Autumn spat down all the moisture it could muster; it snowed intermittently. The sky was gray and the wind came in short, cold bursts. Dampened spirits, however, were out of the question as Mason Jennings prepared for his show at the Bluebird. A singer-songwriter of the most well-read kind, Mason proved to be as honest and sincere as his lyrics portrayed him to be.
Haley Carnefix -It seems to me that a lot of musicians and, really, artistic types in general, sometimes let their gifts use them up. Norman Mailer was quoted once as saying, “every one of my books has killed me a little more.” Do you feel as though your songs take anything away from you?
Mason Jennings - (laughing) Oh shit. I just finished the Executioner’s Song. Talk about a crazy book, you know? ...Use me up. They only feel like that if I’m not totally being honest. There’s sometimes where I feel like I’ve written stuff where I’m trying something that’s a little out of my center. If I’m trying to be somebody who I’m not that can be a really painful process and it’ll kill you slowly. So there have been times in my life where I haven’t been as comfortable being myself and those times take a toll on you. But when I’m being myself and just letting my own true voice flow I feel like it’s a circle of inspiration, definitely. It’s a rejuvenating process more than a killing process.
HC - On the bright side that kind of goes against our society’s solid belief that creativity and suffering are inherently connected.
MJ - I know. I guess one of the main things for me is the better I feel the more creative I feel like I can be. At the hardest times in my life I’ve been the least creative ‘cause I almost can’t handle it. When you’re fully creative you’re fully open and if you’re really suffering it’s hard—it’s hard for me to be fully open. It’s the same idea as like, if you’re in pain you clench your muscles and you kind of go into a more protective mode and that to me is like you’re not going to get a full gesture. I think the best art is the fullest gesture: when you feel healthy enough to actually open up.
HC - From that, what informed the darker lyrical threads on your new album?
MJ - I think it’s a combination of things. One, I really got into yoga this year so physically I feel so much better than I did last year and I think I felt like I could handle it. It’s kind of counter intuitive, but I was really happy and comfortable going into the darker places and I knew I’d be able to come back out of ‘em. That, and then also, the last couple records of mine have been more light. I guess not light, but …more gentle and more quiet. After touring on those records for two years I’m done doing quiet stuff for a while. I’m ready to make some noise and get a little darker. Another thing that happened was I read that book The Road by Cormac McCarthy and I’m a big fan of his writing, but just that book in particular and the way it was written—it was written in two weeks—it just felt so immediate to me and so sparse. Something about the tone of that book really inspired me and I think that kind of translated into what I did on this record.
HC - I heard your interview on NPR earlier today. You made mention of a sort of confrontational incident you experienced in Texas over one of your songs.
MJ -Oh, yeah. With Jesus Are You Real?
HC - Yeah. That’s the one. Are you ever anxious about how your songs will be received, or is that something that’s attended to as it happens?
MJ - Yeah, I kind of handle it as it comes. Sometimes I get embarrassed about the songs. I feel like I might be too open or awkward. Sometimes some of my songs can be kind of awkward and the sentiments aren’t really clear, I’m just going with what I’m feeling. So then I have to deal with people coming up to me. Since my last two records have more of a searching spiritual quality to them, searching for spiritualities and religions, I get a lot of fundamentalists coming up to me now telling me their beliefs and that’s been totally surprising. I wasn’t expecting that. For the most part I guess I realize that if I’m going to make music that’s going to have openness to it and if I’m going to be honest in my own heart that I’m going to get people’s reactions. I’m open for it.
HC - So it’s safe to assume that you rely more on touring than the radio to connect with your fans?
MJ - Totally. Touring and the Internet. I consistently release records, whatever I’m interested in, put the art out there and it just seems that it spreads that way.
HC - What’s your favorite on the road story or memory?
MJ - It’s so funny, nothing stands out after a while. Oh. We were driving out from Boulder to Denver—I don’t know how interesting this is—but we were driving on the high plains at like two in the morning, it’s pitch black, and all the sudden something exploded on the front of the car. We didn’t see anything coming across –this mealy, clear thing just exploded all over the hood and it freaked us out. It was all over the van. Finally, after a while of things like “should we smell it?!” and “what is this thing?!” we found an apple rind— apparently someone in the middle of no where had thrown an apple at us. I was like: that’s horrifying when a thing explodes and you never saw it and it’s clear and mealy! (laughing)
HC - (laughing) Oh, definitely.
MJ - So, that’s my tour story. Mostly it’s about the music.
HC - Of course! Well, that’s really all I had for you. I had some nonsense written about Romans and Greeks and—
MJ - (chuckling) What?
HC - Well, the Romans believed in something called a genius. It was similar to the Greek’s idea of muses, except it was specific to the artist and it was just this sort of… disembodied creative entity that lived in the walls and fed you all of your art. So that kind of created a distance for you—like a psychological barrier between you and potential failure. If something you made bombs, it just meant that your genius kind of sucked that day. (laughter) So do you have anything like that? A psychological barrier of sorts, or do you just embrace everything from your successes to your possible failures?
MJ - So, a genius. It’s not like a muse? A genius is like your personal genius. Like everyone has one? Or is it a current—like an electricity?
HC - The way I’m to understand it, only the artists had a genius, you know? Only those artistic people who are gifted with any sort of notable talent.
MJ - So the genius is gifting you?
HC - Basically, yeah.
MJ - Interesting. So then there’s probably certain places that you’d want to be to create. That’s how I am, for sure. My dad always asked me about that, he’d say “don’t you think you’re going to run out of songs? And not be able to write songs?” and I never worried about it because it’s so not something I’m doing. I never consider them MY songs. I guess there’s some truth to that. It just feels like I have to take care of myself in order to be able to let it flow. I’m not really making the songs, so it would make sense… but I think all of us have that. I think everybody has a genius. I would hear it in the way that every one of us is interested in something; something’s always gnawing at all of our hearts: some fascination with something in the world. Even non-artistic people have geniuses, I think, as long as they pay attention to what lights up to them. Everyone has something they love and something that fascinates them. Whatever lights up to you, if you follow that then your gifts will be given to you. I feel like then everything will be okay.
It’s cool being on the road; you’re surrounded by all these different kinds of people. I end up spending a lot of time with the tech people. They’re so different. It’s like a whole different thing. Guys who are some of my best friends will say things like, “I can’t read a novel, but I’ll read signal path manuals for machines.” And you see them in the van reading signal path manuals and it’s that realization of, “holy shit, we’re all really different”.
But the truth is that something lights up for all of us.
HC - I think a lot of people don’t pay enough attention to the things they do care about and sometimes try and skew their focus.
MJ - And I can see why, you know? Because they’re afraid they won’t have any money—it’s that idea of comfort and money. Not having support for comfort. I think that’s our only duty, though. That’s the price for being alive. All you have to do is pay attention to the things that light up for you. It’s a pretty easy bargain if you think about it.
Gigbot Downlow’ds bring you better-than-backstage access to touring musicians that you can get behind. Knowledgeable interviews, exclusive photos, free tickets, and musical tracks are brought to your browser by Gigbot’s team of music-loving mechanics to help you catch some the great talent that comes to your neighborhood.
Know the shows - and who is gonna go, with Gigbot. It’s about the best thing that has happened to live music since the whammy bar. See More Downlowd’s →