For the past six years, Mason Jennings has created a stir among those fortunate few who have experienced his music. Despite tours of the United States, Australia, and Europe, Jennings still has not achieved widespread name recognition. He is one of the few remaining members of a dying breed: the great American songwriter.
For those that have not heard Mason Jennings, think Nick Drake meets G. Love & Special Sauce. That comparison undoubtedly shortchanges all three artists, but Jennings is able to uniquely blend the personal lyrics of folk music with a dash of *gasp* pop sensibility that together sound very easy on the ears. The result is his triumphant fourth album Use Your Voice, released just last month, which runs the gamut on topics, from beginning and ending relationships to the death of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife. Don't mistake "pop sensibility" for cheese, as nothing could be further from the truth. While tackling a number of difficult subject areas, Jennings is able to draw a very personal picture without drowning the listener: his genius is subtle.
Perhaps the only reason that Jennings isn't already a household name is that he has opted for the less-traveled road. He sold more than 60,000 copies on his own record label, and has refused to cater to the whims of a recording industry searching for the next one-hit wonder. The fact that he has not compromised his music is evident upon the first listen, and Use Your Voice has established the 28 year-old Jennings as one of the top young songwriters today.
JamBase managed to catch up with Mason Jennings for a few minutes as he made a stop in Seattle on his current tour.
JamBase: How would you describe your sound to someone that has never heard you before?
MJ: Pretty stripped down: just an acoustic guitar.
Mason Jennings by B. Lima
JamBase: So who are some of your influences as a songwriter? Obviously you want to make your music as personal as you can--and while it's definitely not derivative or anything, the one name that came to my mind was Nick Drake. Was he a pretty big influence?
MJ: Nick Drake for sure. Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams as well, people like that.
JamBase: So on your latest release Use Your Voice, which, by the way, was a great listen--a breath of fresh air--was there a certain feel or atmosphere you were aiming for?
MJ: I was trying to keep it really live in the studio with hardly any overdubs. It's just an upright bass, acoustic guitar, and drums--all totally acoustic instruments. I just wanted to keep it really no-frills.
Absolutely. The whole album has a really relaxed feel to it. So what's the source of your inspiration for some of these songs? Are they more or less based on actual life experiences, or is it just what you happen to be feeling at that moment, or a combination?
Yeah, I would say it's a combination of the two. I think a lot of it is real life stuff: it's relationships with people, and then other stuff is just inspired by books and movies--things like that. But most of it definitely would be real life.
Nice. So it looks like you've done quite a bit of traveling recently. Has going all over the place helped you out creatively at all?
Since the last record came out, we've done four tours of the United States and two tours of Australia, and London too. That and the experience of just getting out and meeting new people definitely lends itself to songs.
So how does the songwriting process go for you? Do you have lyrics that you try to put to music, or do you start out with a riff or rhythm in mind and try to incorporate fitting lyrics?
It usually seems to come at the same time, actually. Pretty much every day from ten until one I have a place that I go to--this valley studio that I rent out--it's wooden and has some really nice windows, so I just go and hang out in there with a piano and guitar and just usually try to write with whatever vibe I'm feeling that day. You just start with a certain emotion and then everything just flows from there.
On this last album you just put out, you're covering a lot of ground with a number of songs that seem to be really personal. "Fourteen Pictures" seems to be about a relationship on the skids--and that there were fourteen pictures are on the refrigerator--was there a story behind that phrase or was it more of a general idea you had?
Well with that, I just got thinking back to a few different times in previous relationships where you're just ending things with one another. To me, it always seemed to happen late at night in the kitchen and then things just start... You're thinking, "Oh man, it's just too late to be having this conversation."
Warming Up by B. Lima
And "Lemon Grove Avenue:" is that based on an actual place?
It's a place in San Diego actually. We were just driving through there and I saw it and thought that it just sounded beautiful. But then it turned out that it was pretty much the worst street in the whole city! It's quite a ways from the ocean--about 15 miles inland... Which is so funny too, because you would think that it would be a really mellow place--right on the ocean, and it turns out to be just this horrible street! (Laughing)
Next song was "Keepin' it Real," one of my favorites on the album; seems to be about the excitement of just starting up a relationship. Was that directly from some experience you had where like the next day you put it together, or was it as you said earlier, where you just woke up one day and felt that way?
Pretty much just the same as the others. It's just some days you wake up in a good mood, and those things just flow out. I just try not to get in the way of it!
The "Ballad of Paul and Sheila"--I'm assuming this is about Senator Wellstone's plane crash--you're from Minneapolis. Was that a tragedy that hit close to home where you felt like you had to respond to it?
Yeah, just for me to make sense out of that whole chain of events. I had never met them before, but they were just such huge figures up in Minnesota. I just felt I needed to tip my hat and say that they really mattered and their work wasn't going to end there.
Mason Jennings by B. Lima
In "Drinking as Religion" you name Bombay Sapphire as your drink of choice. Is that the case?
(Laughing) It was--I try to chill on that nowadays though.
That's good stuff either way! So when you went in to record the album, how did that work out? Did you figure that you had like 10 or 12 songs that you knew you wanted to get on it or did you have a couple dozen that you tried to narrow down?
No, it was pretty much just 12 songs--I just kind of knew that was the feel for it that I wanted.
How long have you been playing with the guys in your group's arrangement now?
About 14 months or so. But I'm super-psyched about it and am hoping that we're going to stay together for a while now!
By K. Johnson
Well on "Ulysses" you say that you don't really like to talk on the phone, so I'm not going to keep you for too much longer. Thanks a lot for your time and we're looking forward to you heading through Boulder next week!
(Laughing) Well right on man, thanks a lot.
So last thing then--you following sports at all? Any favorites for March Madness?
I am really into sports, but right now I'm just looking forward to baseball at this point. Pullin' for the Twins--it'd be great if they can pull it out!
Interviewed by: Nathan Rodriguez
JamBase | Colorado
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"Drinking As Religion" - From: Use Your Voice
i have learned a
from this change of plans
loss is brutal,
i can't stand it,
i wonder how you can
and all the while
there's dogs a-barking
streets are talking
out my window
out the light and
the snow is flaking,
hearts are breaking
words are making
a mess out of these
thoughts i'm thinking,
boats keep sinking
it's drown or keep drinking
and if this darkness
came from light
then light can come from
if this darkness
came from light
then light can come from