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Mason Jennings bring music from the woods to Englert

BY BRIAN DAU | FEBRUARY 19, 2009 7:51 AM

In the style of his favorite authors, Mason Jennings likes to keep his music simple. Like Cormac McCarthy and Nicole Krauss (who penned his favorite book, A History of Love), Jennings subscribes to a “less is more” ethos evident in the relaxed tempos and straightforward guitar/bass/drums instrumentation central to his songwriting.

He will perform at the Englert, 221 E. Washington St., at 8 p.m. Friday; Haley Bonar is scheduled to open.

“I think what I like about Cormac so much is how few words he uses,” Jennings said. “I like the idea of stripping it down to the smallest number of words, but with the most power.”

Sometimes, however, it’s not enough to simply write stripped-down songs. For Jennings, it became necessary to live a “less is more” life.

He wrote the 11 tracks for his latest album, In the Ever, in a secluded cabin in the Minnesota forest, located approximately 30 minutes outside of his home in Minneapolis. He sought inspiration in the open windows and wildlife the cabin provided, he said, while still in comfortable proximity to city life so he could go home to his family at night. The move also provided a bookend to a portion of his musical career — he recorded his 1997 self-titled début album in the same fashion.

“I was 22, living in the city, didn’t have an apartment or kids, and I wasn’t married,” Jennings said.

“Now, I’ve got two boys, I’m married, and I’m on the road a lot. With all the chaos around me, I had trouble finding the time to play guitar. It felt like a good time to bring that full circle and try that approach again in a different way.”

Also central to his songwriting are the drums, the first instrument he learned to play and something he said he still practices every day. He often lays down the drum tracks for a song first, he said, keeping the beats “simple and primal,” then works on that foundation. One of the reasons he considers the drums to be such an integral part of a song is evidenced by a stereo at low volume, in which the only audible parts of the music are the drums and vocals. The isolated sounds persuaded him that both voice and percussion need to be especially compelling in his music.

“I think of the drums as the skeleton of a body, so you put that down first, and everything builds on top of it,” Jennings said. “With all the music in the world I like, it’s the vocals and the drums that sing to each other.”

Thoreau-like returns to nature aside, Jennings’ pop-folk tunes offer warm, organic instrumentation punctuated by his soft-spoken lyricism, which often overflows with meaning despite its face-value simplicity. For some college students, his sound is a welcome respite from the rigors of academia.

“I guess I just really like Mason Jennings because he’s got such a melodic voice, and you can pretty much listen to it no matter what,” said UI senior Steve Chalstrom, a DJ at KRUI. “You can just put his music on, and it always puts me in a good mood.”


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