Jeremy Messersmith is pulling a Beyoncé.
Today, with no prior warning, the local indie darling drops the “kinda crazy secret” songbook 11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs for Ukulele: A Micro-Folk Record for the 21st Century and Beyond, available as a free PDF download on his website. On April 14, he’ll release the accompanying album and a YouTube playlist of music videos.
The 15-minute collection of “song-lettes” combines the eccentric wit of Andrew Bird with the playful wonder of Raffi. In these brief earworms, Messersmith touches on themes of love, politics, the natural world, and a future in which everybody gets a kitten.
Messersmith encourages active questioning on “Why” and marvels at the healing powers of the outdoors on “I’m A Snowflake, Baby.” “We All Do Better When We All Do Better,” dedicated to the late Senator Paul Wellstone, invokes a spirit of inclusivity. And the bonus track, “If You See A Nazi,” endorses the obvious “punch” line. Throughout, the songbook includes amusing instructions like “repeat ad nauseum,” “with unquenchable curiosity,” and “dancing on a raincloud.”
“They’re more like folk songs that are meant to be sung by people as opposed to having a very fancy, produced, recorded version of it,” explains Messersmith, who released the songbook before the record so people can hear the tunes in their own voices first. It’s meant to be a sing-along experience rather than a singer-listener dynamic.
The album resulted from two weeks of solitude in Lanesboro this February. In addition to reading, listening to music, and “processing all of the awful Donald Trump shit,” Messersmith ended up writing these ditties.
“I didn’t have any kind of an agenda. I didn’t plan on writing ukulele songs. I just got really frustrated with seeing the entire social contract just shredded,” he says. Contrary to an industry that promotes music that “sells booze and helps people get laid,” Messermith’s goal was to create something that “helps build community and binds people together,” he says. “I just wanted to do something that’s maybe contributing a tiny little drop in the bucket.”
Given that Messersmith has a new full-length coming out on Glassnote Records this summer (the release date is still TBD), isn’t he stealing his own thunder with this unconventional side project? “To steal thunder you kind of have to have thunder,” he says. “It’s been a pretty low-key couple of years for me. I’m not sure how much anything works anymore. The only thing I’m trying to do is do something really fun and maybe it will be cool, maybe it won’t. Who knows.”
Why the element of surprise? “I don’t really much like the slow media tease,” he says. As for giving it away for free, “I’d rather the songs found a home in people’s hearts.”
Messersmith hopes fans and fellow musicians alike will share cover versions of the songs on Soundcloud, YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere. He’ll be posting them on his website with the hashtag #ObscenelyOptimistic.
“It seems insane to me that it’s happening and that it got this far,” he says of his quirky project. We’ll take this kind of insanity over reality any day.