The roller coaster ride the music industry took during the pandemic didn’t slow down Mason Jennings. He contributed to two albums as a member of Painted Shield, took part in studio performances with the band, made his 14th solo album and played solo dates.
Calling it “the unabashed folk record that I have been wanting to make for years,” Jennings used original recordings from his lakeside home near St. Paul, Minnesota as its foundation. Producers Stone Gossard (Pearl Jam, Painted Shield) along with Regan Hagar added subtle instrumentation to flesh out the singer-songwriter’s new album, Real Heart, which came out earlier this year. The connection to those two runs even deeper as it was released on Gossard and Hagar’s label, Loosegroove Records.
With Real Heart becoming, according to Jennings, “a love letter to the acoustic guitar and to musical intimacy,” songs such as the title track, “The Demon,” “I Feel Loved” and “Tomorrow” sound as if he invited listeners into his living room to preview his latest material.
His work with Painted Shield finds the group expanding musically on its sophomore effort, 2. Elements of psychedelia and soul (“Dead Man’s Dream,” “Til God Turns the Light On”) have been added to the moody industrial rock (“Drink the Ocean,” “White” and “Alien”) while the spotlight beams brightly on vocalist/keyboardist Brittany Davis on the Aretha Franklin/Ray Charles-descended, country blues of “Life in Rewind”.
Due to COVID, the collaborative method for 2 among this supergroup of musicians – Jennings, Gossard, Matt Chamberlain (Bob Dylan) and Davis – duplicated the creation of Painted Shield’s debut with much of it created at each musician’s home. In Los Angeles Chamberlain created beats, instrumental beds and looped soundscapes using drums and modular synthesizers, while in Seattle Gossard generated his ideas and Davis added funky bass parts and synthesized guitar solos.
Jennings added melodies and lyrics while remaining in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. He and Davis traded lead vocal duties or after Gossard and producer Josh Evans assembled the array of music files for the album’s 10 songs their voices blended together.
Our conversation touches upon both albums as well as Jennings’ songwriting method and how his ongoing study of spirituality – reality versus inspiration – shows up in his work.
JPG: This provides a nice opportunity to discuss the new Painted Shield album and your latest solo album and how the two projects intersected. The Painted Shield album has so many textures and keyboards whereas your solo album is the opposite of that. Did that affect what you wanted to do with the solo album or was it coincidence that it’s so different?
MJ: I was working on the Painted Shield record a lot, and on the side, I was writing these songs at my house on acoustic guitar. The Painted Shield stuff, like you’re saying, it’s so bombastic, so drum-heavy, and I had the idea with the solo stuff that I was going to have Stone Gossard produce this record. I was expecting the guitar to get muted and it was just going to be my vocal and we were going to do something electronic but when he heard the guitars he was like, “The guitars are the center of these songs. Let’s keep this really acoustic.”
I was doing both at the same time and probably just made a really folky record, thinking it wasn’t going to be that folky. When Stone’s like, “Your guitar playing’s good,” I take that as…I trust him about guitar playing. So, I was like, “Alright, we’ll leave the acoustic as the center.” It was a different outlet. With Painted Shield, I’m singing and doing the melody, and with this, all the songs came out of acoustic guitar, piano. They’re two sides of the coin.
JPG: I read that you really feel that this is your folk record, which is interesting because I listened to your last solo album, 2018’s Songs from When We Met, and the instrumentation is like a folk record. So, what do you consider a folk record? What makes this different than that album or even any of your previous albums?
MJ: I guess all my records are kind of folky but Songs from When We Met, I think of it as a lot of keyboards and there’s drums on most of the songs. This one, there’s hardly any drums, and where there’s drums, they’re just like one mic on a small drum kit. And then there’s a lot of strings, there’s a flute, a trumpet and stuff you consider more…
I guess, it’s more the acoustic guitar is the center and then Stone augmented it in ways that I would imagine more like a traditional Nick Drake record or Cat Stevens’s production, fleshed out in that way rather than…Some of my folk records from the past are a little more like Velvet Underground or a rock-leaning aesthetic. This is more strings and more traditional. That’s what I was thinking in my mind.
Plus my contribution to this record is the guitar and the vocals, and then other musicians added stuff. I wasn’t thinking like a band.
