To many casual music fans, Mason Jennings has always operated in the shadow of surf-folk superstar Jack Johnson. Sure, they're good friends and have toured and recorded together on and off since 2001, but being lumped in with Johnson does Jennings a huge disservice.
For starters, though 38-year-old Jennings was born in Hawaii, he grew up in Pittsburgh and has lived in Minneapolis for nearly 20 years. "I went surfing once with Jack," he said with a laugh during a recent interview. "And I couldn't stand up on the board or anything."
Second, although Jennings' singer-songwriter persona is breezy and easygoing, the breadth of his work far outpaces that of the genteel Johnson. In 17 years, Jennings has recorded and released more than 15 albums of literate, incisive folk-rock that run the gamut from political ("Black Panther") to personal ("Ballad for My One True Love"), dogmatic ("I Love You and Buddha Too") to devastating ("Jackson Square"), precious ("Butterfly") to penetrating ("The Flood").
Yet all of Jennings' songs share one attribute: emotional honesty. "I have to really feel the core of each song in my own chest," he admits. "Otherwise, it's going to feel fake to me. I'm never consciously thinking, ‘I'll write a story.' At the time I'm writing a song, I'm in it. I'm part of it. Even if it's not necessarily true."
Nothing in Jennings' discography, which stretches from 1997's rough-hewn self-titled debut to last year's polished Always Been, feels disingenuous. Some songs begin by landing sucker punches like "This is a bullet from a gun
called what the fuck"; others start with intoxicating decorum like "Dawn breaks across our little room/You're sleeping silently and still." Yet the one straight line that runs through all of it is Jennings' impressive voice.
Blessed with agile athleticism bouncing from smooth croon to streetwise beat to aw-shucks talking blues, few voices as effortless as his exist today. It doesn't matter if you pore over Jennings' early home-recorded demos or his recent studio-adorned albums — once you hear that voice oozing like honey one moment and turning sharp corners the next, you'll never forget it. Jennings knows it, too. He named his '04 album Use Your Voice, and relinquished self-recording and producing control to Bo Ramsey for '13's Always Been specifically to lend weight to his vocals.
"Melodies and lyrics come naturally to me, but I'm always striving to get better at my vocals," he says. "I tend to gravitate toward singers whose words really jump out. Everybody's given a voice, but I can't do what Robert Plant does. So I'm just trying to find my own way of communicating."
Nearly 20 years into his career, Jennings has surely struck upon such singularity. Performing solo allows him complete creative control — and the ability to fly in and out of long weekend tours so he can be home during the week with his wife and two young sons. A dedicated fan base affords him the freedom to jump from labels as diverse as Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock's Glacial Pace imprint to Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records family to Nashville's hands-off distribution firm Thirty Tigers.
Those attributes, along with a genial, regular-guy bearing, have allowed Jennings to build a sustainable, stimulating career focused primarily on craft, creativity and personal fulfillment.
"I always knew music would be something I'd do my whole life," he says. "I didn't expect computers and the Internet and cellphones to happen like they have; things don't look like I thought they were going to look, and I've never gotten to the spot where every venue is the same. But the biggest thing for me is staying connected to the joy of making music. What can light my spark? The songs always come first, and they always have to come from that creative spirit."
Sounds pretty hippie-dippie, huh? Jennings' music certainly resonates with what he calls the "simplicity and similar appreciation of nature" employed by Jack Johnson and his merry brand of surf-folkies. But Mason Jennings is concerned with more than just good vibes for good vibes' sake. In March, he'll discuss the intersection of peace and creativity at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minnesota, just missing the chance to speak on the same day as the Dalai Lama. (Dad of the Year Award alert: Jennings told the Nobel folks he wouldn't take the gig unless his kids could see His Holiness).
Beyond that? When asked if he plans on retreating to the same rural cabin where he wrote last year's Always Been to start working on new material, Jennings chuckles. "I actually sold that cabin. Every time I finish a record, I have to disconnect — make sure things change and go through a process of looking at what's actually interesting in life. After all this time, the last thing I want to do is repeat myself."