INTERVIEW WITH: Dent May
Interview by: Natalie Elliott
Dent May appeared on the indie music scene in 2009 with his debut, The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, a dulcet pop album both as elaborate and straightforward as its title suggests. It was hard not to guess whence this bespectacled lounge persona emerged, what with song titles like “Girls on the Square” and “College Town Boy,” and the self-referential lyrics describing “the softest boy in Mississippi.”
His sound is equal parts Brill Building and Beach Boys, not so distant from that other next-generation New York pop master, Stephin Merritt (lone static member of The Magnetic Fields). Except, in 2005, Dent dropped out of NYU film school after three semesters, realizing he’d rather dwell in his home state instead. Settling down in Oxford, finishing school, working at the legendary Square Books, and hanging out with writers-in-residence, Dent revealed himself to be another true Southern curiosity, informed by the potent literary culture surrounding him, his eternal infatuation with pop music, and his earnest enjoyment of life.
His sophomore album, simply titled Do Things, leaves behind the ukulele prop and wry lyrics in pursuit of true, heartfelt posi-pop, still rife with glittering melodies and addictive hooks—it’s actually a perfect summer album worthy of any steamy afternoon. We recently trekked to Oxford and sat down with Dent at his music collective/venue house, Cats Purring Dude Ranch, to discuss his songwriting process, his complicated relationship with Oxford, and the real reason why he won’t be picking up a ukulele any time soon.
Dent’s new album, Do Things, is now available for purchase.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: You grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. Did you have any experience in Oxford before you moved here?
DENT MAY: My parents lived here for a long time, and both my sisters were born here. It was kind of a home away from home, which I think is a common thing for kids from Jackson. They come up here for football games, to go to the Grove. I came here all the time when I was a kid, but I never wanted to live here.
When I graduated high school, I thought, “I’m never coming back to Mississippi!” Almost immediately when I was in New York for film school, though, I was like, “Yeah, I think I belong in Mississippi.”
THE OA: What took you to film school?
DM: I just thought it would be a cool major. That’s kind of what’s lame about film school—I felt like I was surrounded by a bunch of rich kids who wanted a cool major and weren’t really trying to be artists.
I felt like it was backwards. I feel like if you really want to make movies, just make them. It’s really easy and cheap these days—same with music. You don’t need college. I’ve learned more from other people and reading books and listening to music and watching movies than I ever did in school. So, yeah, drop out of school—fuck school—and do what you want to do.
THE OA: Do you feel more special or recognized being who you are and living in the South? As opposed to being just another dude hustling in Brooklyn?
DM: Yeah, that’s one thing about New York—there are a lot of bands. Down here, you don’t have to worry about the competition. It’s not about feeling special, because I’m not a competitive person. I want to do the best that I can, and I want everything I do to be better than what I did before, but I think a lot of people are career-oriented where I’m totally not.
In fact, I’m trying to avoid having a career. I don’t want a job. The hustle and bustle just isn’t for me. I specifically want to book bands to play here [at the Cats Purring Dude Ranch], for example, which would otherwise not be coming here. The same goes for my music. I want to make music that other people probably wouldn’t be making around here. I don’t want to go play blues music at a touristy bar. I want to be more adventurous.
THE OA: How did you decide that you wanted to make pop music?
DM: I always have. Even in junior high, I was in pop-punk bands, and then in high school I got into Elvis Costello and The Cars and power-pop music.
Pop is just part of who I am, partially because my parents had records by Bee Gees and The Carpenters and Olivia Newton-John. I always embrace the mainstream. My favorite shit is stuff that flips pop on its head—when mainstream pop is presented in a really weird and unexpected way.
THE OA: An example?
DM: Someone like Animal Collective: The production can be disorienting, but at heart it’s just great pop music. Even someone like Beyoncé—she’s sonically cutting edge most of the time.
THE OA: What do you think are the elements that make a perfect pop song?
DM: You can’t really put a finger on it, but it’s got to touch on some basic element of the human condition in a way that is really fun to listen to and experience. Like Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” I DJ wedding receptions, and when you put that on, all the actual single ladies are going crazy because they’re single, they’re at a wedding, and they want a man.