JPG: How much of the early stuff that you recorded at your house ended up on the final product?
MJ: Pretty much all my guitar and vocals were done at my house. Those are the originals. Then, Stone took it to Seattle — he’s got a studio there — and he did all the overdubs. Regan Hagar and him did the production in Seattle.
JPG: Using the recordings from your house gives it a very nice, intimate feel. Were you recording inside or outside at your lake house?
MJ: Inside. It’s this cool little spot looking out on the lake in Minnesota. I think it’s just a really relaxed place. I feel really comfortable here rather than being in a studio where it’s a little more sterile. You can kind of hear the wood in the room.
JPG: What was the process like recording the new Painted Shield album? Your contributions were made remotely and then sent in to Stone?
MJ: Usually, somebody will start the music. On this new record, say the song “Alien,” Matt Chamberlain sent the keyboards and the drums. So, it’s an instrumental track and he’ll send it to me and Stone and Brittany [Davis], and then I’ll say, “I’ll take a crack at this one.” Then, I’ll sit on it for a week and crank it in my car. Usually, I’ll drive around so I can turn it super loud and start singing.
Sometimes, I’ll take old lyrics. I’ve written so many folk songs that never got finished. Then, I’ll go back and I’ll be like, “You know what might be cool? It’s those verses from that one song I never finished.” There was a song about an alien and I thought, “Well, what if I changed the melody and put those lyrics over this cool Matt Chamberlain song?” That’s how that came to be. Then, I would send that to Stone and he had all his guitar parts and then he sends it to Brittany and they would add all the vocals and different kinds of keyboards.
So, it went around a circle, but at the end, Josh Evans, the producer, who did the new Pearl Jam record, would get it and mess with it and sculpt it. He’d be like, “Do you guys like this?” Sometimes, we did and sometimes he would keep messing with it. You have to have patience. It’s like a game of telephone, a little bit. It goes around.
JPG: As far as lyrics, on your solo albums, obviously, there’s more of a personal touch to it. You said you used older lyrics that you hadn’t used on your albums but when you’re doing the Painted Shield songs, are you looking to get away from yourself and deal with themes or ideas that aren’t as personal because it’s a group effort?
MJ: Yeah, for sure. That’s what was cool about using parts of lyrics. Usually, I’ll take parts out but it’ll get more abbreviated or it’ll get widened out because usually I’m singing with Brittany. So, we’re both singing. I’m like, “Okay, what feels right for her to sing with me?” Then, with a rock band like that, I just think it suits it a little bit better if it’s a little wider perspective.
Sometimes, I’ll change…there’s a song on the first record called “I am Your Country” and originally I was singing about my kids and singing from fatherhood and talking to my kids saying, “I am your father, and one day you’ll understand.” I was singing like that. But then, all the stuff happened in our country and I was singing with Painted Shield and I started singing, “Oh, what if I go, ‘I am your country’?” Stuff shifted, and I wouldn’t have done that if it was my solo record. I would’ve kept it about fatherhood but with the band I opened it to a wider perspective.
JPG: Back to the solo album, compared to the other songs that are on the record, “On the Brink” is so different but still comes from a personal place. [It deals with using spirituality to manipulate others.] Did you feel comfortable including that one or did you have to be talked into it because you have songs like “I Feel Loved” and others that focus on your life and yourself?
MJ: “On the Brink” felt like a different perspective, for sure. I was surprised because when I sent Stone a bunch of these songs, I sent probably 15 or 20, maybe 25 songs but that one and “Tomorrow” were the first ones he picked out. I picked out “On the Brink” and worked on the production first, and I was actually surprised because the sentiment did feel different to me than the other songs.
The reason to have a producer like Stone is that he can help you. “Hey, I think this song’s cool.” It’s cool to hear a slightly different perspective, and yeah, I might not have even put that one on the record if it was just me producing my own record. So, it’s cool to have his take on that.
JPG: That songs also could have been used for Painted Shield 2.
MJ: Totally. Maybe we’ll play it live.
JPG: That would be nice. I was looking over your merch page and there is a lot of Be Here Now merch and I’m connecting that to “On the Brink.” Then, there’s your 2008 song, “I Love You and Buddha Too.” So, I’m wondering if there are all these connections as well as because Ram Dass, an American yoga and spiritual teacher, authored Be Here Now (a 1971 book on spirituality, yoga and meditation).
