When the world becomes dark–clouded by spiteful, political spars, weighed down by strained relationships, or hit by grief–it’s easy to become jaded. It’s difficult to find the “bright side,” a “silver lining,” look through those “rosy-rimmed” glasses, sit down and sing fucking kumbaya, when the everything else seems to be going to shit. Let’s face it, 2017 was a rough year for a lot of reasons. But, for Jeremy Messersmith, when life gives you lemons, you pull out the ukulele and sing a little ditty.
In the months following the last presidential election, that’s exactly what Jeremy did. He went up to his cabin–as typical Minnesotans do–and created what would become his happy-go-lucky, 15-minute dose of sunshine, otherwise known as “11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs for Ukulele: A Micro Folk Record for the 21st Century and Beyond.”
I came across this album last spring shortly after it was released, and it immediately it made me smile. A soft, fingerpicked acoustic sound, enlivened by his eccentric wit and light-heartedness, he sings about peace, love, magic, and a brighter future where everybody gets a kitten.
“I believe in unicorns, and wishing on a star/ I believe that love can heal, broken hearts/ So cover me with pixie dust, I’m jumping off the roof/ ‘Cause everything is magical, whenever I’m with you.”
Wednesday night at Icehouse, Messersmith brought the magic.
I walked in and immediately rubbed shoulders with crowds of people lining the bar, it was a full house. Servers weaving around candlelit tables stage front, bartenders brewing up bougie cocktails to my right–I fancied myself a Jameson on the rocks. The first opener, Jillian Rae, had just finished up her set. The stage was glowing red, the violins all warmed up.
Gaelynn Lea, 2016 winner of NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest, rolled on stage next. Out of over 6,000 submissions, this Duluth-raised violinist and singer-songwriter was selected.
Born with a congenital disease known as “brittle bones disease,” Gaelynn’s arms and legs are bent in such a way that she plays the violin like a cello. With more emphasis on the lower strings, in contrast to most violinists whom strike the highest string with their bow, she creates a unique, ethereal sound.
She began working with Alan Sparhawk from the band Low on a project back in 2011, which evolved into an ongoing collaboration–Gaelynn on fiddle and lead vocals, Alan on guitar. He gifted her with a looping pedal, a tool that has enabled her to experiment with the violin and strike out as a solo artist over the past two years.
Rooted in Celtic traditional folk music, her style is classic. But, also very experimental. With the use of looping pedals, Gaelynn layers multiple orchestrated parts from an electric violin while she sings.
The first time I heard it, the song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” brought me to tears.
“Don’t tell me we’ve got time/ The subtle thief of life/ It slips away when we pay no mind/ We pulled the weeds out ’til the dawn/ Nearly too tired to carry on/ Someday we’ll linger in the sun”
Her light vibrato voice harmonized with ethereal violin melodies is like something I’ve never heard before. The sonic loops seemed to put everyone into an ambient trance, interjected by her chipper commentary between songs.
After a long applause and an extended encore for Gaelynn and her band, Jeremy Messersmith came up on stage. Kicking things off with a mesmerizing cover of Lana Del Rey’s “High By the Beach,” he had everyone swooning.
Instead of flying solo sporting a ukulele, like I expected, he played the acoustic guitar accompanied by the Laurels String Quartet–an incredibly talented group of classical musicians that have made music with artists like Belle & Sebastian, Motion City Soundtrack, Semisonic, Dessa, Haley Bonar, The Suburbs, The New Standards, and many more.
Jeremy of course dipped into the fun-loving ukulele tracks from his latest micro folk record, but he also dabbled in more covers and played plenty of fan favorites from “Heart Murmurs”–an album he put out in 2014 that sounds like a cross between Coldplay and Paul Simon, but more heartbreak.
Custom arrangements set to violin, viola and cello added a classical twist to his folk-pop style. The heavier, acoustic gems–some of which already had orchestral instrumentation–were amplified, more dramatic. And the twangy, upbeat tracks, more subdued.
One of the standouts from the night, “It’s Only Dancing.” Now, I personally love the Phil-Collins-esque drums in the original song. But, this chamber pop ballad set to a live string quartet was simply magical.
“It’s something that all good friends do/ It’s not like I’m in love with you/ What a crazy idea, and where did you get that?/ Let’s tangle up our fingertips/ And I’ll rest a hand up on your hips/ Nothing to see, it’s all so innocent/ It’s only dancing”
And, dance we did. Thanks for brightening up my Wednesday night, Jeremy.