Dent May talks fast for a guy who grew up in the South, rapid-fire gushes of information that manage to be both comprehensible and free of filler words. He comes off as sheepishly charming and down to earth during our brief chat, which kicks off with the burning question on the minds of those who’ve followed May since the release of his 2009 debut, The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele: What happened to the uke?
“I just slowly stopped playing and [lost] interest in it. I really never had intentions to play it for more than one album,” May explains of his uke-less stylistic overhaul on 2012 sophomore LP, Do Things, a smooth and buoyant union of easy-grooving disco-tinged funk, sun-kissed surf pop, and languid psychedelia, all marked by shimmering synthesizers, light riffy guitars, looped bass grooves paired with drum machine beats for basic rhythmic bounce, and May’s vocals rising in perfect multi-tracked Beach Boys harmonies or delivering coos, oohs, and ahhs in flurries of falsetto notes.
He originally started playing uke as a songwriting tool, to break away from the traditional chord progressions of guitar. As he put it, “When you pick up a new instrument or even a new recording technique, it’s like a catalyst for creativity.” Thus his reason for abandoning the ukulele in Do Things was the same reason he started using it in the first place — to get inspired and think outside the box he’d put himself into. “And for my next album, it might be totally different, too. I kind of always want to be changing and adapting. It would be really boring if I just had a career of writing ukulele songs. My interests as a music listener are all over the place and I want my songs to reflect that.”
May’s trademark lyrical mode of sentiment-made-simple has remained intact, as has his way of asking life’s big questions breezily, in sticky melodic refrains, and with a sense of bright optimism, whether he’s discussing trying to avoid the everyday grind (“Rent Money”), the value of friendship and love (“Best Friend,” “Wedding Day”), finding meaning and purpose in life (“Find Out”), or overcoming a sense of creative malaise (“Fun”).
The 27-year-old was raised in Jackson, Miss., attended a performing arts elementary school, sang in the church choir and youth choir groups. His interest in music prompted him to pick up guitar and piano, and he played in bands through junior high and high school that reflected his broadening musical tastes. He spent three semesters at NYU film before realizing it wasn’t for him, though he did gain valuable insight. “I very much came away from the experience with the idea that, if you want to make something, whether it’s a film or an album, you should just do it. Education can totally be the right path for that, but for me, it wasn’t.”
He returned to Mississippi and settled in Oxford (population 19,393), took some classes at Ole Miss, started writing and recording music as a solo artist, and was signed to current label Paw Tracks in 2008. He still calls Mississippi home, a fact addressed in Do Things closer “Home Groan,” where he confesses to planning his escape but ultimately resolves that he’s in the right place (“Don’t wanna move to Southern California, I wasn’t really meant for LA/And New York City just ain’t my style, so this town is where I guess I will stay”). “Everyone is like, ‘Why the hell do you still live in Mississippi?’” says May, and though he acknowledges it can be a little stifling, “The truth is, I like living in a place that’s off the beaten path a little bit, and I have a really remarkable group of friends here.”
He lives with some of them in a former Boys & Girls Club nicknamed the “Cats Purring Dude Ranch,” and it’s here he put together much of Do Things. “Basically, my philosophy for this album was to record with whatever I had in our house. And I live with a bunch of musicians, so we had a lot of stuff.” From guitars, bass and a diversity of keyboards, to synths, samplers, drum machines and the like. “I had this romantic idea of me playing all the instruments. It sounds egotistical, but it was really more of a personal thing for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again, where I’m the only musician on the album, but it was sort of a challenge to myself. I love Prince albums that are like: all music written by, played by, produced by and mixed by Prince. I guess I was trying to be, like, bedroom Prince. Bedroom Prince meets ’60s sunshine pop.”
It took him three years to finish Do Things, he says, “not because I worked really hard for three years straight on it, but because I fell into a little bit of a rut as a songwriter and lost some creative juice. And that ties in with the theme of the album, the title was kind of about me getting off my ass and trying my best.” He laughs. “I was kind of joking that I was making an inspirational album or a self-help album, but you know, I never want to feel like that. I’m just trying to provide a slice of life that everyone can relate to.”