmith asked the Twin Cities upstarts to add harmony parts to “Fireflower,” one of the album’s few tunes that actually wound up sounding like a ’60s folk-rock track. With his own gigs to play, though, he entrusted Thompson with this and most of the overdub work that spring — extra bits of recording laid over the tracks from Flowers Studio, like sprinkles on a cake. Thompson’s own basement studio is better equipped than Messersmith’s and has hosted similar sessions for Dessa and Dan Wilson.
Prior to Nelson’s and Laudon’s visit, the classically trained Thompson had Messersmith’s frequent collaborators the Laurels String Quartet lay orchestral parts atop about half of the record’s tracks. He also went out and recorded veteran sidemen Joe Savage and Peter Sands to add pedal-steel and organ parts, respectively.
Less experienced, Nelson and Laudon nonetheless finished their parts within a couple hours.
“Do you want me to sing it more like Jeremy?” Nelson asked at one point, his soft voice akin to Messersmith’s.
“Yes,” Thompson replied. “But not too much.”
Spring 2016 via the internet
The album’s only overdubbing not overseen by Thompson came from guest contributors who live 1,300 and 4,200 miles away.
Messersmith became enamored of a mariachi group from San Antonio called the Mariachi Entertainment System, whose reworkings of classic video game themes appealed to his nerdy side. Reaching out via e-mail, he asked the group to stir up his sunny, poppy tune “All the Cool Girls,” which he sent to them via Dropbox. They sent back their part about a week later.
“It was pretty much exactly what I wanted,” beamed Messersmith, who has yet to meet the dudes face-to-face.
The same is true of Charlotte Savary, a singer/songwriter in Paris who responded to Messersmith via Twitter when he put out a call for a vocal part to add to his lilting, bossa-nova-style ditty “Postmodern Girl.” Savary responded to his vague instructions — “something cool-sounding in another language” — with a whispery, feminist, talking-blues manifesto that blew him away.
“It’s really a sign of the times,” he later noted. “You don’t want to do too much recording over the internet like this. But how else am I going to get a Texas mariachi group to play on my record?”
Spring and summer 2016 via Google Docs
They live only a couple of miles apart, but Messersmith and Thompson did the bulk of the album’s mixing via the internet.
Thompson would tweak a song’s sonic DNA using Pro Tools in his home studio — turn up a guitar part, add another layer of vocals, remove a tambourine, etc. — and share it via private link with the singer, who would then leave critiques.
The light, harpsichord-tinged “Monday, You’re Not So Bad” had changed radically even before Messersmith left notes like, “Take out the piano lick at 1:28” and “Split the difference on the washy bridge.”
Untold minutes’ worth of musical contributions were cut during this phase, even entire songs. Thompson can be picky, and Messersmith often just favors simplicity.
Said guitarist Tighe, “I learned a long time ago not to get too attached to anything I do in this band.”
Surprise! Bonus tracks
June 2016 Thompson’s home studio
While Thompson was hard at work finishing songs, Messersmith showed up with two new tunes he wanted in the mix.
The songs were worlds apart sonically, but each fit the album title that had been floating around since winter, about the hedonistic, unapologetic ruin of capitalism. One was a quiet ballad, “No Superheroes in Cleveland,” based on the decline of the Rust Belt. The other was a rowdy barnburner called “Jim Bakker,” which touches on Messersmith’s long-sidelined conservative Christian upbringing and the idea that even religion can be a greedy business.
“Jim and I went to the same Bible college,” he noted, citing North Central University, the reason he first landed in Minneapolis from Washington state in 1999.
Messersmith reassembled his band in Thompson’s studio to record “Bakker.” Acknowledging how far the song’s fiery tone is from the serene folk sound he originally envisioned for the album, Messersmith said, “I guess it’s in keeping with the times; everything is more in-your-face.”
