By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
How does one embark on a career as a rock troubadour? Perhaps it's by following the backwoods roads from one nowhere burg to another, crossing the fields like an itinerant ballplayer and tossing off heartfelt songs like Johnny Appleseed until they finally take root with the strangers along the way. Or maybe it's as simple as Horace Greeley's admonition, "Go West, young man."
For budding songsmith Mason Jennings, it was a little of each. Headstrong and confident, he decided he'd had enough school and dropped out at the age of 16. GED in hand, and a library card in his wallet to continue an education majoring in the human heart, Jennings embarked on the kind of adventure usually reserved for literary creatures like Huck Finn. Kicking around the country, the Pittsburgh native played washboard in New Orleans street bands, strummed lonely coffee shops and wandered up and down the West Coast like a refugee from an Eagles song.
"I totally knew exactly what I wanted to do when I was 16," Jennings says. "I just decided that I wanted to see the country, meet a lot of people and just do what I love to do. So I headed out."
After several vagabond years, Jennings settled in Minneapolis, using his experiences in California to shape his first album, a completely self-recorded, self-titled, self-released concept album of eight songs and amazing assurance. With a Dylan-esque lilt, the album ambles from "Big Sur," noting how quickly friendship "slips away and leaves you thinking of the things that were never spoken," through two songs titled "California," lamenting a lost love and replacing it with hope, embedded in the historical promise of the golden state. It ends with "Darkness Between the Fireflies," envisioning the receding Appalachians as he reassures his lover, "Plenty of men have held high places in your eyes/And jealousy has got no use for me/The past is beautiful/Like the darkness between the fireflies."
"The first record was almost more of a diary," Jennings says. "I just did it to see if I could get some gigs and to get a band together. And it sort of took off and took a life of its own."
Coupled with a weekly residency at a popular rock club near campus, Jennings became something of a local legend. By the end of his four-month residency, his shows were packed with rabid fans, singing along with their favorite songs. He was beginning to reap the benefits of his roving seven-year internship.
But while recording his follow-up, the dreaded sophomore jinx bit. Jennings came down with mononucleosis, stopping him from recording or performing for six months. Then in a fit of pique, Jennings scrapped more than a half dozen tracks featuring some of the band's live favorites, such as the plaintive post-breakup song "Joy," in favor of a new direction. The resultant album, Birds Flying Away, is rife with social-political commentary, from the reggae-tinged "United States Global Empire" to "Black Panther" and "Dr. King." Drawing on eclectic interests from Rage Against the Machine to rap and Delta blues, the album reveals a gruffer voice and even more tangled sentiments, without as many of the mellifluous hooks that abounded on his debut. Jennings says only that the album "took a long time, and I just take that record as that it just had to happen, but it's not my favorite."
Jennings followed the album by traveling back and forth across the States for almost a year on his first national tour, part of that time spent with another underground cult favorite, pro surfer-turned-silver-throated singer Jack Johnson. It brought Jennings to a whole new audience and a whole new level, as Johnson sold out 5,000-seat auditoriums in a single day. When Jennings returned, he made his way to Pachyderm Studios, just south of the Twin Cities, site of such seminal recordings as Nirvana's In Utero and PJ Harvey's Rid of Me.
"It was really rural, beautiful and peaceful. We spent three times as much time working on this album as the other two," Jennings says. The work shows across his latest, half-hour, 10-song album, Century Spring. From the bouncy, Beatles-esque "Living in the Moment," which could be an outtake from George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, to the soft plucking and tender piano of "Dewey Dell," which settles like the dewy mist of love on the heart's shore, Jennings tosses off elegiac ballads with an ease and elegance normally associated with the Paul McCartneys and Van Morrisons of the world.
"I feel like I'm finally learning how to make records, and the more I learn, the more refined they get. I've written a lot of stuff on piano, so we added that, and, yeah, I was listening to a lot of Wings and stuff like that," admits Jennings. Reflecting on his influences, he says, "I fell in love with, first, people like Lucinda Williams and Neil Young. I was just really influenced by the writers, and then by being out there on the road and playing, I found that I loved to perform as well...I definitely love Lou Reed, and I listen to a lot of rap, too. I think in this day and age, you have to be open to stuff because it's all out there--it's not like we live in a little village in the mountains somewhere."