Dent May’s output can be divided into two distinct halves: biting, old-timey sardonicism (2009’s stripped-down, snark-soaked The Good Feeling Music of Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele) and clear-eyed, enabling positivism (2012’s synth-heavy, ukulele-free Do Things). A gentlemanly uber-pop classicism governs the whole – May’s love for the Beatles, Morrissey, the Beach Boys, Randy Newman, and show tunes generally informs his songwriting – but a clear divide exists.
So it’s a relief to call the cell phone number supplied by the Oxford, Mississippi musician’s publicist and to reach neither sardonic May or positivism May, but earnest May. Tired May. Congested May. Psyched to be talking about and writing music May: an itinerant wedding/party DJ and music promoter who tried to quit music in the wake of Magnificent Ukulele and found that music couldn’t quite quit him.
Are you okay? You sound like you’re coming down with something.
I have bad allergies; Mississippi is like one of the worst places for allergies.
Where are you right now, and what are you doing?
I’m in Oxford, Mississippi. I just ate lunch, and now I’m walking around our historic downtown running some errands before my band departs for a short East Coast tour.
What are the errands?
I have to go to the music store to buy some cables, there’s some emailing and planning that has to happen; then, of course, we have to pack the van up. None of these errands are too exciting; then again, if they were, they wouldn’t be errands.
What happened to the ukulele, man? Where’d it go?
(Laughs) I had no intention of playing the ukulele for more just that one album. And I don’t know, I haven’t played the ukulele for a couple of years now. I just wanted to move on, to keep expanding my palette instead of constraining it. I don’t want to go down as the “ukulele guy.” I want to show that I can do other things, and to keep myself interested, keep people on their toes.
Three years passed between your first two albums. How has life changed for you in that period?
I was kind of fed up with music, so I stopped, but I learned that I love music. Hard work is what gives us meaning and purpose in life. I’ve gotten over a lot of the fears and anxieties I had about putting myself out there and touring. I already have a house booked to record the next album, in Florida by the beach, with a grand piano inside. I’m really excited.
The songs are definitely a continuation of the songs on Do Things; they’re very open and very simple, but I feel they reveal a lot of complexities. The album will use a lot more organic textures; it’ll be less retro and feature more piano and live horns, and I might invite other musicians to play. [May played all of the instruments on his first two albums.] I want each album to be more and more ambitious; I want to keep improving as a musician and as a person.
Since your debut, you seem to have made a bit of a shift in terms of approach. On The Good Feeling Music of Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele, it felt like you were having a laugh at the expense of cultural caricatures; on Do Things, you seem to be in a more positive, inspirational/aspirational frame of mind. Before you were like a comedian; now you come across more like a counselor or life coach. Is that a change that you were aware of?
It was definitely something that happened over time, rather than a conscious decision. After the ukulele album, I didn’t write a new song for two years. I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. In the future, I want to find a balance between the (Good Feel Music…) approach and the (Do Things) approach, But I don’t want to laugh at people more. I wanna make people happy.
Growing up, how did you start writing songs? Was there anyone in particular who you were inspired by early on?
Not really. My first music experience came while attending a performing arts school. I grew up in my parents’ church singing in choirs. I took guitar lessons in the sixth grade and learned pop songs: Weezer, Third Eye Blind, Green Day. My parents listened to soft pop like The Bee Gees and John Denver.
So much of rock’n’roll is about trying to be cool – and to me, that’s cheesy.
Going back to the first album, I’ve always wondered if any of the songs were self-directed, or aimed at people you know.
People always ask me who “Howard” is, and who “College Town Boy” is. The truth is, yeah, it’s mostly about me; it was really my existential crisis manifesting itself in these characters. When I wrote that first album, I was living in a college town and trying to figure out my life.
On “Home Groan,” you explain in broad terms why you’ve stayed in Mississippi, but there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the song. What are some things about Mississippi that outsiders might not be aware of?
The best aspect is the people. Southern hospitality is a real thing: people are nice, easygoing, and wonderful to be around. It’s inexpensive to live here. I lived in NYC briefly and people can be terrible. The drawback is a lack of artistic and cultural opportunities, which is part of the reason that I started booking shows down here.
Tell me about the title Do Things. How did you come to use that, and what did it signify for you?
It had to do with that long period of time when I didn’t do much songwriting or anything of note besides partying with my friends. It’s kind of like an inspirational song, but I wanted it to be vague enough that anyone could adapt it to their situation.
“Do Things” was the first song I wrote for this album. I was really sick, had the flu; that song was me cheering myself up, motivating myself again.
What is “Rent Money” about? The metaphor at the center of the song seems really cruel if you think about it as involving a woman in a strictly mercantile sense, but looking beyond that, it’s bigger and maybe more common sense in terms of commitment – like “shit or get off the pot.”
Kind of. It’s a very literal song. Like, I’ve been strapped for cash a lot. It’s a struggle. It’s fantasizing about being financially comfortable. I want to be able to buy a house and support a family someday. You gotta hustle; you gotta do your thing.
A lot of people listen to [Do Things} and are like “oh, this is a fun, sunshiny album to listen to at the beach,” but it actually comes from a dark place.
Dent May plays a veritable avalanche of CMJ events this week: the Beats Per Minute showcase at Delinquency on Wednesday, October 17; the Forcefield PR showcase at Glasslands and the Paw Tracks/Carpark showcase at Cameo Gallery on Thursday, October 18; the Panache showcase at Public Assembly on Friday, October 19; and the Moscot showcase at Moscot Shop and the Village Voice showcase at the Cake Shop on Saturday, October 20. And, you know, don’t look now, but Dent May is standing behind you right now, reading off your iPhone over your shoulder, scheming on your girl, giving you bunny ears.