James Mercer has been listening to David Bowie.
Now based in Portland, Mercer is the primary songwriter and sole remaining original member of The Shins lineup. A quirky, indie-pop guitar act, the Shins were first heard by many on the soundtrack of the 2004 Zach Braff film Garden State.
In that movie, Natalie Portman coaxes Braff to listen to the now-classic Shins tune “New Slang,” insisting it will change his life. The Shins come back to Eugene behind this year’s Heartworms, a record hailed by many as a return-to-form for the band.
I’m talking to Mercer about songwriting as a medium, and whether you can ever get to know a songwriter based strictly on their material. “You don’t get to know much about David Bowie from his songs,” Mercer says. “Some artists are more like that than others.”
But Mercer’s managed a career making music that feels both personal and emotionally remote, literate and heady but also confessional. “Early on in my songwriting this was personal stuff,” Mercer says. He felt that if he simply told the truth in his lyrics, “it would be unique and different.”
“On Heartworms,” he says, “it’s hypothetical situations,” with elements from his past “that I can use to inform the writing.”
Mercer continues: “The song ‘Heartworms’ is about a guy who’s with a girl. He just knows this isn’t gonna last. She’s moving on, she’s too good for me. That comes from relationships I’ve had,” Mercer says, but also relationships “my friends had from back in the day.”
The Shins play with Day Wave 8 pm Monday, Sept. 25, at McDonald Theatre; $40.50 adv., $46 door. All-ages.