Arcata Eye Scene

A-town art, music, theatre. Mostly music. Updated Wednesdays.

At long last, Mason Jennings comes to town Nov. 11

So there I was, shivering in a KHUM production room at 8:32 a.m., leaning over a microphone. On the opposite side of the mic sat a speakerphone. The computer captured the back-and-forth of the interview. My nervousness is apparent on the recording, both from the multiple times I rehearsed my introduction prior to receiving the phone call – and from the reverential “oh my god” audible after the hang up click.

Like plenty of people in Humboldt, I’ve been waiting several years for Mason Jennings to grace us with a show.

His is a rare combination of charm, humor and storytelling. The inevitable Dylan comparisons crop up (and completely unsurprisingly, he was hand-picked by music supervisor Randall Poster to perform “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” in Todd Haynes’ acclaimed Dylan biopic I’m Not There). Back in the days when I put music together for a couple hours a week on KHSU 90.5 FM, I’d place his tracks alongside Greg Brown and Michelle Shocked.

Like Michelle Shocked – whom I saw play with They Might Be Giants once upon a time – Mason’s connections are as much indie (and rock – he cites Led Zeppelin as his all-time favorite band) as folk. His 2006 album Boneclouds came out on Modest Mouse leader Isaac Brock’s Glacial Pace label, his new release, Into the Ever, is on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records label and somewhere between that indie rock and folksy campfire music, Mason’s songs fit perfectly.

Since his 1997 debut album, Mason Jennings, he’s created a library of music that is at once sparse and overflowing. We discussed several of his songs – one from each album over the years – and how they reflect his own journey though life, love, family and faith.

mason-jennings-california-pt-2-sample

“California (Part II)”

I tell you what I’m gonna do

I’m gonna lighten up
I’m gonna throw a box of books and my beloved guitar
Into the back of my truck and try my luck in

California (4x)

I’m gonna stay away from LA
I’m staying far away from there
I’m going north of San Francisco
Into the cleaner air

I’m gonna get a little land with the money I’ve saved
And buy an old house that I can work on
Where the next nearest neighbour lives miles away
I’ll never have to mow the lawn (right on!)

California (4x)

And when the house is all finished
And the garden is grown
I’m gonna write you a letter
Asking you to come home

And I know that you will come
Yes I know that you will come
‘Cause others may know where you been
But honey I know where you’re from, you’re from

California (4x)

We started with “California, Pt. 2” from that first album. “I was in a relationship and my girlfriend took me to California for the first time,” Mason said. “It was just amazing to be out there… It made a really big impression on me…. kind of spilled into a bunch of story songs… The whole gist of just trying to lighten up, not take it so seriously…. lightening up, that’s the gist… There’s something about Northern California – my music sort of sounds like it’s from there.” (Yes, yes it does. And it’s wonderful to listen to when one lives in Northern California.)

mason-jennings-ballad-for-my-one-true-love-sample

“Ballad For My One True Love”

Sleeping in a cherry tree high above a monastery

Where the bells are ringing slow to say farewell when hours go

And all the while I’m dreaming of
The ballad for my one true love
Searching for the perfect way to say
I love you sweetheart
This is my dream come true

And God bless the babies that sleep in you
God bless the babies that sleep in you

Sleeping in a motel room underneath a silver moon
With the windows open wide, I can hear the stars go by

And all the while I’m dreaming of
The ballad for my one true love
Searching for the perfect way to say
I love you sweetheart
This is my dream come true

And God bless the babies that sleep in you
God bless the babies that sleep in you

The man can also write a love song. One of the best examples is “Ballad of My One True Love” from Birds Flying Away, which Mason wrote for his wife. “Some part of every song has hope in it. You always have to kind of project, some part is always in the future, which is a hopeful thing… Almost like you’re writing a love song to somebody, but also to yourself, hoping things turn out great.”

mason-jennings-bullet-sample

“Bullet”

This is a bullet from a gun called what the fuck

If I was standing in your shoes I’d throw my hands straight up
And start explaining at the speed of light, not sound
How the words “get some coffee” came to mean “get down”

All the king’s horses and all the king’s yen
Couldn’t stop the abracadabra that invites these men
And all the alleyways in Amsterdam could not compete
Against the Wall Street speed with which you leave your feet

Oh yes, this song is a joke
Funny like our house going up in smoke
Funny like the bomb between my teeth when we kiss
You pulled out the pin with your own sweet lips

Every time the phone rings you get there first
And when the pizza man comes you always run for your purse
Now I’m the son of a banker, I know just what the deal is
If you wrote in out in braille, I wouldn’t even have to feel it

Oh yes, this song is a joke
Funny like our house going up in smoke
Funny like the bomb between my teeth when we kiss
You pulled out the pin with your own sweet lips

