Although singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Dent May doesn't sound like it when he speaks, he's from Mississippi. Specifically, Jackson, but May currently lives in Oxford, Miss., where he moved after spending some time at New York University. Likewise, his music doesn't sound "Southern" in that "Sweet Home Alabama" sort of way; instead think Brian Wilson's sunshine-soaked yet melancholy Smile-era songs. May is proud to be a Southerner, but his music transcends regional constraints. It is rooted in his Southern identity, but the branches reach out elsewhere.
"My identity as an artist is wrapped up in my sense of home and my sense of identity as a Southern person," May said in a recent phone interview. "I didn't necessarily want to be from Mississippi when I was growing up, so most of my heroes were not Southern. It took me coming back to Mississippi after I lived in New York to really appreciate a lot of it.
"There is a great creative community here in Oxford," May said. "It's more well known as a literary town: William Faulkner was from here, and one of my literary heroes, Barry Hannah, lived here until he died a few years ago; and there's a famous bookstore and a great creative writing program on campus, and so I feel like I'm almost more influenced by the literary things than I am from music things, sometimes."
May's songs definitely have a literary bent; there's even a song on his first album, 2009's The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele called "At the Academic Conference." Generally, his lyrics are thoughtful and clever without being pretentious or overbearing, and are often subtly narrative.
"When I first started writing songs, I was maybe even more influenced, like I would try to make my songs like little stories," he said. "I think that was more the case on my first album, the ukulele album, but then I got into writers like Donald Bartolomé and Samuel Beckett and Borges and stuff, who write less linear and more philosophical short stories. ... Now I aspire for more indirect, more esoteric songwriting that lets the listener fill in the blanks."
To record his most recent album, 2013's Warm Blanket, May rented an old house in St. Augustine, Fla., and sequestered himself there for a month. "I knew I wanted to go away from Mississippi and record in solitude," he explained. "Aesthetically I'm really into old houses, and I was really interested in finding a place that had a really cool aesthetic."
The solitude ended up influencing the record more than the aesthetics of the house. "Being alone for a month, away from anyone that I knew, it turned into being more of a lonely album than I probably ever felt that it would be," May said. "Not that it's that lonely of an album, but I was definitely pulling my hair out, kind of going insane for a while there."
Warm Blanket documents some of this insanity. Musically, it's full of enthusiastic horns and '60s-era swells, with synthesizer quips occasionally reminding the listener that this was indeed made in the 21st century. Lyrically, the songs deal with loneliness and all that comes with it—lost love, mortality, insecurity and so on. On "Born Too Late," May sings, "Am I lonely just because?/ Now I'm learning that I was born too late to tell you that I love you baby," with a funky guitar riff in the background.
"My goal is to take everything I like and just kind of rip it up, fuck it up, and mix it up, and put it back together into something that's new and interesting," May said. That can mean elements of Top 40 pop music (May is not shy about his love for Beyoncé) blended with older, classic pop.
"I'm really interested in all kinds of music and art, and I think that with the Internet, now we live in a post-genre world where you can draw from Beyoncé and experimental music at the same time," he said. "Not that my music is that experimental, necessarily, but I do enjoy taking inspiration from Top 40 and filtering it through a more subversive lens, and vice versa.
May said he grew up "with the Beach Boys being probably my favorite band, and just in general a lot of '60s pop, and '50s pop, like the Everly Brothers and the Zombies and the Hollies, so I feel like I'm definitely influenced by classic, melodic pop and rock 'n' roll music, because that's what my parents had in their record collection. I also grew up singing in musicals—I went to this performing arts elementary school so I was in West Side Story and Annie and shit, so I feel like I have a very classic sense of songwriting and melody. But like I said, my goal is to try and take that and kind of fuck it up in a contemporary setting."
May's deviations are so subtle and thoughtful that they seem perfectly natural within the context of the songs. Take, for example, "It Takes a Long Time," which starts as a Burt Bacharach-like pop song complete with a pop piano melody, horns, a shaker and background "ooohs," but then pauses momentarily for May to sing "My God, it's maddening!" as the instruments hold a monotone and the percussion quickens. "Born Too Late" holds a funky dance beat that gives way to swelling strings toward the end as May realizes, "Or maybe it's you were born too soon."
"The whole song is the closest essence to who I am as an artist that I've done so far," May said of the song." "I was at a point in the album where it was all really slow and ballads and stuff, and I was like, you know, I love funky jams, I'm going to write a funky hit. And I kind of wrote it to be the single of the album. And that's the one that I really wrote completely while I was in St. Augustine. Most of the other songs, I had either the idea of the song, the title, or melody, or something in my head about it. I had this huge list of songs in progress that I drew from, and that was one where, halfway in, I was like, you know what? This is a pretty decent album, but I need something that's going to be really fun."
Warm Blanket, despite its lonely motif, is on the whole a fun record, full of infectious refrains. It's a long way from May's first ukulele album, and a long way from traditionally Southern pop and rock music. But that is the point.
"It's really important to me to keep learning and changing as an artist and I never want to settle down creatively," May said. "It's an adventure, and I think the explorative nature of making music is really something unique—it's trying things and seeing if they work or not."