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Published: 2011/09/30
by Randy Ray

Mason Jennings and The Light from the North Country

RR: I love Jason Schwartzman. How did you get his involvement on “Raindrops on the Kitchen Floor?”

MJ: He’s a great guy. I felt that “Raindrops” could use a little bit of something in the choruses and could use a little outside energy to add a little magic to it. He’s such a great musician. He has that band Coconut Records. I asked him if he’d be up for it and he was stoked and he really had fun doing it. I’m not sure exactly what instrument he is playing on there; it’s some sort of cool piano with cool vocal parts, and he just sent the stuff back to me and I thought it sounded really cool. I was happy he was up for it.

RR: I am glad you mentioned “Clutch,” as well—an interesting narrative and one of those songs where one wonders who the singer is referencing in the lyrics.

MJ: Yeah, I don’t know, I guess. (laughs) Yeah, I just go for a feeling. I’m following a feeling on it and trying to hit that spot in my chest. It’s like trying to clench something in my chest. I can’t really close it in. I’m not sure what it’s about.

RR: Speaking of Minnesota, that’s a very Dylanesque answer about songwriting. I came across a quote in Twin Cities Unplugged : “If you ask songwriters under 30 who their inspiration is, a lot of them will say Mason Jennings. Not Dylan.” That makes sense to me because as each generation of musicians comes into play, one would think an artist needs new inspiration to grow. Being a Minnesota musician, how difficult was it for you to appear to have a modern, original voice? And how does that make you feel that you are considered to be a modern influence on artists?

MJ: It’s awesome to have people feel like that. For me, it’s definitely not a conscious thing with my voice. I just try to make music that I like. And I always try to make something that feels new and fresh and something that I’ve never heard before. That’s something that I am excited about with this record. The structure of a song like “Clutch” and the structure in a song like “No Relief”—that is something new to me; I haven’t heard that kind of structure in songs. That is exciting to me.

As far as the community and when I was coming up through it, people and the community were just so supportive. Bands like the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum were supportive of what I did. They’d come to the shows, they’d sit in with me, and it just gave me a lot of encouragement. The local press was so kind. I just felt really fortunate to be in a city like Minneapolis. I’m from Pittsburgh, but I moved here, and I felt like maybe it would be a city that would be open to music like mine where it’s not as traditional and it’s not mainstream. I guess it is in the world of popular music, but I’m not even sure how to categorize it. I just liked to be open to a new sound that I was going for and they were, so I am really grateful.

RR: You mentioned “No Relief,” which is the bookend to the opening track, “Clutch.” Let’s talk about that writing process for that piece.

MJ: That one was the last song written for the record. I have a little Casio keyboard setup for my kids in my house. We’re always playing “Beat It” or whatever; I’m always teaching them little melody lines on this keyboard. One day, I started playing that opening melody on that keyboard, and I remember some kid in the neighborhood came over and said, “I like that sound. I like that song.” He was playing Legos or something, and I kept playing it over and over again for a long time. For a couple of months, I’d just sit down and play with it, and then one day, I was by myself and I sat down and I played it and that second part came in, and then I sang the whole song, and it was like the instant completion of the song. I love that. I love when songs sit and marinate and they kind of get finished in the second verse. That doesn’t happen to me very often. It usually is a single sitting for writing, but that was over a couple of months.

RR: A more sobering song, literally, is “Wake Up”: a litany of attempts to find peace, or a way out, or a way to be free, and also a statement about alcoholism, which struck home. When I lived in Minnesota, it seemed anywhere I turned, there was quite a party atmosphere, but I was aware of the roads one could head down.

MJ: Yeah. I don’t know. It’s hard. I’m not sure how much I want to talk about that one necessarily. It’s a song for me that is personal, but, hopefully, by putting it out there, it could help other people see that kind of struggle inside. I think a lot of people have that kind of struggle is a good way to say it. It just fit on the record. “Rudy” is almost the same song as “Wake Up,” but it is done in a metaphorical, fairy tale way. The idea of “No Relief” is the same idea, too. I don’t know. I am not sure what else I could say about it other than what is in the song on that one.

RR: “Rudy” made me think of Dylan, like a tone poem from John Wesley Harding.

MJ: Yeah, totally. That’s one I’ve been sitting with for years. That was the first one written. I’ve had that song bouncing around since my Boneclouds record. I just couldn’t quite get the lyrics totally nailed, and then I restructured it and recorded it for [ Minnesota ]. It was fun for me because it was the only acoustic song on the record. I think a lot of people think of me and think acoustic guitar. I thought it was fun to have this one acoustic song be this total fairy tale, fantasy-based song—you drop into a dream state, and then, the one most traditional-sounding song is the most far out lyrically.

RR: “Well of Love” is a departure on the record, but somehow it fits in, and it is beautiful that it was placed near the end of Minnesota. There are so many elements in it—a slice of Latino folk music with a hint of Italy, Midwestern polka, and the Latin Playboys meet Willy DeVille. Let’s give some space to The Living Room who played on this piece with you.

MJ: Yes, fantastic. My friend, Adam Topol plays drums with Jack Johnson. We were on tour with Jack for a long time, and Adam was always coming up to me after my sets and he’d say, “Man, you’ve got to sing a cumbia.” And I was always, “What the hell is with a cumbia?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. And then, one day, he said, “I’m going to send you a cumbia, and you are going to sing on it, and it’ll be obvious.” I said, “All right; send me something.” He sent me this long piece of music and, sure enough, it was really easy for me to sing over, and I wrote the melody and the lyrics and the song. We took this long piece of music and edited it down to the shape it is now. It was just so fun. We did that for fun, and I played it for people, and my manager would play it for people, and everybody really liked the song. When we were editing down the songs to get on this record that one just kept popping up as people were saying, “Is that “Well of Love” song going to be on there?” I kept wondering if it would fit. I didn’t know if it was going to fit. My friend, my co-producer, Dan Field said, “Trust me; it’s going to fit. You need it. It’s really a collage record and it is one that will really fit.” I trusted him on that, but I was still: “Are you sure it’s fitting?” He liked it.

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