Mason Jennings and The Light from the North Country
RR: He’s a smart man. What was Dan Field’s importance to this record?
MJ: Yeah, he’s huge. He co-produced Blood of Man, too, so he was really really instrumental on both of those records with just getting it down to its essence, and not having any filler, and making sure that every song was holding its place on the record, and making sure that what I was trying to say got said. He brought in a lot of instrumentation, and was a lot of influence on who I brought in to help me with instruments, like bringing in Jake Hanson for guitar parts and Jason Schwartzman, and he definitely helped me with sequencing—what to get help with, how much to leave raw, and how much to clean up. He’s just been an incredible help with that process.
RR: Tangents within a framework—a favorite concept of mine—can be found on “Hearts Stop Beating” and “Witches Dream.”
MJ: Yeah, totally. “Witches Dream” was the first song that I recorded for this record [As mentioned, “Wake Up” was recorded and then reshaped after the Boneclouds sessions.]. That was one that [Field], for sure, was adamant about putting on this record. He said that he really thinks that so much of what I do is all about the creative joy, just creating a song in the moment and having fun and just doing music for the joy of it, and he was just making sure that that spirit got on the record. That song was written and recorded really fast, and it was really fun to do. I said, “I don’t know if it is as strong a song as something like “Clutch.”” But he said, “It doesn’t matter; it’s the feeling coming off of it, and go put that beside a song like “Clutch” to get the contrast,” which he thought was really important to let the listener hear and to show the whole picture of what I actually do, and the spirit of what I do.
“Hearts Stop Beating” was the same kind of thing—just wanting to get something faster, and more in the vein of bands like The Cure or R.E.M., or something like that, where you get a different kind of sound, but still based on the heart. It fits to something like “Raindrops” as it gives it a little more energy, a little more raw flavor to it.
RR: There is also an otherworldly aura to it, as well.
MJ: Yeah, you drop into a dream a little bit.
RR: “Witches Dream” also sounds like a song that Wayne Coyne from Flaming Lips would like to write.
MJ: Yeah, for sure. They are a huge…I love those guys. That’s one of my favorite bands. That’s always the sort of thing that I’m trying to figure out—to bring that side of what I do into a more folk sound, and that one just felt like the most natural on the record. I definitely have that side of my musical personality. A lot more songs got recorded for this record that were pretty far out like that that didn’t quite fit. We’ll have to see how that direction goes in the future.
RR: Let’s talk about direction. You are in the midst of a theatre tour with the Pines opening up for you. They are from Iowa, but now live in Minnesota, I believe.
MJ: Yeah, Chicago and Minnesota. For this tour, I really wanted this to be a song-based tour, and keep that collage spirit alive. We have a bunch of instruments on stage, piano, small drum kit, couple of different guitars, and bass. I bring out my friend Jacob Hanson, who plays all the instruments. It is a more stripped-down show where we switch off on instruments—he’ll play the drums on one song, and I’ll play the piano, and then, I’ll play the guitar, and he’ll play bass; I’ll play some autoharp. Just keep the songs pretty minimal. When we were rehearsing for this, I tried it with a band, and I tried it with [Hanson], and I thought, “Wow, these songs really work real sparse,” which is piano and maybe, a little bit of tambourine and bass, or something like that. I really wanted to make
sure that these songs really stand out in that form. Coming off of my last tour for Blood of Man was a full rock band tour and I thought it would be a nice change of pace to have it based around that. I’d be able to talk more and tell stories. At the end of the show, the Pines come up and sit in with me. The last four or five songs is the full band with my friends, The Pines. There will be an evolution throughout the night—starting solo with my friend, we’ll switch around, and then, we’ll end up a five piece. That just seems like a really fun way to try this once.
RR: Will you be heading back into the studio after the New Year?
MJ: I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. I haven’t been writing much lately, which is interesting for me. After recording that much music by myself over the last few years, I think I’m looking for a more collaborative spirit for the next record, or maybe, record it somewhere else or something. I don’t know what that means yet. I’m going to go out on the road and do this and focus on the tour and see what kind of new things come my way.
It’s interesting. By this point, I usually have a bunch of new songs working out in the studio, but I think I’ve hit the wall with what I feel I can do right now, so I’m looking for a little bit of change of pace.
You asked about The Pines. I thought of those guys because I just love Benson Ramsey. He’s a good friend of mine, and we’ve been friends for a while. I just love his songwriting so much. I want more people to hear it. One of his songs, “Shiny Shoes” is one of my all-time favorite songs. I just thought these guys would be a great band to hang out with for a long tour like that. I think that people that would like my music would enjoy their music, and they’d be fun guys to have sit in, too, and to augment the sound with what they do. It should be a really fun tour.
RR: Minnesota had a positive impact on me—sparse instrumentation with music that is naturally wedded to the lyrics; definitely an album to be proud about, right?
MJ: Thanks a lot. That means a lot to me. I appreciate it. Thanks so much for taking the time to really listen to the record and really get in there with it. I really appreciate that.
RR: And touring behind a record like that is important, but also a show like you described has to have value because, again, it takes you away from your family.
MJ: Yeah. It’s always about being more myself and bringing as much of myself out there as possible and being open and having people feel like I want to have every night be a special experience and a personalized experience. That is why I like going to shows and, when I leave, I feel like I have connected more with the artist that I like, and had a special experience that can only happen once. That is the whole beauty of a live show.