Be here now: Interview with Mason Jennings
Mason Jennings just might be the nicest guy in music today (well, at least that I've met so far). I had a chance to sit down with Mason after watching his soundcheck at the Fox on Friday afternoon. Just as I opened my mouth to explain who I was and what I wrote for, he jumps in with comments to me about the specific articles he was reading earlier on my blog, offers me something to drink, and asks if I need him to hold the voice recorder. Yeah. No pretense here -- Mason stands out with his completely earnest and kind nature, and commitment to the music.
I shouldn't be surprised, since these same qualities come through in his music and are part of what draws me to his lyrics, but hearing his eloquent discussion of songwriting, the music industry, and parenthood made me really pleased to get to spend some time catching up with this talented musician.
MASON JENNINGS INTERVIEW
HB: You've shown a strong do-it-yourself ethic throughout your career, from recording your first album at home by yourself, to forming your own record label to distribute your work. And yet, you’ve called your first major label release (Boneclouds) “the record I've been trying to make for years.” I thought that was very interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Mason: Well, it’s just that I hadn’t been able to spend enough time in the studio with the DYI . . . is it DYI? Wait, do-it-yourself. DIY. I couldn’t figure out how to spend more time in the studio because it cost so much money, you know, and I wanted to make a more hi-fi sounding record and this gave me the opportunity to be in there for a bunch of weeks, 5 or 6 weeks. And I got a producer involved, which cost money, and I tried some stuff I just couldn’t do before. So that’s what I meant by that – just to see what it sounds like to try a bunch of different stuff without worrying about the clock ticking as much.
And that’s the same dichotomy you were talking about on the Use Your Van DVD . . .
Right, but that was back before I even signed or started recording [Boneclouds], so it’s neat that now I've gotten just what I had wanted then. I had time to try different arrangements, get different musicians in there, just try some stuff I’d never tried before. Like, recording Birds Flying Away was like . . . 5 days? And Use Your Voice was like less than two weeks, but that’s including mixing it too. So before I’d basically have one day to do a song, and if you don’t get it then everyone starts to stress, and then you get behind, and it’s not a good way to work. Plus, I don’t really like – it’s not the most comfortable environment to be in a studio for me. It’s just so sterile, usually.
So, you usually were used to going into the studio with the songs totally finished, and not doing much editing or noodling or revising in the studio?
We did that a lot on this album, for example a song like “Some Say I’m Not” was basically a first take in the studio, just like totally improvised. But we tried some different stuff, like the production aesthetic was different with slap-back vocal effects and things that were on the record were definitely not planned going in, it’s just a matter of now being able to experiment with different things and see what turns out the best.
Do you think . . . is there ever a danger of musicians getting, I don’t know . . . drunk on the power of being able to use whatever effects you want in the studio [Mason cackles] and then the ultimate result may be something that doesn’t really sound like you?
Maybe, yeah, like that kinda happened to me. I recorded the whole record in the studio, but then I ended up using about half of the demo tracks on the finished album. It was fun in that I got the experience, but at the end of recording it was just like, wow, this is way too glossy for me. So to balance it out I made sure that I put some demos on there. It was definitely fun to experience it [the toys in the studio], but it’s not necessarily something I think I’d do again in the same way.
So looking forward to your next album, now that you’ve successfully made the jump from independent to major label and released your first album this way, how might you do things differently next time?
Well, I bought a studio, a house in Minnesota, so I have a place that I can go every day now and start recording. I’m starting to do it all myself again, you know, with me playing all the instruments again, but I’ll be able to bring in different people as I need them, and different instrumentation, or singers, or producers or mixers – but as I need it, instead of having to go into a studio for ten days and have to get it all done exactly on schedule.
Do you have the same capabilities in your home studio as you would in the studio you recorded Boneclouds in?
Yeah, we recorded Boneclouds at a place called Pachyderm, where Nirvana recorded In Utero – it’s southern Minnesota. My home studio will be set up more for me, so it’ll be the same quality stuff but set up just for one person. So you don’t have to have everything to record a band or a big bunch of people. I’ll be more comfortable and I can just be there all the time if I want, like I could be there for a year and recording by myself, instead of always having people from the label there or even people that work in the studio wandering in and out. It’s harder to be intimate with it, you know, in that kind of setting.
