Found his voice
Minneapolis singer-songwriter Mason Jennings exemplifies the modern urban troubadour
One of the emerging figures of the post-major-label era is the self-styled troubadour who travels around the country, under the radar, playing original tunes in small- to medium-sized venues. Audiences, who learn about the artist via word of mouth or over the Internet, form a close and personal bond with him or, in many cases, her. And many miles later, and after umpteen changes of guitar strings, the itinerant singer-songwriter may find that his or her audience has become a burgeoning pop-culture phenomenon. Ani DiFranco is perhaps the best-known example. Jack Johnson is another, more recent example. And, locally, Jackie Greene seems to be developing along those lines.
Mason Jennings, a 28-year-old resident of Minneapolis who will play Harlow’s on Tuesday night, has been building the same kind of momentum throughout the past several years. He played the club once before, a year ago, and drew a healthy crowd.
Jennings has been on the path for years. “From age 15, I was pretty sure I wanted to do it,” he said, “it” being the peripatetic lifestyle of the singer-songwriter. He grew up in Pittsburgh—“I found it sort of a black hole for creativity,” he said—but he moved to Minneapolis because that’s where the Replacements, specifically songwriter- frontman Paul Westerberg, hailed from. “And it seemed like a pretty good place to play original music,” Jennings added.
In Minneapolis, he started playing the 400 Bar before progressing to a larger venue, First Avenue. A recent record-release party, for his new Architect/Bar None Records album Use Your Voice (his fourth album), packed 2,200 people into Minneapolis’ State Theatre.
Jennings, who’s married and has a 13-month-old son, currently plays 150 dates a year, backed by bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer Brian McLeod. “I have a family and stuff, so I don’t want to be out too much,” he said. “But I think you’ve got to keep hitting it with the kind of music I play; you’ve got to hit every place about twice a year, at least.”
His style favors a stripped-down recording approach, with few overdubs or effects—the way record-making used to be done, in a single take. “That’s what I’m always shooting for,” he said. “I think it’s the hardest thing to do. You have to be able to walk away from it and leave the imperfections, and I think that can be a challenge.”
The most poignant moment on Use Your Voice is a song called “Ballad of Paul and Sheila,” which Jennings wrote after he turned on the TV in his hotel room in late October 2002 and learned about the plane crash that killed Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia and five others. It is difficult to write songs about political topics that retain enough universal qualities to appeal to anyone—especially an emotionally charged topic involving a populist senator, earmarked by the Bush administration as an enemy, whose plane went down a week before the mid-term elections under what some call suspicious circumstances. But Jennings pulled it off, mainly by keeping it simple and articulating how the tragedy affected his own heart.
“I was trying to write as personal as I could,” the singer explained. “I always feel that if you try to write for anybody else, then you run into trouble.”
Jennings had a hunch the song was a keeper, and road-testing it proved that right away. “I started playing it right away on tour,” he said, “and I couldn’t believe how many people responded to the song all over the country.”
But it isn’t hard to believe, really. “Ballad of Paul and Sheila” is a gentle plaint, over a prosaic but elegant finger-style guitar figure, with honest and affecting vocals and a chorus—“Hey Senator / I wanna say / All the things you fought for did not die here today”—that mark it as a nice contemporary addition to the progressive-folkie canon.
But don’t let that scare you. Jennings is a singer-songwriter with a surprising range—he can rock, too—and his lived-in songs fit as comfortably as your favorite old shoes.