Fermenting Mead 

Dulcet-voiced singer-songwriter pursues a more indicative sound—and a wider reception—on sophomore release

Dulcet-voiced singer-songwriter pursues a more indicative sound—and a wider reception—on sophomore release

David Mead

Mine and Yours (BMG/RCA)

Performing 5:30 p.m. May 19 at Tower Records (West End location) and 10 p.m. May 19 at the Belcourt Theatre

When David Mead was 18 years old, he took four months of voice training with a Nashville voice coach. “A great guy,” Mead says, but one who “introduced a technique that I couldn’t get my head around. Then when I heard the first Jeff Buckley record, the purpose of those techniques kicked in. I thought I was a pretty good singer, but holy shit! Suddenly I was playing catch-up to Jeff Buckley.” Mead laughs, then adds, “It took me a year-and-a-half not to try to sound like Jeff Buckley.”

The Buckley influence may have faded, but the strength of Mead’s voice is definitely what makes an initial impression on his two albums, 1999’s The Luxury of Time and the just-released Mine and Yours (both on RCA). Since leaving Nashville three years ago for the sights and smells of New York City, Mead has refined the pop songcraft that he developed throughout his teens and early 20s as he played in Music City rock bands like Verdant Green, Blue Million, and Joe, Marc’s Brother. His latest work is infectious and insinuating, and carried mainly by Mead’s lilting croon over subtly textured tracks of acoustic guitar and multiple layers of synth and percussion. Songs like “Flamin’ Angel” and “No One Left to Blame” sound like Paul Simon’s first solo album might’ve sounded had it been recorded in 2002 rather than 1972. Elsewhere—on “Girl on the Roof,” “Elodie,” and “Venus Again”—the collision of rhythms generates a more direct rock ’n’ roll energy, working in opposition to the complexity of Mead’s melodic composition.

Mead explains the conflict as the clear result of the times in which he’s lived. “I’ve got an inbred pop sensibility,” he says, “but I came up on alternative music.” The years of listening to college radio favorites like U2 and R.E.M. have profoundly affected the way Mead approaches song structure. “I can’t bring myself to go for the big obvious thing in the chorus,” he says. “I like the perfection of the understated, because then the melody has to be so incredibly on.” But Mead doesn’t think that this ideology applies solely to alt-rockers. His songs have been compared to ’70s troubadours like Billy Joel and Elton John, and the 28-year-old singer-songwriter feels that the latter example especially proves how pop hits can emerge from musicians with equal investment in accessibility and obscurity.

And even though his primary instrument is the guitar (followed closely by keyboards), being likened to the ivory ticklers of Top 40’s past doesn’t bother Mead. He feels that a connection to rock’s roots is vital, so long as those roots are used to grow new buds. “You can regurgitate it or perfect it,” he asserts. “The job is to perfect it.”

To that end, a couple of years ago Mead participated in a Miles Copeland-sponsored songwriting workshop in France. Twenty-five or so songwriters and performers gathered at a castle in France for a week, and every day they were placed in groups of three and told to write a song and demo it by the end of the session. In seven days, Mead emerged with six co-written songs. “It definitely helped my ability to communicate, and to be honest with people about their contributions. It was very validating to be included...good for my confidence. Plus they feed and water you really well.”

On the heels of that workshop came the release of The Luxury of Time, which was showered in critical acclaim but not in radio play or blockbuster sales numbers. Mead has mixed feelings about the varied reaction to his debut. “I came from a school where what you want is critical acclaim, but it can play tricks on your self-esteem,” he admits. “Critical acclaim is really great, but since [the record] didn’t sell as well as I wanted, it’s also given me a desire to reach an audience.”

Still, Mead claims that he wouldn’t have been ready had his first record really taken off, because he doesn’t think that the disc’s fussier sound was quite reflective of his intentions. He says that on his last tour, the show consisted of him and his acoustic guitar alone, and the reduction of trappings brought him back to the basics of a song and how to sing it. For Mine and Yours, he told his production team to listen to the first album, and to “take the rougher elements and expand upon that.” He said, “I’d rather not have a radio hit until we get what we’re talking about right.”

Luckily, Mead found a kindred spirit in producer Adam Schlesinger, the pop music wunderkind and integral member of Ivy and Fountains of Wayne (when he’s not providing uncanny hit-song knockoffs to the soundtracks of films like That Thing You Do! and Josie and the Pussycats). “Adam wanted to get it done quick, and not overthink it,” Mead says. Though quite polished, Mine and Yours shows the results of laying down tracks quickly and moving on; there’s a vibrancy to the songs that might well have been bled out with too much studio twiddling. Even classically designed ballads like “Comfort” and “What I Want to Do”—both shoo-in hits, if the stars align—feel spontaneous and immediate in the sonic context that Mead and Schlesinger have created.

Before Mead sets out on an extended tour to support the new record, he returns to Nashville for a show at the Belcourt on Saturday, May 19. He’s excited about the sort-of homecoming, “so long as it goes well.” Mead describes Nashville as “definitely the place where I came of age musically,” but it’s also the site of his biggest career crisis to date, when his desire to work in a slightly different genre led to his ouster from Joe, Marc’s Brother. Mead doesn’t like to dwell on the incident, since he remains friends with everyone in the band, and since there’s bound to be differences in opinion as to what exactly happened. Essentially, Mead says that the power-pop outfit was “looking for a George Harrison,” and Mead wanted to be a John or a Paul. A compromise might’ve been worked out, but Mead admits, looking back, that “our songwriting had so much in common, but at the same time, it didn’t.” He adds, “We were friendly through most of it, but it hurt when it happened.”

Mainly, though, the loss of a regular band to work with just means that Mead has the tougher task of selling himself as a solo singer-songwriter in a world that has a surfeit of them. “The white sensitive male guy...that’s a hard position to occupy,” Mead says, despite the surprise success of artists like David Gray. “It’s easier to ‘image’ a band than it is for one person.” Then there’s the letdown of no longer having a regular group of collaborators. “The downside of being solo is that you don’t have your buddies to bounce stuff off of,” he sighs. “So you have to be more forthright about what you want.”

The experience of the past couple of years has helped Mead to take control of how his music sounds and to develop a genre hybrid that’s getting closer every day to the sound he hears in his head. He enjoys the freedom and potential of relying on his own vision and talent. Nevertheless, Mead confesses having moments of weakness. “Touring alone,” he says, “driving around in my rental car...I fantasize about being in a supergroup.”

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