Welcome to Jeremy Messersmith’s laboratory

For Messersmith, boring is not an option.

by Joe Kellen

Two years ago on a stage outside Coffman Union, a bow-tie sporting Jeremy Messersmith clutched the neck of his guitar with both hands.

“This next one is kind of an experiment,” he said, introducing the song as “It’s Only Dancing” with a caveat: “I’m gonna play this one note at a time.”

The simple song would transform over the next two years and become the opener of his newest record, “Heart Murmurs.” It’s an effort that colors the rest of the album in four and a half minutes — beginning with Messersmith’s trademark quiet intensity and flowering into something so huge it could be the songwriter’s first-ever stereo-blasting anthem.

This story of experimentation and execution defines Messersmith’s “Heart Murmurs,” as well as his entire career.

“Making the same record twice is not something I’m interested in,” he said. “Unless you’re slightly scared shitless about what you’re doing, why bother?”

“Heart Murmurs” maintains the clean-cut, guitar-focused sincerity of his past work, but it gives a little more weight to the strings and production oomph. Messersmith’s choirboy-earnest vocals sound smooth and reedy, as he sings about love from a different perspective on each song (the highlight being the short, melancholy “Steve”).

The musician has been crafting folk-pop soaked story-songs for more than a decade. Ever since the release of “The Alcatraz Kid” in 2006, Messersmith has done all he can to challenge his abilities, including teaching songwriting for three years at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul.

Messersmith said he misses the classroom and its explorative freedom. He found that giving structured songwriting assignments to students helped him find a way to keep music fresh — even if the task was to create the worst song possible.

 “Songwriting isn’t about trying to show people how smart you are,” he said. “Sometimes a student’s ‘worst song’ would be the best song they would write all year because they were just being honest.”

His best friend and drummer Andy Thompson said this method is the core of Messersmith’s process as a musician.

“He’ll create rules for recording,” Thompson said. “Like, for some songs on ‘Heart Murmurs,’ he said that I wasn’t allowed to hit the snare drum. It’s positive, though; it’s all for the sake of the album as a whole.”

Thompson said during the editing process, Messersmith is known to strip away everything extraneous from each song.

“Jeremy doesn’t worry about trying to fill space as a person,” he said. “One night we were on tour and waiting to get on a subway to go back; it was just him and I. We sat in silence at the station for an hour. I’ll never forget that.”

Multi-instrumentalist Dan Lawonn said he respects the musician’s simplifying approach to life. Lawonn recorded with Messersmith on “Heart Murmurs” and was a member of the touring band until recently settling down with his family in Madison, Wis.

 He was ecstatic to get a chance to play with the crew again last week when their tour stopped in Madison.

“Playing with everyone made me remember how valuable it all is to me,” Lawonn said. “They’re great friends.”

Thompson, Lawonn and Messersmith still get together outside of music. Though touring sometimes gets in the way, they make time to truck over to Thompson’s house with their wives to eat together and play Dungeons & Dragons.

Perhaps all the gaming in both his songwriting and life is emblematic of the heart of Messersmith’s personality — if music is his outlet, he might as well keep it as fun as possible.

“I’m pretty severely introverted,” he said. “But once I get in a room with actual people who want to hear my songs, it all changes for me.”


What: Jeremy Messersmith with Rogue Valley (Friday) and Carroll (Saturday)
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: First Avenue Mainroom, 701 N. First Ave., Minneapolis
Cost: $15 (Saturday SOLD OUT)
Ages: 18+