Mason Jennings: tales from the road

Brianna Riplinger

Under a spectrum of brightly colored lights, Mason Jennings and his band occupy a stage that looks like a performance space fit for a certain Las Vegas white tiger act. Everyone else in the Eau Claire, Wis., Council Fire Room sits in their chairs at small round tables (think wedding reception) and claps politely, save for a few “fanatics” who sit on the hard-wood floor at the foot of the stage.

But just a few songs into his casually playful, emotionally poignant, politically and socially stirring set, kids are on their feet, gazing intently at Jennings, moving to the music and hanging on Mason’s every word. Despite the bizarre venue and the less than boisterous audience, Jennings loves playing for all kinds of crowds.

“People don’t usually think about that,” Jennings says, speaking on the telephone a couple weeks after that show. “A huge part of what bands do-they have to go to completely different environments. It’s unbelievable.”

“One time we played this huge stage with the Violent Femmes and Semisonic,” Jennings recalls, “and then the next night we played this place in Menomonie without a stage and without any microphones on the drums or bass and they were serving hoagies, y’know? It’s such a challenge, but I actually like it, ’cause it’s a change and you get to hear your songs in a different environment. [Shows like the one in Eau Claire] can be the best shows, actually.”

From the devoted faces in Eau Claire and group sing-a-long crowds here in Minneapolis, Jennings’ music is affecting college-aged kids in a very big way.

“I definitely try to be honest with myself, and that can be hard to do in a song when you’re trying to put it out and play it in front of a bunch of people, cause people might not like it and you get judged on it. I think it’s just important to be honest with yourself and your feelings and people can resonate with that. That feels good. I don’t think about that in advance [when writing songs]. If you’re honest, people are the same all the way around,” Jennings says. “It’s flattering [when people respond positively].”

While his first self-titled album was musically straightforward, personal and casual in its tone, Jennings thinks of his most recent album Birds Flying Away as a bit more complex and dark. Birds deals with heady political and social topics-including the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King Jr. and American imperialism.

“I kinda said, what the hell? Why don’t I write a song about the Black Panthers-a white guy from Minnesota and see if people still hang. And they did. That whole record, Birds, is very sparse lyrically, and that’s not how I usually write. To me, it sounds very dark and unhealthy.”

As Jennings heads out for a five-week tour, his new album is being finished up as well. The tentative release date is March 19th-Mason’s 27th birthday. Compared with his two previous albums, Jennings characterizes the upcoming work as more evolved and “completely personal.”

“It’s a really warm record. It’s way more like the first record, but more developed. It’s a lot about love songs … songs about friendships. There’s a lot of piano on it … electric guitar. It’s very loving,” Jennings says. “There’s a lot of melody like the first record. There’s a lot more sweetness to it. I feel like I’m finally hitting my stride with my songwriting. I’m excited about it.”

Jennings adds, “It’s got that roughness that I like, sort of like Paul McCartney or Dylan would have-where it just sounds in the moment.”

Jennings’ personal life and experiences have also shaped the lyrical content.

“I’m totally in love. And I’m meeting the coolest people on the road,” he says, “I don’t feel isolated anymore by the music. Traveling a ton last year-I’ve experienced a ton, and that’s gonna show up on the record.”

Mason Jennings plays Friday and Saturday at the 400 Bar (400 Cedar Ave. S, Mpls. 612-332-2903). Download Mason Jennings mp3’s at www.masonjennings.com.