Interview: Mason Jennings
BTJ Photographer Chris Monaghan sat down recently with singer/songwriter Mason Jennings to talk about his current cross country tour, his beginnings as a musician and his songwriting style. You can stream Jennings’ latest Minnesota and see his remaining dates on his website.
BandsThatJam:Â Â Â Â How old were you when you started playing guitar, and when did you know you wanted to be a musician?
Mason Jennings: I would always write these songs when I was pretty little, even when I was 8 or 9 I would write these full songs and sing them in to a tape recorder, so I was always really writing.Â But I really wanted to play drums. I started on drums when I was 11 or 12 and I realized I wanted to do more harmonically with stuff so I started playing guitar and bass, so right around the time I was 12 or 14 it really took off and when I was 15 my dad got me a 4 track and I was sold. Everyday I was writing something and recording.
BTJ:Â Â Â Â Youâ€™re about half way through a 23-city tour promoting your new album Minnesota, any highlights from the road yet?
MJ:Â Â Â Â Â Â Iâ€™ve just been really excited with how intense the crowds have been. I just didnâ€™t know, my records have been changing a lot. Every recordâ€™s kinda different. Iâ€™ve been wondering if the crowds were going to stick with me, and Iâ€™ve been stoked that the crowds have been so intense and such listening crowds. Across the boards itâ€™s just been really fun to play these shows.
BTJ:Â Â Â Â Iâ€™ve seen you play small intimate clubs and bigger theaters, which do you prefer ?
MJ:Â Â Â Â Â Â I like to sculpt the show to fit the venue. For tonight we have a more expanded show, I have a bunch of different instruments on stage and a friend playing with me. It will be kind of a duo show with us switching out. I play a bunch of drums tonight, bass guitar, electric guitar and piano. At the end of the show, the opening band The Pines are going to sit in so its going to be a 5 piece at the end of the show. Itâ€™s a lot of fun for bigger venues. Then you go to other small folk rooms and it’s really fun to try new stuff or play stuff you’re not used to. It’s great having those kind of intimate shows too.
BTJ:Â Â Â Â This whole tour youâ€™ve been supported by The Pines, Iâ€™m assuming youâ€™re a fan of theirs, who else have you been listening to lately?
MJ:Â Â Â Â Â Â The Pines are so great. I really like the song writing in that band. They come from a real mystical place thatâ€™s rare in music. I love the bad â€œThe Bad Plusâ€ theyâ€™re a piano trio. I listened to â€œThe Harder they Comeâ€ soundtrack today. Louis Armstrong. I’m really all over the place. As far as new music, I like Regina Spector a lot, and Joanna Newsome. I guess it really just depends on my mood.
BTJ:Â Â Â Â A couple years back you worked on the soundtrack for 180 degrees South, a personal favorite of mine, not only because of the music, it’s just an amazing film. I saw in the bonus features you actually got to go down to Patagonia for inspiration, how was that trip, does it still influence the music you write today?
MJ:Â Â Â Â Â Â I think it must have, I only went down there for 8 days but it was such an intense experience. I had never really been camping and all the sudden Iâ€™m down there with and Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tompkins and all these incredible mountain climbers. Also just hanging out with James Mercer, from The Shins, was so awesome, heâ€™s just incredible.Â Iâ€™m not sure how it really influences me other than it was just really intense to be that far away from any cities, you could just drink out of the rivers. It was something really new to me. Being around those guys with that kind of spirit. They are just intense amazing people. Right away the thing that comes to mind is encouraged again my urge to follow my love in life and follow my passions, and it was nice to be surrounded by people who are also doing that.
BTJ:Â Â Â Â Since Blood of Man in 2009 youâ€™ve released 2 albums, one live and then The Flood a collection of unreleased songs. How was it going back through all your old material and putting together that album?
