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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mason Jennings, On His Own Terms

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Not everyone is cut out for the big time. Musician Tom Russell put it best when an A&R flack pressed him to sign with the pitch, “Don't you want as many people as possible to hear your music?” Russell replied, “No, I only want certain people to hear my music.” It's not about exclusion so much as an unwillingness to compromise artistic vision—a sentiment shared by Mason Jennings.

Though Jennings has a sweet-enough disposition to follow Jack Johnson into the spotlight, he's never really been suited to that life, preferring the intimacy and spirit of a more focused group of admirers. That made him an odd fit for Epic Records, which signed the singer-songwriter last decade.

“Being on Epic Records and having to be in meetings where they talked about Shakira and The Fray—I like that kind of music, too, but it's such a different thing,” Jennings says. “I'm way more the guy where every album is going to be different. I consider my music more like a local restaurant—someone that always changes the menu and keeps it interesting—rather than a mainstream chain.”

Born in Hawaii but raised in Pittsburgh, Jennings dropped out of high school to hit the road and chase his muse. He's blessed with a somewhat weathered baritone that blends a surprisingly supple tonality with a Dylan-esque diphthong, laid-back Lou Reed-style delivery that would put either to shame. It's complemented by thoughtful, straight-talking lyrics delivered with front-porch intimacy.

Overall, it's a pretty winning package, which is undoubtedly why Epic signed him to Isaac Brock's imprint, Glacial Pace, after five well-received albums. But even aside from his personal distaste for the major's one-size-fits-all musical approach, Jennings has never been particularly skilled at bringing across a heavily produced pop song. Even before 2006's major label debut, Boneclouds, there was 2002's Century Spring, which, while pretty, lacked the energy of his more rawboned albums. Needless to say, it didn't set the charts ablaze.

He jumped from there to Jack Johnson's Universal imprint, Brushfire Records, and in 2009 released arguably his finest album, the darkly personal Blood of Man. It's also Jennings' most electric release. So naturally he went the other direction with his ninth studio album, September's Minnesota, which successfully pursues a more produced sound for the first time in Jennings' career.

“[Before Blood of Man] my sons were giving me a hard time because they hadn't heard electric guitar, and I was like, 'Are you kidding me? How have you not heard electric guitar?' So that sparked me to use electric more,” Jennings says. “Then after that tour was so loud, when I came home I think I naturally gravitated toward the piano.

“For me the polished stuff is the stuff I have trouble with,” Jennings continues. “So I tried with this one to do it all pretty much by myself in my studio. I was trying to match the balance of personal songs that might be more on the pretty side, but keeping the production raw with that homemade feeling.”

It's a diverse release that includes the beautiful Beatles-esque love song “Raindrops” (with help from actor/musician Jason Schwartzman), the boisterous late-night Latin jazz of “Well of Love,” the acoustic regicide ballad “Rudy” and the spooky two-minute psych-soaked electric of “Witches Dream.” Able to work at home, Jennings spent more than a year on the recording.

“To me it was more like a collage record. Every song has its own palette and in some way it fits all together and flows into itself. It was definitely a long process,” he says. “The thing I liked about the record is it's so eclectic, like Minnesota itself. It's got the woods and also great theater and radio scenes—so many good, contrasting things. For me that's a big part of home. I like places where it can all exist.”

Mason Jennings headlines the Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, April 7, with openers The Pines. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.