Quick: what do cooking, Dungeons and Dragons, bike riding, Jerry Seinfeld, art galleries, and Jeremy Messersmith's wife all have in common? Answer: they are all an important part of Jeremy Messersmith's creative process. No one can accuse Messersmith of passively participating in the creation of his songs. In some manner, he's always at work at crafting them.
And it's a process that has served him well: Messersmith's latest release The Reluctant Graveyard received universal praise, including a spot on NPR's "Top Ten Albums of 2010" list. And it is a great album.
Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?
Well, I have two, and they may seem odd. One, I do a lot of cooking. On some days, I fancy myself an amateur chef, and I'm always trying to combine ingredients. My wife doesn't cook at all, so I end up doing a lot of the cooking. And the main social thing we do is have people over for dinner, where I get to force guests to eat the cuisines I'm trying to discover. We recently became vegetarians; I picked up an Indian cooking book and am now going through that.
Besides cooking, I play Dungeons and Dragons every week, in which I'm the Dungeon Master. It ends up being a lot of improvised storytelling, which of course contains parallels to songwriting.
You aren't the first songwriter to tell me that they cook. Alex Maas of the Black Angels and Mirah told me the same thing. How do you think it influences your songwriting process?
I see what I have in the fridge and what's in season, and I embrace those limitations along with the limitations of my skill level. And that's also what I do with songs. I have to be conscious of limitations like my vocal range, or even when I may not feel like writing story songs for a few months. It's about embracing where you are at that moment and using what's there, either when it comes to songwriting or cooking.
Is cooking ever a time of reflection for you, when you can think about songwriting?
I think it puts me in a creative problem-solving mindset, and that's helpful in tricking me into being functionally creative. Then, when I'm done cooking it will spill over. At least that's what I hope.
And how does being a Dungeon Master help your songwriting? That seems to be an obvious link.
Laughs. Absolutely. It's more fun because you're interacting so much with the people you're playing with. Maybe you're challenged to take a storyline or direction you never would have imagined. It's all about being in a playful and creative mindset.
Many songwriters talk about how hard it is to be a narrative songwriter.
You have to remember that as a songwriter, you don't have to answer all the questions. I was performing last Friday and the author Neil Gaiman was there. He was talking about the difference between story and song, and he said that if you're writing a novel, you have to answer all the questions. But if you are writing a song, you don't have to. It's about learning what's important to say and what's O.K. to imply.
Jimmy Chamberlin told me last week that when he writes, he wants to talk about the feeling he has in a place, not about the place itself. He says it's a much more honest way of storytelling.
That is a great line, actually. But speaking again about form, I spend a lot of time trying to determine the best way in which to tell a story. I teach a class called "Classical Songwriting" at a music school here, and I talk about the fact that if you have a long story that needs more than three minutes, you probably aren't going to use traditional structure like AABA or a verse-chorus structure.
Since you teach classical songwriting, do you find that it's made you a better songwriter since you have to adhere to the precepts you espouse?
Absolutely. And I hope it shows on The Reluctant Graveyard, which I wrote when I just started teaching. It made me way more conscious of song form and of making sure that some slightly lazy rhymes don't get in there. I spent a lot more time editing and making sure that every word needed to be there.
Take me through a typical songwriting process for you.
There are two ways. One, a melodic line just pops into my head. And I'll just start singing that line to myself, maybe playing around with some syllables. And if I'm lucky, that will become a phrase that I can work from.
I also start with titles sometimes. A good example off the last album is the song "Deathbed Salesman." I had seen a Jerry Seinfeld bit and he was talking about deathbed salesmen, and I thought that was a really funny idea. I had been wanting to write about that for a long time after hearing that Seinfeld bit. Eventually I was able to find some music that worked with that title.
Where do these titles come from?
Really anywhere. It could be stand up comedy. It could be a throw away line from someone else's song that I think is cool. I had an idea for one song that I never ended up finishing that I got from an old Star Trek episode. So you have to pull ideas from anything that influences you. The act of inspiration to me isn't "Eureka." It's more like "That's funny."
How active are you when it come to seeking inspiration?
I'd like to think I'm pretty active, and I hope I achieve a nice balance by consuming a lot of interesting things, then giving myself time for reflection.
When you say "consuming," what do you mean?
Anything I find interesting. I try to read quite a few books, go to quite a few talks, or just read a random link somebody sends me.
Do you consciously mine those resources for songwriting ideas?
Laughs. No, I don't really do that. I think I'm just compulsively a nerd anyway, so it's in my nature to seek out interesting information that for some reason ends up getting quashed into a song.
Andy McCluskey of OMD told me that he goes to art galleries to actively seek out inspiration for songs. Do you ever do something like that?
That's funny, because I did the same thing yesterday! Laughs. I went over to the Walker here in Minneapolis, a great modern art gallery. I figured I should go someplace beautiful, where people are doing wonderful things. I brought a notebook with me.
Are you a disciplined songwriter?
Yes and no. I try to carve out large blocks of time to write, but I wouldn't say I'm incredibly disciplined. I only write songs when I need to write songs, and that can arise from some emotional or psychological need, or it can be as simple as, "Hey, I have a gig next month. I should try to write a new song for it."