Turning it in, tuning out
Aug. 24, 2016 Messersmith house
After another month and a half of mixing, the record was officially finished. It had to be. Messersmith was headed to New York to play the album for folks at Glassnote Records and formally ask them to put it out.
“Glassnote was heavily involved in the mixing and trading notes with the last record, and it wound up being not entirely to my liking,” he said, sounding about as congenial as any artist ever has about standing up to label demands. “I’m hoping that just won’t happen this time.”
With the record out of his hands, Messersmith was trying to be handy at home. “A lot of cleaning and assorted house stuff,” he said.
In addition to making up for his absences on the home front, the musician clearly needed something else to occupy his mind. While he’s often joyously self-deprecating, Messersmith rarely sounds so unsure of himself as he did this day.
“A couple people have listened to it and said good things,” he said, “but mostly it’s just this black hole of needing more affirmation than anybody could ever give me.”
Getting the label on board
Aug. 30, 2016 Messersmith e-mail to bandmates
Two days after he returned from New York, Messersmith got the word from Glassnote: “Looks like they do, in fact, want the record,” he relayed.
He would have to sign a new record deal, though. At the time, he still did not have a manager, but he did already know and trust the record label. And he had his Boston-based attorney John Strohm in his corner, a former member of alterna-darlings the Lemonheads and Blake Babies.
“I was able to keep a lot of it out-of-sight, out-of-mind thanks to John,” Messersmith said.
He figured his out-of-pocket cost in making the album was around $23,000. Glassnote would pay for more than half of that, he gladly noted.
Winter 2016-2017 Seattle and Minneapolis
“I don’t really know what he does, but everything sounds better.”
Messersmith said that after sending the album off to Ed Brooks in Seattle, whose Resonant Mastering also did the final sonic tweaks for records by Fleet Foxes and Death Cab for Cutie. This is where the audio stuff gets really nerdy. In today’s era, though, mastering simply has a lot to do with getting the right sound-level variations for digital streaming vs. physical product.
The album cover and other artwork was done locally by music photographer Graham Tolbert and graphic-design artist Phil Jones.
He picked Jones through connections in the advertising and branding world, praising him as a “marketing predator.” The brightly colored cover shot shows the singer staring down the sunset of modern capitalism wearing goggles straight out of a “Star Wars” Tatooine scene.
February 2017 Glassnote offices, New York
The folks in New York may have been wondering what kind of drugs the musicians are doing during the cold months out there in Minnesota.
Out of left field — actually, it was Lanesboro, Minn., where Messersmith went on a writing retreat after the presidential election — he wrote a bunch of unflinchingly happy songs on ukulele that were the musical equivalent of rainbow cotton candy and psychological denial. Titles included “Everybody Gets a Kitten,” “Everything Is Magical” and “We Can Make Our Dreams Come True.”
A month and a half later, Messersmith spent exactly one day recording the songs as “11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs for Ukulele,” a “micro-folk album” he planned to give away online. He also intended to travel the country for a month playing free shows in parks and other public spaces.
Messersmith traveled to the Glassnote offices in New York to explain all this, making his case with a full-blown digital presentation.
“We actually loved the idea,” Ryan Payne, marketing director at Glassnote, claimed afterward. “One of the best ways for an artist to stand out is to have a conversation started around them. And this certainly was a good conversation-starter.”
However, Payne later acknowledged that the ukulele album was one reason why “Late Stage Capitalism” would be delayed.
“The two records were part of the same story,” Payne offered, eyeing how his team could market Messersmith. “It was just going to take a little longer to tell that story.”
‘Held up by Neil’s people’
July 19, 2017 Messersmith e-mail to bandmates
It’s not quite clear who noted the similarities first, but Messersmith agreed it could be a problem.
“I definitely don’t want to get sued by Neil Diamond,” he said, “although I did point out we would probably get a lot more attention that way.”
The problem was this: “Purple Hearts,” a buoyantly poppy track about two miscreants trying to find love, wound up sounding like Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” You know, one of the world’s best-known songs.
