Contrary to a song on his new record released just last week, Dent May says he’s not ready to skip through his life and be “old and wrinkly and gray” just yet. However, as we talk about the inspiration behind his third studio album, Warm Blanket, his time spent in St. Augustine, Fla. to write and record it and his plans to take the new material on tour, we continually come back to the heavy subjects of aging and death.
We talk about Kanye West. He thinks Yeezus is “the most adventurous mainstream album” he can think of.
We talk about Beyonce. He dreams of writing a song like “Single Ladies” that might be covered at wedding receptions for years to come.
We talk about Oxford. He says the inexpensive rent and the familiar people of his small, historic town in northern Mississippi are enough to keep him from moving to more musically hip cities like L.A. or New York.
He mentions his desire to produce pop songs for Taylor Swift and Rihanna, his frustration with publications that assign music a score between one and 10 based off of just one or two listens and even the possibility of the ukulele making a comeback in future material.
But we keep coming back to death.
“I’m constantly battling this idea of mortality and that I’m going to die,” he says from a balcony overlooking Oxford’s charming downtown square. “Call me an egomaniac if you want to but I’m just obsessed with death. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
For those who don’t know, May was discovered by Animal Collective back in 2008 when they traveled to Mississippi to record their masterpiece of an album, Merriweather Post Pavillion. They saw him play and swiftly signed him to their Paw Tracks label. A year later the world got The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, a seemingly lighthearted debut that was gloriously melodic and—as the title would suggest—extremely uke-heavy.
It was three years before May finally got around to releasing Ukulele’s follow-up, a delay he attributes to his becoming “jaded with music and pursing art as a profession.” And the extended gap showed itself in a dramatic shift of sound. Last year’s Do Things saw the 28-year-old musician transitioning from porch swing to dancefloor, exchanging playful uke strumming for an equally dreamy mix of shiny synths and calculated drum machine beats.
“I just needed a break to tell people that I’m not the ukulele guy, solely,” he says. “I have visions of me dying and the headline is like ‘Ukulele Guy Dies,’ and I’m like, ‘no, no, no, that is not me.’”
Now, barely a year after the laid-back jams of Do Things soundtracked the gym sessions and pool parties of ‘IndieSummer2012,’ it seems May is still not done making that distinction. Last week’s Blanket once again keeps the magnificent uke out of the spotlight, but, thankfully, it throws a whole lot more of May into it.
“In my earlier recordings, I was afraid to really put myself out there. I used humor and the ukulele and the quirkiness as a shield to block people from seeing who I really was,” he says. “Honestly, I’m kind of trying to cut the bullshit now.”
He certainly has made a step forward with the new LP. Veiled in hip and groovy production, the tracks on Blanket will likely be blasted out of car windows of listeners on late-summer joyrides, but they tackle much heavier themes than his past records. Issues range from aging and relationship issues (specifically how those two affect each other) to gossiping townies and, once again, death.
“At one point in my life, I was really overwhelmed and crushed by how small I am in this universe, and I’m constantly thinking about my mortality and my loved ones’ mortality—all of these heavy thoughts,” he says. “But now, instead of crushing me, it empowers me. It pushes me to create more music because it’s all that I have in the world to leave. My legacy when I die is these records.”
Following two fairly stylized, seemingly cutesy albums, it would be easy to assume that May is just another apathetic yet marginally talented guy with music software on his computer trying to stay relevant through means of a ‘cool kid’ persona. He’s not.
Over the course of our hour-long interview, it isn’t his jokes or his charm that carry our discussion, though he supplies plenty of both. It’s his undeniable belief in his own artistic merit and his ambition to be remembered long after his death.
“When I die, I want to have a huge body of work. That’s the number one thing,” he says. “Hopefully, I’ll have a long life of albums, maybe some movies, maybe some books, a few acting roles in Hollywood, start a business, a fashion line—everything.”
Though he acknowledges that the likelihood of actually achieving all of this isn’t really that great, I get the feeling that he truly thinks he can do it. If he doesn’t manage, it certainly won’t be from a lack of effort on his part. The guy is seriously driven.
Though our interview takes place barely a month before the release of Blanket, May excitedly tells me that he already has another album written that he intends to record within the year. He says he might try record it before Blanket is even released.
“I’m just trying to take advantage of the time that I’m here because it’s very precious. You learn that as you get older. You start seeing people die,” he says. “And honestly, I’d rather leave behind an album than a baby at this point.”
We both laugh at the outrageousness of that comment.
It’s nice to see a guy who admits that he sometimes “struggles to pay the bills, straight up” enjoying himself. He sure has earned the right to. May has just released the most honest and mature album of his career, one that exposes extremely personal relationship details that, when questioned about, he says he’d rather not discuss publicly. The truth is, he doesn’t have to. He says it all in the music.
If Ukulele saw May covered in a cloak of charm and cheer and Do Things was his attempt at pulling up his sleeves and showing some skin, then Blanket sees him discarding the whole veneer altogether and standing naked (metaphorically, of course) to expose some of his deepest insecurities, secrets and fears to a very unprepared audience.
And the audience could be the trouble for May. His previous releases may have trained listeners to dance and sway with their eyes closed, content to enjoy the “good feeling” sound without looking too closely for depth. As a result, the most difficult task Blanket faces could be just getting people to look up and see the vulnerability that is right in front of them. But if May feels any pressure to wake anybody up, he sure doesn’t show it.
“I realize that some people are dealing with big questions in life and others just want to shake their booty to a funky beat,” he says. “I’m just trying to give them both.”
Once again, we chuckle at his knack for spitting out cleverly constructed quotes.
“Is this thing on?” he jokingly asks while pointing to my recording device, wondering if the rest of the world will get a chance to appreciate his efforts.
I assure him that it is, and they will.