THERE'S A REASON pop auteur Todd Rundgren titled his 1978 magnum opus Hermit of Mink Hollow. Like much of his work, it was recorded alone, with Rundgren playing every instrument and overdubbing every vocal harmony. That sort of thing requires peace, quiet, patience and focus. And the solitude of a hermit.
Mississippi music-maker and Savannah Stopover alumnus Dent May used a similar methodology for his second full-length album, Warm Blanket.
May had always been a one-man studio band anyway, but his earlier stuff was recorded in his lo-fi Oxford bedroom.
For Warm Blanket, May booked a vacation rental home on the beach in St. Augustine, Fla. He didn’t know anyone in town, but he made sure he got a house that came with a grand piano. He and his muse stayed a month, and emerged with a collection of finely-crafted gems.
Fans of Rundgren in his Something/Anything period (“Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light”) or the legendary studio rat Emmit Rhodes (“She’s Such a Beauty,” “Fresh as a Daisy”) will find much to like in Dent May’s music, which has a sunny, Beach Boys/Matthew Sweet vibe with ribbons of airy harmonies and cascading melodic rivers.
Many of the songs on Warm Blanket (and the earlier Do Things) are rooted in funk and very ‘70s-sounding rhythm ‘n’ blues and disco. May didn’t experience all that music first-hand in Oxford; rather, he became infatuated with dance music through investigative downloading.
At the end of the day, his music can’t be easily classified. Which is how he likes it – like his heroes R. Stevie Moore and Joe Meek, “people who built these crazy worlds around themselves,” Dent May’s a studio geek with a never-ending supply of ideas.
Why did you rent the house in Florida to make Warm Blanket?
Dent May: Where I live, there's a lot of distractions. So I really just wanted to focus completely on making an album. I've always had this romantic notion of locking myself away in some exotic location and making an album. So that was the idea behind it. And it was a fun and interesting experience, for sure. I recorded the whole thing in the house. The instruments took up the most space – a lot of synths, and guitars. And just a really shitty interface I got from Guitar Center for $200. And my laptop.
Did you write something in the morning and record it that night? How did that work?
Dent May: I had a lot of songs written before I went there, in various states of completion, and I wrote a couple songs while I was there. So I structured my day like a normal work day – I woke up at 9, worked, had lunch, worked some more, had dinner and worked some more. When I'm at home and writing or recording in my bedroom, it's really hard to completely finish something because it's so open-ended. So I think that deadlines are a really healthy thing for me, creatively. I kind of have to make myself finish things, otherwise I'll just leave it open-ended and keep changing things. And keep throwing away a lot of ideas.
To me, it sounds very Pet Sounds. I'm sure that's no great surprise to you. That melancholy, wistful "Caroline No" kind of mood. As a songwriter, where is your emotional core?
Dent May: My emotional core just comes from my life and personal experiences, and my friends and loved ones and things like that. My musical core comes from the Internet, to be totally honest. But I did grow up singing in church and school choirs, and doing performing arts. So I've always loved classic, old-school songwriting. Of course including Brian Wilson, but also great songwriters like Harry Nilsson and Gershwin, classic country, Lee Hazelwood, people like that. But I also really like contemporary music – disco and funk, and I like rap and contemporary R&B and experimental music. I always wanted to try and combine it all into one thing. But the emphasis is really always the songwriting.
People always say my music is really retro, and that’s probably true. But the goal has always been to bring a classic songwriting sensibility into a more adventurous, kaleidoscopic sound. And that’s something I’m still working on, and something I hope to perfect in the future.
In our last interview, you described yourself as a “control freak,” and that’s why you play all (or most of) the instruments yourself. Live, though, you have to play with others. Can you actually have a democratic band?
Dent May: That's a really interesting questions ... since the album's come out, and I've been touring quite a bit, I've really valued playing with other musicians more than ever. Maybe no one can play it like me, but I can't play it like other fantastic musicians either. That really doesn't say much about my skills as a musician, because I'm really not that great at any of these instruments. I just try my best. And luckily, in Oxford there's lots of musician types with very flexible schedules, who play in a whole lot of different bands.
I think on my next record I’m going to have a band behind me, and a bunch of other musicians. I looked at making Warm Blanket as kind of a learning experience, and kind of a personal exercise in recording and songwriting. And I’m looking forward to trying it a little differently next time. Maybe going for something a little bigger. And recording in an actual studio.