Songwriter and instrumentalist Mason Jennings lives next to a lake in Minnesota. In his house, there are large glass windows overlooking the water. From this point of view, Jennings has written several songs for his upcoming new LP, Real Heart, which is set to drop Friday (February 4). He wrote these songs on his acoustic guitar, and sang with the instrument in demos. Over the past four years, Jennings has been doing this, and amassing an impressive collection. To get another artist’s perspective, Jennings sent the batch to his friend and colleague (colored shield), Stone Gossard, of Pearl Jam. At first, Jennings thought he would drop the guitar and add new hardware. But Gussard recognized the central quality of the six strings. It was important for a kind, open-hearted LP. Thus Jennings maintained a prominent position.
“It’s a love letter to the acoustic guitar,” Jennings tells the American songwriter. “That was great for me. All the songs were done in my house in a comfortable place. It was a reflection overlooking the lake.”
Gussard, who lives in Seattle, added some strings, horns, and percussion. But I kept the guitar as the centerpiece of the recording. It was an important choice for an album with every emotion on its cover (think: George Harrison meets Jack Johnson). To wit, the recording is so candid that Jennings even lets listeners reach for his dreams. On the track “The Devil”, Jennings tells of meeting him in a dream. The Devil pointed at him while Jennings was standing in the corner. The devil had horsehair toes and peppercorn eyes. But Jennings was standing next to a mailbox with 1,000 blank pages. Jennings sings It’s been ages since I said no and told that demon to go.
“Devil,” Jennings says, “that was fun for me. I was in dream therapy and I was talking about this crazy dream. [In the dream]I was like, “Damn, what does he want from me?”
Jennings’ therapist shed some light on the experience, telling the songwriter that it was an old entity trying to bring him back to old behaviors. But in the dream, Jennings had blank pages, the ability to write a new story. It makes sense, this dream. Jennings has been grappling with a number of personal and existential pitfalls over the past few years, including severe anxiety, agoraphobia, sobriety issues, and more. He also divorced, later found a new romantic partner, and married.
“I’m really glad that I got to a better place before the epidemic,” Jennings says.
He went into therapy and looked at childhood traumas, the effects of which would haunt him into adulthood. Dealing with agoraphobia – the fear of places – Jennings has found ways to help himself. It helped him to be more comfortable on stage. Before that, he was worried about feeling trapped on stage. He had similar feelings on planes or in crowds. All three, of course, are closely related to the life of the itinerant musician. He dug into his fears and their causes, and now, he says, he seems to be enjoying something from a new life.
“I recently did a series of shows,” Jennings says. “There wasn’t a single moment of panic flashes.”
Growing up, Hawaiian-born Jennings would compose songs in his head and sing them into small tape recorders. This started around middle school. As a young adult, Jennings commuted a lot, stopping in places like Pittsburgh and later Minneapolis. At first, he thought he would be a drummer. At about 12 years old, he got his first set. Then he began to gravitate towards guitar and writing lyrics. He would sneak into his older brother’s room to play his guitar. And over the years, he just wrote and scored a ton. Jennings would make a new song every day or two.
“There is really no better way to do this,” he says, “than recording and listening, and recording and listening again.”
Learn to play all the instruments needed for rock rhythms: drums, bass, guitar, piano. He became better at singing, immersed himself in many styles. Five to seven years passed before he began to make real progress. And when he did, it was exciting. In his twenties, Jennings would perform around coffeehouses, regularly drawing 30-50 people. Then, with a number of songs in the bag, he worked on his first coherent album. In his mid-twenties, he began selling shows on either coast. He began working with Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse. Later, in 2008, he signed to Jack Johnson label.
“I was looking back, newspaper clippings,” Jennings says. “I found my first review. Compare me to Lou Reed, Paul Simon and Adam Sandler.”
The positive interest was encouraging. Jennings has made a name and business for himself. Later, he met Gossard through his manager, and in 2014 the two started working together on Painted Shield. The idea first started with just 7 inches but that turned into a bigger project a few years later. They brought in other members, including keyboardist and singer Brittany Davis and former Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain. The band dropped their first record last year, set another record this year, and are already working on their third album.
“I enjoyed doing it,” Jennings says. “It’s a different kind of songwriting. I’m mostly a singer and I write melodies and lyrics.”
While Painted Shield feels more “explosive,” Jennings’ new solo LP is thin. It’s the music of a friend connecting you with something head-on (or ear-to-ear), as in the jukebox-like clip, “Tomorrow,” and the hopeful song, “Second Life.” That’s just what Jennings wanted. It’s what he felt while sitting in his house, looking at the lap of the water on the shore.
“When music is really connected, I’m about to see a streak far, far into the future and far, far into the past,” Jennings says. [It’s like] I can feel present in the moment, but I can see the way back in time and forward in time. It feels central. I feel like I’m somewhere when I’m listening to it – rather than being anywhere.”
Image courtesy of The Missing Pieces Collection