Once known for his magical ukulele, Dent May has since proved he’s more than just a novelty act. Combining a hyper-awareness of his own mortality with the musical likeness of the Beach Boys, Dent has learned to embrace his anxieties and fears and is more than committed to keeping the south weird.
Surrounded by the taxidermy-filled walls of the Sportsman, Dent and I talk about film school, Miley Cyrus, and his favorite part of your best friend’s wedding.
ASHLEIGH DYE: Your most recent record, Warm Blanket, was recorded while you were isolated in a home in St. Augustine, Florida. Was this something new that you tried just for this album?
DENT MAY: It was kind of something I discovered when I was recording my second album, Do Things. I worked on it and worked on it for a year and it still wasn’t finished. My friend had this cabin isolated in this cotton field and I locked myself there for a few weeks and finished the album. I really found out how much harder you can work when you have a deadline and you isolate yourself like that. I always had this romantic idea of going to this old home by myself with recording gear and just making an album in solitude. I don’t think that’s necessarily how I’ll always work but it was totally in an experiment in what can I do and where can I take this if I get away from my friends, and into a old Victorian home with a grand piano.
AD: How diligent were you with the solitude aspect, did you have any contacts in St. Augustine before you went?
DM: I tweeted ‘I’m in St Augustine for a month, do I know anyone here?” This girl Emily Rio, who’s a really cool musician from Orlando, gave my information for a couple people who ran music blogs, and photographers, and I met a ton of people there. I would work from 10 am to 8 or 9 pm then hang out with people. I try and treat music like a job, I try and get 10 or so hours in a day and then let myself forget about it. Maybe listen to it before I go to bed, then start again tomorrow. So it wasn’t total isolation, I don’t think I could do that. No matter where I am, I have to find a bar or something where I can get out and see some faces, even if I don’t talk to anyone.
AD: That’s almost a different form of isolation, being somewhere but not knowing anyone.
DM: Definitely. I’m thinking about going to this family cabin on a lake when I get home to do some writing, but that’d be way more isolating.
AD: So you went to film school briefly at NYU, and relocated to Oxford, Mississippi, which was not where you were living prior to NYU. What brought you to Oxford instead of returning home?
DM: Well, Oxford is where a lot of my friends moved, the State University is there. What really convinced me to move there’s this Southern Studies Program. It’s this inner disciplinary study of the south: culture, art, politics, civil rights, everything. I thought that was an interesting thing to confront, because I grew up hating being from the south, and I wasn’t very comfortable with Mississippi. Being in New York for a couple years really made me evaluate who I am.
AD: Do you think your time in New York gave you a better appreciation for the South?
DM: It did, but I’m still acutely aware of all the problems in the South. The reason I stay there, not to sound conceited, is because it needs people there who are making weird music. The main thing I learned at NYU was that I didn’t want to go to art school. I was in film school, but I’ve been writing songs since I was 12 and I spent a lot of time writing songs while in New York and I realized that if I want to be an artist I need to do it on my own terms. I didn’t want to do it in an academic environment. It’s important to have your mentors and heroes, but the first day of class they said “raise your hand if you want to be a director,” and they said “Well, start coming up with a back-up plan now because, statistically, maybe one of you will make a feature film one day.” Crushing people’s dreams on day one. NYU is very much a machine-churning people out to work in the industry. I learned a lot about what I don’t want to do.
AD: Do you ever incorporate your film experience into making music videos?
DM: I am very hands on with my music videos, I’ve co-directed some of them. I’m always making them with my friends so its already sort of loose delegation of roles. The “Born Too Late” video was all my idea, but, and this is another thing I learned about film school is that, I don’t really want to touch the camera. I just want to write. I would like to be the boss of someone and tell them what I want it to look like.
AD: I think that’s everyone’s ideal situation. Which has been your favorite video to work on so far?
DM: Definitely the “Born Too Late” one. We just had so much fun making it. I went to the Neshova County Fair and we went water skiing and to a waterfall. That’s kind of my philosophy with things, lets have fun, and then that will translate to everything else.
AD: You’ve talked before about how feelings of anxiety you experience paradox your music. Would you say the breezy vibe your music has is an embodiment of how you wish you could feel at times?
