Mason Jennings, Minnesota’s folk-rock singer-songwriter darling, has recorded an album on a major label. For a generation of twenty and thirty-something Mason fans schooled on Nirvana rebellion and the evils of The Man, we have come to respond quickly to the term “major label”
with an equally powerful word: “sellout.” So ever since last fall, when the fiercely independent songwriter and recording artist made the decision to sign with Isaac Brock’s brand new label Glacial Pace (an offshoot of mammoth-sized Epic Records), fans and critics have been waiting with bated breath to hear the tracks off of Jennings’ major label debut.
Chin up, my grunge youth comrades, that day has come. The new album, Boneclouds, will be in stores May 16, and—though there are some drastically different, experimental elements on the album—fans can rest assured that this record is 100 percent Mason.
As those who have already heard the album’s first single, “Be Here Now,” can attest, there is a new sound brewing underneath the familiarity of Jennings’ signature swooping vocal nuances and soul-searching, philosophical lyrics. There is production. There are vocal effects. Jennings’ voice echoes and soars above the music, resonating far beyond the last strum of his acoustic guitar. And it doesn’t stop with the first track. Die-hard Masonites and folk purists—the kind of people who booed Bob Dylan for plugging in an electric guitar and recording Bringing it All Back Home—are going to be shocked. Possibly outraged.
For those of us who can handle change, however, Jennings’ new record is a treat. The album delves deep into Jennings’ creative potential, like a study in what happens when an evolving musician is finally given all the resources he deserves. “We had a lot of time,” he explains. “So I was able to try tons of different ideas. I was pretty much open to almost any idea anybody had, and I had a chance to use it if it was cool, or not use it if I didn’t like it. I was way less pressured with this one. You’d think, with a major label, there’d be more pressure. But it’s a lot less.”
For an artist who has been repeatedly touted for selling his first 100,000 records out of the back of his van and turning down label offers left and right, it’s no surprise that Jennings was drawn to Isaac Brock. Brock, front man for indie-turned-major label rock band Modest Mouse, is the most unlikely record label executive imaginable. “I looked at his career, and how he had made the jump to a major label, and, to me, it made the most sense as far as having somebody to help me through the process,” Mason says, adding that Brock approached it as “a fan, rather than thinking about how to sell records. It had a really different feel to it.”
“I was completely blown away with Mason’s incredibly sincere voice and lyrics,” wrote Brock early on in the project. “I can be a real shithead critic when it comes to music so I have to tell you how nice it felt to instantly want to compliment instead of criticize the music. I recently heard some of the new songs Mason is recording for Glacial Pace and am thinking that even if this was the only thing that Glacial Pace released, how I am just so goddamned proud to play a part in the release of this record.”
Brock was extremely active in the recording process, working directly with Jennings, “listening to songs, helping me pick which songs to put on the record. He would listen along the way and he was a good soundboard,” Mason says. “He was almost like a producer, actually; he was definitely helping with the editing process, what got cut off the record and left on.”
Brock helped Jennings find his studio producer, Noah Georgeson (Joanna Newsom, Devandra Banhart), and the two retreated into the wilderness of Cannon Falls to record at Pachyderm Studio. The entire process took “about five months. We took two months in the studio, and then we took breaks in between for a month,” he says. “I just really wanted time; that’s the way I spent the money for the advance. I took a year off from touring and made sure that I had time to sit with everything so I wouldn’t be forced into putting out something I didn’t love.”
Jennings readily acknowledges the fact that his new album ventures away from his traditional style of songwriting, and he talks excitedly about the new strides he has made in his work. “I wanted the record to be something I could really crank, really loud,” he says, explaining the decision to add vocal effects. “We were trying different mixes, and different ideas with what the vocals sounds should be like for different songs, and I kinda turned it over to Noah, and he was out in Los Angeles, and he did the mixes himself … so I would have a chance to not think about the song for a couple days, and then put on a new version of it. And those are the ones that hit me the hardest.
“I wasn’t really concerned about trying to stay pure; I was concerned about what was going to make the song hit the hardest. It was just song by song, what worked the best for me … I just really, really wanted to turn it up,” he says, laughing. “It’s the opposite of my last record. My last record felt like something that was almost completely no effects and really kind of a quiet record. I was just ready to do something louder.”
Some tracks on the album, specifically “Some Say I’m Not” and “Where the Sun Had Been,” rock out with heavy strains of Eastern music, Ravi Shankar and a bit of Neil Young. “I was trying to do something really spontaneous,” Mason says, when asked about the new sounds. “‘Some Say I’m Not’ was the first take, we just tried it in a day,” he explains. “And on ‘Where the Sun Had Been,’ I was just trying to write something totally different than I’d written, and I decided to write with my band, which I’d never done before. So we wrote that song in an hour, and I just wrote down the first thing to come into my head, and then we recorded it in our practice space, it was just really fast. I was not even thinking about it for the record, and Isaac called me up and he’s like, ‘Dude, there’s this song that you gave me like a year ago that I love, and I was wondering where it’s from, let’s put it on the record,’ and I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ That’s the good part of having him involved; he’s willing to experiment. Instead of shying away from experimental stuff he was open to it.”
