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Mason Jennings talks agoraphobia, divorce, new love, and streaming music

Mason Jennings

Mason Jennings Photo provided by the artist

One of the last times we heard from Mason Jennings came with the December 2, 2016 Star Tribune headline, “Mason Jennings contemplates the future of his music career: ‘I’m not sure I’m up for it.’”

The piece went on to detail some of the 43-year-old songwriter’s struggles with the music industry and his ability to make a living, and intimated that his personal life was in trouble.

Almost two years later, Jennings is divorced, living with his new love and co-parenting partner who inspired his new album, “Songs From When We Met,” and has taken up painting as another creative outlet.

As he gears up for CD release parties this weekend at the Cedar Cultural Center, City Pages sat down with Mason in the basement at his new home that overlooks a wildlife-rich lake in Minneapolis to talk about his life, health, music, and love.

City Pages: The last interview you did, it came out that you were fighting depression and you didn’t feel like making music. I know that was a jarring headline for you to see. Talk about that. What happened there, and what was real and what wasn’t?

Mason Jennings: I had agoraphobia I had developed, and I was dealing with all of this stuff going on in my personal life and I hadn’t done any interviews for a while, but I put out a record and I wasn’t really touring or anything behind it, so I wanted to do some interviews just to let people know that there was a record.

So the Star Tribune asked about doing an interview, and then when I got in there, [the reporter] was just asking a bunch of personal questions and I was trying to defend myself. I was like, “I thought this was going to be about the music.” So it ended up being all this other stuff that I was trying to defend myself about. Without talking too much about my personal life, I was trying to be like, “I’m not doing very good.”

So then it just came out in the paper, “Mason Jennings is in crisis” and stuff, and it was really upsetting because I wasn’t doing very good but I just wanted people to know about the music. I didn’t want to get into… I don’t know, I was still figuring out what was going on, really.

The headline didn’t feel correct to me. What I was saying was, I don’t know how to do it now. At that point I was having trouble touring, and because of what happened with Spotify and everything, that’s the only way you can make money as a musician, is touring. And if you have agoraphobia and you can’t tour, you can’t do it.

For me, making recorded music is very much the center of what I do. That’s first and foremost: creating a song, recording it, that’s the art and that’s how I was making my living. That was the center of it, and then that became free, basically because of Verizon and AT&T and all these people and...

CP: It all changed very fast. You’re not alone.

MJ: My friends and I talk about this. How did everything become free? I looked at Amazon.com and all my records came up as zero dollars. “You can have these records for zero dollars, digitally.” A couple years ago, [Jennings’ label] Sony called me and said, OK, your CDs don’t sell anymore, so we have—I don’t know many thousands they had in their storage—and they’re like, “You can either buy them back for $1.50 or we’ll destroy them for a dollar.” And I’m like, “OK, I’ll buy half of ’em back and destroy the rest.”

And I bought ’em back and I just recycle a box every week now. It’s like the culture doesn’t value [music] and there are these subtle broadcasts to musicians that they’re worthless. All my friends are getting told they’re worthless, but they still listen to great music and think it has worth, and I still turn to books every day, like this Karl Knausgaard book [ My Struggle] I’m reading.

Amazing. I turn to the artists still, but we’re being broadcast to us that it’s worthless. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to wake up every morning and say yes, it has worth. It’s healing. It’s helpful.

So then I was like, OK, I still like touring and I can still do it, but then when you get agoraphobia and you can hardly leave your house, let alone be on a stage for 90 minutes, let alone be in airplanes and cars. It was like, OK how am I going to do this?

So that’s when I started painting and doing other things and subsequently I’ve healed from it. I don’t want to say “healed” in case it comes back, but I’m healing from it so I can tour again, so it’s going much better. But it was sort of taken out of context in the article. It made it sound like I don’t know if music is worth it. Well, of course music is worth it. Like, it’s my lifeline. That’s what I am, is music.

CP: What is agoraphobia and how does it affect you?