Funny how goodbye can sound so sad sometimes
Today it sounds happy like a nursery rhyme
And you’re not Cinderella, so don’t forget your shoes
I’ve never been as lonely as when I was with you

Oh yes, this song is a scream
Funny like our loving doused in gasoline
Funny like the bomb between my teeth when we kiss
You pulled out the pin with your own sweet lips

This is fireman McNeil from the Hennepin line
We got the call around ten we couldn’t get there in time
There was a driveway leading to a hole in the ground
I got the heebies bone deep and turned the truck straight around

Oh yes, this song is a joke
Funny like my fingers in your bicycle spokes
Funny like the bomb between my teeth when we kiss
You pulled out the pin with your own sweet lips

In contrast, “Bullet” from Century Spring is done in a talking blues style, with lyrics that bite from the start: “This is a bullet from a gun called what the fuck.” He’d been listening to a lot of Big Bill Broonzy. “I was like, ‘Man, people don’t write those kind of songs any more,’ and I started to work with that form a little bit and that song just sort of came out.”

That sort of “just coming out” is key. “If I work too hard on it,” Mason said, “overthinking it, that stuff doesn’t have that same inspired framework.” That doesn’t mean he doesn’t sometimes desire to make some changes later, but that’s all part of the why we’re here, he explained. “To work through things, to refine things… It’s sort of the challenge to be OK with it all, as with any part of your life.” And while his recordings may be frozen in time, he’s not, he continued. “Sometimes someone comes up to me who’s only heard one record – it’s like if someone saw a photo of you 10 years ago and they come see you and expect you to be the same. It’s crazy, all happening at once.”

mason-jennings-simple-life-sample

“Simple Life”

She was sitting on the edge of my bed

Taking her shirt off over her head
I should be somewhere else but I am right here instead

As this whole scene unfurls
In this ever changing world
I ask myself how did I lose my woman for this here girl

Well she lays back like a queen
In some dark medieval dream
All at once God becomes a big old machine

And I’ve got one hand on the switch
Building up a fearsome itch
To turn him off for a little while
And dig myself a six foot ditch

‘Cause every move she makes
Tempts this here bough to break
I know man lives on love
How much love can one man take

If there’s a train coming I can’t see it
If there’s a lesson here I don’t need it
I’m gonna slide right down into my own bad idea

So save it if you will
Stop the doctor crush the pill
Simple life is overated
I have simply had my fill

Despite the title, “Simple Life,” from the 2002 album of the same name, carries an unusual amount of cynicism – which makes sense when he explains those songs were written when he was a teenager new to Minneapolis. “I just had a guitar and a little tape machine,” Mason said. “I had little more of an edge to myself when I was that age.” He recorded Simple Life as a way to stay off the road for a year after the birth of his older son.

mason-jennings-drinking-as-religion-sample

Drinking As Religion

After all this useless fighting, after all our schemes

We could sense a final battle and started picking teams

Due to lack of good direction, I fell in with thieves
Took to drinking as religion and landed on my knees
Truth that starts as understanding, finds you in the night
Circles all around the ceiling, a frightened bird in flight
After spending hours beneath it everything comes clear
Truth will pose no danger to you, what hunts you both is fear
Somewhere in our everafter telephones still ring
Somewhere in future journals love still means something
But I have learned a mighty lesson from this change of plan
Loss is brutal, I can’t stand it, I wonder how you can

And all the while there’s dogs-a-barking
Streets are talking out my window
And the light and the snow is flaking
Hearts are breaking
Words are making a mess out of these
Thoughts I’m thinking
Boats keep sinking
It’s drown or keep drinking

And if this darkness came from light
Then light can come from darkness I guess
If this darkness came from light
Then light can come from darkness I guess

His 2004 release, Use Your Voice, contained even brighter brights and darker darks, exemplified by the track “Drinking as Religion.” In that song, Mason said, “I wanted something that just felt likewhen you’re feeling overwhelmed in life and… words make a mess out of the thoughts you’re thinking… about that and hope and about how much paradox there is in the world.” Along those lines, his interest in faith came up. He invokes religion more often and sincerely than most of his playlist contemporaries do – or could get away with. “That’s my walk,” Mason responded. “That’s the stuff I’m interested in… That’s what I’m curious and interested about, and I try to write about what I’m thinking about.” Sometimes people get “a little squirrely,” he said, but the honesty and personal narrative usually transcends any discomfort an audience might initially feel.

mason-jennings-if-you-aint-got-love-sample

“If You Ain’t Got Love”

On the train ride to Paris
Up from sunny Barcelona
We rose up through the mountains
As the sun started setting
And the sea came out below us
As we rolled through a village
We passed ten feet from a little porch
Where a man was serving dinner
And our window was open
And we could hear them laughing

