Keepin’ it real: Q&A with Mason Jennings

By Sara Harvey

His shows draw upward of 3,000 fans in his hometown of Minneapolis, though according to singer-songwriter Mason Jennings, he doesn’t have a favorite city when he performs live. The only thing that matters, he said, is that the audience enjoys the moment.

Jennings is known for his voice, which is one of the most unique in folk rock music. It has a honey-thick, meandering tone that dodges in and out of the foreground, awkward and effortless all at once. His music is sweet and simple, resonating with the use of his acoustic guitar, and sometimes a piano and drums.

Jennings comes to Chicago this week for Lollapalooza on Aug. 2. He performed at Bonnaroo earlier this year and is currently touring with Jack Johnson, who signed him to his label Brushfire Records last year. He recently released his sixth album, In the Ever, in May.

The idea to name the album In the Ever stemmed from his son’s question, what it was like before he was born: “Ya know, Dad, when I was in the Ever?” The album attempts to convey the wonder of an individual’s search for spirituality.

The Chronicle spoke with Jennings about his new album, playing live, recording music for the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, and what he expects for Lollapalooza’s surging crowd of music lovers.

The Chronicle: When did you first start to play?

Jennings: I started when I was pretty young, when I was 12. I played drums for a few years, but it was mostly [because of] the songwriting; I just wanted to write songs. I started playing all the different instruments—piano and guitar—and started recording a lot of stuff when I was a teenager. And through that, I fell in love with songwriting.

What’s the music scene back home in Minneapolis like?

It’s pretty diverse. Bands like Atmosphere, and the jazz bands like the Bad Blood, [and] pop bands like Semisonic and Soul Asylum come from here. It’s cool how there’s a bunch of stuff going on all at once. It’s a really rural place, but there’s a lot of intellectual people, and really good public radio and newspapers.

What are you listening to these days?

She and Him, Joanna Newsom. I like the last Johnny Cash album, American Highways [Part Five].

You recorded Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” for I’m Not There. How did music supervisor Randall Poster choose you?

I think they said he and [director] Todd Haynes had been listening to my last record, Boneclouds. They thought it would be a good fit, coming from Minnesota, and they thought I could pull it off with the guitar. It sort of comes from the same vein as [Bob] Dylan, but I don’t sound like him enough that it would be like copying him. They called me up and asked me if I could do it in my own style. I was happy to be a part of it.

Who are your greatest influences?

Johnny Cash is probably my biggest influence. I’m influenced by Joanna Newsom in the way that she’s just herself. She just does the music that she believes in. I think what music’s been for me, it’s just making music that inspires [me], that continues to change and grow as I grow, not for any other reason. The music that I love just inspires me to get more involved in my own life. That’s the beauty of it.

Tell me about your latest album, In The Ever.

Well, I definitely wanted to write songs with a more spontaneous feel to them, [songs that projected] a joy. I’m a father, so I was really inspired by my sons. They’re really little, and they [approach] art with such a joy; they say stuff and don’t think about too much afterward. They just make more.

With this record, [Brushfire Records] has been so open to letting me do whatever I feel in my heart artistically. Rather than sitting with songs and editing them and working on them over and over and over again, I got a place in the woods and just record songs; started in the morning and finished by the evening. That was the main thing, that I didn’t want to over-edit it, so I could kind of come through with the joy that was part of the original process of writing songs for fun.

Do your kids like your music?

Some of it. You know, they definitely [tell] me if they like it or don’t like it. I like that with little kids. You play it for some of their friends, and some kids react right away [and] let you know right away if they like it or not.

How is the tour with Jack Johnson going?

Yeah, it’s been going great. We’re really good friends and it’s just fun to be out on the road with a bunch of good guys. In Europe, he’s playing such huge crowds; it’s really fun for me to be a part of it.

What do you expect for Lollapalooza?

I don’t know what to expect. I think it’s going to be pretty fun; I’m excited to be a part of it, because I play Chicago a lot. It’s so close to Minneapolis. I heard [there’s] going to be kind of a lot of people there.

What do you like best about playing live?

Just that [that moment] is not going to happen again. It’s a one-time thing that happens between the artist and the fans. It’s a piece of art that’s ephemeral, or just one point in time in which something gets created. If you could collectively have a transcendent experience, there’s nothing like it. It’s one of the best things in life.

Jennings will perform at 1 p.m. on Aug. 2 at the PlayStation Stage at Lollapalooza. For more information, visit Lollapalooza.com. To learn more about Jennings’ music, visit MasonJennings.com.

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