Mason Jennings Thrives In the Ever
Though Mason Jennings has a loyal fan base, he is one of the best-kept secrets in pop music. This month, the 30-year-old Minneapolis-based singer/songwriter will release his sixth album, In the Ever, on Brushfire Records (2006’s Boneclouds was on Isaac Brock’s Glacial Pace/Epic). With a full summer tour and festival schedule, upcoming European dates with Johnson, and a headlining run this fall, Jennings may finally explode onto the scene in 2008.
On his new record, Jennings visits the Crescent City post-Katrina on “Going Back to New Orleans,” explores spirituality on “I Love You and Buddha, Too” (with Jack Johnson on backing vocals), and adds textural layers with a ragtime piano sound and blazing harmonicas on “In Your City” and “Memphis, Tennessee,” respectively. The catchy hook and insistent rhythm of “Soldier Boy” recall a train rolling down the tracks, perhaps a metaphor for the artist barreling into the next phase of his career. This LP proves that Jennings’ songwriting abilities have not waned since his last five albums, providing some of his strongest and most resonant compositions to date.
Fresh off of shows in Japan and the Kokua Benefit in Hawaii, the humble and easygoing Jennings took shelter from the scorching Indio sun at Coachella to speak with Jambands.com about the new album and summer tours, his role in the Dylan biopic I’m Not There, and the writers and artists who make him tick.
AJ: Who have you checked out at Coachella so far?
MJ: Well, I haven’t seen much of anything I went and did a radio show with Jack Johnson this morning and then I’m going to go sit in with him at his set tonight. So, I’m really looking forward to seeing the Raconteurs later on.
AJ: What’s next for you this afternoon at Coachella?
MJ: Well, in a couple of hours I’m gonna go over and see Tegan and Sara’s set and then I’m gonna sit in with Jack. I’m gonna fly home tomorrow and get ready for the tour with Brett [Dennen] and Missy [Higgins] that starts on Wednesday. I’ve got to fly back to Minnesota and see my family.
AJ: Sounds really busy. And you just got back from Hawaii too you did a benefit there for the Kokua Hawaii Foundation with Jack and Dave Matthews. How did that go?
MJ: It was a success the Kokua Festival was amazing. There were so many nice people involved. And it was just super fun to be back there since I was born in Hawaii it was really nice to go back there after 20 years.
AJ: Let’s talk about your new record, In the Ever which is your sixth full-length album. How would you compare it to its predecessors in terms of your songwriting?
MJ: Well, this one is different because I did it all out in the woods and I sort of did it all myself. The songwriting also was different in a way. I tried to do it more spontaneously, write a song in the morning, record it the same day and then just kind of leave it alone after that, trying to get a more spontaneous feel than when I’m editing too much or losing some of that original feeling I got when I first wrote it. So, a lot of the songs I worked on like that for three or four months and then selected a ton of songs and these are the ones I liked the most from that process.
AJ: How many songs did you write for this record before you narrowed it down?
MJ: It was probably around 25 or so but some of the songs were just kind of failures some of them weren’t really full. I’d say about 18 songs were in contention for the final cut.
AJ: And you used GarageBand to make the album is that right?
MJ: Yeah. I went and got all kinds of real high-tech studio gear and stuff and then I got it out to my place the cabin and it just made me feel all stressed out because I didn’t know how to work it really well. So, then I went and talked to some different engineers and they were like, “Well, you have a computer and you have GarageBand. Why don’t you just keep it simple until you need something more high-tech?” And I just never ended up needing anything else.
AJ: A lot of the lyrics on the new record seem to relate to religion and spirituality like on “How Deep Is That River” and “I Love You and Buddha, Too.” Are you very religious or very spiritual?
MJ: I’m not religious and I definitely don’t subscribe to any one religion. It’s like I’m really interested in the different ways people structure their lives like their inner lives. And I think for me, in the last few years, I’ve just definitely been trying to figure out what’s behind it all. So, I’m definitely searching, for sure. I think most of it is just trying to kind of come to terms with not having the answers but still staying involved in the idea of a higher power.
AJ: Yeah, you were quoted in the past as saying that you are “searching for the experience and not the meaning of life.”
MJ: Yeah that’s pretty much it for me I think searching for the experience.
AJ: As far as the album title, In the Ever, how did that name come about and does it fit into a larger unifying theme? This feels like a really cohesive album rather than just a collection of songs.
MJ: Yeah, I think so. I meditate a lot and I think that’s one of the things my wife and I always joke about is that when we meditate we go “in the ever.” You know it’s just kind of like a place it seems weird to say like a nirvana or a heaven or those kinds of places. But, my son we have a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old my 5-year-old said, “You know, dad, before I was born I was in the ever.” And I was like, “Holy crap, that was a crazy sentence.” It sort of fit and it just felt right and it was where my heart really is.
AJ: Jack Johnson said, “Every time I hear a Mason Jennings album, it changes the way I see the world around me.” That’s a really powerful statement and I wonder what your response to that is and if that is what you are trying to achieve with your work if that’s your goal for the music?
MJ: Yeah. I think I’m just trying to be as honest as I can with the way that I’m seeing the world as I grow. And I try to represent how I’m interpreting the world around me so, if I can get that to come through in songs, then hopefully that would be the goal. You know, to have it be an accurate representation of my own growth.
AJ: How long have you been playing music and did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
MJ: I’ve been playing pretty much my whole life. I used to write songs when I was little before I could even play. And then I started playing pretty seriously around 14 or 15. I could play drums and guitar and I started playing both. Then, I started recording a lot of songs when I turned 15 from about 15 on
AJ: Who are some of your musical influences? And also who are you listening to right now as far as modern-day music goes?
