Singer/songwriter Mason Jennings is one of the best-kept secrets in pop music. In his adopted home of Minneapolis his shows draw 3,000 fans. He was hand-picked by music supervisor Randall Poster to perform two Dylan songs, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” in Todd Haynes’ acclaimed I’m Not There, both on the soundtrack album, and lip-synched by Christian Bale in the movie.
And now, his sixth full-length album, In the Ever, is being released on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, after the chart-topping performer personally recruited him for the label. “Every time I hear a Mason Jennings album it changes the way I see the world around me,” says Jack.
“I’ve known Jack for a long time,” says the affable Jennings, who was born in Honolulu, moved with his family to Pittsburgh when he was two, then dropped out of high school at 16 to relocate to his current Twin Cities home. “We did an outdoor show together at a tiny college in Minnesota about six years ago. We toured for about two months and became good friends. He told me, if I ever wanted to record for his label, he’d love to have me. It seemed to make sense that this would be a good time to do it.”
Coming off his 2006 major-label bow, Boneclouds, for Modest Mouse leader Isaac Brock’s Epic-distributed Glacial Pace label, Jennings retreated to a studio in the woods, where he set himself up with a laptop and two microphones. The title comes from his son talking about where he came from before he was born, “Ya know dad, when I was in the Ever?”
“It was pretty raw, but fun, because that’s how I grew up working,” says Jennings about the recording process for In the Ever. “I wanted to do it quickly in a childlike way. I’d write songs in the morning, record them in the afternoon and finish them up by night.”
In the Ever continues Jennings’ spiritual journey, informed by his love of influences like Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash’s American recordings and Led Zeppelin, his favorite band of all time. “I just wanted to make sure it’s not re-enacted music,” he says. “I have no use for being a retro artist. I want to understand my past and come from something, but move forward at the same time.”
According to Jennings, the songs on the new album can be interpreted about an individual or the longing for God, as in the opening “Never Knew Your Name,” which juxtaposes the harsh earthly aspects of the lyrics with the comfort of transcendence. “If the house is on fire/You’re gonna run for the door/If the door is on fire/You’re gonna kneel on the floor/You get down low/You learn to love the flame/I’ve been loving you forever, but I never knew your name.” His music has its roots in ancient folk tales updated for the modern world.
“Every human being is put in that position,” he explains, “where you must learn to love the very things that threaten you.”
“Something About Your Love” could be an outtake from Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, while “I Love You and Buddha, Too,” with a vocal cameo by Jack Johnson expresses Jennings’ basic idea of the oneness of all religions. “I don’t believe anybody is on the outside, or excluded,” he says. “We’re all a part of things.”
“Going Back to New Orleans” segues from the tragedy of Katrina to the invasion of Iraq, with a chugging locomotive sound created by “blowing the same note on four different harmonicas at random times.”
“How Deep Is That River” outlines Jennings’ crisis of faith and looking for reasons to believe. “I feel kind of uneasy because I haven’t found any answers,” admits Mason. “Part of the journey for me is becoming more comfortable with not having the answers. That ambiguity is really hard for me.”
With a family that includes two kids, 5 and 2, Jennings continues to balance his touring demands with home life. With In the Ever, Mason Jennings is looking to expand his cult status, especially since he’ll be touring with Jack Johnson later this summer.
“It’s been a slow growth, but extremely fun for me,” he says. “For me, it’s about expanding and working from a place of joy. If I can enjoy what I do, and make new art that inspires me, everything will work out for the best.”
photo: Amy V. Cooper