Like any career musician, Mason Jennings has learned to live life on the go. Nearly a decade into said career, though, Jennings is now happily reflecting on home as he now knows it. For Minnesota, released last September on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records, Jennings took to his cabin-cum-studio outside of Minneapolis to pen a collection of diverse, mostly piano-driven numbers that pull inspiration (and a couple of direct sound bites) from the place he lays his head. The result is a vibrant, eclectic record that’s both indicative of Jennings’s signature style — narrative lyricism and vivid imagery abound — and the signal of something altogether new. This Saturday, March 17, Jennings takes to SOhO Restaurant & Music Club for a live, solo set in support of Minnesota. I caught up with the songwriter to discuss the home state and sonic inspiration behind the album.
The new record takes a pretty different course than your last, Blood of Man. Can you tell me a bit about what shook down after that last touring cycle? The last record was really intense; it was electric-based, and I was touring with a rock band. That tour was really loud, and it was really fun — it felt really freeing to do that — but coming off the road I was thinking I was probably going to write something pretty similar to [Blood of Man]. But when I got home, I started kind of strangely gravitating toward the piano and my studio. It was kind of a comfort thing, finding myself in a quieter environment as a way to sort of free my mind. I started recording a bunch of different songs, and the ones that resonated most with me were the ones I wrote on piano.
Blood of Man had a very distinct vision behind it and it was full of one-take, lo-fi, come-as-you-are recordings. How did that process work to inform the recordings on Minnesota? That process was definitely a liberating thing. What I think shifted the most with Minnesota was it’s still the same idea of recording everything myself, but I wanted to get a few more options. I wanted it to sound different — I didn’t just want to make Blood of Man II, but I wanted to keep the same idea and the freedom.
You have a cabin-in-the-woods–type setup, correct? Yeah. It’s in nature, and it’s just a place where I can experiment with music. There’s nothing sterile about it. There’s a lot of wood and a lot of windows. It’s probably more like a traditional author’s spot than a music studio. For me, it’s just a place that I can go and tune in to my own energy and really create stuff that I feel resonates, then I can record it and hear it back before I have to be subjected to everyone else’s judgment of it. Once I can get a good feeling about how I feel about something, I can put it out there with some confidence.
Sonically, Minnesota has a very collage-y feel to it. Is there a theme that you personally associate with the record? I’d probably say “home.”
I imagine that concept has changed a good deal for you over the past 10 years. [Laughs.] Yeah. Touring in the beginning is just a totally different process. I was just talking to my wife about all the crazy places I stayed and how funny it was, some of the gnarly motels we’d stay in when it was just a bunch of guys in a room. It’s funny that touring doesn’t resemble that at all for me now. Now it’s about seeing friends in different cities. I’ve been to so many places so many times now; it’s more about revisiting restaurants or bookstores. As far as the idea of home, in a lot of ways I feel way more at home in a lot of these cities than I used to because I know them now. And of course home changed a lot when I became a parent. As far as Minnesota, I definitely enjoy living here, but I also feel at home in a lot of places across the country.
How does Minnesota the place relate to Minnesota the album? There’s definitely a lot of sounds and stuff on there, but the thing about Minnesota and why it struck me as a good name for the record is just the contrasts that exist in this state — there’s a lot of different forces that you wouldn’t expect to exist together. It’s freezing cold here a lot of the time, but it can also be really sunny. There’s a great art community and theater community next to a landscape that’s really backwoods and very rugged. I really like music or any kind of art to have really strong contrasts. I like things to have really dark darks and really light lights. I don’t really care for beige.
Mason Jennings plays a 21+ show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) this Saturday, March 17, at 9 p.m. For tickets and info, call (805) 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com.