MJ:Â Â Â Â Â Â It was fun. I kind of got overwhelmed looking back through all of my old recordings. It all started with a friend I hadnâ€™t heard from in a while and emailed me and said â€œdo you remember that tape you always used to play for me?â€ and I asked my dad if he still had any of my old tapes and he did, and I started hearing all these other random tapes of old songs and we got it up to about 35 or ore songs I had never released. And rather than trying to recreate it with bands I thought lets just get it down to the essence of the songs and at least get the songs out there. We spent a couple days, I had an engineer come out to Minnesota and my friend Dan who produces the records with me, at least the last few, and we just went through and I got in front of a mic and just played song after song after song. He helped me go through and pick out the ones we felt were hitting. I still have a bunch more so weâ€™ll just have to see. Thatâ€™s kind of the thing with song writing, certain songs I really like but they just donâ€™t fit with the collection at the time.
BTJ:Â Â Â Â This month you released Minnesota. All new songs, at least to us, how long have you been working on it?
MJ:Â Â Â Â Â Â It took a long time actually. It took about two years. One year of solid song writing, and one year of recording and editing. The recording process took about 7 or 8 months, but we really took a lot of time having certain people come in and add little things here and there and also the mixing and mastering. The process of it was I just went into the woods and had this new kind of recording set up, sort of the same way as blood of man but it was more high tech gear. I was just going crazy I wrote like 35 songs that all sounded kind of different from each other. I was like wow, this might be a 35-song record, or it could be not a record at all. I couldnâ€™t figure it out, and my friend Dan and I sat down and got it down to its essence and my friend Jake Hanson played a bunch of electric guitar, Jason Schwartzman came in and sang, my wife sang on some of it, and it all really took shape in the last 4 or 5 months.
BTJ:Â Â Â Â A lot of artists develop their songs differently. When youâ€™re writing do you generally come up with the lyrics first and then write the music, or the other way around?
MJ:Â Â Â Â Â Â Itâ€™s almost always the music that comes first. If I sit down at a piano, usually something will just kind of flow out, and then I start singing along. The way a song really starts taking off is if a couple of phrases or images come to mind, and things kind of lock up. Its kind of a mystical feeling, it just kind of rolls downhill and then it all just feels like it comes in from the back of the song, the timing gets weird and your like â€œOhâ€ the end is coming closer to the beginning, and you can see it sort of closing on itself like a circle, and then you realize hey I got a song here. Itâ€™s so much fun.
BTJ:Â Â Â Â Do you ever have that â€œAhaâ€ moment when your writing, where you just know you have it. Or is it a constant reworking process?
MJ: Â Â Â Â Â For sure, with every record there will be a point with one or two songs that make the record take shape. For Blood of Man it was â€œThe Fieldâ€ and â€œPittsburgâ€ and once those ones took shape, I was like cool this is gonna work out, thereâ€™s a theme. For this one (Minnesota) it was â€œClutchâ€ and â€œRaindrops on the Kitchen Floorâ€ Especially â€œClutchâ€, once I wrote it I thought this is going to be sort of the center to the spokes of the record and then came â€œBitter heartâ€ also a piano song and â€œNo Reliefâ€. This record for me has really been piano as the center and it all kind of spoke out.
BTJ:Â Â Â Â Its really a great album, like you said very piano driven and dances seamlessly through a few different genres. The album is titled â€œMinnesotaâ€, you live in Minnesota and have for a while, why did you decide to title this one after it?
MJ:Â Â Â Â Â Â I think because itâ€™s so not Minnesota. It doesnâ€™t sound like what you would think of Minnesota. To me the feeling of it sounds as eclectic as the place feels to me. Minnesota is this contradiction of things where its got this rugged wilderness right next to this sophisticated theater scene and its just so neat the blending of different influences up there. I was talking to my manager and I was like what do you think of when you hear these songs, and he was like I think of Minnesota first. The main theme of the record is home, and heart. And I though whereâ€™s my home and heart, Minnesota.Â Thereâ€™s no referenceâ€™s directly to it, its just one word that kind of sums up my home and heart.