Jeremy Messersmith: March's Artist of the Month

by Jim McGuinn

Jeremy Messersmith performs at First Avenue
Jeremy Messersmith performs at First Avenue (Nate Ryan/MPR)

Imagine growing up without rock and roll in your house. It would seem unlikely that you'd end up becoming our state's preeminent songwriter of the past decade — unless you're Jeremy Messersmith.

Given the nods to classic pop and rock in his music, it's amazing to realize that Messersmith spent the first 15 years of his life in a musical bubble. Raised in Washington state as the son of a nuclear power worker dad and a home-schooling mom, Messersmith wasn't allowed to stray from Christian music and 'fessed up to huge gaps in musical knowledge when Dylan Hicks wrote the first big local profile of him — in City Pages in 2006, when he released his debut The Alcatraz Kid. While melodic pop music has always had a home here in Minnesota, it was far from a dominant style in the early aughts when Jeremy arrived on the scene.

Moving to the Twin Cities in 1999, Messersmith worked as a tech support worker while honing his craft. One breakthrough happened when he got a copy of his demo to Mary Lucia a few months after the Current signed on the air. As she recalls, "I don't think he had played many gigs at that point. But when I heard it, there was something about it — the purity of his voice, the way he put his songs together with a little dark edge. So I just decided to play it on the air." Messersmith heard the first of what has turned into thousands of plays on the station, and ran home to celebrate with his wife Vanessa and a box of wine.

Playing solo with guitar or building songs on the fly with loop pedals, Jeremy began to do shows in the same small coffeehouses and clubs as Chris Koza, Martin Dosh, Jeff Hanson, and others, and eventually caught the attention of Semisonic's Dan Wilson, who took time between high-profile co-writing gigs (Dixie Chicks, Adele, Taylor Swift) to produce Messersmith's second album, The Silver City. By this time, Jeremy was also working with multi-instrumentalist Andy Thompson, and while more developed sonically than Alcatraz, lyrically the material on The Silver City was varied — with stalkers and dead-end jobbers stuck on the outside looking in, but also a classic love song in "Miracles." Delivered with a light touch of both electronic and acoustic instrumentation, Messersmith began to draw comparisons to Sondre Lerche or a "less depressed Elliot Smith."

Working with Wilson constituted an early endorsement from an older generation of Minnesota musicians. About that time Jeremy also began to perform at the annual New Standards Holiday Show with Chan Poling (The Suburbs) and John Munson (Semisonic/Trip Shakespeare), and regulars Gary Louris, Mason Jennings, and Brian Tighe (The Hang Ups/The Starfolk). Tighe soon joined Thompson in supporting Messersmith on stage and in the studio from 2010 onward. Joining on bass and cello was Dan Lawonn, and this quartet worked together to create The Reluctant Graveyard.

This album features Messersmith's most consistently thematic work, a song cycle of tales from the residents of the titular burial ground, amid backing tracks that convey a sweet love and influence of the 60s pop of the Zombies, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, the Kinks, and the Beatles. This was an album that propelled Jeremy further into the spotlight, with headlining gigs at First Avenue and at the Minnesota Zoo's Weesner Family Amphitheater, more national touring, notices from NPR Music, and a key song placement in the TV show Chuck that led to numerous amateur YouTube covers of the song "A Boy, a Girl, and a Graveyard" — a sign that Messersmith was now more than just a local Minnesota phenomenon.

The success of The Reluctant Graveyard eventually led Jeremy to Glassnote Records, home to Mumford and Sons, Phoenix, CHVRCHES, and others. The new album Heart Murmurs underwent a long gestation period: first there was the waiting for the record deal to come together, then there was the tweaking that often accompanies an artist's big label signing. With a version of the album essentially finished by mid-2012, Jeremy wound up reworking the material for its February 2014 release.

Heart Murmurs ranges widely, from a Messersmith lyrical twist in the song "Tourniquet" (it definitely takes skill to imagine a tourniquet in a love song!); to "Ghost," which is written from the perspective of a prodigal son returning to his childhood home (or family); to "Heidi," which features a melody line that sounds like modern R&B — another sonic direction we might hear pop carnivore Messersmith take as he moves forward. Heart Murmurs is in many ways a culmination of Jeremy's music, with songs that often portray the aching longing of love, backed by his band's most confidently powerful playing of their career — with drums that pound, guitars that bite, and strings that take the arrangements to new heights.

Where does a singer-songwriter like Jeremy Messersmith fit in the world? With his pure, clean voice and rich melodies backed by a nuanced, layered sound, one can imagine him soaring to the top of the charts — or going over the heads of the masses. In a few months we'll know how the rest of the world reacted to Heart Murmurs — but in the meantime, Jeremy's impact only grows in the Twin Cities, as evidenced by two sold-out First Avenue release shows and the success of like-minded artists like Rogue Valley, John Mark Nelson, and the Brian Just Band.

Timeless songs, masterful production, and pure singing feels like an old-fashioned path to success in an era of social media, dubstep, and pop as fashion / fashion as pop. But thankfully there is still a place for an artist like Jeremy Messersmith, and this month we dig deep to celebrate his career up to now and look forward to all that is to follow.

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