Since his self-titled album debut in 1998, Mason Jennings has carved out a distinct niche within the crowded singer-songwriter scene. Jennings's songs, it seems, have a gift for touching a broad category of listeners personally. "Women weep at his songs, middle-aged men nod in silent agreement, teenagers are mesmerized," wrote Vickie Casey in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "and the collegiate set sings along like a cheerleading squad." His first two albums, released independently, sold 30,000 copies, and his live shows quickly developed a loyal following. Although Jennings received opportunities to sign with major labels, he resisted for a long time, worrying that a corporate atmosphere would harm his growth as an artist.
While he has typically fallen under the singer-songwriter banner, Jennings has also written political folk songs in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, making his music difficult to pigeonhole. "Singer/songwriter Mason Jennings blends the deeply personal insights of a poet, the political broadsides of a protest singer, and the broad musical eclecticism of a jazz musician with the passion and commitment of a rock & roller," wrote Mark Deming in All Music Guide.
Jennings was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1975, but grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He started performing songs at 13, and formed punk bands with his brother Matt in high school. Jennings also broadened his musical palette, listening to Delta blues players like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. At age 16 Jennings dropped out of school to pursue a career in music. "I felt it was worthwhile to put all my time and energy into music," he told Casey. He drifted for two years, reading classic literature that he checked out of public libraries, and playing in a New Orleans street band.
Eventually Jennings moved to Minneapolis, where his father lived, and quickly gained attention on the local music scene. Jennings was offered as much as $1 million to sign a recording contract, and was encouraged by his father and others to do so, but he refused: he worried that his musical vision might be compromised, and he cared little for the money. As Jennings told Chris Riemenschneider in the Star Tribune in 2002, "I really am not against [signing a record deal]. I'm just against doing it now, with the industry being what it is, and my career where it is."
Jennings wrote, performed, and produced his self-titled debut over a three-year period of time, releasing the album in 1998. He recorded Mason Jennings in the basement of his rented house, recording each instrument himself on a four-track player. He later jokingly said that he listened to it 700 times before releasing it. The album soon received airplay on local stations, and Jennings won a Thursday night spot at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis. "As a debut," wrote Dan Lee in All Music Guide, "this is an amazingly realized work." Jennings, having no idea his first album would sell so well, had printed his home address on the album. As a result, he received an avalanche of gifts, letters, and poems—mementoes of appreciation—from adoring fans.
Jennings formed the Mason Jennings Band with Robert Skoro and Chris Stock, and had started to record his second album when he contracted mononucleosis, sidelining his efforts for six months. "It was a nice learning experience," he told Casey, "because I had a year to just think about exactly what to do differently." When Jennings returned to performing, he laid aside his previous work and opted to record a handful of songs with strong political messages. Birds Flying Away was recorded in eight days, though Jennings would have to wait until he could raise $20,000 to issue the album in 2000. Even then, he was only able to press 5,000 copies initially. "I think this record is important because it pushes out all the musical parameters," he told Casey.
Jennings married in August of 2002, honeymooned in Europe, and toured. That year he also released his third album, Century Spring, and an unofficial follow-up, Simple Life. For the latter album, which he sold at shows and through his website, he returned to an earlier batch of songs At first he had attempted to play the songs with his band, but "[the songs] just didn't work that way," he told Riemenschneider, "They're much more from the traditional folk world. But I hung on to them all these years and always meant to get them out there." The songs on Century Spring also deviated from his previous work, and from the work of many singer songwriters, by expressing a more upbeat mood. "I still try to slip in moments in the songs where everything is not all right," he told Riemenschneider. "But yeah, I figured there's no point trying to hide my happiness."
In 2004 Jennings recorded his forth album, Use Your Voice, a stripped-down recording featuring a new set of songs. He was able to record the album on his own label, but release it through Bar/None, a deal that allowed him full artistic autonomy. He also continued to resist signing to a major label, fearing that there might be pressure to expand the arrangements of his recordings and perform at larger venues. "I toyed with a cleaner production on my last album, and after I sat with it," he told Riemenschneider, "it just didn't feel as close to my heart."
Longtime Jennings fans were shocked when the singer decided to release his next album, Boneclouds, with Epic, a major record label, in 2006. Critics split on whether or not Jennings had departed from his previous down-to-earth sound. "The rough, organic feel that many of his previous albums had," wrote Marisa Brown in All Music Guide, "is replaced with smoother, reverby pianos and guitars and vocal harmonies." Steve Howitz in Pop Matters, however, emphasized the artist's keen songwriting. "Lyrically Jennings combines strength and delicacy in a quirky way that bespeaks the awkwardness of all emotions…. This makes Jennings always worth listening to. Even if one sometimes disparages his sentiments, his music speaks louder than words."
In the summer of 2006 Jennings and his band went on the road to support Boneclouds, a tour that included shows with singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson. Unlike a number of commercial performers, Jennings allow fans to record his live shows and trade tapes of the these performances among themselves; he also allows fans to photograph him during shows. For many fans, attending a live show was the best way to experience the man and his music; for Jennings, performing live offered a similar experience. "There are certain times that the music just cuts through," he told Simon Peter Groebner in City Pages, "and I break through and see something…. I'm looking for some kind of truth."
Mason Jennings, Bar/None, 1998.
Birds Fly Away, Mason Jennings, 2000.
Century Spring, Architect, 2002.
Use Your Voice, Bar/None, 2004.
Boneclouds, Epic, 2006.
For the Record …
Born in 1975 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Dropped out of school to pursue a career in music at 16; recorded Mason Jennings, 1998, and Birds Flying Away, 2000; issued Century Spring and an unofficial follow-up (sold at concerts only), Simple Life, 2002; released Use Your Voice, 2004; signed with Epic and released Boneclouds, 2006.
Addresses: Record company—Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211, phone: (212) 833-8000, website: http://www.epicrecords.com. Website—Mason Jennings Official Website: http://www.masonjennings.com.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), September 29, 2000; March 24, 2002; March 24, 2002; December 6, 2002; February 13, 2004.
"Mason Jennings," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusicguide.com/ (June 9, 2006).
"Mason Jennings," Pop Matters, http://www.popmatters.com/(June 9, 2006).
"The Mason Jennings Line," City Pages, http://www.citypages.com/ (June 9, 2006).
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