So there's a practical part to your songwriting process as well.
Of course. Having a deadline and saying, "Hey I haven't put out an album in like two years, maybe I should really write some songs." is a pretty good motivator. That's probably the best motivator I have, something very boring like that.
But deadlines also cause songwriters stress, because it can make them see songwriting as a job and not art. Couldn't that interfere with the creative process?
Not for me. I really only get things done if I obsess on them and work constantly.
What's your ideal writing environment?
It's odd, but I prefer to write in public places. I like to go to places where people are bustling about. And I like to pick a secluded place there, maybe a corner, where no one will bother me or where can't notice me. I figure if it worked for JK Rowling and her Harry Potter books, it'll work for me. I think solitude is important, but you don't have to be alone.
Do you get any writing done on tour?
I don't really write anything on tour because I'm too busy. It's usually me driving for three or four hours a day, then playing. When I have free time, I usually watch HBO movies.
Does the act of motion inspire you to write songs? I remember Chris Difford of Squeeze telling me he wrote "Tempted" in less than three minutes in the back of a cab.
No. If anything, my mind goes blank when I drive. But if you want to talk about engaging my body physically, that's something I do an awful lot of. I wrote a couple of songs off the latest album while riding my bike. We live on this bike highway called the Greenway here in Minneapolis, and I ride there every day. That's one of the better times for me creatively, probably because my body is engaged in a rhythmic motion, and that motion can stimulate a good melody or even a set of lyrics.
What about authors -- who do you read?
Well, talking about aerobic exercise, Haruki Murakami's book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was one of the primary motivators for me to get in shape. And he's my favorite author. I think I've read everything he's written. I'm a Neil Gaiman fan, and I'm reading American Gods now.
Is there a song on the new album that was incredibly easy to write?
Yeah, "Dillinger Eyes." I wrote all the lyrics on the bus one day, which couldn't have been more than a 20 minute ride.
See, there's the motion part. It does play a role in your creative process!
Laughs. Yeah, that's true. I guess I just can't be the one driving. Now I'm gonna blame you when I make the other guys in the band drive when we're on tour.
What inspired that song?
All I had was the loose idea of wondering if somebody is really destined to be a bank robber because he looks like John Dillinger and people treat him that way. The classic free will vs. pre-determination argument. Of course, I was riding into St. Paul, where Dillinger had some of his classic shootouts.
That's a pretty heavy idea to be thinking about on a bus ride.
Laughs. Yeah, I guess it's one of the themes of the record. I don't know much about philosophy, but every once in a while I'll start chatting with a smart friend of mine, and I have to bring up some of those ideas in a song.
Was there a song on the new album that was difficult to write, that you really struggled to finish?
"Knots." It's a chamber-pop bigger sounding song. There was so much internal rhyming that made it difficult to write. I worked on the lyrics forever, and I ended up finishing the lyrics in the vocal booth right before I sang it.
Did you want to give up on it during the writing process?
Nah. I almost feel like if I've sunk that much work into the song, it sure as hell better be on the record. At that point, I don't even care if it's the worst song on the record. I've put so much work into it that I want somebody to appreciate it. Laughs. I just want it out of my life.
That's the same way with cooking, right?
Laughs. That's true. I've grinned and eaten some pretty horrific meals just because I've spent so much time on them.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
Usually I will do something else. I only work on something if it's interesting or engaging. If the writing process isn't either one of those, I'll do something else like read or play video games. I try not to force it. But since I don't have many forced deadlines, it's rare that I stare at a blank page without an idea.
A lot of novelists tell me that they cure writer's block by putting other narrative voices in their head.
I've never thought of it that way, but you're totally right. It's like living in someone else's brain for a while.
What's your editing process like?
I use a computer because it's a lot easier there than on paper. And I do what I call "hotspotting my rhymes." I go through every rhyme and make sure that it's as interesting, or as vivid, or as unpredictable, or as non-cliched, as possible. The rhyming words are the important ones that people remember, that anchor the rest of the words, so I spend a lot of time getting those right. The other big thing -- and this is the difference between my first two records and the most recent one -- is scanning. I make sure that the way the syllables are sung matches between sections. It's important to make sure the melodies in, say, verse one and verse two are the same and that I'm not inserting little words in there that would make me sing the line strangely.
That's a lot of what poets do.
That's true. I also go through every line and ask myself one simple question: could I say this better or simpler? I prefer writing things that are more concise and clear as opposed to witty.
Do you use pen and paper or computer when you compose?
A little bit of both. In fact, I find that when I feel frustrated, changing to the other way of composing really helps.
Have your songwriting themes or ideas changed since you've been married?
Yeah. I think I write female characters a lot better.
I would hope!
Laughs. The main reason is that my wife doesn't let me get away with any stock female characters. I had a line one time that I really liked where I rhymed waitress and actress, and she told me that was terrible, that there was no way I could put that cliche in a song. Like, "She's a waitress but she wants to be an actress." So at the very least, if you see strong female characters in my songs, it's really my wife's influence.
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