I’m never going to give you up
What do you got if you ain’t got love
If you ain’t got love
What do you got if you ain’t got love

At nine in the morning
After nine months of waiting
You were born and I saw your face
And you looked up at me
But before I could hold you
The doctors raced you from me
They told me that you might not live
Your heart was not healthy
And with wires coming from you
I sat beside you

I’m never going to give you up
What do you got if you ain’t got love
If you ain’t got love
What do you got if you ain’t got love

Someday, someday soon
You and I will both be gone
And lately I can’t help but think
That the love we feel will live on

At a little wooden cabin
Up in northern Minnesota
We ran together down to the dock
And you jumped right off it
And from out in the water
You called me to join you
And I said, baby I cannot swim
If I jump I’ll surely drown you
You said life has no limit
If you’re not afraid to go get in it

And oh, baby, I jumped to you
Since then there’s nothing I can’t do

I’m never going to give you up
What do you got if you ain’t got love
If you ain’t got love
What do you got if you ain’t got love

Someday, someday soon
You and I will both be gone
But lately I can’t help but think
That the love we feel will live on

Not that every song is totally autobiographical. While Boneclouds’ “If You Ain’t Got Love” is about Mason’s first son and the experience of becoming a parent – “walking bravely into the unknown with love” – it’s more about capturing that emotion than a literal retelling of his life.

He’s had another son since, and the boys’ definitely had an influence on the new album, Into the Ever, Mason said. “It really opened up my whole spiritual world,” he said. “Your heart gets bigger, I think… and it definitely inspired me to be more spontaneous. They’re so much fun when they draw or make clay stuff, they just make it, they have fun and then they move on. It’s really hard in this day and age to strip away all the commerce side of music and just go in the studio and have fun – and get it all down on tape so that the human spirit will transfer and inspire someone else.”

mason-jennings-how-deep-is-that-river-sample

“How Deep Is That River”

How deep is that river
How deep is that river
I don’t wanna know where it’s coming from
I don’t need to know where it’s going to
Before I place my trust in you
I just wanna know how deep

God said to me what he said to the tree
Grow up towards the light and one day you’ll see
My son Jesus, what did he say
Love the Lord your God and God’ll show you the way
Do unto others like you wanna be done
Look deep in your heart and know that we are one

Sing…
How deep is that river
How deep is that river
I don’t wanna know how fast it flows
I don’t need to know if it’s safe to swim
Before I put my trust in Him
I just wanna know how deep

God came down in the cool of the day
Stirred up the waters and began to play
Before He knew it, Man was on the land
With a thought in his head, and a gun in his hand
God saw that Man was just a little too rough
So He gave him a heart and filled it up with love

Sing…
How deep is that river
How deep is that river, yes
I don’t wanna know if it has a name
I don’t need to know how to cross it yet
Before I get my spirit wet
I just wanna know how deep

A few years back I lost my way
I was deep in the woods, I began to pray
I came to a river and I sat on its bank
It was cool and clear, I have Jesus to thank
I drank that water, yes I drank it up
Now every day I come back and fill my cup

Sing…
How deep is that river
How deep is that river, yes
I don’t wanna know if it’s yours or mine
I don’t need to know if it’s east or west
Before I put my fears to rest
I just wanna know how deep

How deep is that river
How deep is that river, yes
I don’t wanna know where it’s coming from
I don’t need to know where it’s going to
Before I place my trust in you
I just wanna know how deep
I just wanna know how deep
I just wanna know how deep

Everything comes together on “How Deep is That River?” Mason related the story behind the song: “I’ve definitely gone to a bunch of different churches and I’ve read the Bible cover-to-cover, and, for me, I’ve felt such an energy coming from the teachings of Jesus, but I have a lot of trouble getting with the idea that there’s only one way to know God.

“And the more I’ve traveled… I’ve met these amazing people who are fully subscribed to different religions and they’re totally not the same one and how can that be? …That just doesn’t make any sense that there’d be one right way.

“So I guess it’s a just song about questioning how deep is the faith, like if you go to a church and they ask you to come to the faith or come to Jesus, then I’m like, ‘How deep is it?’ Is it just going to be a splash and then you get sucked into someone else’s trip or is there really a super deep river?’… In the end that’s what the song is about – maybe you don’t ever get to know how deep it is, but you can still come and get refreshed every day… But I’m not sure. It’s hard to know exactly what it’s all about.”

Mason Jennings plays the Van Duzer, Tuesday, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 general, senior and child, $20 HSU students and available at the University Ticket Office and The Works.

(All lyrics copied from Bird Wings Beat, a Mason Jennings fansite.)

Advertisements

No comments yet»

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s