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Mason Jennings's debut album was the first local music I discovered after moving to the Twin Cities in the fall of 1999, my curiosity piqued by an enormous display inside the Cheapo on Snelling Avenue. I quickly fell in love with the quirky album, a home-recorded folk-pop collection that managed to swerve between creepily unhinged ("Godless") and poignantly heartfelt ("Darkness Between the Fireflies") without falling apart. The ensuing years saw my fandom falter as subsequent records gradually added gloss and sanded off the rougher edges. By the mid-2000s I was only sporadically following Jennings's output and had consigned him to the breezy singer-songwriter camp, good for a Sunday cleaning soundtrack and little else. I was dead wrong.
After cutting ties with major labels and slick studios, Jennings has reasserted his idiosyncratic, independent-minded ways to fine effect over the last three years. Blood of Man, from 2009, was a wild and woolly blast of lo-fi rock recorded alone in the woods, and was as prickly and dangerous as any of his prior material. This year's Minnesota is even better. Now fully extricated from the industry machinery focused on transforming him into the Next Big Thing, Jennings sounds recommitted to simply following his oddball muse wherever it takes him. On Minnesota, that means everything from über-melodic jangly rock ("Hearts Stop Beating") and buoyant piano balladry ("Raindrops On..."), to haunted reggae-tinged dirges ("Witches Dream") and warped-circus-music clatter (the Tom Waits-indebted "Well of Love"). A record as sonically diverse and lovably eccentric as Minnesota isn't made with an eye toward any kind of chart, and yet for all his strangeness Jennings still can't help but write earworm melodies. The end result is Jennings's most satisfying album yet, a record that manages to simultaneously play to his strengths and confidently explore new ground.
Prior to his Thanksgiving-weekend headlining gig at First Avenue, Jennings took time out to talk with City Pages about his cabin recording studio, music-making as spiritual practice, and the importance of staying uncomfortable on stage.
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City Pages: By all accounts, Blood of Man was your darkest album both lyrically and musically. Minnesota feels like its inverse, with a mostly airy and positive vibe. Were you consciously stepping back into the light with the album?
Mason Jennings: The shift wasn't on purpose. I was on the road for quite a while with Blood of Man, so then when I finally got home I naturally gravitated towards the piano and softer songs as a kind of balance. That being said, I think we recorded something like 30 songs at the start and many of them really were quite dark and weird and similar to BOM. There were only five piano songs in that whole batch but they all ended up making it onto the record, which was kind of a surprise. They were just the songs I felt the most natural pull toward at the time. I kept being drawn toward the more positive, joyful material.
CP: Joy and gratitude aren't exactly popular themes in the indie-rock/folk world today, yet they've been a constant in most of your work.
Jennings: For me music feels like something I have to do. It's more of a spiritual practice in some ways and pretty key to my well being. I gravitate toward music out of love and joy, so that's often what I'm looking to express in my own writing. I'm always trying to connect to something bigger than myself. The music I respond to most feels like a meal that I want to take into my body. I feel better after I listen to it. I hope my music can be that for other people. Even with Blood of Man, inside those dark songs there's usually some hope. I do tend to gravitate towards things like gospel, reggae, and old country music in my own listening, and I think that's because that's music that's not made to be part of a scene. It's made because the singer has a genuine emotion they want to express and often that's to lift other people up.
CP: This is your third straight record completed in your own cabin studio. How has having your own recording space shaped the evolution of your work over these last five years?
Jennings: After I recorded Bone Clouds I was just exhausted with traditional studios. I was never comfortable with the environment. The stress of how much money was being spent, feeling like I was in a sealed-up room with the clock ticking—it just always felt like a doctor's office to me. I started doing recording at my cabin with In the Ever; about half the record was done there. Everything since I've done out at the cabin. I love it because it allows me to really explore all my options. It's helped me reconnect with the spirit of my first record, which was done in a similar way in a house with me playing all the instruments myself. The house changed hands and I couldn't record there for my second record, which really bummed me out, and I was always trying to get back to feeling that same kind of creativity. With Minnesota, we spent about a year just trying all different kinds of ideas and recording techniques. Often I would write the song and then a day or two later we would record it. I don't know if I'm going to continue making records this way forever, but for this particular album I'm really glad I did.
CP: Even though the recording environment has been the same for these last few albums, sonically they're all quite different. You're at the age  where a lot of established artists often settle into a comfortable stasis and start making records that consciously recall their earlier material. What's driving you the other way?
Jennings: For me it actually feels more uncomfortable when music is predictable. When I'm listening to music and a record starts and I feel like I know what's going to happen next, that's usually upsetting. I've felt like that my whole life. I understand how artists end up in a position where they no longer allow themselves to explore, and it's usually driven by fear or business, and the music always suffers as a result. I always want to follow my heart and what I'm interested in at the time, and that's always going to be changing. That can be nerve-wracking at times for sure, when you actually have to go up in front of people and play for them. With the Blood of Man tour we'd get up onstage and start every night with "City of Ghosts" and go right into "Pittsburgh." There were definitely a fair amount of shows where you could sense a lot of the crowd just standing there and kind of freaking out like, "What is going on?" But then, you know, six months go by, more people hear the record, and the response changes. It's very tempting when you can tell a crowd is uncomfortable to throw them something easy but I never want to fall into the trap of playing the same show over and over again.
CP: How has your relationship with making music changed over these last two decades now that it's gone from a childhood passion to your adult livelihood?
Jennings: My relationship to making music still feels really similar to when I was a teenager. It's the same impulse. I just get filled up with feeling to the point where I'm going to explode and then I write a song. I take in all this life and mystery all around me and get a feeling in my chest and hands like I have to express myself. I can't really describe it better than that, it's sort of that "hey give me a crack, hand me the bat" feeling, and I've never lost that feeling. Making music is still incredibly important to me; it's a pure joy. If I get too caught up in too many meetings or am out on the road too long I can start to feel like I'm getting lost in the business side of things. That's why I always make sure to come back home to Minnesota, get to the woods, go on a walk with my dog, read a great book that has nothing to do with my music. Before too long after I do that the feeling starts to creep back and I get back to that same urgent creative space and feel connected back to that spirit of wonder. I'm always just looking to keep creating from my heart and not with any particular aim in mind.
MASON JENNINGS plays with the Pines on SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 26, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775