Mason Jennings Biography
Last updated: 02/18/2004 08:23:28 PM
Use your voice. It seems simple but in reality it's complex. We use our voices to teach the young and to whisper our darkest fears and sweetest dreams to our confidants. Our voices give form, shape and vision to our memories, cultures and ideas. There is no division, no better or worse, no right or wrong in our voices. They are our most valuable and powerful assets because there is no inequality among our voices.
Mason Jennings knows the importance of using your voice. Since he was a teenager, he has chosen to use his voice to sing, to stand up and to call out to the world the highs and lows of life and love, to cast a light on the shadows of doubt, to loosen the grip of fear on our hearts and minds, to laugh, to cry.
With his new album, Use Your Voice (Bar/None), Mason Jennings uses his voice to question thinly veiled motives in "Fourteen Pictures." He uses his voice to emphasize the hallowed sound of a hammer swinging to the beat of a lonesome man's heart in "Empire Builder." He uses his voice to revel in the sweet satisfaction of a loved one's warm embrace in "Lemon Grove Avenue," and he uses this same voice to joyfully celebrate unconditional love in "Keepin It Real." And this voice, giving equality to all things great and small, also expresses the pain of death in the "Ballad of Paul and Shelia," the confusion of a soured love affair in "Crown," and the pains of a broken man in "Drinking As Religion."
Mason Jennings knows that the voice is a powerful instrument and with Use Your Voice, he not only uses his, he seems to call out to everyone to discover the same inspiration that calls him to sing, and for you to use your voice too.
Q&A WITH MASON JENNINGS
Having built a large and loyal live following of fans that span the globe, and selling more than 60,000 records on his own label, Architect Records, Mason Jennings has managed to survive as an independent artist in an increasingly competitive business. We sat down with Jennings to find out how this young artist (Jennings is 28) has been able to survive and succeed while staying true to himself.
Q: The title of your new album, Use Your Voice, seems a call to action. Is that what you intended?
A: It wasn't a call to action as much as it was the idea of searching for your own voice. It's the most important thing that I've got - and that everybody has, really. I called the album Use Your Voice because it spoke to what I was trying to do with the record: To use my own voice instead of trying to sound like someone else. There's also the idea behind Use Your Voice to make sure that the individual stands out, that it's not just about me but that every person is important.
Q: Use Your Voice has a very old-school, Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash recording style to it: Very real, live, and … honest. Was this a conscious choice on your part?
A: I wanted it to sound like I was playing in my living room because that's where I play and write my songs. I was really influenced by Johnny Cash's American recordings and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks - I love the no-frills sound on those records and that recording style makes the songs stand out and it sounds real to me. I felt the way I could do that myself was the way I made this record, by recording live, in the studio - it was the best way to let the songs speak.
Q: This is your fourth release - what was the initial vision behind making Use Your Voice?
A: I tried to take everything I learned from making my other records to get to the essence of what my music is about. Sometimes I feel a struggle, when people want to add a lot of things to a record, whether it's more instruments or more production, and there is a lot of pressure to kind of follow the flock or do what is popular. Sometimes I feel that people don't think you're a good musician if you're not polished or on the radio. And that makes me sad because I believe that a lot of people I admire, like Johnny Cash, John Lennon or Bob Dylan, probably wouldn't get a record deal today mainly because they sang from their hearts and not to get on the radio or anything like that. They just wrote songs for themselves, and that was my vision behind Use Your Voice: to sing from my heart.
Q: You spend a lot of time on the road touring, and you've spent time in Europe and Australia - and you're not playing small, dingy clubs - you're playing festivals, theatres and big clubs that major-label acts regularly perform in. To what do you attribute this phenomenal live following?
A: I think when people see the live show they realize that I'm really just a person, like them. And that's my goal: I don't want to separate myself from the crowd and I think people pick up on that. When I'm playing for people it feels like I'm dealing with people, like hanging out with friends or someone you care about.
Q: Looking at your Web site (www.masonjennings.com) there are fans from Europe, Australia, and nearly every point in between, posting about your music. How did they find out about you?
A: I think it was through word of mouth, friends giving each other CDs and a lot of Internet stuff, downloading and all that.
Q: It's no secret that the music industry has had a tough time over the past couple of years, yet you've managed to continue to develop your music and your audience. How have you managed to not only survive, but succeed in the current climate?
A: I feel successful because I get to do this for a living and I think I've been able to survive because I've taken really slow, small steps, and had a lot of patience. I want to be in this for the long haul. I want to do this until I'm 60 so I make decisions that will allow me to keep doing this until I am 60 instead of making decisions that will make me a quick buck.
Q: You've been written up in The New York Times, LA Weekly and Washington Post, numerous national magazines and featured on a number of radio programs. How does it make you feel to get that kind of attention?
A: I guess the coolest thing about it is that it gets the music out there to more people. Other than that, I don't usually think about it much.
Q: The Kings of Leon, Ben Kweller, Ben Harper and Jack Johnson have all applauded your songwriting. How does it feel when they tell you they listen to your music?
A: It's awesome. It's like the highest compliment. It makes me feel like it's a group of people working on art together instead of being out there alone. It reminds me of how the '60s and '70s must have been like, when it seemed a lot of artists would get together and help each other out.
Q: Your songwriting is very literate and in a lot of ways, intelligent, yet you dropped out of high school. How did you manage to "continue" your education?
A: I traveled a lot and I think you learn a lot that way. When I dropped out of high school I went to the Classics section of the public library and read a book by every author in that section - authors like Hemingway, Willa Cather, Tolstoy, Nietzsche.
Q: There seems to be a jaded attitude toward "political" songs these days but "Ballad of Paul and Shelia" seems more like a eulogy than a political song. How did that song come about?
A: When Senator Wellstone and his wife died in a place crash last October I was in San Francisco on tour when I heard about it. I just sat down and wrote a song to try and make sense out of what happened. It is more of a eulogy because it's more personal; it's like me talking to myself. I think that people get a jaded attitude when they feel that they're being preached to and I think the way to avoid that is to talk for yourself, and about your feelings only.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Honolulu and then we moved to Pittsburgh. I left Pittsburgh for Minneapolis when I was 19. I liked the big, open sky, loved the Replacements, and I was excited by the fact that the city had so many good music venues. I still love living in Minneapolis.
Q: Is it true that you started out as a drummer?
A: Yes. I started playing drums when I was 12. I've also played bass and piano and electric guitar - as a songwriter I find that every instrument I play helps me to see the songs from a different perspective. Plus, it allows me to relate to my band better.
Q: Do you always perform with a band, and if so, who are they?
A: Nearly every show I perform with my band - it's me, Chris Morrissey, who sings and plays bass, and drummer Brian McLeod.
Q: You've written nearly 300 songs - what was the first song you wrote?
A: The first song I wrote was for my first girlfriend when I was 12. I can't remember the exact subject or vibe but I remember I just sang it into a little tape recorder and gave her a tape.
Q: When do you know a song is good?
A: When you get chills when you're writing it and you realize that you haven't eaten all day and it's dark outside and you look in the mirror and your hair is standing up and you're wearing the same clothes you were wearing two days ago.
Q: What is the most important thing you've learned so far?
A: That everybody is human and everybody has doubts and makes mistakes and that there are no definite answers.