An artist who is admittedly jealous of creative control, Mason Jennings has earned his reputation as much for his suspicion of major labels having released each of his previous four albums on his own Architect imprint – as he is for his disarmingly probing songwriting.An artist who is admittedly jealous of creative control, Mason Jennings has earned his reputation as much for his suspicion of major labels having released each of his previous four albums on his own Architect imprint – as he is for his disarmingly probing songwriting. Yet, year after year, album after album, the Minneapolis-by-way-of-Pittsburgh singer/songwriter watched his friends and contemporaries go the major label route. Some, like close friend Jack Johnson, found major label support could bring them far larger audiences; many others withered on the corporate vine, losing what they’d spent years hovering over notepads and in cramped vans trying to earn. Just what could make Mason Jennings take that chance?
Though Jennings’ laidback Americana inhabits a decidedly different patch of the sonic and conceptual spectrum than the one plowed by the chaotic indie rock of Modest Mouse, Jennings is the first signing to Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock’s label, Glacial Pace. Given that the Portland band had followed a similar trajectory as Jennings – working through years of independent releases and smoky clubs and then succeeding on their own terms after signing with a media conglomerate – the superficially incompatible duo bore a perfect fit.
“He just gave me a call one day,” Jennings explains, his soft baritone matching his informal demeanor. “He had heard my record and asked me if I wanted to tour with them.” By the spring of 2005, Modest Mouse had finally transcended their “next-big-thing” status and had arrived, a true “big thing” with a million-selling record and a modern rock radio hit with their breakout “Float On” single. As opening acts are already at a disadvantage when attempting to warm the stage for a buzz band, Jennings’ stripped-down fare seemed a particularly odd fit for Modest Mouse’s twisted guitar solos and stomp-along arrangements. “I was definitely wondering what was going to happen, and we definitely played more of a rock set than we usually do, but they responded very positively,” Jennings laughs. “I think Isaac was impressed, too, that I was welcomed by his crowd. That’s when he said. ‘Let’s just give it a shot.'”
Still, since Jennings had resisted the call of major labels for years, he would need some convincing before signing over his future, something that Brock focused his inner-salesman on changing. “I definitely had reservations. Isaac told me, ‘It’s my label. I can do what I want to do. If I like it, I’m going to get it out there.’ And I said, ‘Ok. I trust you,'” he continues, his voice still reflecting its original wariness. “But you’re always doubtful, because every single label situation you’ve read about, it never goes well. I guess I shouldn’t say that, since my record hasn’t come out, but it usually doesn’t work,” he laughs. “But I trust Isaac.”
The result of that trust is Boneclouds, the most dynamic and richly textured album of Jennings’ career. From the dour piano strikes of the opening “Be Here Now” and the evil blues swirl of “Some Say I’m Not,” to the wistfully searching “If You Need a Reason,” the fifth Mason Jennings album is the culmination of everything he has done previously. The melodies are sharper and more immediate, the arrangements are layered and eclectic and the sentiments are more striking and affecting. It’s the classic singer/songwriter album that he has always been one or two great songs away from completing.
“I just wanted to make sure it was emotionally powerful, and I wanted a record that I could turn up really loud. That was pretty much it,” Jennings admits humbly, explaining the process of whittling down 30 plus songs to the tidy 10 on the album. “We tried a lot of different stuff. We tried using only electric instruments and then using no electric instruments. Some songs ended up really orchestrated and some sounded more like demos. We ended up just going with whatever fit a particular song.”
Boneclouds is the first Mason Jennings album with all of the rough edges left intact, with his plaintive voice and winsome melodies finally given arrangements that shift and sprawl rather than repeat unassumingly. Humble to a fault, Jennings gives credit to Noah Georgeson, better known as producer of freak-folk upstarts Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. “He knew how to do that better than I do,” he says of his producer’s gift with creating engagingly diverse sonic textures. “He was really great. He’s really good to hang out, just really mellow. My favorite record of the last year was Joanna’s record, and that’s why I contacted him, because it sounded so good. He can make acoustic records with an immediacy and intensity that doesn’t sound like anything else.”
True enough, as Boneclouds sounds like no other release in recent memory, informed by both the warm AM radio intimacy of ’70s singer/songwriter albums and the chilly isolation of the southern Minnesota recording studio where it was recorded. As always, Jennings remains a skeptic, albeit one who is inclined to eventually see the best in things. More than any of his previous albums, Jennings uses his latest release to further probe issues of faith and meaning. “I’ve been traveling so much, and I started to get a little tripped out being in a different city every day for the last five years. I think it’s only natural to be searching for a higher power or a connection,” he admits about the album-closing “Jesus Are You Real,” a stirringly human depiction of an unbeliever not able to completely dismiss his desire for a loving God in an unjust world. “I’ve wrestled with a lot of religious issues. I’ve been searching for a long time. With that song, I wasn’t trying to write something specific, but it just sort of popped out, and I was embarrassed by it at first. Then I’m like, ‘Well, if you’re embarrassed by something, there’s probably something true there.’ It’s wasn’t really a Christian thing. It was just about asking what was going on.”
For longtime listeners, the greatest surprise on the album may be “Where the Sun Had Been,” an icy synth-pop track with ominous keyboards and echoing vocals that sounds more like something off David Bowie’s Low than Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. “I’m surprised that’s on there, actually,” he laughs. “We wrote that as a band. It was the first time I’ve ever co-written with anybody, and I went into the studio with the intention of writing something that no one would ever hear. I just wanted to make something that had a weird feel and would be fun to play. And that just popped out and I loved it, probably because I didn’t worry about the arrangement at all. Then Isaac heard it and was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to use that on the record!’ And I was like, ‘Uh – alright.’ If I like it, maybe someone else will, too. That’s what’s so cool about him. He’s just like, ‘I dig it; use it.'”
In short, that sense of freedom seems to be exactly what Jennings wanted and why he would trust his career with a man he didn’t know a year earlier. Despite Brock’s reputation for being an abrasive and loudly opinionated artist, Jennings says he found his forthrightness refreshing. “We’re similar people. We grew up in similar situations. We’ve both driven a van around the country trying to make a living playing music,” he says thoughtfully. “He wasn’t always there during the recording process, but during the editing process and picking the songs, he was always around to give feedback if you had a question or anything. It’s very rare to get somebody who is honest enough to say, ‘Man, I don’t think this is working. I think you better change it.'”
In Isaac Brock, Jennings has found not only a kindred spirit, but also the person he needed to push him to make the album that was always just out of his reach. “I was surprised that I could make a record this honest and raw, – he admits after a long pause. “I’m surprised that it’s going to be released – that Epic would be cool with that. I’m actually excited that they’re into that, that they’re actually doing that kind of stuff. It’s inspiring. It was a time for a change. It’s not the record I thought it was going to be, and I’m glad. I can actually sleep now.”