The songwriting begins in earnest

by Chris Roberts, Nikki Tundel, Sanden Totten

"I've never done any work with stone," says Jeremy Messersmith. "But I imagine songwriting is sort of like that. You just keep chipping away at it until you reveal something." (MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer)
  1. Listen The songwriting begins in earnest

    Jul 23, 2008

[[header:JEREMY MESSERSMITH]]

For musician Jeremy Messersmith, the first step in the creative process is methodical, almost scientific.

"When I do something, I feel like I need to just research it exhaustively, so that way I have kind of a broad pool of knowledge to draw from," he said.

Messersmith scoured countless Wizard of Oz Web sites. He read the children's book, and he watched a bunch of movie adaptations. Then he let all that info just slosh around in his brain for about a week.

The Twin Cities musician says he approaches each new song exactly the same way, with the belief that his subconscious mind will process everything and eventually spit out a perfectly crafted piece of pop music.

The inevitable next step, says Jeremy, is admitting his subconscious is going to need some help, a kick start at the very least. That's when he heads over to the piano, to put in a little conscious effort.

"I just start playing around with chords generally, and trying to figure out what maybe sounds like an interesting progression. And sort of absent-mindedly, you kind come up with something," he said.

Whether he's plopped in front of the piano or cradling a guitar, Messersmith has one goal in mind -- to forget he knows how to play. He wants his fingers to move freely, to try new things, to not be tied to commonplace chord progressions.

For Jeremy, crafting a melody is intuitive. Writing lyrics, that's more academic, as evidenced by the way he documents his brainstorming in a spiral-ring, college-ruled notebook.

"Rainbow. Curtain. Poppies. And then I just have 'simile.' So apparently I wanted to say something sort of poetic, you know, using 'like' or 'as', apparently," Messersmith said with a laugh. "I have this technique where I'll write something sloppily and then I'll try to copy it neatly on the next page. And then hopefully me writing it neatly, you know, will maybe inspire some more thought. and I'll just keep writing and it will be something new."

That method's kind of hit or miss.

"Until I really find some way to kind of emotionally anchor myself in what's going on, it's kind of hard to write," he said.

So that's where we leave Jeremy Messersmith today. He's got a solid melody. Now he just needs to figure out what he wants his song to say.

[[header:P.O.S.]]

Beats and lyrics are the two engines that power P.O.S.'s creativity. Usually the beats come first, because he and the other DJs and emcees in the Minneapolis hip hop collective Doomtree are constantly churning them out.

But with Songs from Scratch, those four lines penned by Adam Levy became the catalyst. To P.O.S., the lyrics spoke of travel, of being on a quest for something, which on a basic level describes "The Wizard of Oz."

"The ultimate moral of it is that you don't really need to be finding it," he said. "It's already there. You know, it's not about the destination, it's about the journey."

The journey toward any fully produced P.O.S. rap tune begins in his south Minneapolis home studio. And the machine that performs most of P.O.S.'s audio alchemy is his trusted MPC.

It's a computer that can capture any audio he samples or generates, and turn it into building blocks for songs. An MPC is standard equipment in hip hop, and rappers use them to piece together tunes the way more traditional songwriters work out chord progressions on pianos or guitars.

"The best way to compare it is if they write a song on guitar, I'll write a song on my MPC, with guitar sounds or other things that I've found, or created," he said.

P.O.S. says Adam Levy's four lines conjure a mood of openness and searching, and that got him thinking about rhythms. Using his MPC, he began to assemble a beat.

"The first thing I did was I took the lyrics, and I kind of went through the process of reciting the lyrics that I had over and over and over again, until I figured out the way to edit them into a rhythm that would work," he said.

"And then I built a beat that kind of encompassed the vibe," he continued. "That stays relatively quiet in the mix the whole time, and then I bring in some of the dreamier stuff."

After establishing the beat, P.O.S. decided to use most of Levy's lines as the chorus, saving the phrases "energy and matter," "myriad formulas" and "nostrums and prayer" for the bridge.

