Interview: Mason Jennings

Mason Jennings

Indie folk star Mason Jennings arrives to San Diego this week, with consecutive performances at Solana Beach’s Belly Up tavern this Tuesday and Wednesday. Touring on the debut of this summer’s Blood of Man LP release, Mason  makes a pit-stop to the region with opening act Crash Kings . Before the September 15th and 16th shows, he shared his insight on finding musical success in Minneapolis, the road since then, Bob Dylan and his new album.
Mason’s career roots trace back to Minneapolis, where he moved after dropping out of high school at age 16. Born in Hawaii, Mason grew up in Pittsburgh before heading west to the Twin Cities.  “I was traveling and came here for the first time. I just fell in love with it and felt totally at home. I had been a lot of places and this was the one places that I always I felt I could totally relax. It was a great fit for me,”.

Growing up with heavy metal influences and as a self-confessed Led Zeppelin fan, Mason began playing guitar at the age of 13. His 1997 self-titled debut album was entirely self-produced and  recorded in the living room of his apartment with a four track. “I was doing what I loved. I wasn’t really thinking about other people hearing what I was doing so much as making music that was moving to myself. [Music] wasn’t really working for years, but I was doing it for myself. Then one day things started to click and people started coming to the show.”

With the addition of several other musicians, The Mason Jennings Band was formed and began drawing crowds in Minneapolis. Without a record label’s support, Mason’s first two albums shipped over 30,000 copies. Several albums and tens of thousands of fans later, Mason released critically acclaimed “Use Your Voice” in 2004. Shortly thereafter, Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock’s Glacial Pace label signed Mason for 2006’s “In the Ever Album”. While that label relationship did not work out, Mason met Jack Johnson at an outdoor show in Minnesota which lead to a deal with Johnson’s Brushfire record label. “We were doing a college show in the middle of Minnesota. I played before him, we both liked each other’s  music and we hit it off. Then we started to tour together”.

Along the way, Mason was involved with several film projects that spread his music to wider audiences. Connections through Johnson landed his music on the surf film Shelter. “I had been friends with Jack Johnson for a while. He just happened to hook me up having some songs in that movie. I hadn’t heard about the movie and had no idea what I was getting into. But the movie is so good and so many people heard my music through it. It was totally unexpected,”. Mason’s surfing ties continued through 2009, as his single “Sunlight” was released on iTunes as a fundraiser for the Surfrider Foundation.  The venture lead him to beaches across the US–including Seattle, LA, Florida and Maine–for cleanup programs. For the record, Mason noted laughingly he does not surf.

In 2007, Todd Haynes’ invited Mason to join in on  I’m Not There, a biopic on Bob Dylan. Mason performed “Blowin in the Wind” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, which Christian Bale lip-synched in the film. “Todd Haynes got in touch with me  He said he had been listening to my record Boneclouds, and wanted me to be a part of the film. It was a really specific part what they wanted, so I couldn’t just totally reinvent the song, but it was really fun to do it. And I got to meet Heath Ledger.  I felt very fortunate to meet him before he died.”

As one of the prominent musicians of the folk genre in the last decade, Mason has drawn a considerable amount of Dylan comparisons. However, he brushed off taking the comparisons too seriously. “I don’t really think about it too much. I love his music, and that’s cool to hear about it.” Interestingly enough, Mason did not hear Dylan’s music until he was twenty years old. “We might have listened to the same music a lot. But I had played for years before [hearing Dylan]. I came up more through Heavy Metal. Then I started following in love with really old recordings with country blues singers. When I heard [Dylan] for the first time I was like, ‘Whoa, this guy’s on the same tip that I am,”.

Consistently choosing creativity over cash, Mason’s career path has been devoid of major label support. The move to Jack Johnson’s Brushfire label kept consistent with the trend. Mason reiterated his personal priority of authenticity in music and also his excitement about the developments music production has made in the past decade. “The spirit of the recording is what matters. The feeling that you get from the recording is going to be the only thing that matters. Everyone can make their recordings at home. It comes down to ‘is the song moving?’ and ‘does the singer mean it or not?’. It’s a pretty exciting time. I love that I can make my records on my own. The technology is available that I can do it. I’m very excited about the way [music] is headed. When I first came up, it was really hard to have people hear about your music. I’d be putting up fliers all over the city and stuff like. And now you get a good word of mouth through your friends on MySpace or Facebook and everybody can hear a song instantly on their computer. With a good song, if people dig it, it can just take off,”.

Mason’s eleventh album Blood of Man was released this summer on Brushfire Records. For the recording process, Mason holed up at home in the woods near Minneapolis and took a different approach to the recording process. “This time, I definitely took a lot more time off the road than I’d ever taken. I got the whole winter off. And I just tried to get very free and express myself for fun and for my own sake, not knowing anybody would hear these recordings. It was a really enjoyable process. Then I listened back to all the songs and said, ‘I think I actually have a record here. I don’t think I need to redo these, It feels really good to me.’ I kept thinking I would work with a producer, I was talking to three or four of my favorite producers. But at the end of the day, I didn’t want to redo them. They had the raw feeling that I really love and they felt like they were recorded right when I wrote them and got inspired. It felt weird to reenact them and try to make them cleaner. I don’t really like that with my music, I don’t want it too clean or enacted.”
Mason Jennings plays at the Belly Up! Tavern on Sept. 15th and 16th