The first song I ever heard from the moniker Mixtape for the Milky Way came in as a submission in a stack of many other singer songwriters. The track was “Heavy” and it immediately lived up to its name. It was light hearted in the composition with an acoustic guitar and a piano, but the music cried out for love and acceptance. The lines had that poetic pointed quality that rarely comes through in a “random” submission. I was intrigued. I covered the track. When the second Mixtape track came in, it was “Video Games,” a song that will make my 2020 song of the year list. I was hooked. I needed to know more.
I scrolled down the bio information from the Mixtape submissions and saw quickly that they were the work of accomplished singer songwriter Jeremy Messersmith. Fans of the site will be familiar with that name as his 2018 album Late Stage Capitalism won my album of the year. His writing is at a truly elite level; I was dumbfounded that these amazing songs were being released as a side project. I reached out for an interview and was incredibly happy to be given the chance to talk with such a talented artist.
The interview, like everything else this year, was conducted via online video chat. Messersmith was cordial, welcoming, and even forthcoming in his answers. We started with my obvious burning question – why are these songs being released as a side project from a solo artist? He took the question in stride, explaining that he writes a lot of music and not all of it is a fit for his main band and sound, which leans a bit more pop rock. This act, Mixtape for the Milky Way, is more focused on stripped down, honest compositions that deal more with experience. Even the production of the songs focus on the “narrator’s voice,” that is to say the solo vocal from Messersmith. Production credit goes to John Mark Nelson, who produced, engineered, and arranged many of the tracks. Messersmith said that he even spent time working on changing his vocal tone from the projection style of pop rock to more of the intimate, expressive quality of folk singer songwriter.
When I asked about the name of the new act, Messersmith mentioned that it was a nod to Carl Sagan. This is not surprising to anyone who has listened to Messersmith’s writing on either his solo work or the Mixtape as he unabashedly pursues questions of religious and spiritual topics. The album art for the Mixtape is rooted in natural/scientific imagery which I’m certain is also related to the intentionality of the sound and message. These are not songs meant to be belted out at the club or danced to, really. They are songs meant for conteplation and, in some cases, probably confession.
The non-fiction, experienced based style of the Mixtape immediately stands out from the clever, witty, almost sarcastic lyrical style of Messersmith’s solo work. He surprisingly manages his clever wordplay while maintaining a seriousness to tackle difficult social and cultural issues as viewed through “the narrator’s” eyes.
As I mentioned, “Video games” was a particularly poignant track for me, so I took advantage of the opportunity to ask Messersmith about the inspiration for the song. I wanted to know more about his gaming as it was a direct connection for me to the emotion of the song and what felt like the heart of a songwriter that I could understand. He said he’s been playing the rereleased version of the Zelda franchise and, of course, Animal Crossings on Switch. In one fell swoop, Messersmith joked about trading resources and having fun with friends… then transitioned to an argument about the value of games as “modern religion” with their “interstitial reality.” I loved it. We could have talked about this for hours. Maybe some day – in the great beyond – we will.
“Life isn’t much like a video game. Sometimes it’s hard and there’s nowhere to save and you can’t start it over again.”
Another track that resonated with me was “More than it hurts you.” A lot about the song just needs to stand on its own, but I will mention that there should be a trigger warning for domestic violence on this one. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you need. — I asked kind of a loaded question about this one, whether or not Messersmith thought that it was an anti-Christian song. He said that he has written plenty of them as “part of his processing,” but that this song wasn’t intentionally meant to be that. He said, plainly, “just me trying to understand.” The songs lyrics are about the line between discipline and abuse. The climax of the song is about God’s relationship to his own son Jesus, according to Christianity, and the moment of crucifixion being a moment where it “hurts me more than it hurts you.” It’s an amazing example of Messersmith’s songwriting gift to bring up subjects that you might not ever contemplate or discuss without such a poetic, beautiful processing. The folk narrative style makes a very difficult, emotional, and personal subject feel more accessible.
If you were moved by the song and need to reach out for help regarding domestic violence or abuse, please contact www.thehotline.org or call 800.799.SAFE (7233).
One of my favorite parts of the entire interview was the way in which Messersmith was wholly and completely himself. That is to say, he could come across with a lofty “rockstar” personality if he wanted, but he remained quite grounded and accessible. This is why my initial question about the differences between the Mixtape and his solo work was so plainly misguided. In fact, Messersmith is the same songwriter on both projects; the key difference is that the Mixtape tracks are based on personal experience while the solo work is based on ideas and philosophical concepts.
Messersmith explained that songwriting is a joy for him and exploration of an idea. When I asked about influences for this project, he mentioned names like Sufjan Stevens and Phoebe Bridgers, but he also was quick to point out that they were songs that came from him, deeply and personally. When I asked about the actual songwriting process, Messersmith really lit up. He said that he went to a cabin with no Internet and allowed boredom to be his muse. He goes to great lengths to engineer time for the creative process. But he did explain that the pragmatics of writing music involve melodies on voice memos with lists of song titles or lyric concepts. He writes a draft and then condenses over and over again. One of my favorite parts of the interview was when Messersmith mentioned that his background in computer programming influences the way that he gives logic to his songs. They are about “chasing a feeling,” but at the same time they are encoding information for the listener. This is why when you listen to his writing, you can follow the narrative so well. He’s not writing pithy lines just to look smart; he’s telling a story and ultimately introducing listeners to a new perspective on the world.
He quoted e.e. cummings’ insight about the need to unlearn what you know to discover who you are. These songs are evidence of that unlearning process, written over time in the midst of many other songs that were released under the solo project. Given that this Mixtape took shape over time, I asked about the timing of the album release in 2020. Messersmith and I shared some nervous laughter about this year and the significant uncertainty that holds. All of the songs, he said with a wink, are heavy. So he decided to release two per month throughout the fall and winter. We have had the pleasure of hearing several of them, although I won’t highlight them all here. Please, go listen to the rest of these exceptional compositions. Messersmith hopes that the songs will help us all bridge the gap between the end of 2020 and what we all hope will be a more promising next year. Cheers to that.
When I asked about these songs being released under a pseudonym, Messersmith said, “it’s not important people know that it’s me.” But now that you know who it is behind this remarkable album, please do share. If you are in the mood to support an artist, please consider going to Mixtape for the Milky Way’s Bandcamp. Let’s make sure that these excellent thoughtful songs find a listening audience and can cultivate careful reflection into the new year.