Dent May put out one of the few truly great ukulele-driven records with 2009’s The Good Feeling Music Of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, and then he packed the instrument away forever. His latest album, Do Things, is an exercise in the art of soulful pop music (think Philly soul and Orange Juice), and is maybe the only true party album to come out this year.
I talked to Dent about the recording process, moving back to Mississippi from New York, Borges, indie bookstores and bocce ball. I should also point out that Dent might go down in history as the first Band Booking who wanted to talk even more about books before the conversation ended.
Jason Diamond: Something I found kind of interesting, the song titles on this album compared to the Good Feeling were more lighthearted, and the songs were less like vignettes than on the last record.
Dent May: Right.
Do you think your songwriting process changed at all?
Definitely. I feel like the first album I was definitely going for more of a storytelling, and almost more like I wanted to tell a funny story and be quirky and goofy and that’s something that I didn’t really like about the first album. And I’m thinking of songs like “God Loves You, Michael Chang” or something like that.
After all the ukulele stuff winded down I was kind of like what do I write about? I’m so lost. And then I just started writing about very basic ideas that I have about life and problems and feelings that I have. That was sort of a conscious decision but sort of just like out of necessity as well.
Is there any sort of like influence by books or literature on the way you write songs? You have very vivid lyrics.
Yeah, I mean to an extent. when I did the first album I was in college and I was an English major. I was living in Oxford, Mississippi which has a very long literary history and I was living with this guy who’s a writer, and I can’t really specifically say like what books influenced the writing specifically but I just know I was into storytelling more than I am now and I feel like the new lyrics are kind of more mantra kind of based. I wanted to just get to the basic feeling of what I wanted to say and just say it, rather than just try to come up with clever word play.
You went to NYU originally then you moved back to Mississippi, is that right?
Does it help like fuel your creative process to live down there?
Absolutely. I mean one big part of that is just people. I have a ton of friends that I grew up with that still live here. And a lot of them are musicians, a lot of them are writers, a lot of them are like just creative people. And also just the people that I don’t know down are just really nice, you know what I mean? The life is really relaxed, and New York is just hustle and bustle which is cool — but I’m not like a really competitive career oriented person.
I mean it’s really expensive up here compared to down there. What do you do when you’re not writing music, do you have other things, other hobbies, other jobs, other stuff like that?
Well actually my like main job for a long time was working at an independent bookstore called Square Books down here, which I’m not doing anymore. And before that, I worked at Lameria a bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, which is an independent bookstore. Both of those stores have been around since like the ‘70s and are really cool and not just great book stores but also a hangout spot for a lot of people. Kind of the center of like you know like a group of people and stuff. I worked at Square Books here in Oxford and I was working there when I made the first album and for a lot of the period of when I was writing this new one.
Are you a fan of Faulkner’s?
Yeah I’m a huge Faulkner fan, absolutely, you know. And you know you’re kind of forced to take classes in college and high school down here about him which is a good thing I think because it’s difficult to read, and I probably would have like given up on him if I didn’t have an interesting teacher, you know helping me, guide me, you know what I mean?
He’s weird, you know his language is just totally out there, and so it’s kind of funny like, that like there’s all these conservatives like dad’s coming into the bookstore and stuff, buying Faulkner, I’m like, “Hell yeah, I read that.” [laughs]
I know we talked, there’s the difference between the lyrics on the last album and the new one, but I guess I should ask since we’re talking about books, have you really never read Joyce, Whitman or Camus? [A reference to a lyric in one of his songs]
Uh, no I haven’t read all of them. And I had read them when I wrote the song, and that kind of goes back to what we were saying about like telling a story or like telling, from the perspective of the character. It’s still interesting to some extent, that I think the way that I did it on that album was something I wanted to get away from.
Did you just want to create an album people could have a good time to?
Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. And then after I got back to living in Mississippi, I mean people drink a lot, people party a lot, people having a good time, so, I want to make a record that you can party to and then you can listen to on headphones and think about heavy shit if you want to as well, you know what I mean? I definitely want to make fun music, and I think that’s something missing from a lot of music theses days — any kind of art, you get people that are like ‘Oh, I’m going to make art’ but they forget that it has to be interesting to like, to like encounter, you know what I mean?
Cool man. Anything else you want to say?
Oh yeah, I was going to ask you if you were a fan of Barry Hannah?
Oh yeah dude, Barry Hannah’s terrific.
Yeah, that was another big influence on me. I know he passed away a few years ago but he’s probably my favorite writer ever and he’s from Mississippi. And I think he’s really fun and delightful to read, you know what I mean? It’s just an adventure to read his sentences. And that you know he’s touching on something very deeper. He’s a hero of mine.
Any other writers you can think of?
I really like Eudora Welty — just ‘cause I grew up like a couple blocks from her.
And she was kind of a family friend, and I like her stuff but I haven’t really read it since college or whatever. But I do remember her growing up and seeing her around the neighborhood, and our grandmothers, my grandmother was friends with her. And you know it was kind of cool and it was something that affected me as a young kid; I remember going to the grocery store and Eudora Welty would be sitting there in a folding chair, in the isle, just observing life, and all these people would be like “Ms. Welty, what are you doing?” And she was like, “I’m just observing people, because I write about people and I want to understand people.” That’s something I’ll never forget.
And one of my favorite writers is Borges. I like puzzles and I like when a story is kind of like a puzzle that you have to like figure out. I feel like pop song writing can kind of be like that too.
Is there anyone you’ve read really recently that you really liked?
To be totally honest, I’ve been making this album, I didn’t read that much in the past year or two. Uh, that Atticus Lish (Tyrant) book, I read that like a week or two ago. I read Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick. That was probably the last book I read like all the way through.
What did you focus on in college as an English major? Was there anything specific –
You kind of have to focus on southern literature here. I don’t like a lot of that. I hate southern literature. I think Barry Hannah said that there’s nothing worse than a professional southerner. So I hate real hokey, “Oh, our southern fried, Dixie fried tales.” I’m not into that.
I like Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy’s another Mississippian who’s cool. I think my experience as an English major I think I was more like a reaction against what I was being told, as opposed to embracing what I was being told. If I could do it all over again I probably wouldn’t have gone into college to begin with, but it was pretty cool, it was fun [laughs].
Do you write stories when you’re not writing music?
No. I mean I have tried. I took a couple writing classes. Actually the name of the story I wrote was called “God Loves you Michael Chang,” before I wrote the song. I have an autographed shirt that says “God Loves You, Michael Chang.” And I just thought that was like a cool phrase that I was just kind of bouncing around.
So Michael Chang [the tennis player] signs t-shirts that way?
Yeah, he had this whole like Christian thing.
Do you still have the t-shirt?
Oh yeah it’s actually like a tennis shirt that he wore, like in a match or something.
Are you a big tennis fan?
I mean not specifically, but my dad is. He plays tons of tennis and like growing up we belonged to like a little tennis club thing, and I worked the counter, booking. Working mindlessly, like “Oh, you need a court? Go to court number four.”
Yeah, shitty summer jobs kind of thing.
I like leisurely sports that you can play when you’re old, you know what I mean?
Like bocce ball?
Yeah, bocce ball is great.
It’s become big here. People play it in bars. I don’t get why.
Yeah, I’ve seen like bocce courts and stuff. That’s when you start being like I hate bocce ball and see that and you’re like man, fuck bocce ball!