DM: For sure, I don’t like to use the word escapism, but it is a way to channel my desires. I like a lot of dark stuff, but I want my music that can make people feel better. I feel as if being happy and being sad is something that everyone has to go through, so I want to chew it up and spit it out and go for more of a melancholy, blissful sound. Where it’s like finding comfort in existential anxiety instead of drowning in it. When I first started touring I was so scared, really scared, I’ve totally changed so much and let that go and learned to use the fear, because that’s what makes me human. Now I get a kick out of [it] – I’m thrusting myself out into the unknown and it makes me excited.
AD: You’re super connected to your own mortality and aging. It’s something that’s been discussed a lot, but when did this sort of fascination come about for you?
DM: I guess it’s not really a conscious decision. I’ve always been a high anxiety person, and as I’ve said I think I’ve really improved a lot in that realm. It’s just something I can’t stop thinking about, I can’t remember not feeling that way. I think everyone is aware of their mortality to a certain degree. I don’t want to focus on that in all my music forever, but its something, as a 28 year-old, that I think about. Making music is the best response I have to my own mortality, to make a record of my existence. There’s this Zen philosophy, to me its about being at peace with the world and yourself.
AD: You had a lot of theater and show experience growing up. You were in plays when you were young and had a strong affinity for Olivia Newton John and The Partridge Family. How do you think these interests you had affected your sound today?
DM: I think growing up I had absolutely no concept of coolness, or what was cool. My parents had Olivia Newton John records and I wouldn’t be one, now, to say “You gotta check out this Olivia Newton John record!” But I kind of have this anti-cool thing where there are superficial cultural signifiers people apply to music, because it has certain reference points. You know there’s always the question of what is good taste? And I love people like John Waters or Tennessee Williams who challenge good taste. It wasn’t until I started using the Internet in high school when I realized what was “cool.” Part of my motive as an artist is to embrace anything and everything. I fantasized about having a family-band for a long time growing up.
AD: You have this sort of M.O. about always embracing the mainstream – what are your thoughts on today’s mainstream, with Miley Cryus and twerking, etc?
DM: Twerking is hilarious to me because its been going on in the south since like 1995! But I love Miley Cryus, she’s weird and surreal, she’s not typical Hollywood pun-up sexy. You know, you’re pushing people’s buttons so more power to you.
AD: Right, she’s so raunchy and it really freaks people out, but you give someone all this power you can’t shame them for what they do with it. Would you say that’s another reason you’re so fascinated with the mainstream, because you have millions of people buying into one person’s act?
DM: Yes! I’m always really curious about it. I want to know what the people are into and why. There’s this sociological aspect to it, I just want to know why. There’s also this visceral power of pop music that is undeniable. I DJ a lot of weddings so it’s my job to find the most bearable pop songs. It’s really special when you put on single ladies by Beyonce and everyone goes crazy!
AD: The mainstream can be pretty unifying in that way.
DM: Exactly, and I’ve always wanted to kind of marry that with a more sonically adventurous kind of thing. To combine that feeling that you get when you’re at your best friend’s wedding and that cheesy pop song comes on with a weirder zone.
AD: So, Cats Purring, the venue space and sort of collective you ran, is that still existing or is it on more of a hiatus now?
DM: I still live there, but we haven’t had a house show in about a year now. Cats Purring was always a sentiment that a group of friends share, and that still very much exists. It’s not really active in the way that it was, but its never going to die. Its my fault. I very specifically wanted to focus on my music and when I was booking shows and keeping the TUMBLR updated I wasn’t really making music. I want to work on writing songs everyday of my life and I’m touring pretty regularly.
AD: How do you think this collective affected you creatively?
DM: There were a few of us that wanted to get our music out of Mississippi. Whenever you go to a college town it seems there’s always this local music scene full of bands who rarely play outside of their city, who don’t really know or care about touring. So Cats Purring was kind of a way for us to do that; we all shared the account and it was just a way for us to get it out there. Other blogs weren’t picking us up so we made our own and we wanted to meet all these cool bands. We had such a great roster come through there, but spending all this time touring allows me to feel more a part of an international community.