Despite his recognizable surname, Mason Jennings is not the scion of outlaw country stars Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. (That would be Shooter Jennings.) Nevertheless, the Minneapolis singer-songwriter, who headlines Tuesday, July 11, at the Showbox, does have a quiet rebellious streak in him.
Since 1998, Jennings had been contentedly working outside the mainstream music industry, self-releasing four albums that sold 100,000 copies total. He routinely turned down offers to sign with major labels, and paid his bills—and accumulated a substantial fan base—via near-constant touring, worldwide.
Then, when he finally did flip the script, with whom did he join forces? The monolithic Sony BMG. But there's another twist: His new album, the concise (38 minutes) and compelling Boneclouds, is the first release on Glacial Pace, the imprint helmed by Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock. Jennings wasn't even a Modest Mouse fan before the deal—"I heard them early on, when they were more cacophonous and harder sounding, and it really wasn't up my alley," he admits—but was attracted to Brock's personality and principles.
Having carved out a sizable audience by writing songs that blur the lines between folk, rock, and country, Jennings could have very easily repeated himself on Boneclouds. Instead, he took chances, and followed his muse to some unusual places. For production, he tapped Noah Georgeson, whose credits include Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart. "I really wanted someone who would record acoustic instruments in a way that wasn't traditional," explains Jennings. "Someone who has a specific sound, but still sounds current."
They succeeded. The opening cut, "Be Here Now," recalls George Harrison circa All Things Must Pass, homey, robust and rough edged, but not overorchestrated, while the loose strings and clattering percussion of "Some Say I'm Not" leave the listener wondering if the band will make it to the song's climax without literally falling apart. "The recording process was more experimental than what I've done in a while," Jennings admits.
There are moments of startling vulnerability, too. Four of the ten songs, including the lullaby-like "If You Ain't Got Love," are simply Jennings's original demo versions. "I was trying to get more intimate in the music," he reveals. Yet at the same time, he didn't want the album to come off as contemplative navel gazing; he wanted to sound vibrant, alive. "My last record, Use Your Voice, was really quiet," he concedes. "With this one, as you listened to it, I wanted the inclination to be to keep turning up the volume."
Lyrically, much of the album touches on fatherhood and spirituality (the closer is entitled "Jesus Are You Real"). A far cry, then, from the first song he remembers writing, circa 6 or 7 years old. "That one was about when all my friends would leave, and I had to pick up my toys." Yup, definitely a different Jennings family. Not only did his mamma not let him grow up to be a cowboy, Mason had to keep his bedroom tidy, too.