Mason Jennings has always done things his own way. Beginning in 1997, he released his self-titled debut album after recording the entire record in his living room on an analog four-track, while manning all instruments himself. In 1998, after an extended stint of gigs in his adopted home of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and garnering a solid local fan base with his pop-laced folk songs, acoustic guitar, and emotional appeal, Mason began to tour the country. With his hometown fans, and ever growing national exposure, Jennings forged a loyal cult following as one of the most talked-about new independent singer-songwriters, while selling his homemade CDs out of the back of his van without the help of a major label publicity department.
More focused on creative freedom than mainstream press and immediate cash influx, Jennings has consistently retained a strong personal vision of his art and how he wants his albums developed and created. Following some heavy touring, selling nearly 30,000 albums from the stage and his van, Jennings created the Architect Records label for his third and fourth releases, Century Spring (2002) and Use Your Voice (2004.) At this juncture, he also agreed on a distribution deal with the established east coast indie label Bar/None.
In 2005, Jennings signed on with Glacial Pace, a subsidiary of Epic Records, ran by Modest Mouse’s frontman Isaac Brock. With Glacial Pace, he put out his first major label release, Boneclouds, in 2006. This record featured more studio production than usual and a smoother, more polished sound that contrasted to the stripped down organic textures that characterized his previous works. Yet, aside from the enhanced production value and stylistic experiments on some tracks, Jennings primarily stayed true to his artistic vision of simple acoustic folk melodies, piano chords, and reflective lyrics about life and love.
Glide Magazine had the opportunity to talk with Mason Jennings about his upcoming album, In the Ever, (to be released May 20th ) on Brushfire Records, a shift back to a simpler, more independent production style, and his touring plans for the upcoming summer.
After making Boneclouds for Glacial Pace in a more conventional studio setting, you decided to retreat to your new solo studio in the woods to record In The Ever. Can you talk a little bit about the thought process in making that decision and how it affected the outcome of In the Ever?
I just felt like with a studio, like a fancy studio, sometimes it can be super expensive and you always hear the clock ticking. You’re always thinking about how much it costs everyday, and it really was affecting the way I was performing for the takes of the songs. And also, it can be really sterile and feel kind of like a doctor’s office a lot of times when you’re in a room like that. So I decided with this one to take the money—instead of taking the daily schedule of paying per day by the studio, I just put the money towards buying a place that I could work at every day and spend six months to a year working on something instead of three weeks. And I just wanted to be outside, you know, with lots of trees.
I read in your press release that you went into the studio with the model of “write in the morning, record in the afternoon, and finish up songs at night.” Could you explain this process and how it is reflected in the sound of your new album?
Yeah, I think for me, on many of the last records I would just work so hard on writing the song, and I wouldn’t even know what it sounded like until I heard it back. So this is a way that I would try to work really fast, like I used to work when I was a kid. I’d be like, ‘What mood am I in today? What would be fun to hear?’ and I’d just start writing, and then I’d record it and by the time dinner time rolled around, I’d have something totally recorded. A lot of the record is just that, without anything really changed on it.
That’s really cool. So, literally, you would start out in the morning with nothing and just go with what you felt?
Yeah, like the first song for sure is that, and the second—yeah, a lot of the songs, about half the record is like that.
I know you have been friends with Jack Johnson for quite a while. What made you decide to release this album on his Brushfire label?
Umm, I felt like I worked with Epic, and I really liked that on the last record with Glacial Pace, but it just seemed like this would be a really good time to go with a smaller label, and try working with my friends on a label that’s smaller and a little bit more receptive to this kind of recording process. Those guys have been so encouraging about that— it’s like my first record—that’s kind of similar to how I did my first record.
So has your relationship with Jack influenced your musical direction if at all?
Yeah, for sure, like the idea of just keeping it simple. You know, just trying to do as much as you can on your own, and knowing it doesn’t have to be fancy to be powerful.
I definitely agree with that. So in listening to your new album, I feel it truly exists as a modern day folk album– a mixture of John Prine’s humor and playfulness and [Bob] Dylan’s earnest heartfelt emotion. How has your life and career brought you to this point and created the unique authentic voice that is heard on the album?
I think a lot of traveling has been a big part of it. I’ve been traveling so much over the last five years; I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of really inspiring artists, and I think that’s always been a big influence on me. The one thing I wanted to make sure is that it didn’t sound like a re-enacted record, you know? I wanted to make sure it sounded current, but also part of a tradition.
So, some of the catchiest tracks on the album are the opening “Never Knew Your Name” and “Fighter Girl”—can you speak to the differing influences on these tracks versus the more emotional tracks like “Something About Your Love” and “My Perfect Lover” or “In Your City?”
Yeah, I’d say the first track was kind of influenced—like—the piano parts are definitely influenced by a Yogi I heard one time playing piano, this guy Sri Chinmoy. He was just playing a piano, and he would just sit down at the piano and play whatever he felt, so it was super intuitive and not necessarily in any kind of traditional European musical system; so that was kind of influencing those more playful songs. And with “Something About Your Love,” I think Zeppelin is an influence on that with the guitar work, and Neil Young. It’s hard to know exactly where all the influence is coming from.
Sure, I hear that. So are your songs on the new album autobiographical or are they simply reflective of the human experience in general as you’ve come to understand it?
I think everything is autobiographical in some way. Definitely, but it’s hard to know what’s totally true to exact experiences or which is a feeling. I guess it’s mostly a feeling—an autobiographical feeling.
Ok, so I want to talk a little bit about your summer plans. For the most part, you’ve flown below the radar of the mainstream music scene in America, but it seems with your tour schedule this summer, that may be changing a little bit. What made you decide to do a more high key tour, first, with Jack this summer?
He just asked me to come out, and it sounds fun. It sounds like a good experience. I definitely wasn’t gonna’ turn it down– I like playing.
So your heading around the US and Europe, huh?
Yeah, I’m stoked. I haven’t played Europe—I played one show in London one time, but it’s been a while so I’m stoked to play more shows there.
That should be really fun! Will you be playing mostly in a club setting over there or in festivals?
I think Jack is headlining some huge places, like I think we are playing Hyde Park [London] with 50,000 people. There should be some crazy shows!
So more on the American side— you’re slated to play Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, as well as Austin City Limits later on in September. These are some big stops on the summer festival circuit. What went into your decision to step onto these more mainstream stages?
I think it’s just growing naturally, you know, for me it’s just natural steps. As my music reached more people, more of those kind of opportunities come up.
If you were talking to someone who has never seen you perform live, what comes through in your live performances that a listener can’t get by simply listening to your albums?
Well, we keep it pretty stripped down—it’s usually a trio or sometimes a quartet. To me, it’s a dynamic set where there is a lot of different levels, where it will be really intimate and then some of it is really pretty rockin’. It’s kind of all over the place, and that’s one of the things that people seeing us live don’t really get from some of the records; just the fact that it has a lot of dynamics to it, a lot of different aspects to the music. I think this record [In the Ever] gives you the best idea of the live sound just because there is a bunch of different kinds of songs on it.
Where do you see your progression as an artist moving after the increased exposure you will potentially get this summer?
I’m not sure. I’m just gonna’ try and write from my heart. That’s all I can do is try to grow as a person, and try to travel and see new things, experience new things. Then hopefully I will be inspired to create new art that sounds fresh; keep pushing myself to make stuff that is a little ahead of myself, so it’s inspiring to me.
I see. It sounds like a very natural process. If you could communicate one thing to people about your music, its meaning, and its intentions, what would that be?
I think that the biggest thing I am trying to communicate is hope. Hope in the sense that nobody is alone in this world, you know?