MJ: I’ve had panic attacks since high school, off and on, and really bad anxiety attacks. I thought it was the fear of being in open spaces, but what it actually is is you start having a panic attack and then you feel like you’re going to be trapped somewhere and you can’t get out of there and then you’re having a panic attack and you’re trapped. And it’s totally not your rational mind, it’s your nervous system shutting down, basically.

So then you completely go to a state of panic where you can’t really see, I couldn’t really breathe. It’s really bad for anybody who’s had a panic attack. It’s horrible. I’d be on stage and I was touring solo so I’d be on stage by myself 90 minutes a night and once you walk on stage as a solo artist you are sort of trapped there for 90 minutes and then there’s all these people looking at you and if you’re having panic attacks it’s like, it sounds really simple when it starts, but when it gets to full-blown disorder, you kind of can’t do it. You can’t go on stage because you can’t think straight, you can’t focus on the songs, you can’t… you’re in a full-blown panic attack and it basically feels like you’re dying.

So as a touring musician… airplanes are like that, because you’re trapped in a space. Traffic’s like that for driving. I got to a point where I wasn’t able to even go for walks or anything. I could walk 20 minutes around the neighborhood, as long I knew I could go back home. It’s like, your world gets so small, and it’s really embarrassing. It seems stupid, but it shut down my whole life.

But like any kind of thing like that with disorders or a phobia, it comes from other things in your life. To me it’s basically the sense of being trapped. It’s a manifestation of a deeper sense of being trapped. I mean, there’s something to be said in the article when I was talking about, if you feel like you have to tour to make your money and then you have agoraphobia and then you’ve had this huge part of your music [earnings] being taken away from you by the economy, or whatever you want to call it—the way things run now, Spotify. There is a feeling of being trapped in that.

CP: Trapped in what?

MJ: In having to tour and having to tour minimally. So many of my friends… It’s almost next to impossible to start up as a band these days, because in order to tour as three people even, you can’t really afford it. Especially once you get to your late twenties and you have to support a family or anything like that. It’s not feasible like it once was with making records and selling them and that pays for the touring. So it’s a different kind of climate.

CP: Did the agoraphobia increase over the years as you became more of a known person or as a musician?

MJ: The agoraphobia didn’t really start until about four or five years ago. It more just manifested as just panic attacks here and there, and I tried all kinds of stuff. I got sober, I started meditating every day, and things would help for a while and then it just got bad again four or five years ago. I had all kinds of crazy stuff in my life four or five years ago. I mean, she sort of intimated it in the article, but like, both my parents got cancer, and I own the studio with two people and they both died pretty horrifically, you know, suicide and… So that all happened at the same time, and then personal stuff with my life, with my marriage and stuff all at the same time. It all kind of coincided.

CP: Do you feel it has to do with you being a sensitive person? It’s a diagnosed thing for sure, but your work is to ruminate and create. Musicians and songwriters and poets are sensitive, and the world is harsh.

MJ: Yeah. I would say it’s sensitivity and also intensity. Like, I lock on things really hard. Since I was a little kid, my parents would always comment like, when normal people play a board game, I’d be like, I’m going to make the board game and then I’d play it for 12 hours straight or the next day all day. My attention span’s extremely long. Somebody would be like, “I’m gonna learn about John Coltrane.” I’ll get every John Coltrane record and listen to them a lot and then get all the books on John Coltrane. I get very, I guess you could say obsessive, but I think it’s very intense, I guess.

So with panic attacks, depending on what the focus locks on, it just locks like a pit bull or something. Sometimes it just locks on panic and won’t let go of it, and maybe that’s a kind of sensitivity. Same thing with songwriting. If I lock on something, I’ll take it all the way out. Which is the good side of it.

CP: What have you learned about agoraphobia that, if someone is struggling with it, that you could help them with? What would you say to them?

