SOLI­TARY MAN

The Shins front­man James Mercer’s lonely teenage years set him on the path to mu­sic, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

There’s a song at the heart of the Shins’ new al­bum, Heart­worms, that says a lot about how the Amer­i­can group’s main man, singer and song­writer James Mercer, came to be a mu­si­cian. The track Milden­hall, a coun­try stroll and a de­par­ture from Mercer’s usual an­gu­lar melodic pop, is a ref­er­ence to the Royal Air Force base in Suf­folk, Eng­land, where he spent some of his for­ma­tive years from the age of 15, ow­ing to his fa­ther’s ser­vice in the US Air Force.

It was an iso­lat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for the teenager, sep­a­rated from his friends back in Al­bu­querque, New Mex­ico, where he grew up, and at the mercy of the cold weather. His saviour, as the song ex­plains, was mu­sic: “Then a kid in class passed me a tape / an in­vi­ta­tion not the hand of fate.”

“I was re­ally ter­ri­ble at meet­ing peo­ple,” says Mercer, in Syd­ney to talk about his lat­est work, the Shins’ fifth al­bum in 16 years and the first since 2012’s Port of Mor­row. “The first year in Eng­land I didn’t have any hang­outs af­ter school,” he says. “I just stayed in my room try­ing to fig­ure out songs. It was an es­cape.”

Mercer, 46, who has lived in Port­land, Ore­gon, for the past 15 years, was based at Milden­hall and the nearby Lak­en­heath air base for five years in the late 1980s. That tape and en­cour­age­ment from his fa­ther, a coun­try singer in his spare time, saw Mercer take his first ten­ta­tive steps to­wards a mu­sic ca­reer.

“That pe­riod when my dad let me play his gui­tar, then the kid giv­ing me the tape … the lone­li­ness of not hav­ing my friends, hav­ing the time and the rainy days to mess with the gui­tar and try­ing to play songs … that be­came my whole life,” he says. “Any one of those things could have been changed and I don’t know what I would be do­ing right now.”

Al­though it’s five years since Port of Mor­row, which fea­tured the mem­o­rable sin­gle Sim­ple Song, Mercer has been far from idle in the in­terim. With his long-time friend Brian Bur­ton, bet­ter known as pro­ducer and mu­si­cian Dan­ger Mouse, he re­leased the sec­ond al­bum by their out­fit Bro­ken Bells, with which they toured ex­ten­sively. He and his wife had an­other daugh­ter, their third. Mercer also found time, work­ing with an­other friend, to de­velop a col­lage app called Pasted; all the while he was work­ing in the old car­riage house at the back of his home, piec­ing to­gether the songs for Heart­worms.

It’s an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of songs with a fit­ting ti­tle, since the 11 tracks, in­clud­ing Name for You, Paint­ing a Hole, Rub­ber Ballz, The Fear and the ti­tle song, rep­re­sent a mar­riage of de­li­cious hooks and melodies to lyrics that have re­la­tion­ships, failed and suc­cess­ful, real and imag­i­nary, at their cen­tre. The name of the al­bum he ac­quired from a friend, Archie Moore, from 90s band Ve­loc­ity Girl, who had an­other band called Heart­worms in the 90s.

“It had to be some­where in the back of my mind when it popped into my head as a lyric for that song,” says Mercer. “I loved it so much. I got a hold of him and he was very cool about it.”

The Milden­hall song sits apart from the oth­ers due to its coun­try lilt, but Mercer says coun­try mu­sic has al­ways been an in­flu­ence on him, even if it doesn’t man­i­fest it­self ob­vi­ously.

“I’ve hinted at coun­try stuff be­fore,” he says. “My dream would be for a coun­try artist to cover one of my songs. I’ve tried to get my man­ager to get this to hap­pen and he has failed mis­er­ably. I love clas­sic coun­try mu­sic. My fa­ther was a coun­try singer so it’s al­ways been an in­flu­ence on me.”

For the Shins’ pre­vi­ous al­bum, Mercer worked closely with pro­ducer Greg Kurstin, the man at the con­trols of Sia’s Chan­de­lier and Adele’s hit sin­gle Hello and her al­bum 25, to name just a few of his re­cent cred­its. For Heart­worms, how­ever, Mercer wanted to work at his own pace, wan­der down to the shed when the mood took him, rather than on the clock.

“It prob­a­bly was two years’ worth of mess­ing around … a year and a half of re­ally solid work- ing on it,” he says. “The one thing I wanted more of with Port of Mor­row was more time just noodling around. That’s where the goofy things hap­pen, when you’re just danc­ing around in the stu­dio, hav­ing fun and some weird ideas hap­pen. If you want some­thing like that with a pro­ducer like Greg … you know … he has clients wait­ing. If you want two more weeks you can’t re­ally do that kind of stuff.”

This time around he had a rou­tine of “get­ting up with the kids, cook­ing them break­fast and get­ting them off to school. Then I’d play gui­tar, search­ing for some­thing cool, a pro­gres­sion that was novel.”

James Mercer: ‘My dream would be for a coun­try artist to cover one of my songs’

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