MJ: Yeah. It’s interesting stuff I’m always thinking about. “Be Here Now” was written… I was working on that record with producer Rick Rubin. He sent me that book and I remember reading it and being like, “Oh, that’s an interesting book.” When I got in the public eye, a lot of spiritual people were coming at me trying to push their agenda or to tell me they were getting messages from me.
The last few years I’ve definitely learned to have better boundaries and tune into my own discernment on those kind of things because I definitely was pretty open for a while, and I didn’t expect people to want to manipulate those kind of things. But unfortunately, sometimes, people have their own agendas and now I feel like I’m a lot better at having some boundaries. That’s what “On the Brink” is kind of about.
JPG: It’s sad that, going back to “On the Brink” that doing good and opening people’s minds to something better is overtaken by someone who obtains a leadership role and then abuses that power over people’s lives.
MJ: Yeah. A lot of people want to be told what to do. They’re looking for an answer and some people are excited to have that power. It might all be subconscious, too.
JPG: I love this quote from you in regards to “Real Heart.” “A song is like a boat on the water, and you’re trying to make it float using as few pieces as you can. If you do it right, a song can be very healing. This album feels that way to me. It’s a love letter to songwriting.” Are you looking to heal those listening or was it a healing process for yourself?
MJ: Usually, it’s for my own healing first, but I feel like if it’s healing me, it’s probably going to be helpful to some other people. I don’t know who or how many but…I’m trying to create something that’s healing something in me, first and foremost. That’s my North Star.
And I do like minimalism like that. I do like the idea of as few pieces as you can use to have the most weight. I remember I was in Patagonia. I got an opportunity to go down there. There’s a movie “180 Degrees South” being filmed, and I went down there to do some music. Yvon Chouinard, who started Patagonia, was down there, and he was talking about when they were building climbing gear, they were trying to find the strongest thing that could hold your body weight with the least amount of pieces. We were talking about that, and I was like, “That’s like what I’m doing with songs, too.” It’s like a boat or a piece of climbing gear. Same idea.
JPG: You mentioned Velvet Underground earlier, a lot of that band’s music is minimal, with very few parts, not very adorned. Is that subconscious or is it how other artists inspired you to be you?
MJ: I just like that… It really is a way that you can hear the human… If you’re trying to communicate for a voice or maybe it’s just my voice where it’s a lower voice, that conversational thing comes through more with a minimalist approach.
That said, probably my favorite band is Led Zeppelin. Page is layering like 10 guitars. So, sometimes I like the maximal approach and Painted Shield’s bombastic like that, too. But yeah, I love minimalism.
I love the book, The Old Man and the Sea by [Ernest] Hemingway, and that’s so short and concise, but so much is in there, and, maybe, it’s also an instinct towards poetry, too. I’m a big fan of minimalist stuff.
JPG: Going back to lyrics, do you have a draft or two and instinct takes over and you leave them alone or are you constantly working on them so that by the time you record they’re really where you want them to be?
MJ: I keep working on them but it’s pretty much I never write them down so it’s all in my head. It’s conversational. It’s a tonal art. I’m just thinking of how’s the most effective way to communicate what I’m trying to communicate in the shortest amount of time and it’s very tone-based. It’s not just sitting on a page.
JPG: Do you wake up without words and you’re just lalala-ing it to get the melody or do you have words and melody immediately going through your head?
MJ: When I wake up, that’s when I already have a song and I’m revising. The lalala parts are mostly when I’m playing guitar. I’ll start hearing a melody and then little weird bits of words will come out and usually nothing comes of it. But then, once every couple weeks, the words start making sense and a song will come out of it.
JPG: What you’re talking about reminds me of…have you watched that video clip of Paul McCartney creating the song “Get Back?”
MJ: Oh yeah! I got goosebumps because I was like, “That’s it. That’s how it works.”
JPG: Looking at that, I was just shaking my head in amazement.
MJ: It’s like watching the mountains form. That was incredible.
JPG: Back to Painted Shield, there’s more of a presence from Brittany on this album. Is it a matter that she had more opportunity because you were also working on your record?
