Analogue Music | Dent May

Dent May

By Matt Conner

Dent May's arms are wide open, because they have to be.

For as long as Dent May has been making records, he's also taken on a "bittersweet" long-term posture—a musical mix of whimsy and melancholy, levity and gravity—perhaps with a commitment to err on the side of fun.

For those who've been around for the entirety of Dent May's career, it's not all that surprising to know that an artist whose debut was titled The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele isn't all that precious about his output. The craft itself? That's another subject.

These days, May is promoting a sixth album, What's For Breakfast? (Carpark Records), marked with collaborations and charisma and we're hooked. You will be, too. We recently sat down to chat with May about his musical values, the first songs he ever wrote, and James Van Der Beek.

Analogue: I’m watching the new videos thinking about how fun they must be to make and it occurred to me that’s really a throughline for your new album as well. Is that a goal from the outset to keep things lighter through your craft? I hate to use the word “fun” because that feels simple and limiting, but I hope you get what I mean.

Dent May: Yes, I do. First of all, the word that I’ve landed on as far as the nature of my music and videos is “bittersweet.” I do find myself gravitating toward making music that’s really enjoyable and fun. I mean, my first album was called The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele. [Laughs] But I try to hide more melancholy ideas and thoughts and feelings in there.

A combination of the two for me is not just what I want to go for in my own music, but what I like about art and what seems to me to be the crux of what life is all about. It’s embracing the melancholy as well as the blissful. So the new single, “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun,” is quite literally about this. It doesn’t go too sad in tone with the lyrics like some others, but it acknowledges that time flies away and you can’t go back.

'I find myself crying when I hit that chorus or that one line that I want to sing over and over again. I’m overwhelmed with emotion."

I think the word “nostalgia” applies because my music is a little bit retro. Also, there’s a commentary about how music is so retro now and there are no new ideas. But I was thinking of this recently because someone online had posted about the etymology of the word nostalgia and said it was “the pain of returning home” or “homesickness.” So again there’s a bittersweet, blissful melancholy delivered through “good feeling music.”

Analogue: Is that a response to the lack of it elsewhere?

Dent: I do find a lack of sense of humor in music, and I think a lot of artists take themselves seriously. I take what I do seriously but everything I like—movies I like, books I like—its funny. I also see myself as an entertainer as well. It’s not me saying, ‘Oh, I’m pouring my heart out. This is my diary. This is my therapy.’ It’s actually not like that at all. I really want to make somebody’s day better.

Analogue: Is there any part of this that’s cathartic for you?

Dent: it is in the moment that I am writing the song. It is, of course, very cathartic. I find myself crying when I hit that chorus or that one line that I want to sing over and over again. I’m overwhelmed with emotion. It is very cathartic and therapeutic but so is going to the beach with my girlfriend. I wouldn’t say that is why I’m an artist, y’know? I’m sure deep down it is a big factor and maybe why I was pulled to it originally as a lonely teenager or something like that.

There’s also a very common conversation among musicians and other types of artists like, ‘Do you think about the audience? Do you make music for yourself?’ It’s a very popular thing for a songwriter to say, ‘I write these songs for me.’ I get it. I don’t necessarily change what I’m doing to be more palatable for an audience. I think that’s kind of a copout, but I’m not making my music for me. I’m not going to listen to this ever again. I want to share it with other people. The community of music and art is what I find valuable, so I want to share it. It’s not for me. So I do have a performative or entertainer view of it.

Analogue: Is there anything saved for you in the process of doing anything musical? Or is everything you do here for and toward that communal experience?

Dent: If it’s just for me, it just means it wasn’t good enough to finish and make into a real song. I don’t save any part of the music-making experience for just myself. I don’t just pick up the guitar and play for fun. I just don’t. I’ve also been doing this for a long time, for like 25 years, so every time I pick up an instrument, I’m hoping to write a new song.

That said, there are moments when I want to learn a new skill. I want to get better at finger-picking an acoustic guitar or learn more about chord inversions on a piano. Then I’ll watch YouTube videos and practice that, but 99 percent of the time about 10 minutes in, I’m singing a song over the lesson. Literally, some of my songs are chord progressions from YouTube tutorials because I was trying to learn something and I started singing instead. [Laughs]

Analogue: If I’m doing the math, 25 years as a songwriter takes you back to your teens.

Dent: I’m 38.

Analogue: So you’re 13 when you wrote your first song?

Dent: I was actually probably younger than that, like 9 or 10, when I wrote my first song. I wrote one called “Smile” and another was “Playground Crush.” I’d learned the G chord so I was just strumming the G over and over. But I did write out the lyrics and showed them to my sisters and stuff.

By the time I was 14 or so, I had performed original songs in public. I’d started a band in 7th grade and had a bunch of different iterations with bands mostly with the same group of friends. We’d say, ‘Oh, we’re pop punk now! No, wait, we’re indie rock.’ [Laughs] Then my first album came out 15 years ago.

Analogue: Is it safe to assume you had quite a supportive family in the arts?

Dent: Very supportive, but also practical in the sense that there was always the tone of having the classic back-up plan. Even now as I make a living on my own music, my dad will still push an idea of making a living, which is what every parent wants for their child. But yes, they’ve been very supportive. Absolutely.

Analogue: On this new album, what would you say you’re most proud of?

Dent: Oh, I have no idea. I’m not proud of it at all. [Laughs] I’m deeply ashamed. It’s truly embarrassing to make music and share it with people.

No, I don’t know… I like the first song on the album, “You Already Know,” because it was the last song I wrote for the album. It’s the freshest one. I felt like I needed it to be the first song on the album and I wrote it to be the first song. I like the lyrics where I say, ‘Some say I look like James Van Der Beek’ because in my younger years, especially when I was wearing contacts and not glasses, almost every day a stranger would say, ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like Dawson from Dawson’s Creek?’ One time my own sister just said it out of the blue. That’s just something random that comes to mind.

More than anything, I’m just proud to have made another album. There are six of them so far. I’m not proud but I’m feeling good that I’m still doing it and that I’m able to do this.

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