MJ: I didn’t take any medication or anything because I feel like my body was trying to give me signals. So I guess the signals were… there was stuff in my life that I just wasn’t willing to look at. I got into therapy and eventually ended up just looking at my belief system. I think it came from more of a belief system of where my worth comes from. Things like divorce or marriage, you know, like, I came from a situation where I was never going to say the word divorce or think about the word divorce. So, things like that. I had a lot of things in my life that I would never look at.

I’m not saying that getting divorced fixed it, necessarily, but looking at all that stuff fixed it. Allowing myself to really look at things I was suppressing or that was pushing down on me. So that’s what I’d say: If you’re having it, it’s usually a signal in some sense that you’re pushing something way far down and you’re feeling trapped in a belief system. I think that’s really what it is: it’s not a physical prison, it’s a prison of your belief system, and for me it opened me up to different forms of spirituality, opening up to a different belief of what divorce would mean, opening up to a sense of worth, like I got my sense of worth from being a musician and all of a sudden when that happened, I was like, “Oh, I don’t necessarily have to be thought of as a musician to have worth.” My worth is just as being a human being.

CP: Ego stuff.

MJ: Yeah. Ego stuff.

CP: And that ego work will bring you to answers.

MJ: Yeah it will. It’s hard work. It’s scary work. I mean, it’s a frightening thing to look [with]in, but I don’t know, I don’t think truth hurts people, necessarily. I think when you’re actually able to look at stuff, it’s never hurtful. It’s just scary.

CP: All the great spiritualists talk about the necessity of ego work, and what you’ve done, it seems like, is you’ve stepped back from all of it and asked the big questions. Why do I do music? Why am I a musician? You know, Mason Jennings is a brand, and it’s a hell of a thing to look in the mirror and go, What does this all really mean? Not everybody does that.

MJ: Yeah. And what’s authentic to me.

CP: Thinking about the music in the past, a lot of your fans equated a lot of your love songs with you and [Jennings’ ex-wife]. Therefore it was surprising to hear about your divorce. What about those songs now and then? What do they feel like to sing now, and how real was that for us as listeners?

MJ: We both would always talk about it and it and she knew it and it was hard for her because 99 percent of the songs were spiritual based songs. I didn’t talk about it as much because you don’t want to be like, “All my songs are about god; all my songs are spiritual journeys.” But songs like “Be Here Now” or a lot of the songs that people come up to me and say, “That’s my wedding song,” that’s a song about my spiritual journey with god. A lot of my songs are… There are spiritual songs about god, and then I’ll add a little bit of humanness, because I believe that that’s an easier way to relate to the divine is through a personification. So I’ll add a verse that sounds like it’s sung to a woman, or another person, and that was hard for her because people would go, “That song’s about you.” I don’t know how much to talk about this stuff. I don’t want to speak for her or anything.

I guess anything I put out I’m OK singing, because they’re open-ended enough so they’re not diary songs, but I can see how people would go, “Wow, that does sound like it’s specifically about your first marriage.” I would just say that that’s a lot of my work right now, is like realizing I wasn’t very open with a lot people, and I was presenting a thing that wasn’t necessarily happening. My friends and family were, “You guys always seemed like you were collaborating,” and I guess I don’t know what to say about that. A lot of the songs are wishes and dreams and hopes, like it’s coming from a subconscious place of hope. I would go to my music a lot… the place I write from is a place of like…

CP: Hope.

MJ: Yeah. Hope.

CP: Always.

MJ: So it’s not necessarily what was going on in my life. Oftentimes it was completely the opposite of what was going on in my life. For me, it’s feeling the presence of something bigger than yourself, feeling loved, where I grew up in a situation, where growing up that’s the big thing. You’ve heard that thing about rock ’n’ roll singers, like with a lot of rock ’n’ roll singers it’s just a giant cry for daddy. Like, my dad left me when I was little and I had a really tumultuous childhood with my mom and stuff, and I basically think I’ve been creating the music to make myself know and others know that we’re all loved.

