“I love song craft,” says longtime folksinger Mason Jennings, who’s spent the bulk of the past 25 years onstage and in the writing room. “A song is like a boat on the water, and you’re trying to make it float using as few pieces as you can. If you do it right, a song can be very healing. This album feels that way to me. It’s a love letter to songwriting.”
He’s talking about Real Heart, his fourteenth solo album, which due out on February 4th via Loosegroove Records. Jennings calls it “the unabashed folk record that I have been wanting to make for years,” pointing to the project’s warm mix of acoustic guitar, unforced vocals, and autobiographical lyrics. At the same time, Real Heart also reaches beyond the genre’s boundaries, making room for nuanced layers of horns, strings, and piano. The result is a record that both reclaims and redefines Mason Jennings’ role as a leading light in the folk community, with production from Malfunkshun’s Regan Hagar and Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard.
The last time we heard from Jennings, he was stretching his legs with Painted Shield, the synth-based supergroup whose self-titled debut album appeared in 2020. Recorded alongside Gossard, drummer Matt Chamberlain, and keyboardist/singer Brittany Davis, the album traded the organic sounds of Jennings’ earlier work for something more digital and driving. Fronting a band was a new experience for Jennings, affording him the opportunity to work with new collaborators and genre-crossing arrangements. It also shed new light on his own music.
“Being in that band really freed me up as a solo artist,” he explains. “The Painted Shield album was so bombastic that it allowed me up to put my folk hat back on once I began writing these new songs. Real Heart exists within the world of Nick Drake, John Fahey, and the acoustic Led Zeppelin songs that I love so much, with arrangements that often remind me of Tom Waits.. That’s the sound of this record, and I didn’t worry about bringing in new elements from other genres, just for diversity’s sake. I let this music be what it wanted to be.”
Real Heart is the sound of a musician easing back into his own skin and making art not only on his own terms, but on his own turf, too. Jennings began recording the album at his lake house outside St. Paul, Minnesota, strumming each song while staring at the water outside. “I live in a house that’s all glass windows, and I’d stare at the big lake while tracing these songs,” he explains. “I used one microphone and kept everything very basic, and that’s a big part of the record’s vibe. You can hear the room itself. It’s less about performance and pretense, and it’s more like we’re sitting in a room together, having a conversation. The cover art is a woven wall-hanging that my wife Josie made that is hanging on our lake house wall. That sets the tone: warmth, home, and intimacy.”
Today Glide is excited to premiere the video for “Tomorrow,” one of the standout tracks on the new album. Straddling the line between lushness and simplicity, Jennings conjures a stirring work of folk that showcases his enchanting vocals and his lyrical craftsmanship. The pleasant fall leaves that accompany the performance footage as a visual accentuate the song’s sweeping sense of calm. Channeling the Open C tuning of the great John Fahey, Jennings gifts the song a delicate touch that fits its theme of love and loss.
Jennings describes the inspiration behind the song:
Having time off the road during the pandemic allowed me to tune the guitars around my house to some crazy tunings that I never use in my live concerts. Usually, if I would try a different tuning I would have to change it back every few days to play a show. But the lockdown allowed me to leave my guitars in new strange open tunings for months. One of the tunings I fell in love with was Open C. John Fahey (who’s music I love) used it a lot. One day I was playing in that tuning and I started playing what became the song Tomorrow. I was sitting in my house which looks out on a lake and my wife Josie was weaving in the same room and it was mid afternoon. I started singing and the song basically wrote itself. It’s a love song about her for sure. But it’s also a song about the loss we all felt during the pandemic. It’s a borrowed world we live in and that became apparent over the last two years. It can be taken from us at any time. It was a good reminder to myself to have awareness of that and to lead with love. To have gratitude for the little things in life. And gratitude for each other and our time together.
Photo credit: Benson Ramsey