I am currently writing new material and getting the studio set up so aesthetically it just feels really natural and comfortable to me. I don’t want to move too fast with it. It’s a slow process. I plan to start recording in August, and hit it pretty hard.
Where are you finding musical inspiration these days? Is it ever hard to be inspired on the road?
No, it’s always just really random for me. I mean, I’ll always try to just sit down with a guitar and write, but when songs come to me, it’s really hard to know what inspires it. I try and make sure that I take in as much input as I can and just . . . live as much as I can. And then the songs will just come naturally. It’s pretty great – it’s the best part for me. My favorite part is the writing. For me it’s just, I feel totally interconnected, like something’s just cruisin’ through you, and you get in the zone. It’s really, really fun when it works. It kinda feels to me like when I meditate twice a day, and it’s kinda like that . . . everything feels in line, you know? It’s hard to describe.
Art often inspires art, and you've said that “Adrian” was sparked by the immense feeling in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Are there other songs that you can specifically recall that were inspired directly by another piece of art, whether it was a book you read or a song...?
Well, yeah – on the new record the song “Be Here Now” was inspired by the book Be Here Now by Ram Dass. And "Moon Sailing On The Water" was I think pretty influenced by a book called In The Lake Of The Woods by Tim O’Brien. He wrote a bunch of Vietnam books, like Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried. The book just stuck with me.
Let’s see, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s influencing what. Adrian’s not about Beloved, it just feels like it. And on that same record "East of Eden" is sort of inspired by a Steinbeck book, and also "Dewey Dell" is inspired by the Faulkner book As I Lay Dying, there’s a character Dewey Dell.
It’s almost like . . . [pauses] when you just step one little step off your own life, you can just see something open up in front of you, and you just follow it.
The thing for me is that I really wanted to write because when you read books or when you watch movies or whatever, and you get to that point where you get really moved and you transcend and you start to, like, almost cry or get teared up at a really great piece of art and that’s what I’m always trying to look for in the music too. If people tell me, “Man, you made me cry on the one song,” I mean, it’s not like I wanna say that’s the point, but I like the transcendence in relating to another person’s point of view so much, and feeling so connected and not alone in the experience, whatever it is, the book or song or whatever. That’s so powerful, I think, that connected feeling.
I thought it was interesting when you were talking about the difficulty for you in finding music after your sons were born that honestly reflected the contrasting emotions that parenthood brought up, without sounding like Raffi. Where are you at with that? I know you’ve written some of your own music that’s influenced by those experiences of fatherhood.
Well, now my [4-year-old] son likes Led Zeppelin, so I’m like, “Okay, we’re safe now. We can hang.” But, I’m trying to think . . . Paul Simon’s really good about talking about those things; I mean he has that one song about his daughter that’s really famous but there’s also like The Rhythm of the Saints or Graceland that’s so much about that. Jack Johnson’s starting to write some stuff about his family life.
It’s really hard, though. I mean, the one song that’s on my record "Which Way Your Heart Will Go" was called Fatherhood, and there was a line, instead of going “darling, there’s no way to know which way your heart will go,” instead it said “I would never trade a thing for fatherhood and the joy you bring.” But it was hard because I actually liked the original way better and it was more powerful to me, but then I played it for certain people and they just didn’t feel anything. Like, if they’re not a father, then they couldn’t relate, so I was like, “wow.” That was a tough one for me to change the lyrics. It makes sense, I guess, because then it opens it up to more people, but it still to me . . . there’s not enough songs about fathers I think.
You said when we first sat down that there is a lot of great stuff happening now in music. Tell me about that – what excites you in music lately?
One thing I like is the intimacy, like everyone’s starting to really get to know musicians in a closer way, through things like MySpace the walls are just coming down. I mean, like you look up Lou Reed’s MySpace page and he’s just like on there, sitting at a restaurant. And it’s like, “What?” All the veils are coming down. It’s a really interesting time for that.
