James Mercer on letting his inner country star out and why he 'can't just spin out'
It turns out James Mercer, singer, songwriter and sole consistent member of the Shins, has been harboring his inner country star at least since Port of Morrow surfaced in 2012.
“Something I secretly fantasize about is a proper country artist covering one of my songs,” Mercer said. “There's a song on Port of Morrow I thought was totally a classic country song, ‘For a Fool,' and I asked [my manager], ‘Can you get this into the hands of people? Don't these guys need songs once in a while?'”
Though nothing ever came of it, Mercer revisited the genre more directly on the indie-rock group's fifth full length, Heartworms, released earlier this year, patterning the loping “Mildenhall” on the classic country tunes he grew up listening to by artists such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
“My dad was a country singer in bands my whole life, and so I know country music,” said Mercer, who noted that Haggard's “Mama Tried” is in the regular rotation of covers he sings while putzing around the house. “Certainly there's that inherent love for the classic country, and then there's just that the riff came along — I just happened upon it. Sometimes you're writing and something like that happens and you kind of feel like, ‘Wouldn't it surprise my peers if I could pull this off? If I could actually do a country-style song?'”
In classic Shins fashion, however, Mercer doesn't play it entirely straight, employing the American music form to tell the tale of the teenage years he spent living in England in the late '80s. The ocean-spanning approach even tripped up radio hosts in Manchester during a recent UK radio appearance. “They were like, ‘This sounds very English to us,'” he said. “And I was fascinated by that response because to me it's the most Americana thing I've done.”
The track's nostalgia-driven narrative — “I thought my flattop was so new wave/Until it melted away in Suffolk rain,” Mercer recounts in one memorable vignette — appears to run counter to an admission the frontman once made on “Pink Bullets,” off the Shins' 2003 sophomore album Chutes Too Narrow, singing, “I don't look back much as a rule.”
“It's funny, because when I'm writing songs and lyrics I certainly do look back a lot. I really mine [the past] for that weird sentiment of nostalgia,” said Mercer, who joins his touring band in concert at Express Live on Wednesday, Nov. 8. “I wasn't being dishonest when I wrote that line … but you know how you have that moment where you're cleaning out your room and you go to the junk drawer and it's got all the random crap that for some reason you can't throw away and there might be things from elementary school floating around — that bag of marbles, or whatever? I have a tendency to avoid looking in there because there's something too near sadness in that feeling of nostalgia. That's, I guess, what I was referring to when I wrote that lyric.”
Other Heartworms tracks have a more literal tie to the past, such as “The Fear,” which has been kicking around for the better part of a decade. According to Mercer, the song originated in 6/8 meter, which proved too difficult a timing to write in. Also, it felt too traditional at the time. “I was thinking Van Morrison,” he said. “And 10 years ago I don't know if I was ready to do that, or maybe it didn't feel cool to do that.”
This tabling of and eventual return to previous ideas is nothing new for Mercer, who said he has a stockpile of cassette tapes filled with snippets of music going back to 1991 (though he converted to the voice-memo app on his iPhone beginning in 2010). When it's time to write new songs, Mercer will mine these old sessions for musical inspiration, occasionally striking gold. Such was the case on “The Fear,” which builds on a gentle, almost pastoral backdrop that exudes a calming force on Mercer's words, which appear to capture the narrator mid panic attack. “Come back and touch my face,” he sings, as though trying to reconnect with a world that has gone completely out of focus.
Other songs tread similarly shadowy terrain, such as “Painting a Hole,” which touches on the idea of raising a family during increasingly bleak times. “Five years ago, when I was doing Port of Morrow, there was terrible shit in the news,” Mercer said. “It's crazy it's gotten so much worse.”
Regardless, a sense of hope pervades even as the musician wrestles with these mounting internal and external pressures. Witness the spiky, synth-driven “Half a Million,” where music itself functions as a needed life vest. “And if it gets too deep,” Mercer sings. “I reach for my guitar.”
“I'm a pretty optimistic person by nature, really. I enjoy talking about the dark side of things, but, at the end of the day, I feel like we're making these slow advances. Would you want to live in 1920, really?” Mercer said. “I don't know. Maybe there's worse to come. Having kids, what are you going to do? You have to keep going. You can't just spin out.”