Photo by Carson Culver
Mississippi-based musician Dent May talks about writing pop music for an alternate universe. Currently on tour for his new release, Warm Blanket He plays Broadways on Sunday, Sept. 22. Doc Aquatic and Dead gaze also perform. 10:30 p.m. Show info here.
Mountain Xpress: In the bio section of your Facebook page, all it says is “king of unpop,” which actually says a lot. I was wondering what that means to you — do you feel like you’re a pop outsider? What elements of pop music do you actively embrace and what do you discard?
Dent May: I might be a pop outsider in the sense that I’m a guy from Mississippi making pop music in solitude, and I’ve never felt like I belong anywhere. But I’m not an outsider in the sense that I obsessively consume pop culture on the internet. I think about my songs like I’m writing pop music for an alternate universe, but in reality my music is kind of unpopular. I’m not breaking any sales records or anything. Either way my favorite pop music has a universal quality that approaches spiritual transcendence, and that’s where I want to go.
There seems to be a thread running through Warm Blanket that deals with aging. I read an interview where you talk about the loneliness of recording the album by yourself, in a house in St. Augustine; did the meditations on age — “Born Too Late,” “Yazoo,” “I’m Ready To Be Old,” “Endlessly” (a little bit) — evolve out of the sense of loneliness, or is that something you intentionally set out to explore? I’m hyperaware of my mortality and the fact that we’re all going to die. People always talk about how easy-going and breezy my music is, but that’s more of a therapeutic response to the intense anxiety that consumes me. Another response to that anxiety is constantly surrounding myself with friends and partying a lot when I’m home. I didn’t want that to be an option while recording, so I rented a house in Florida and drove there with my van full of equipment and didn’t look back.
That beachy sound, along with your upbeat rhythms and melodies, belies the melancholy lyrics in some of the songs. Does it feel polarizing to work with those to disparate influences? Happiness and sadness are very closely related. You can’t know pure joy without knowing true pain. My music is sort of a celebration of that. Sometimes there’s a very fine line between agony and ecstasy. Capacity for anguish is one of the things that makes us human. Having a good time is also cool. As far as the beach goes, I never really went there growing up. I’m afraid of getting in the water and taking my shirt off in public. I’m down with lakes more than beaches, actually.
You’re based in Oxford, Miss., which makes me think of Faulkner and Southern lit. Do you feel like Oxford informs your sound or your songwriting and, if so, how? I worked for a long time in two different amazing bookstores down here, and I’m of course down with Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy and many more Mississippi writers. I grew up around the corner from Ms. Welty and remember her sitting in a folding chair in the middle of the Jitney Jungle grocery store just observing people. My friend Michael Bible who played drums on my first album is starting to publish cool stuff. I can’t really say how it all informs my songs, but it’s cool that a literary community is heavily supported here. That said, I think it was Barry Hannah who said there’s nothing worse than a professional southerner.
The cover art for Warm Blanket is cute and funny. I’ve noticed in the past year that a number of bands and musicians have posed in the bathtub for their profile shot. What gave you the idea, and how did the shoot come about? I haven’t noticed any other bathtub photos, but it was my friend the photographer Stephany’s idea. I guess what gave us the idea was the beautiful clawfoot tub which was right there in the middle of the bedroom in St. Augustine. I didn’t think of until just now, but I’m shirtless on my last two album covers. The new one is much more personal though. Part of me is a little embarrassed, but I’m also kind of proud of myself for showing some skin.