And then you get these really incredible people like Joanna Newsom and Chad VanGaalen, just like these hybrid artists that just have these amazing kinds of new talent. So, that’s exciting to me.
Also just the instantaneous nature of music now, like you can just put something up on the web so fast and hear it. I love going to people’s MySpace pages and hearing different songs and demos. It can be hard figuring it all out though. It seems like the albums and CDs are kind of in a weird spot, like it doesn’t really make sense in a lot of ways to make CDs anymore? And people don’t think about them . . . I mean, they put like seventeen songs on an album and . . . I can’t listen to that in one sitting. It’s sort of weird to make art that you can’t experience in one sitting . . . like, cohesively. I don’t know how to address that. I keep thinking of different things like maybe just releasing songs as I write them or record them, individually through the web or something?
Yeah, because it’s changing, people’s attention spans, what they are willing to invest their time in. It’s going from full albums experienced completely as opposed to this era now with music just flying at you, detached from any sort of context.
Exactly. Like when I first started recording music ten years ago, the internet wasn’t even there. I mean, it was there, but I wasn’t using it as a tool. I didn’t have a CD player, and I didn’t have a computer. It’s really bizarre, I mean I remember putting up flyers on telephone poles. It’s just weird how within the last ten years, which is not that long, it’s just totally changed the game.
So it’s just trying to figure out how to go about it now, and it’s fascinating to me. I go into a CD or record store, or am flying around doing all these in-stores and record conferences, and everyone is so depressed, telling me that this is a dying trade. They’ll say, “Well, our store doesn’t really live except through vinyl.” So it’s like this archaeological store, this retro relic. People come in as collectors; I mean they might as well be selling Hummel figurines. It’s weird. There will always be a need for physical music, but maybe it will become like paintings or something, you know? It will probably be more like art galleries, especially once the thing you are listening to it on can be afforded by everyone. It’s a very interesting time.
Another thing that’s cool now is how live performing is coming back in, too. You can get all this stuff on the internet, you can download it for free, but you can’t replace coming out to see a show. I’ve experienced that, like, I’ll go to a city where I’ve sold a couple hundred records and there’ll be a lot more people there. I’ll say, “Wow, this is crazy. I thought there would be, like, forty people and there’s like 500.” I guess that’s the internet. They can hear one song and decide to go to the show. It’s cool.
If you feel that the emphasis is shifting away from whole albums, do you still write that way, or do you take it song by song?
Yeah, I don’t know. I’m sort of in the middle with that right now and trying to decide what to do a little bit. I mean you could have someone like Ryan Adams who just releases like a zillion a year, or you just have your traditional release every two and a half years . . . I don’t know. I am writing all the time, and now with my own studio, I guess it just depends on what I feel I should put out there and I am still trying to decide how to best do that.
Are you going to put “In Your City” on a record?
[Laughs] I tried putting it on the last one, it just didn’t fit, it sounded different. Do you want me to?
I love that song.
Yeah, I like it. It’s like . . . little.
In Your City (live) – Mason Jennings
(the sound here streams slow and weird - donno why. If you download it, it should sound normal. Sorry!)
The sold-out live show that followed was just fantastic; Mason's an artist who you should see live to truly appreciate and understand his music. Even if you've never heard a single song he's written before walking into the show, I think you'd be impressed and enjoy it immensely. Songs that are good on the album become explosive in concert. "Godless" was a churning, raging, consuming storm. "Jesus Are You Real" was brutally honest, and lovely acoustic songs like "The Simple Life" (which Mason started with, solo) lend a playful and easy vibe. He even covered Buddy Holly. He just plain rocks.
He's on tour through the month of June, and has six albums out for you to enjoy - #1-#5 are out on his own Architect Records, and #6 Boneclouds was released last year on Epic subsidiary (and Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock-helmed) Glacial Pace.
Mason Jennings: Butterfly
(kickass drummer Brian starts the song, Mason takes his sweet time joining in, with a smile)
Mason Jennings: Fighter Girl