Songwriting 101: Mason Jennings
In William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” the poet laments: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” For singer/songwriter Mason Jennings, his center—family, home (Minnesota), and music—sustains him, holds him firmly, keeping him from falling apart.
Jennings has stated, “Love is the most important thing to me, my relationship with my wife and kids. And music has always been as important as breathing to me. I have come to realize that to have it all, I have to take the long view when it comes to integrating all these parts of my life.”
Minnesota is the conceit metaphor on Mr. Jennings’ most recent album, Minnesota, representing the singer’s search for a sense of belonging in an evolving community. Jennings has claimed, “More than any place I’ve ever been, things change so much here, even month-to-month. But even as things change, Minnesota is where my home is, where my center is.”
As a touring musician, the irony is that Jennings must maintain his center while on the road that is the epitome of transience.
For a list of his upcoming tour dates, click here.
Riffraf: Do you try to imagine a character and write from his point of view?
Mason Jennings: No, for the most part I just follow a feeling in my heart. I am usually last to see the character emerge.
Riffraf: In the studio you’ve been known to play every instrument on the record. Does this give you a level of control you need in your songwriting?
Mason Jennings: It allows me to really have a trial and error approach to every instrument’s parts. A song like “Clutch” would have been hard to describe to a band. It has subtle dropped time and variant tempos. It allows me to work faster too.
Riffraf: You’ve said “Blood of Man” was based largely on your childhood experiences. Do life experiences drive your songwriting?
Mason Jennings: Absolutely. There is some personal connection to all of my songs. They may play out as myths but the feeling is one of experience.
Riffraf: “Raindrops On The Kitchen Floor” is filled with the hope that love can transcend even the impossible. What’s the “secret” to writing a successful love song?
Mason Jennings: Haha. No idea. I just mess around until I hear something that feels good in my heart. It’s kinda like making soup from scratch.
Riffraf: Your instrument of choice has mostly been the guitar, but on Minnesota the piano is prominent. How has the instrument influenced your songwriting?
Mason Jennings: I love piano. It is different for me than guitar in many ways, but the most striking is the fact that you can play a melody with your right hand. Songs like “Bitter Heart” and “Clutch” would not have been written on guitar. And then certain chords are more prominent and easier to play on piano, like diminished chords, which I end up using on songs such as “Sorry Signs On Cash Machines” and “Bitter Heart.”
Riffraf: Why do you think couples find your music so appealing?
Mason Jennings: I don’t know. I put a lot of value in my marriage and the idea of true love prevailing. I certainly am rooting for couples to stay together.
Riffraf: How has your approach to songwriting evolved over the years?
Mason Jennings: It comes from the same impulse. I guess the brush strokes get more refined. And as I get older, the narrative is coming from an older perspective.
Riffraf: What song has had an impact on your songwriting?
Mason Jennings: Oh, many of them. Let’s see . . . the song “Further To Fly” by Paul Simon changed something in me. And “The Obvious Child.” “Graceland.” Let’s see, just about all the songs on Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on A Gravel Road record. Tom Waits’ “Johnsburg, Illinois.” John Lennon’s “Across The Universe.” And on and on.
Riffraf: What advice would you give a young songwriter?
Mason Jennings: Well, I don’t like giving advice. Maybe just let them know that I love them.
Riffraf: You’ve said that, “Part of the journey for me is becoming more comfortable with not having the answers.” In the course of your life, has songwriting provided you with any answers?
Mason Jennings: No, just absolute joy. That’s more than enough.