Mason Jennings finds the light and shines it at the darkness

Mason Jennings finds the light and shines it at the darkness

An album full of first takes and tangled electric guitars, Blood Of Man sounds like the work of a wild-eyed newcomer working up a sweat in a hand-built basement studio, bent on making a strong first impression. But it’s the eighth album from Minnesota icon Mason Jennings, a pop-folk singer-songwriter best known for his elastic vocal phrasing and big-hearted, amiable acoustic ditties. The raw sound is met by equally bracing, stark lyrics—like the chilling “your scripture won’t save you when my gun’s in your mouth” from murder ballad "Black Wind Blowing." Jennings’ detour to the dark side is his strongest album in years and serves as a powerful reminder that at just 34, he’s got plenty of tricks left up his sleeve. Before headlining a pair of homecoming shows at First Avenue on Nov. 22 and Dec. 19, Jennings talked with The A.V. Club about how seeing pop stardom up close helped him redefine success, and how finding inner peace helped write better songs about darkness and despair.

The A.V. Club: Blood Of Man is purposefully rougher and less polished than anything you've done in years. Why did you stop where you did, at what might have otherwise just been a set of demos for something glossier?

Mason Jennings: I kept thinking about what I’d want to improve with this set of songs and I couldn’t think of anything I would want to make better. It was easy for me to think of things other people might think would make it better. I had to ask myself, "What’s my real role here?" And for me the answer was creating something I loved and deciding that was enough. This is it, this is the art, and I like it as is. I could have redone things and maybe they would have sounded better technically but it’s impossible to recreate that emotion you have in the first couple of takes. Those are always going to be the most unique. The more time you spend perfecting music, the more it sounds like everybody else.

AVC: “Pittsburgh,” an unsparingly direct chronicle of teenage drug abuse and attempted suicide, is one of the most unsettling songs you've ever done. Is it based on your own life? If so, did you have any hesitation about releasing it?

MJ: It’s a true song. I changed the names of some of the people in it just because I didn’t want anyone else feeling bad or like I had exploited them. Everything about me in the song is true. Once I had written it I had to decide whether it was something I was just going to keep to myself or if it could maybe resonate with other people and hopefully be a lifeline for those going through similar hard situations. I played it for people close to me first and their reaction and encouragement led me to the decision to put it out there.

AVC: On the other end of the songwriting spectrum, “The Field,” is written from a perspective quite different than your own, a parent mourning the death of their solider son in Iraq. You’ve incorporated politics in your songwriting from the beginning, but “The Field” feels like an evolution from the days of a song like “Dr. King.”

MJ: The thing I kept thinking was, “don’t force it.” Don’t write a political song just to write one. For me, “The Field” came out of a place where I wasn’t thinking with anything but my heart. The feeling of what it would be like to lose a child was my starting point and everything grew from there. I didn’t know what the "message" of that song was going to be before I started writing it. A line like, “When you joined the war / We were so proud of you,” that’s not something I ever thought would have come out of me, but in the moment it felt right and resonated. It’s a political song of sorts but I don’t think it takes sides. The best political songs are more about guiding your inner world than judging what’s happening in the day-to-day.

AVC: You’ve spoken recently about how your embrace of yoga has greatly changed your lifestyle. Has it carried over to your music-making in any meaningful way?

MJ:
Yoga was actually probably the biggest factor in making this record. It’s probably even a bigger deal than I’ve been letting on. I still can’t touch my toes or anything, but I have to be with myself on the mat every day. I’ve had great teachers who’ve shown me that yoga isn’t about perfection, that just showing up every day and working in this ancient practice helps you learn about yourself and gain a greater understanding of your natural reaction to things. Your face-to-face with yourself every time you practice. I think that’s helped me handle being a lot more honest with who I am and some of the dark feelings and hard times that are part of that, which definitely ended up reflected in the songs. Before I started practicing, when certain dark feelings came I would turn to drugs or alcohol, whereas now I still have those feelings but I can face them. [Practicing yoga] actually allowed me to go a lot darker with my music. It’s when I’m feeling the worst that I tend to write sweeter, more positive songs, sort of as a balm. I write the dark stuff when I’m feeling better. The most important thing as a songwriter is really just the capacity for empathy. Trying to stay open to all types of emotions and attuned to the vibrations of other people around you.

AVC: Being a parent seems like it would help with that.

MJ: Definitely. Being a dad opened up my capacity for love. My heart feels bigger. I couldn’t have written a song like “The Field” or “If You Ain’t Got Love,” if I didn’t have kids. Being a parent is also by far the most challenging thing I’ve done in my life. It simultaneously builds confidence, because you find out you’re capable of more than you thought, and humbles you, because you feel yourself getting bumped out of the limelight a little bit more each day as they grow up and become less dependent on you. People don’t like to talk about it, but parenthood makes you so much more aware of growing older that it really kind of makes you come to grips with dying every day. I didn’t think going in to it that fatherhood would be so heavy-duty, but it’s helped me realized doing what you love and being happy in the moment are incredibly important and that’s certainly impacted my approach to making art.

AVC: Blood Of Man is your first record since your debut to be entirely performed by yourself. At this point in your career there’s no shortage of great musicians you could get on the horn to help make an album. Why go it alone?

MJ: Recording alone is my favorite thing in the world. I’ve tried to talk myself out of it because I tend to like raw sounds and first takes, and I know that’s not for everybody. Actually, the biggest influence on this record musically was playing the drums again. I got really into playing the drums every day for 18 months. The drums were my first instrument, but I had really gotten away from them. I approach the drums as more of a lyrical instrument. I like fills that kind of sing back and forth with the vocals. Most trained musicians don’t like to play that way. I was really just going back to my original process and what I’d always done up until my first record. I got away from it because I was playing with such good musicians I was really intimidated and felt like I should use them. It’s been a hard thing for me to come to terms with. Feeling like, “Am I a control freak?” But ultimately when I’m working on it alone it’s not some situation where I’m freaking out and hunched over with a furrowed bow, I’m just really having fun. I’ve realized that it’s the way I enjoy working the most and that’s OK.

AVC: Every album you’ve released in the last five years gets pegged by critics as the one that could “break” you to a larger mainstream audience. As an artist who makes music for a living with a family to support, how do you define success?

MJ: One of the really big things that helped me figure out what I wanted out of my musical career was the chance to go on tour with some really big acts like the Dave Matthews Band and Modest Mouse. It helped me realize that’s not my calling. I’m not a pop star. There are two sides to the business I’m in—the entertainment side and the music side. I’m squarely on the music side. I like to think of it in terms of restaurants. You can be McDonald’s, and known all over the world for a product that never changes, or you can be place like the [artisinal Minneapolis restaurant] Birchwood Café that uses natural ingredients and is always changing. It’s coming from the heart and not trying to be some streamlined massive thing. Once I realized I had a different idea of success I changed how I did things. Instead of thinking, “How can I try and get rich?” It’s more like, “I get to play music my whole life, how cool is that?” I’ve been able to make music for a living for eleven years and built up a great relationship with the fans. We’re not playing arenas, but I get to travel all over and play to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people a night. And I get to release a record like Blood Of Man and then do something totally different the next time if I feel like it, because my fans don’t just treat it like some commodity. Some of the lowest points of my life have actually been backstage about to go open a show before 30,000 people. I didn’t feel good about what I was doing even though so many people had told me it was supposed to be the goal. I feel like music can save your life. Growing up, songwriters were my spiritual path—they were the ones who made me feel less alone. Hopefully I make music that can do the same thing for other people. 

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