THE OA: How do you feel about Stephin Merritt/Magnetic Fields comparisons?
DM: It doesn’t bother me, but I think a lot of it is because he plays the ukulele. It’s the same thing with Jens Lekman. I definitely think that they’re great artists, but I haven’t listened to any of their stuff in a long time. I saw Jens Lekman live—we played a festival together—and he was great. I think any comparison is fine with me.
THE OA: A few years back, Merritt wrote an opera. Your songwriting is that similar kind of epic pop. Would you ever consider doing a large undertaking like a musical or opera?
DM: It’s funny you say that, because my friend Alex Warren—we have a video for “Best Friend”—is joining my band as the drummer, and we’ve been talking about doing a rock opera. We’ve been talking about Designing Women a lot, stylistically—the clothes they wear, and the personalities. Dixie Carter is amazing. We also like Tim & Eric and infomercials we watch on YouTube. I don’t really know where we’re going with all this, some psychedelic pop, homemade-but-ambitious project, but he’s going to start filming everything on tour.
THE OA: Are all of your albums arguably concept albums?
DM: I don’t know that they’re concept albums in the traditional sense. Do Things is just the concept of living life to the fullest, but it’s not a story. I was just thinking about the same stuff when I was writing the songs, and they just all ended up being inspirational in a way.
THE OA: Do you think you’ll ever do a ukulele-themed album again?
DM: No. Definitely not.
THE OA: Why “definitely not”?
DM: I don’t want to be known as “the ukulele guy.” I don’t want to be that guy, and I never did. It was always my intention to make that record, then make a country record, then make a dance album. And now, I just want to combine all of that. Maybe I’ll have a ukulele breakdown with a fat drumbeat behind it on the next record, but it’s not going to be like it was.
Some fans are pissed. At most of my shows, there’s one person who’s like, “Where’s the ukulele!” It’s fine with me if people don’t want to come see me anymore—good riddance. If the reason you liked me was because of the ukulele, then your music listening habits are very strange to me.
THE OA: Is your resistance to the ukulele a resistance to being pigeonholed as novelty music?
DM: Kind of. When I made that album, I was really into novelty music, or a lot of what people would call “outsider stuff.” I do want to play with the idea of novelty, because I think it’s bullshit—guilty pleasures, novelty, what does that even mean?
It came down to wanting to be more emotionally honest. I felt like I was hiding behind, like, “I’m going to tell a quirky story about Michael Chang,” or the academic conference. Those songs came from the heart, but I just want to be direct and write about things that everyone in the world experiences and not try to have punch lines at the end of every lyric.
I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a ukulele-schmaltzy lounge singer, but that is one very small aspect of who I am, and hopefully over the years there will be many aspects that people are able to talk about.
THE OA: I think that is the biggest departure from the ukulele album to Do Things. You did seem to be hiding behind your wit and what jokes you can make about intellectualism.
DM: Yeah, and I wrote a bunch of those songs when I was still in college. I hated college—I loved it, too—but I hated academia and, “College Town Boy” is kind of a bitter song. I was tired of living in a college town and I am the college town boy. I was afraid of who I was becoming and I was afraid that I would never do anything of note in my entire life. Then I toured all over the world and I didn’t know what to write about anymore. I didn’t want to make fun of anyone. So, it just happened naturally.
THE OA: Is “The Academic Conference” song based on your experience here?
DM: It’s not really specific about anything that’s happened, but the Annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference is coming up and I think this is about the time when I wrote the song last summer. There was no specific person I encountered, but I had a bunch of different ideas like that, about writing a song about a librarian or something.
I really feel like academia is the opposite of creativity, in a way. There are a million exceptions to that. There’s some cliché that goes, “Pop music says something really complicated in a simple way where academia says something simple in a really complicated way.” The former interests me much more. Actually, I don’t know if whoever said that was talking about pop music or not, but I am.
THE OA: What were you listening to when you were working on Do Things?
