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It's difficult to discuss local singer-songwriter Matt Jennings without bringing up his sibling, so we may as well get it over with: Jennings's older brother, Mason, is kind of a big deal. Throughout his 10-plus-year career, Mason Jennings has followed a trajectory that most local folk singers only dream about, selling hundreds of thousands of albums and touring the country with the likes of Modest Mouse and, most recently, Jack Johnson. The more people hear Mason Jennings, it seems, the more fans he gathers.
But it wasn't always record deals and sold-out summer festivals for Mason Jennings. In fact, there was a time when his music career appeared quite similar to his brother Matt's, playing all of the instruments on his albums and performing for modest-sized crowds at the 400 Bar. Even the two brothers' voices carry similarities: Although Matt's swoop is less pronounced, both singers curve their voices around the ends of lyrical passages to give their melodies a smooth drawl.
"A lot of people know who I am now because I'm his brother," Matt says of Mason. He speaks softly and seriously, and maintains a deadpan expression even when joking. "The name is already familiar with a lot of people—although I get Waylon Jennings a lot more down South. They always ask about that. 'You have a famous name, who is it? It's Waylon! It's Waylon.' And I'm like, 'No, I'm not related to Waylon. Do you know Mason Jennings?' And they're like, 'No, I've never heard of him.'"
The brothers Jennings grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and learned how to write songs together at a young age. With Matt writing guitar riffs and Mason composing lyrics, the two would record their songs onto an old Radio Shack tape recorder. When their family relocated to Minnesota in 1996, Mason started up a band and Matt, fresh out of high school, gigged as his first drummer.
"We used to play at the 400 Bar, when the Tuesday night gigs started," Matt says. "I was playing drums for him, and then I went to study abroad in Mexico. He got a new drummer, and that's when the ball started rolling [for Mason]. Right before it all blew up, I was playing drums." He looks down in a moment of contemplation. It's clear he's told this story before, and that he is used to answering questions about his brother.
Though Jennings spent only two and a half months studying in Mexico, something about that trip—and that time in his life—has stuck with him ever since. On his second album, Todavía (which translates as "still," as in: Is she still talking about Mason Jennings?), he sings half of the songs in Spanish, and a sense of romantic reverie is threaded throughout the tracks.
Jennings says his favorite part about living in Mexico was interacting with the musicians. "When I first got down there, the first bus ride was a city bus, and there was a guy in the back playing guitar. Like full volume. I was thinking maybe they had that on every bus for entertainment or something. Or just to make money. It was the only time I saw it, but that really blew my mind," he says. "And they always had mariachi on the street. It was so integral."
Even when he is singing in Spanish, however, Jennings's Latin influences are more of an undercurrent than a focus on Todavía. His guitar work is subtle and textured, balancing classical arpeggios and folk-inspired finger picking, and his voice is gentle and calm. "Slow-Motion" is an ode to a quiet day that recalls a delicate lullaby, while "Unrequited," "The Way That I Have Loved You" and "Así es la Vida" (translation: "Such is Life") reflect with a humble detachment on lovers lost and heartbreaks endured.
Ultimately, the defining element in Jennings's music is his intricate songwriting. His melodies are constructed with a seemingly innate knack for structure and phrasing, and his songs are easily recognized after their first rotation. Jennings says his best songs are written in a matter of minutes, and that the songs he can recall the easiest are likely to be his most accessible.
"I like hit songs," he says. "For me, it seems like that's the whole point: to make a hit song that a lot of people can relate to."
MATT JENNINGS will perform with At the Spine on SATURDAY, AUGUST 9, at the 400 BAR; 612.332.2903