For the purists, the good news is that only about half of the album ventures into new territory. After the first two tracks, the die-hards will be able to breath again as things settle down with the delicate ballad, “If You Ain’t Got Love.” Much like old Jennings favorites like “Ballad for My One True Love,” the track strips away the layers of effects and instrumentation to leave Jennings alone with his acoustic guitar, singing the sweet chorus, “I’m never going to give you up/ What do you got if you ain’t got love?”
After a complete listen, the album shows an interesting dichotomy between old and new Mason styles, and the dual nature is intentional. When it came time to pick songs for the record, Jennings explains, he had about 30 different recorded tracks to choose from. “For me it’s really important—and the part of the live show I like so much—to have stuff that’s really rockin’, and stuff that’s really quiet. I wanted to try to capture that in a record. I felt like if it was one way, it was getting a little bit too affected sounding, or too polished. And if I listened to it the other way, it just sounded too intimate, where it wouldn’t really catch my attention.
“What I was thinking was from start to finish, nothing would repeat itself and it would be interesting, would have an interesting landscape the whole way through, like a mix tape,” he explains. “So that you’d want to start it over again.”
Another defining force on the album is an undercurrent of spiritual questioning. Songs like “Jesus Are You Real” grapple with religion and politics, topics that seem bound to one another now more than ever before. The last song on the album, “Jesus,” leaves the listener with a series of questions that somehow feel answered with the line, “And when I say I search for you I mean I search for peace/ I search for hope, I search for love, and one day for release.”
Mason explains that much of his spiritual questioning stems from the 30-year-old’s recent life changes. “I’m a new father, I have two kids now, so that’s huge. That was a huge change in my life, as far as understanding the fragility of life. [There was] a giant shift in my psyche, over that period of time, being on the road and being away from them.”
He also lends some of his newfound spiritual wanderings to his natural curiosity about human nature and religion. “I’ve always been interested in people’s mythologies and the way they structure their lives, but over the last couple of years I definitely went and actually read all the major spiritual texts, like the Bible, the Koran, the Tao Te Ching, and the Bhagavad Gita. To actually read the whole Bible from front to back was kind of a task,” he says, chuckling to himself, “but it meant a lot. I was just thinking, like this is a book that our whole society is reading and basing their lives on and I just wondered, what’s actually in it?”
“I try to read every day on the road, late at night especially when I’m trapped in a hotel room,” he says. “Rather than turn on a television, or something, I like to read.” A true academic in his pursuits, Jennings says he does not identify strongly with one particular religion at this time, but rather is enjoying the pursuit of knowledge. “I have a lot of love for parts of all of them,” he says, “but I feel like I’m drawing a line in the sand if I pick anything. That seems like there’s an in group and an out group,” he explains, which he finds limiting in the search for truth.
There is definitely something mystical about Jennings, a sense of out-of-this-world creativity that is stronger on Boneclouds than on any previous album. “You’ve just got to pick up the guitar as much as you can, and not force it,” he explains, when describing his songwriting process. “It’s sort of weird, it’s like I’ve always kind of heard it. I would hear songs, even when I was little. So I feel really lucky. And I feel like my job is to get my voice better and get my hands better and work at that skill … It usually comes all at once; it usually comes pretty fast. So I’ll just stay open to it.”
“I do demos of just guitar, and vocals and piano,” he says, noting that he writes most of the parts himself before introducing a song to his band. “I’ll give those to the guys, and then they’ll write parts and go from there. And sometimes I like the demos better and sometimes I like the band better.” For Boneclouds, Jennings worked with bassist Chris Morrissey (who also recorded and toured for Use Your Voice) and drummer Dave King (The Bad Plus, Happy Apple). Because King is busy with other projects, Peter Leggett will be joining Jennings for his summer tour.
Jennings’ previous drummer, Brian McLeod, left because “he wanted to play with Atmosphere. He wanted to play rap. Peter Leggett, who is actually from Heiruspecs, is playing with me,” Mason explains. Leggett and the other members of Heiruspecs have previously toured with Slug as the live band behind Atmosphere. “So it was kind of like a switch-off,” he says, laughing.
Another new development for the tour will be the addition of a fourth touring member, Bradford Swanson, on piano and guitar. “I’ve never done that before,” he says. “All the songs on the record have piano on them, so, I really wanted to have that on the live shows, too. I’ll probably still play a few songs on piano,” Jennings assured me, a relief to anyone who has seen his live solo piano sets.
This time around, Jennings will come through town to play the Orpheum Theater on June 24. “It’s like a dream, I get to play these awesome theaters,” he says. “I usually do First Avenue shows in the winter, when it gets cold … But for the record release, it’s nice to have a theater show, because then I can do all the different types of songs, [including] the really intimate stuff.”
Despite his success and growing number of fans around the world, Mason insists that Minneapolis will remain his home base. He attributes much of his professional success to the support he receives from Minnesota. “It’s been the most important thing ever,” he says, “because I came from Pittsburgh, and there was no real place to play there for me. Then I moved here and the community was so nice to me, and there were so many places to play.
“I can’t imagine getting the kind of support I got from this town in any other city,” he says. “I love it here.”