Mason Jennings solos in Aspen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Some Minnesota natives say they love the state, but can’t give any reason why.
Mason Jennings can give a few.
The singer-songwriter, who has lived in Minnesota for 18 years, finds all sorts of inspiration in the state known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Jennings named his ninth and most recent album “Minnesota,” having garnered inspiration from the landscape and the changing seasons.
But Jennings and the state go back a long time.
When he was a junior in high school in Pittsburgh, Pa., Jennings dropped out of school and hopped on a train bound for Minneapolis. His father used to show him pictures of Minneapolis groups such as the Jayhawks, which aroused his curiosity about the city’s vibrant music and arts scene of the ’90s.
Before he dropped out, the songwriter had already begun penning lyrics, and in the Twin Cities, he began playing in coffee shops.
“I saw everyone around here doing their own thing,” Jennings said last week. “It was not a genre-specific atmosphere.”
In 1997, Jennings produced his first album out of a living room in a rented home, playing all instruments himself. “Minnesota,” like that first album, was recorded mostly by himself – with various guitarists and back-up singers on a few tracks. The year-long project, as Jennings described it, was “like cooking dinner.
“It was more like, ‘What are you in the mood for?'” he said. “I would write a song and record it the same day. The next day, I’d go back to the studio and refine it.”
Admitting that he wanted to tell people why he loves living in the Gopher State, Jennings drew inspiration from the wilderness, which he says rides right up to Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“I like the contrast between the scenery and art,” Jennings said. “This place fits me.”
It fits his music, too.
From the outset, the tracks of “Minnesota” feature piano chords, something that Jennings acknowledged he played more of than on any other album. A somber melody greets listeners in “Minnesota’s” first track, “Bitter Heart,” with the opening lyrics: “Hold me closer, I am open, I’ve been waiting, don’t be shy / Wrap your loving arms around me, press your face against mine.” But as the album progresses, Jennings said that randomness ensued. The song tempos change and by the end of the album, and on the eighth track, “Well of Love,” congas and wind instruments grace a cheerful melody.
Jennings said the array of styles can be attributed to, again, Minnesota.
“That’s why the songs were so different, because seasons changed during the year,” Jennings said. “The styles were all over the place.”
Most songs follow a theme of coming into adulthood, something that Jennings said he did not have in mind. Regardless, lyrics of finding love and holding on to it coupled with somewhat melancholy riffs bring to light the nature of Minnesota’s often extreme seasons.
By some critics’ accounts, the album was a big change from Jennings’ earlier works, which featured multiple band members. But to Jennings, the different sound was the goal.
“The weather here is so cold in the winter,” Jennings added. “It forces you to be meditative. … I wanted to get back to what I started with by myself, and re-find what worked best for me.”
He is currently signed under Jack Johnson’s record label, Brushfire Records, after previously being signed under Modest Mouse’s label, Glacial Pace. Since Jennings’ switch in 2008, he said that the label is letting him decide if he wants to record with others or not. After working primarily by himself for “Minnesota,” he said that his next album will probably be with a few more people.
“I like to make every album sound different from the last,” Jennings said. “There’s way more piano than I’m used to playing (on “Minnesota”). It’s way more eclectic and it has a different feel to it with the piano.”
Jennings, who plays solo at Belly Up Aspen on Saturday, said that Aspen’s geography comes close to what he’s comfortable with in Minnesota. Like the way he produced his latest album, he will decide the set list by what sort of mood he feels at the time.
“I usually wait till I get there, and check out the energy of the place,” Jennings said.
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