Ten-ish years ago, on the bus commute between his home in Minneapolis and his job as a guitar teacher at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Jeremy Messersmith wrote much of an album that he later recorded at the public library’s studio with Laurels String Quartet — paid for with money he made from playing a house concert.
“It was a shoe-string kind of thing,” Messersmith said in a phone interview. “I spent a lot of time trying to make (the songs) as good as I could. We made the whole album in a weekend — that was the only time we could get off work.”
Messersmith will revisit “The Reluctant Graveyard” during a concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Sacred Heart Music Center — a first time at the venue for the musician who has played other spots in town ranging from Bayfront Festival Park, to Glensheen, to the Rafters at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He will be joined by a quartet of string players from the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra.
The stop is part of a pandemic-delayed series of anniversary shows celebrating the 2010 release.
“It seems to be the one that people have consistently liked most, out of all of my efforts,” he said. “This one has stuck around in people’s hearts a little more.”
Messersmith made his debut in 2005 with “The Alcatraz Kid” and continued to build a regional following with “Silver City,” produced by Dan Wilson. With “The Reluctant Graveyard,” he created a sweet-voiced mix that is sometimes psychedelic, sometimes folky — songs set in a time of carpeted basement walls, sing-along circles, or tambourines played by carefree humans in flower crowns.
Lyrically, he sometimes leans grim: ice breaking on January lakes, lightning strikes, tithes left at altars and endings.
“Dillinger Eyes,” which Messersmith said he specifically remembers writing on the bus, is the ballad of a lawless character who bears a likeness to the Depression Era gangster and a photographer who caught the image of his death scene. “Organ Donor” has images of ice water veins, gray bones, a spine left behind and blood drained in a mortuary.
“I feel like my life has been a series of existential crises,” Messersmith said. “I was trying to orient myself with the cosmos — and death is the final word.”
The cover has black and white skeleton people dressed in wedding wear at the gate of a cemetery. The album was noted in a New York Times roundup of overlooked highlights from 2010, and was named second-best album of the year by Twin Cities' critics. Songs from it appeared on shows like "Ugly Betty" and "Chuck."
Ten years, plus a pandemic, later Messersmith said that he has aged into a more well-adjusted, boring, middle-aged man. He home-brews beer, he said, and completes home projects.
He spent the past year and a half playing games online, self-soothing, baking cookies and writing songs about how he was bored and lonely and missed his friends.
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“Most of them were pretty terrible,” he said.
He tried streaming shows, but found it challenging.
Once Messersmith is done with an album, he doesn’t listen to it again. By then he has heard it thousands of times, he said, and obsessed over every minute thing.
But a few months ago, he sat down with “The Reluctant Graveyard.” He recalled saying to his bandmate Andy Thompson, “This is kind of good, I think. It kind of rocks a little bit. There’s a youthful buoyancy to it — juxtaposed with a bunch of songs about death.”
Messersmith played an outdoor show at The Hook and Ladder in Minneapolis in May — which he described as emotionally intense.
He continued to play outdoor shows, weather willing, through the summer and recently sold out a matinee and night show at The Cedar in Minneapolis right before Halloween.
Rehearsing for “The Reluctant Graveyard” alongside his best friends/bandmates Thompson, Brian Tighe and Dan Lawonn has been a joy, he said.
“It was hard to not see them and not make music with them,” he said. “We were rusty, not just musically, but socially. Everything was awkward and stilted. The past few rehearsals, where it’s starting to feel like a real musical machine again, it’s so fun.
“The musical machine is being put back together again."
Messersmith has played shows all over Duluth, including Teatro Zuccone, the former Tycoons, Pizza Luce and more. But this will be his first at one of the specific premiere venues.
"Singing a bunch of songs about death in a church," he said. "It all takes me back to youth group days."
Christa Lawler is a features reporter for the News Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.