CP: It’s your journey, and it’s painful. You’re doing a lot of the work that a lot of people go through at your age and you’re heading it all face-on. It’s not comfortable and it doesn’t feel good but there’s no other way. I mean, there are. You could stuff it, but…

MJ: I could stuff it or be on drugs or something, but I’m taking it head-on.

CP: Your new record is very much written about new love and hope and all of that. What informed that?

MJ: I met a woman named Josie and we fell in love, and it was one of those things where, I wasn’t doing very good. I met her, we basically looked at each other, we had like a signal, it felt like it was thousands of years old between our eyes and I was like, what just happened? And you know, I was just basically like, I’m with this person forever. Like it was just very clear: This is my match, this is my person, and she had the same feeling and we were like, this is bigger than our physicality, our body, anything… every single point matched. All points, physical, emotional, spiritual, and I just felt this huge sense of gratitude. I’ve been searching for so many years, I’d been doing so bad, and all of a sudden this incredible light came into my life. I was just like, thank you.

People might think that I just bailed out of my life and married some 21-year-old or something, and that’s fine if people do that but that’s not what this is. This is like meeting my twin flame person, the connection of all time. She’s 39, I’m 43. She has a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old, I have a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old, and we’re all… I don’t know why this is happening now, and we have four kids now. I have these two incredible step kids now, and my kids are incredible, and I just feel like I’m showing up to do the work that I feel called to do in that way, too. There’s four kids around here, and my logistical day-to-day life is very family- and kid-based.

CP: How has it all impacted your music?

MJ: So we met, and I hadn’t been writing any songs for a while. The last record I wrote was songs written way before that record came out, which was a pretty dark record. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to write or tour and I was painting and stuff and then all of a sudden all of these songs came out really fast within a couple months, like 15 songs. And they were just open and rather than them being about a more hope-based mystical thing, they were from a very specific feeling.

There’s a song on there called “The Beginning,” and I’ve always written on my own, always, privately, I’m always alone in the house and can’t be around anybody, can’t look at anybody, and then Josie and I were just sitting on the couch looking at the lake and I started playing that guitar part and I was like, “What’s this sound like?” And she said, “It sounds like the beginning.” And the song just came out, and all of these songs are kind of like that. We’d be sort of together or I’d write a little bit and show it to her and she wouldn’t affect the energy of it. So many times, people in my life…. For any artist, any time you’re creating something, often you want to do it privately before you show it to anybody. She doesn’t affect it, it just feels encouraging, so it’s been really cool and amazing to partner with somebody like that.

I think a huge thing I was dealing with was extreme loneliness. I feel like I’m a pretty unique person and I’ve had a pretty unique walk in life and I’ve been very alone a lot of the time. And I met her and I don’t feel alone and that’s so awesome. It’s a great feeling. These songs were all written last summer and it’s pretty neat because a lot of them were written in May and then had to get it mixed and it’s coming out this May and that feels good in the springtime.

CP: Where did you write?

MJ: My friend had a farm that I stayed at for a little while after I got divorced, and I was staying out there and I would take these walks in this old-growth forest down by a river and all the time this owl would come to me—in the day or the night. He would suddenly just swoop down and I could almost touch him and he’d kind of look at me and just fly away, or I’d stop and he’d be in a tree above me. This happened like ten different times on these walks, and I look at Native American animal medicine and owl is representative of turning darkness into light and seeing what other people can’t see and following that. It felt like it was a really supportive energy.

One of the days he was with me for a while and I came back and the song “Race You to The Light” came out in basically one sitting. A lot of songs came out that way, where the owl would appear to me and I would write, and so many different animals appeared to me. Josie and I kept seeing snakes at the top of this bluff by the river, and snake in Native American animal medicine is rebirth and dying; shedding your skin. There’s a lot of that going on. I just took all that as I’m on my path. Keep letting the songs come in and keep going.

CP: Where did you record it?