MJ: I think some of the big influences for me are the old country blues singers like Mississippi John Hurt and I really like songwriters like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and the Carter family. And then as far as current stuff, I really like that new She & Him record with Zooey Deschanel (and M. Ward) that’s a good record. I saw those guys down in Austin and it was amazing they’re super good. So, that’s one of the new ones I really like. Oh, and Kimya Dawson I was hanging out with her down in Austin, too at South by Southwest. And I like the Raconteurs and Jack White whatever he’s doing is really cool.
AJ: What was it like working on Todd Haynes’ film I’m Not There and being picked by Randall Poster to sing those Dylan songs [“The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll]? And then seeing your stuff on the big screen with Christian Bale lip-synching as you sing how did that feel?
MJ: It was cool. I felt really lucky to be a part of it. I was worried at first because I didn’t want to have to imitate Dylan because that seemed like that was just gonna be like the kiss of death since that’s not my style to try to imitate somebody. But they said I could just be myself and just sing the song how I would sing it. And so, I just did it. And it was really fun sending Christian Bale the guitar chords and stuff. And I thought he did a really good job. I was amazed it was really like he was singing it.
AJ: It was interesting to hear you and then see those words emanating from his mouth. It was probably kind of surreal for you.
MJ: (laughs) Yeah, it was. It was super cool, though. And that was a really fun part. I really liked the movie a lot.
AJ: Speaking of lyrics, something I’ve noticed (especially on some of your older albums) is that your lyrics seem sometimes academic you reference a Robert Motherwell painting and James Joyce’s novel [in “Ulysses” on 2004’s Use Your Voice and you’ve quoted Thomas Wolfe before saying, “When I write, I’m trying to remember a forgotten language.” Do you consider yourself to be an academic and do you spend a lot of time reading and viewing art?
MJ: Yeah, I’m definitely like that. I research a lot. If I get interested in something I will definitely check it out as much as I can and when I’m on the road I try to go to lots of museums. And I definitely read all of the time.
AJ: Who are some of your literary and artistic influences?
MJ: My literary influences Kerouac. I just read On the Road again by Kerouac. I really like that book. And Hemingway is a big one for me just as far as the sparseness of his prose. But often they are kind of the people I look up to the most with the emotional content and kind of the idea that they can get better as they get older. And a lot of musicians just kind of drop off after they’re in their 20s, but I always feel like with the style of music that I write, hopefully I’ll be able to get better and better the older I get. So, I also often look to authors like Thomas Wolfe or Tim O’Brien or somebody that I think is really good.
AJ: What are you reading right now?
MJ: Well, I read On the Road on the plane out here and then, I’m reading that book Being There. It’s by that guy [Jerzy] Kosinski. And it’s also a movie I really like.
AJ: On that note, you’re about to go on the road with Brett Dennen and Missy Higgins. Is it a co-bill and to what extent do you think that you might collaborate with them?
MJ: Yeah, I’m meeting up with them next week. Yes, it’s a co-bill and we’re switching out the headline spots. And then I’m sure we will be working out some stuff to collaborate with, so that will be really fun. I haven’t met Missy yet, but Brett and I are good friends.
AJ: I also see you are slated to play at Bonnaroo do you have any other festivals lined up for this summer?
MJ: Yeah, I’m playing Bonnaroo in June and then ACL later. And we’re doing Lollapalooza too in August in Chicago. I’m really stoked about that one because Rage Against the Machine is playing. So, I’m really excited for to see them.
AJ: Who else are you most looking forward to checking out at those festivals?
MJ: Robert Plant that’s a huge one for me with Alison Krauss at Bonnaroo. And Pearl Jam. I’m excited to see them at Bonnaroo too. I’ve never seen them live so those guys I really want to see.
AJ: What inspires you to write and to just do your thing in life?
MJ: I get inspired by people who kind of do their own thing you know, all across the board. I just read this book by the owner of Patagonia (the company), Yvon Chouinard. And that was really inspiring. It’s about the idea of the juvenile delinquent that is not happy with the way things are going so he just decides to do his own thing. Like you know, I dropped out of high school when I was 16. And I just really like in life when people are like, “Hey, I can think of a better way to do this” or people who try something new and not feel like they’re stuck in a system because I just think there’s so much in life. It’s so beautiful and amazing. It’s just accessible to you if you just kind of go towards it. I just feel like that’s what’s exciting to me in any aspect, whether it be you love to climb mountains or go surfing or make art or live a certain way like more eco-friendly you know, that’s exciting to me.
AJ: Do you ever make art or paint? You seem to be really interested in the visual arts too.
MJ: Well, I try. I draw a lot I draw for fun. But I definitely wouldn’t say that it is something that I would necessarily want to put out there in the world in the same way that I do my music. It’s just a more personal art form. And I always like making up stories with my kids and drawing whatever is fun to me and where I can be creative is something I like to do, whether it be cutting things out and making collages with my kids or making up a game or something. I just like having fun with all the stuff that’s around.
AJ: Do you have a particular project in life you’ve done that you are most proud of?
MJ: No, not so much. I’m mostly just excited about the next upcoming thing. I try to stay focused on what’s right ahead of me. I kind of like to let the other stuff go. I always just feel like if you get too attached to anything you’ve done, you feel sad because it’s in the past, you know. I like to look ahead.
AJ: So, looking ahead, what’s next for you?
MJ: My record comes out May 20th and then I’m out on the road with Brett and Missy and then with Jack Johnson in June. And starting in the fall, I’ll be headlining a full US tour and hopefully one in Europe too.