Its likeness was unintentional, but the music industry has been in a panic since Marvin Gaye’s family was awarded $7.4 million for copyright infringement from the 2013 Robin Thicke hit “Blurred Lines.”
“It really is a blurry line now,” said Glassnote’s head of music publishing, David Jacob. The label wanted Diamond’s people to sign off on Messersmith’s song ahead of its release.
Holding out hope for a fall release date, Messersmith tried explaining all this to his band members:
“They tentatively agreed they are up for some kind of license, but haven’t sent over any terms. Glassnote isn’t going to move on printing records till they get it.”
For the sake of song rights
October 2017 Glassnote offices
Diamond’s agreement came three months later. Forget a fall release.
“These things sometimes just take time,” said Jacob, who would not reveal specifics of the deal except to call it a “courtesy credit” for Diamond. The good news, he added: “They got what they wanted, and we got what we wanted.”
What Glassnote wanted was for Messersmith to retain full rights to the song. That way it could be pitched for TV, movie or advertising use without any extra licensing issues.
With record sales in free-fall and streaming services paying artists notoriously scant royalties, such usage has become one of the main ways musicians like Messersmith and companies like Glassnote make money. His song “Ghost” off his prior record, for instance, was used in the trailer for the Viggo Mortensen flick “Captain Fantastic.”
“We can shop [‘Purple Hearts’] around for a car commercial or movie trailer all we want now,” Jacob said.
The Glassnote team spent the next few months doing just that. At press time, nothing was confirmed, but Jacob said, “There’s definitely interest.”
‘Today, Jeremy Messersmith announces ... ’
Feb. 14, 2018 news release from Glassnote Records
It’s on. Glassnote announced the album to the world and posted audio links to “Purple Hearts,” which came as a download with album preorders.
Showing its affection for the artist’s sense of humor, Glassnote offered this nugget in its press release: “After a promising trumpeting career was tragically cut short due to braces, Jeremy turned to the guitar as his instrument of choice and eventually relocated to Minneapolis to study music.”
Finally, the vinyl
March 5 Messersmith house
After 2½ years of work and patience, Messersmith had less than a week to enjoy the new record all to himself.
The boxes of vinyl arrived by mail just six days before the release date. And some had to be shipped back out a couple of days later to a “pre-order fulfillment company” in Canada.
In the four years since “Heart Murmurs,” preorder options became an integral part of hyping a record — different pricing levels with extras such as T-shirts and handwritten lyrics, offered via his website.
“This is all new for me,” he said as he lined up 40 records to sign with a Sharpie for the capitalism-themed $70 “Franchisee Bundle.” Alas, nobody took him up on the $1 million “One-Percenter Bundle.”
Amazingly, Messersmith had yet to hold a vinyl copy of his record until these boxes arrived, along with a few bundles of CDs.
He was home alone, and wasted no time putting a copy on the turntable in his front living room, a room that was all torn up when we first saw it in October 2015 but was now stylishly remodeled.
“It’s never as bad as you think it could be,” he grimly said of the first listen. He gave it one full spin, and that was it.
More enthusiastically, he noted, he and the band would revisit the songs the following week in rehearsals for Friday’s First Ave release show.
“Playing the songs with the band again will probably rekindle my love for them,” he said.
Long an integral part of promoting a record, live shows have become central to the modern musician’s career; if anything, records now serve to promote the shows, where artists can make more money in the era of digital streaming.
Messersmith and his crew won’t hit the road to promote “Late Stage Capitalism” till the fall, though. In between, they have a big May 12 gig with the Minnesota Orchestra to prepare for. He will also head out on his own, playing more of his so-called supper-club solo shows in private homes and venues, which he likes for the easier logistics and for what he called “incubator value.”
“Those shows can be a good way of trying out new songs,” he nonchalantly explained.
And so it begins again.