MJ: In Eau Claire with Brian Joseph. He was an engineer with Bon Iver and he also worked with Paul Simon and a couple other people, and he has a little barn he has on his land with all kinds of wasp nests and skulls and animals and all these books and stuff. I went there with the Pines and we just did it in a weekend. I kind of did it like my first record, where I played the drums and bass and guitars myself, then the Pines added all these more ethereal extra guitars and piano and keyboards and stuff, so it’s like me as the core band and then they add all this kind of magical ambience.

CP: What else have you learned spiritually this year?

MJ: One of the big things is, going through a divorce and people’s judgment of me without knowing what was going on was really kind of shocking to me, I guess. I’ve been in the public eye for a while and people can go, “I hate Mason Jennings,” and I’m pretty used to that. But having friends or certain family members condemn me or take out their own stuff on me because of it when they don’t know the story was shocking and really surprising, and then I thought, “Wow. I think I’ve done that in the past.” I remember hearing about Neil Young getting divorced and I was so mad for some reason, and I don’t know anything about Neil Young and his personal life or his ex-wife or what was going on and I don’t know why I was mad about it. Then I realized it was because I felt trapped in my world, and it made me look at myself and go like, “Wow, I’ve definitely judged a lot of people without finding out the whole story.”

I had to have a lot of conversations with people. What are you angry about, here? How is this affecting your life? Also, do you want to know the whole story of my last 20 years? Because I have to tell you the whole story, and I’m not going to just offer up all this stuff that’s happening in my private marriage to random people. So that was something spiritual I learned: Just that I had this sense of judgment, and now this year I want to seek first to understand rather than to be understood. When people tell me, “I’m doing this,” If I have a reaction, I ask more questions right away before I judge people.

I’ve had people come up to me and just rail into me, like, “How can you cause your ex-wife so much pain by leaving?” And I’m like, “Well, are you negating my pain that happened before the marriage ended, because they’re equal.” Then I’ve had other people be like, “A marriage is like an iceberg, and the world just sees the tiny top. There’s all this stuff we don’t know.” And I’m like, “Thank you.” I’m not here to broadcast about my old marriage at all, except that people don’t know. It made me want to be more authentic in my life going forward, because I guess I did have a part in saying, “Everything’s cool, everything’s fine.”

CP: But part of that is like your songwriting process, too. You’re always going for hope, you’re a very optimistic person and in the music you’re always going for hope.

MJ: It saved my life. I was in a very dark spot as a kid and the music started coming in, and it pulled me out of it. I’m always going to be grateful and broadcasting that in this world.

CP: What about this world, in these times, and “Songs from When We Met.” Is there part of you that thinks the world needs love and the world needs love songs?

MJ: Yeah. There were a couple of songs that were going to be on this record that were pretty dark. My last record was pretty dark. I just watched the Childish Gambino video that everyone’s watching and I’m like, “OK, my 12-year-old just watched a church choir get massacred in graphic detail.” That’s what you’re going to put out in the world? I get why it’s being talked about but it’s graphic violence and it’s confusing. That’s his choice. I want to put forth like, true love happens, there’s a higher power here, we’re all loved. That’s how I’m feeling.

CP: What about these toxic times? As an artist moving through it, how do you do it?

MJ: I’m really conscious about what I put into my body. I don’t do social media anymore, I don’t have a TV down here, I don’t even have a laptop. I try to take care of myself, I eat well, I try to be in nature as much as I possibly can, I try to reach out to other people, and I try to create.

I think a lot of people are dealing with a lot of shame and all kinds of stuff these days. A therapist told me that when that voice inside you is telling you you’re worthless and that nothing matters, you tell it to stop, it’s not you saying that, it can be your culture or anything, and then you just do something creative. You do something that shows that you’re in the world, whether it’s going out and saying hi to somebody, drawing a picture, making a song, making food. That’s what I do every day. You?

Mason Jennings
With: Sera Cahoone
Where: Cedar Cultural Center
When: 8 p.m. Fri. May 25 & Sat. May 26
Tickets: $30/$35; more info here