It came together pretty quickly, partly because he identifies with the theme of a journey. He spends six months out of the year in a tour van.

"In music, I'm still on that one journey to not only never ever get a real job, but to flex and push how hip hop is supposed to work," he said.

P.O.S still has to flex his lyrical muscles and finish the words to his song, but he's not losing sleep over it. He doesn't sleep much anyway.

He predicts his tune may not make people immediately think of Dorothy and the wizard, but it will give them a feeling of traveling somewhere, with a destination yet to be determined.

[[header:BEST FRIENDS FOREVER]]

Everything was set. I was just about to leave to meet up with Best Friends Forever, when I got a call from the band. They sounded kind of panicked and they canceled our appointment.

When I finally met up with them a few days later I asked Bri Smith, the band's guitarist, what exactly happened that night.

"I know that I called, was full of confidence and said, 'Oh, come on over, we've got something going!' I felt that way at the time. And then Jess came over."

"Jess, the ominous dark cloud of pessimism and negativity!" chimed in Jess Seamans with a laugh.

"No, I don't remember what happened, I just remember you getting really stressed out," said Bri Smith.

Jess convinced Bri to hold off on the meeting until they had some better ideas for the song. So they went back to the drawing board. Eventually Bri settled on a guitar riff.

As for lyrics, they toyed around with the idea of singing as if they were Dorothy or some other character from the Wizard of Oz. But writing from someone else's perspective wasn't working out. So, they came up with a solution.

"We found a way to liken a character from the story to perhaps people that we have had relationships in our own lives, to once again have it be about our own experiences," said Bri Smith. "So we are definitely taking liberties with the character of the Tin Man."

"I prefer to say we are fleshing him out," Jess responded.

The Tin Man they fleshed out is a slight variation on the metal man from the stories.

They noticed that the Tin Man technically had no heart, but on the surface he was a sweet, emotional guy. So in their song, they took it a step further and cast him as a passionate singer songwriter who bares his feelings on stage.

"Falling in love with that person because they just seem like this really sensitive guy," Jess explained. "But then getting to know them and discovering that there is something maybe missing, or that they are a lot more hollow than they present themselves to be. Which is a situation that maybe we've both found ourselves in."

And as for Adam Levy's lyrics? They became a verse sung from the perspective of the heartless heartthrob crooner. They hope he doesn't take it personally.

For now, they're busy finishing their parts for the song. In a few days they'll take it to their drummer, Joe Rand.

7 Photos

  • When working on a song, Messersmith documents his brainstorms in a spiral-ringed notebook.
    When working on a song, Messersmith documents his brainstorms in a spiral-ringed notebook. (MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer)
  • Messersmith often discusses song ideas with his wife.
    Messersmith often discusses song ideas with his wife. "She always has great advice. But then," admits Jeremy, "I forget what she said and the next day I wake up thinking they were all my own ideas. I gotta work on that." (MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer)
  • P.O.S. lays down the bridge for his song from scratch. He records most of his songs in his home studio.
    P.O.S. lays down the bridge for his song from scratch. He records most of his songs in his home studio. (MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer)
  • P.O.S.'s songwriting notes.
    P.O.S.'s songwriting notes. "Keep going," he repeats in his song. "It's in the steps, right, left." (MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer)
  • P.O.S.'s trusted MPC. It's a computer that can capture any audio he generates, and turn it into building blocks for songs. An MPC is standard equipment in hip hop.
    P.O.S.'s trusted MPC. It's a computer that can capture any audio he generates, and turn it into building blocks for songs. An MPC is standard equipment in hip hop. (MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer)
  • Bri Smith says she's an optimistic person and likes to play
    Bri Smith says she's an optimistic person and likes to play "dancey, happy pop music." (MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer)
  • Jess Seamans says it's OK for Best Friends Forever to specialize in love songs, since the world needs good love songs.
    Jess Seamans says it's OK for Best Friends Forever to specialize in love songs, since the world needs good love songs. (MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer)
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