Local songwriter Jeremy Messersmith’s new record The Silver City this month emerged from the ether to become a contender for the year’s best local release. The impressive effort features Grammy Award-winner and Semisonic front man Dan Wilson as Master Po to Messersmith’s musical Grasshopper and pays homage to the Twin Cities throughout its 10 tracks. Beautiful vocal melodies weave through simple chord progressions, painting vivid pictures of eerily familiar places and faces.
Messersmith’s much-lauded songwriting has grown since his debut effort, The Alcatraz Kid. He has clearly benefited from experience and mentoring from the likes of Wilson, a major collaborator on the album. While the record is lush in its major-label-quality production, it is lush in the right ways and the right places to conserve the intimate, organic mood that serves Messersmith’s songs so well.
From “Franklin Avenue” to the “Skyway” and the “Light Rail,” The Silver City bathes locals in sweet civic pride; it is enough to leave any far-flung Minneapolitan sick for home. However, the theme is no transparent gimmick used to pretty up an otherwise lackluster record; the subject matter is but stardust on an already stellar work. Jeremy Messersmith spoke to Reveille about his new album from his bunker studio several stories below sea level.
Watch a live performance of “Love You to Pieces”
Reveille: Your new record is very Twin Cities-centric. How did the idea evolve?
Jeremy Messersmith: It evolved mainly from the kinds of songs I was writing. For various reasons my songs started having locations in them. I originally wanted to have the entire record feel like an AM radio station late at night, complete with local ads in between. But I found it didn’t really work that well upon repeat listens.
Reveille: Is The Silver City a concept record?
Messersmith: I wouldn’t call it a high concept record, but most of the songs and locales are inspired by the Twin Cities. The record has a loose narrative that hops around to different places in town.
Reveille: Why Minneapolis? Could the locale have been anywhere?
Messersmith: It’s possible it could’ve been anywhere, but I found Minneapolis interesting. I found myself looking at the whole city as a living entity with roads, bridges, greenways and transit systems as much alive as the people in it. Minneapolis has a few unique characteristics, namely the light rail and the skyways.
Reveille: This record offers snapshots of mundane suburban life and dull jobs. Do you consider this a sad record or a hopeful record? Why?
Messersmith: I think it’s a bittersweet record. The front half of the record is pretty dark, but it should be a little more hopeful by the end. I guess I find it hard to relate to songs if there isn’t some mundane attachment to reality in there somewhere.
Reveille: How did you hook up with Dan Wilson?
Messersmith: He saw me play at the Acadia Cafe several years ago and nabbed some of the free CDs I had at the door. We met up the next week and talked about maybe working together someday.
Reveille: Was there much collaboration with Dan leading up to this record, or did you show up ready to go?
Messersmith: Dan was involved pretty much from the beginning. I’d play him songs and send over demos and he’d send notes back on the songs. When we thought we had enough good material to work with, we started recording.
Reveille: How have your songwriting and playing evolved since the last record?
Messersmith: Well, I’ve probably gotten even worse, if that was possible, at guitar playing in the last year or so, but I find myself concentrating much more on my vocal performance than I used to. I figure my voice is probably the most unique thing I’ve got, so I should work hard to make it sound nice. As far as songwriting, I tend to let ideas roll around in my head a little longer than I used to. I also try to think of songs as a whole instead of just melodies to hang words on.
Watch the music video for “Miracles” from The Silver City
Reveille: Name three tracks from your prior records that those new to the world of Messersmith should study up on.
Messersmith: I’d pick 3 tracks from The Alcatraz Kid: “Scientists”, “Beautiful Children” and “Novocain” Those would be good tracks to start with.
Reveille: Tell me about some of your non-musical sources of inspiration.
Messersmith: The biggest is my relationship with my wife. It’s like a never-ending fountain of ideas. I’m influenced by a lot of things, but I’m inspired by the people I know best, or think I do.
Reveille: Have you always been a solo artist or have you played in bands? How would you compare the two dynamics?
Messersmith: I’ve played in a few bands over the years and the most I can say is it’s always been an awkward fit. Of course, that might have been the bands I was in. I’m probably a bit too antisocial to have a democratically styled creative process. The Silver City was a harder record to make because I involved way more people. Everyone I worked with was great, but I find being around people kind of exhausting. I had to spend ample time in my self-labeled Fortress of Solitude, my basement studio.
Reveille: This album has a great atmosphere—it is spare with unique accents in choice spots. How were decisions made with regard to instrumentation and arrangements?
Messersmith: Dan and I wanted to try to incorporate more fleshed out arrangements with nice production elements, but also to keep a lot of the quick and dirty basement recording ideas. I hope it worked. Most songs started out with me playing guitar and singing; then we’d see what instruments we had laying around in the room and try playing some parts. Some of the arrangements got pretty bloated during the process. I once asked Dan jokingly if he wanted his credit on the record changed from Producer to Reducer.
Reveille: Tell me about some of the musicians who contributed to The Silver City. Did Dan Wilson perform on any tracks?
Messersmith: Andy Thompson, who has been playing with me live for a few years, played a vast number of strange instruments on the record. We found that no matter what instrument we put in his hands he was able to come up with something for it. Dan played a lot of fun stuff as well, including some nice piano parts, drumming and even one standout slide guitar solo. He is also a supremely confident shaker player.
Reveille: What is your favorite track on the new record, and why?
Messersmith: It’s a tossup between “Dead End Job” and “Franklin Avenue.” My favorite part of the whole record is probably the bridge in “Dead End Job.” I love those sort of late ’70s lounge singer horn melodies. I’ll use any excuse I can to play some trumpet. “Franklin Avenue” is probably my favorite track overall because it really benefited from collaboration and I think it’s maybe the most interesting dynamically.
Reveille: What was the best part about making The Silver City?
Messersmith: The best part of making the record was getting to learn from all the people who helped me make it. After I made The Alcatraz Kid I felt a little bored sitting around making songs in my basement and I really wanted to find people who could challenge and inspire me.
Reveille: What are your touring plans for this album?
Messersmith: It’s coming together slowly, but I’ll probably hit the road this fall and possibly again in the spring or summer.
Reveille: In keeping with the theme of The Silver City, what is your favorite place in the Twin Cities?
Messersmith: This is easily the hardest question of the entire interview. It’s probably the entire Midtown Greenway. That’s not technically a single location, but it’s just so much fun biking on it.
COMING UP: Jeremy Messersmith plays the CD release show for The Silver City on Thursday, September 25, at the Varsity Theater . With opening acts Rachel Ries and The Owls (previously featured on Reveille). You can check out a previous Reveille video feature on Jeremy Messersmith here . 7:30 p.m. $10. 18+.