Squinting through a puff of his thin, blue cigarette smoke, Jamie Ness and his blissful grin reflect off the mirrored wall of the Dinkytowner Café. Over the din of bar patrons that surrounds the booth, Ness explains his music:
“What I want it to be is kind of poetic, like barroom poetry.”
Ness’ debut album Dodging the Landlord has the unique quality of being poetic in a conventional folk music sense, while maintaining a playful and light-hearted lyric stance that is attractive to hard-to-crack bar audiences.
Ness, a Duluth native, has spent most of his musical career attempting to get the attention of the audience during his time as a member in the Minneapolis bar band The A.T.F., a band that he describes as fun, but “not into polishing things.”
After The A.T.F. split-up in Fall 2000, Ness recorded demos with his neighbor, studio owner Brian Herb at Mother of All Music. The initial tracks impressed Herb and Ness so much that the two decided to add percussion, backing vocals and guitars over the top with the help of Dan Larva and Ness’ ATF cohort Eric Levy.
Adding the backing band to existing music was a lot more difficult than one would think, especially the drums says Ness.
“My tempos are all over the place. It took forever because [Herb] had to anticipate slow downs and speed ups, so it has sort of a clunky sound overall.”
Clunky drums or not, Dodging the Landlord is a testament to the simplicity of good old-fashioned songwriting and storytelling. While the music is simple acoustic guitar-based, Ness’ drawling vocals and compelling storytelling involve the listener in a way that feels like an old friend telling stories over a cup of coffee.
Ness chose to begin the album with the brash line “I was all pregnant/’bout 15” to make it clear the album wasn’t a collection of personal stories.
The musically soothing, yet lyrically startling lead track “Wisconsin” finds Ness singing through the eyes of a pregnant 15-year-old girl who shoots her boyfriend while the townspeople look the other way.
“I like to do fictional stuff so I don’t have to think about what’s personal and what isn’t. I like to be able to say whatever I want without regard of how it’s going to reflect on me. [With this] all of a sudden the world is full of possibilities.”
Singing from the point of view of another troubled character, this time a gambling addict on “The Last Card Game,” Ness seeks the nearly impossible hand of an inside straight. Ness’ intricate word play and vivid storytelling with Old West overtones are particularly amazing here considering it was written in 1995 when he was only 20.
Ness says the humorous “I Puked on My Girlfriend,” one of the few autobiographical songs on the record, isn’t necessarily the song he wants to be known for.
“I was at a coffee shop and I guy I know said, ‘Hey, I heard “I Puked on My Girlfriend” on the radio’ and I was like, “Oh no!” I never thought that would happen in a million years.”
Ness admits his new material is unformed due to the fact that he has been busy playing shows, however he does know what he wants it to be like.
“I kind of want to make it more extreme than the last one…just more of everything. I haven’t written any funny stuff in a while, but I wouldn’t want it to be 100 percent serious; I want it to work in bars, you know?”
Jamie Ness plays tonight at the Dinkytowner Café (412 1/2 14th Ave. S.E., Mpls. 612-362-0427). Mike Brady opens. 8 p.m. 21+. Download Jamie Ness mp3’s at www.mp3.com/_jamie_ness_.