MJ: It was conscious because she’s so talented. Like Stone says. “Basically, Brittany’s the star here and we’re all along for the ride.” That’s true because when we were in Seattle, my mind got completely blown by playing music with her. She’s blind but she’s picking up on all these different dimensions, and then she can go from soloing like Hendrix to playing the most beautiful, classical, instinctual, complex harmonies on the piano like Chopin. She’s can go rock and then also soul.
It’s just bringing her more into the fray. We’re already working on our third record and she’s doing some more writing, too. The idea with Painted Shield is to have her and I be the co-lead singers, too. So, we’re positioning to get more into that zone. And she’s younger too, so she’s getting some momentum. She’s did some stuff on NPR, the “Tiny Desk” program (https://www.npr.org/2022/04/13/1090816137/brittany-davis-tiny-desk-home-concert). I have a feeling we’re going to be hearing more about Brittany.
JPG: You mentioned Hendrix and that reminds me of the live-in-the-studio video for “Dead Man’s Dream” when she solos. For a second there, I wasn’t sure if that was Stone on the guitar doing the solo. Then, I realized it was her. It was very Hendrix-like but it was on the keyboard.
MJ: Right. It’s so crazy. You almost hear the strings. You can hear resistance and stuff happening because she’s mimicking physical resistance but she’s just touching the keys, The funny part of that, if you listen to that again, at the very end, right before we took that take, I was playing guitar and I was playing “Black Dog” from Led Zeppelin and she’s laughing. “Black Dog” is really complicated. I’ve been playing guitar for forever so I was like, “Oh, I can hang here and I’m going to play a little “Black Dog.”” Then, she just laughs, and at the end of the solo, she played “Black Dog” into the solo. Just tossed it off. The level of musicianship’s off the charts, like, “Oh, I’m going to quote that at the very end. No problem.”
JPG: Another track off of 2 “Life in Rewind,” the studio version of it has a country feel but there are also layers to it where it has a Hendrix psychedelic feel to as well as a lush ’60s pop element.
MJ: (laughs) There’s a lot going on.
JPG: But, the live version in the video did not contain all of that. It was like a very bluesy version.
MJ: The studio one has… I’m playing that phaser guitar. I heard a phaser acoustic so I’m putting that Hendrix-y vibe. I wasn’t playing guitar in the live version of it.
JPG: Is there more from that live studio session besides those two songs that have been posted online?
MJ: We have, I think, six more.
JPG: Are you going to release it as a “concert” or keep releasing single videos?
MJ: I think it’s going to be single videos. Stone said he wants to put them out somehow. I don’t know if they’re going to come out some other way or not. I actually prefer that. I was so excited because we’re in the same room. I’m listening to these back and I’m like, “Man, I think I actually prefer these live versions,” which, usually, that’s not the case for me.
I’m a studio guy a lot of times, but these guys…Sitting in the room with Matt Chamberlain playing drums. It’s like, “Holy crap. Unbelievable.” So, we’ll see. They’ll probably come out in some way but I think videos are going to keep releasing. The next one’s“Til God Turns the Lights On.”
JPG: In those live-in-the-studio videos there was someone playing bass who hasn’t been mentioned as being part of Painted Shield.
MJ: Yeah. Jeff Fielder.
JPG: Okay, and then the band photo, that’s him?
MJ: That’s one of Stone’s best friends and he’s played with Mark Lanegan…he’s playing bass on some of the recordings and Stone’s kind of folding him in. “He’s like, “We need Jeff because Jeff’s going to be really key for the live performances.” So, he’s slowly coming in. I bet he’ll be a full member on the third record. He’s great. He plays bass and some of the guitars. He plays the lead guitar line on “Knife Fight” (Painted Shield’s debut single that also appeared on the group’s debut album). So, he’s been there the whole time.
JPG: Circling back to concerts, what did you find out about yourself and audiences when you played concerts, and will we see Painted Shield at some point performing in concert?
MJ: I think it’s going to keep getting more and more comfortable to play shows. I’ve got some stuff coming up, and then Painted Shield, the plan, because Pearl Jam’s touring through the summer, I think we’re going to do, hopefully, a bunch of stuff in September and October.Maybe try to do a couple festivals, and maybe some shows on the coast, L.A. or New York or something. I’m excited. I have to decide if I’m going to hold a guitar or if I’m just going to grab the mic. I have all these options.