On the last day of the first leg of what will be his most demanding year of touring yet, Jeremy Messersmith had to use The Force to get through it.
Messersmith and his band started the morning on an urban duck farm in Detroit (found on Airbnb.com, his new “secret weapon”), stopped in Chicago for a midday gig at one of the nation’s top ad agencies (Leo Burnett), and 430 miles and nine hours later made it in time for sound check at the top club in Madison, Wis. (High Noon Saloon).
To ease the numbness in the van along the way, the Minneapolis pop craftsman introduced his new keyboardist, Sarah Elhardt Perbix of Cloud Cult, to probably the greatest thing he’s ever known in his 32 years on Earth.
“She made it through ‘New Hope’ and halfway through ‘Empire,’ ” he reported as he put his guitar case down inside the empty club. Holding his hands up in projected shock and awe — Perbix had never seen any of the “Star Wars” movies! — he added in a defeated, near-whimpering tone, “She actually fell asleep during ‘Empire.’ I just … ”
Perbix might’ve been kicked out of the band for that, but Messersmith needs a reliable group more than ever. He just released the biggest album of his career — big in both the professional and musical sense.
Loaded with elegant but often burningly electric love songs, “Heart Murmurs” is the most pristine guitar-driven pop album out of Minnesota since Semisonic’s heyday. It’s also the perfect record to test how big a deal Messersmith might become beyond Minnesota. It’s the soft-voiced, tenderly edgy singer/songwriter’s first record under a new deal with Glassnote Records, the New York label behind Mumford & Sons and fellow indie popsters Phoenix and Chvrches.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Messersmith said of the deal, citing Phoenix as “an act that had been doing its thing for a while, and [Glassnote] brought them to another level without really any heavy-handed tactics.”
If the Twin Cities were Messersmith’s test market, then Glassnote should also be optimistic. Back home, he joins the elite cast of local acts to play multi-night stands at First Avenue with shows Friday and Saturday. Not one but two singles from the new record have been in steady rotation at 89.3 The Current for months: the boomingly hooky “Tourniquet,” and the moodier, more idiosyncratic but similarly catchy “Ghost.” The Current’s program director, Jim McGuinn, even had a hand in bringing Messersmith to Glassnote’s attention.
Being a big deal in the Twin Cities doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot on the road, though.
On one hand, he sold out the Mercury Lounge in New York and did valuable radio gigs and other promotional to-dos in nearly every town on the three-week trek, which also included Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal. On the other hand, he played to less-than-half-full venues on weeknights in Detroit and Madison.
In Columbus, Ohio, the band wound up in a metal bar with a railing on the stage designed for making Axl Rose-style “power stances” over the crowd. Messersmith tried it out during “Hitman,” the most climactic track on his new record.
“He screwed it up and looked pretty damn awkward,” guitarist Peter Sieve said, shaking his head.
Messersmith is faring much better at standing up to the pressure of a career-making kind of year. “He’s as cool as a cucumber about this,” said Sieve, who’s also a member of Rogue Valley.
The singer’s longtime drummer and co-producer/arranger Andy Thompson said, “Jeremy is very good at keeping low expectations, and being happy with them.”