DM: A lot of r&b and rap from when I was a kid. The rap stuff was Cash Money from the ’90s in New Orleans, Three Six Mafia. I love Aaliyah, TLC. All of the beats are electronic beats—I was trying to go for that. I love Timbaland a lot. I was also listening to a lot of Beach Boys, because they’re my favorite band in the world.
THE OA: Can you tell me a little bit about how you feel Cats Purring fits into the scene in Oxford?
DM: The community in general is very important to me—friends are really important. There are a lot of cool kids coming here, and there’s more every year, because it’s a college town, and I swear they keep getting cooler. I feel that way—I’m not cynical at all about that.
Partially, I wanted to hang out with bands that I liked, I wanted them to come down here and have a good time. It is a Southern hospitality thing. I’m like, “Come on in!” I think the bands that play here have a blast, even if there aren’t as many people here, and we don’t pay as well (we never do, because we just can’t).
I really do want to make Oxford a better place and Mississippi a better place while I’m living here. I’m so glad the record store opened like two months ago. My friend David Swider is the manager, we DJed around town for years, and it’s a world-class record store called The End of All Music. I feel like Oxford is getting real hot. I’ve never been to a town this size that has as much going on.
THE OA: What do you think is the worst thing about Oxford?
DM: The size is a blessing and a curse. There are only a handful of bars that I feel comfortable going into. There are some bars—and this has happened in the past week—where I go in with friends and they look at us like we’re total freaks. I’ve been called a faggot millions of times living here. Some dude will be driving his truck down the street, and he’ll yell through the window at me. But that happens everywhere. It happened to me in New York City just as many times. I was called a faggot in New York last year. I was like, “Really? I’m not that different. I’m not that weird.” They were probably from out of town.
THE OA: Have you done any writing?
DM: A little bit. Not really. I took a writing class from Jack Pendarvis. I haven’t really tried that much. I don’t read like I used to when I worked at the bookstore and when I was in college. I’ve just focused on music so hard. I don’t want to be a fiction writer, but my favorite fiction blurs the line about whether it’s fiction or not. I’d like to do something like that. I just don’t want to be the musician who’s like, “I have a novel now!” Fuck that.
THE OA: You’re buddies with Jack—do you have any other Oxford literati buddies?
DM: I love everyone. Barry Hannah was a huge influence on me. I was lucky enough to know him a little bit. We jammed on music together before, which was cool. He was really cool and supportive of everyone here. His writing is great.
I love the Howorths, who keep the bookstore going and who have done so much for this town. Richard Howorth was mayor. Tom Franklin’s a really cool dude. That’s the best thing about the bookstore and the Faulkner stuff that brings people here. Faulkner’s a really weird writer, so people who come here for him tend to be really interesting.
THE OA: You write and record basically in isolation. Can you give me a glimpse into your songwriting process?
DM: Usually I come up with a little fragment of an idea that I play on piano, sometimes on guitar, and I record that on my iPhone, with lyrics attached. Sometimes there’s a melodic idea or a lyrical idea that I have—sometimes they come together immediately. As far as writing, that happens any time. But, to record, I feel like it’s best to just have a free day to do it. You’d be surprised what you can get done in one day. I’m not a laid-back worker. I’m a daytime worker. I’m a late night hanger-outer.
THE OA: Is there a certain way that you dress for gigs? Do you have a fashion ethic for performances?
DM: I used to. When I first started with the ukulele, I would have a bubble machine and change into a kimono halfway through the show, which is awesome, but I reacted against who I was in a weird way. I just want to be honest. I want to dress like myself. In the “Best Friend” video, it’s kind of theatrical and I dress up, which is cool. But for a live performance, where I’m singing songs that I wrote, I just want to be there singing them.
THE OA: When did you first realize you could sing beautifully in falsetto?
DM: When I was like eight years old I was in Mississippi Children’s Choir. We traveled all over the country. It’s been something that I’ve always worked with or knew I was capable of. I don’t think that people exploit the possibilities of their voice as an instrument. I love that Bjork album where it’s only the human voice—it sounds like an orchestra. You would never know.
All photographs by Nicholas Pippins.