Mason Jennings: boy in the North Country |

Mason Jennings: boy in the North Country

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Singer-songwriter Mason Jennings, who appears at Belly Up Aspen on May 23, contributed versions of Bob Dylan songs to the soundtrack of the recent Dylan biopic film, "I'm Not There."

When Mason Jennings decided to move to Minneapolis, he wasn’t lured by the city’s music scene. At the time, Jennings, who had been raised in Pittsburgh, was 19, and hadn’t recorded a stitch of music, barely even considered himself a musician.

“I felt really good when I got there. It just felt like home,” he said. “It felt like the place I was supposed to be. And I liked the climate.”

Jennings certainly didn’t settle in Minneapolis to channel Bob Dylan. For one thing, Dylan, a native of Hibbing, some 150 miles north of the Twin Cities, barely stayed long enough in Minneapolis to leave a mark. Dylan spent most of his college time playing the coffeehouses in the city’s Dinkytown neighborhood, but Minneapolis was a mere whistle-stop on his way to New York’s Greenwich Village, and he dropped out of school after a year. For another, Jennings didn’t get turned onto Dylan until a year after he arrived in Minnesota, having gone through his hard rock phase (Led Zeppelin, which he still calls his favorite band; Metallica), and his country-blues stage (heavy on Mississippi John Hurt, and Johnny Cash’s latter-day “American” recordings).

When Jennings did finally tune in to Dylan, he recalled, “it felt like something kindred. It felt like he was influenced by the same things I was … ‘Blood on the Tracks’ ” I’d listen to that and think songwriting doesn’t get any better.”

Minneapolis’ music scene is a major part of the reason that Jennings, at 32, has remained in the city for 14 years. “For sure, the music scene was a part of it,” said Jennings, who taught himself music at the age of 14 ” drums first, then guitar. “I grew up in Pittsburgh, and there wasn’t much of a club scene there, where you could play original songs. Here I can play five nights a week in five different clubs, and places that really welcome original music.”

He began his recording career with a self-titled 1997 release that featured Jennings playing all the instruments. The five albums he has made since then, and the frequent touring, both with a constantly shifting cast of musicians, have earned him a growing flock of admirers. In 2004, Jennings wrote a song, “Keepin’ It Real,” at the request of the producers of “Shrek 2,” though it was not used in the film. The following year, Jennings was persuaded to sign with the Glacial Pace label, an affiliate of Epic Records headed by Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock. Jennings’ latest album, “In the Ever,” due for release on Tuesday, May 20, will be his debut for Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records.

Another recent development tied Minnesota transplant Jennings with Minnesota native Dylan. Randall Poster, the music supervisor of the recent Dylan quasi-biopic “I’m Not There,” had become a fan of Jennings’ music. Poster was assembling a roster of musicians to record Dylan’s songs for the movie soundtrack, and invited Jennings to join the crew. Jennings had his reservations.

“I said, I don’t want to imitate Bob Dylan,” Jennings said. “That’s the last thing I wanted to do. But Randall said, ‘No, no, we want you to be yourself.’ And he told me that Bob was really into the project.”

Most of the other artists were of a similar age as Jennings, and from the same indie-rock fringe as him. But virtually all were better-known: Cat Power, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Yo La Tengo. Still, Jennings has emerged as a bit of a star in Todd Haynes’ wildly creative film. His take on the classic “The Times They Are a Changin'” gets only a few seconds of screen time ” which is more than can be said of several of the tunes on the soundtrack, which aren’t heard in the film at all.

Jennings’ take on “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” however, is a scene-stealer. Several full verses from the song ” one of Dylan’s protest numbers, from the 1964 album “The Times They Are a Changin’,” ” play, as actor Christian Bale, playing the folkie version of Dylan, appearing at a civil rights rally. It is a gripping bit of both cinema and music; moreover, Jennings thinks the scene captures a crucial aspect of Dylan.

“I felt it was necessary to show what his art was, what his songwriting craft was about,” said Jennings, who makes his Aspen debut Friday, May 23, at Belly Up, on a bill with fellow singer-songwriters Brett Dennen and Missy Higgins. (Jennings will appear in a trio, with bassist Arabella Kauffmann and drummer Brian McLeod.) “And Christian Bale did an amazing job of lip-synching. I was afraid to watch it, but he was perfect. I would have loved that scene even if I hadn’t sung the song.”

Though their times in Minnesota are separated by three-plus decades, Jennings may be feeling some of the same essence of the place that Dylan has cited as a key factor in shaping him. It is a place far from the center of the action, where people feel free to try things out. Dylan, raised there, couldn’t wait to get out and test out his ideas; Jennings still finds it an ideal spot to revel in a sort of artistic liberty.

“The scene is maybe best described as an independent scene,” he said, ticking off several acts ” hip-hoppers Atmosphere, funk icon Prince, rockers the Replacements, Dylan ” who are united by their independent thinking. “There’s a folkiness to it, even to the hip-hop stuff. You’re far enough from the big cities to do your own stuff. The radio stations come around and support you, the press will support you.”

So if you get an offbeat idea in your head, Minneapolis is a fine place to do it. Jennings’ most recent unusual notion was to record an album in a cabin in the woods, some 30 minutes outside of the city. His recording equipment was limited to two microphones and a laptop computer with the Garage Band software that came with his iBook.

“It was simple,” said Jennings of “In the Ever.” (The title is credited to Jennings’ young son, who, when asked where he had been before he was born, replied poetically, “In the Ever.”) “I didn’t want to think about the gear too much. It was definitely a departure. Most of my other CDs were done in huge studios, and that was the part that always set me back. I’d write a song, and it was like the feeling of falling in love. Then I’d go to record it, and it felt like being in a hospital. It lost all the romance.

“Here, I can hear the rain, or the wood in the kitchen. You don’t need the effects to make it affecting.”

There is a familiar quality to “In the Ever,” which is good news to Jennings. “That’s always the goal, to have the feeling of familiarity and simplicity. Something people can relate to,” he said. “The hardest thing has been to make things sound simple and distinct.”

The low-fi approach to the album brings Jennings slightly closer to Dylan. There are some distinctly Dylanesque moments, particularly in the back-to-back tunes “Your New Man,” with its direct, humorous, talking blues feel, and the rollicking “Memphis, Tennessee,” a rural country-rocker punctuated by a harmonica part that strongly recalls mid-’60s Dylan. The album’s biblical imagery (flames, kneeling on the floor, the benevolent God in “How Deep Is That River”) has a vague echo of Dylan’s Christian period. But in “I Love You and Buddha Too,” Jennings almost seems to be responding to the harshly cautionary “Slow Train Coming” with light-hearted, open-minded spirituality: “Why do some people say that there is just one way/To love you God and come to you?”

Mostly, though, it is the almost offhanded manner in which “In the Ever” was created that connects Jennings to Dylan. The album doesn’t feel worked over, and the way he describes his methods ” writing a song in a single day, and recording it that night ” sounds like the way Dylan made “Blonde on Blonde.”

It is also reminiscent of the way Jennings started making music. He taught himself guitar by reading Guitar magazine, and began recording by writing a song and playing all the instruments himself.

“I’d record a song and think everything was right with the world,” he said. “You take in so much input in your day, and this was a way to work with that, give myself a sense of hope. That’s what I want to come through, some kind of hope.”