How Patti Smith, Bo Ramsey and life on the road played into the Minneapolis songwriter’s latest album.
Backstage at Carnegie Hall in 2011, Mason Jennings was busy kicking himself over his performance in an all-star Neil Young tribute when he met the punk legend whose inspiration played heavily into his new album.
“This woman who worked there tugged my arm and said, ‘Excuse me, Patti Smith is asking for you,’ ” the Minneapolis singer/songwriter recalled.
The iconic songstress/poet/artist wanted to say how much she enjoyed the version of Young’s “Red Sun” that Jennings himself quibbled over. They got to talking “about writing and music in general,” Jennings remembered. “She took me out of my head space and immediately made me feel better. It was a good reminder of the power of a few kind words.”
There are kind words and good-natured vibes all over Jennings’ latest album, “Always Been,” which hits stores Tuesday. Produced by Iowa music vet Bo Ramsey, the record boasts one song about Smith and her kindred spirit (“Patti and Robert”) and more about Jennings’ pursuit of creative freedom and familial love.
Jennings, 38, sat for an interview on Halloween day before heading out trick-or-treating with his two sons. “We’ve got a hamster and a robber this year,” he beamed. He will be home in Minneapolis through Monday for an in-store acoustic set at the Electric Fetus, and then he hits the road before returning for shows Dec. 6 and 7 at First Avenue.
For “Always Been,” his 10th album in a 15-year career, Jennings recruited a long-admired acquaintance to produce: Bo Ramsey, the guitarist and studio wiz behind most of Greg Brown’s albums as well as records by Pieta Brown (Greg’s daughter and Bo’s wife) and the Pines (with Bo’s sons Alex and Benson).
Jennings toured in 2011 with the Pines, three of whom perform on “Always Been,” as do Pieta Brown and Iris DeMent (Greg’s wife) as guest singers. Other players include Nashville drummer Chad Cromwell, who has played with Neil Young and Mark Knopfler, and stalwart local bassist Gordon Johnson.
His choice of Ramsey as producer primarily had to do with vocals. Jennings played most of the instruments and self-produced his two previous albums, and he said his singing partially suffered: “Too much of the energy went toward putting it all together.” Plus, he said, “I wanted my vocals to sound really live and in-the-moment, and I love the vocal sound on the records Bo does.”
Jennings also switched things up during the writing phase. Instead of using modern home-recording gear, he wrote songs using a tape player — as in a cassette tape, the way he did 15 years ago after moving to Minneapolis from Pittsburgh.
“I had to go to Radio Shack to get one, and for some reason it seems as if they sound a lot worse than they used to,” Jennings laughingly recounted. Still, he had serious intentions with the demo recordings. “I wanted to get away from working with computers and the idea of tweaking stuff immediately. I’d been working like that for years using GarageBand and Logic, which are great, but I wanted to simplify the process.”
The freewheeling approach comes through in lighthearted, toe-tapping, lovelorn songs such as the opening track “Lonely Street” and the closer “Just Try,” which finds Jennings strumming an instrument he intentionally avoided until now. “Since I was born in Hawaii, it always seemed too clichéd for me to play a ukulele,” he said, “but I finally fell in love with it.”
Love songs dominate the record, though rarely in Hallmark-card ways. The piano- and violin-laced first single, “Wilderness” — which Jennings called “the heart of my album” when RollingStone.com debuted it last month — refers to his struggles balancing life on the road and at home.
Sample lyrics: “Let it sting your eyes and clamp your chest / Lead with love and embrace the rest / Embrace the demons with all their claws / Embrace this life with all its scars.”
Pretty heavy stuff from a famously laid-back, good-natured, seemingly demons-free musician.
“It’s definitely a challenge to have this lifestyle, being in the public eye and traveling so much while trying to raise a family and stay married,” he said. “It’s a pretty intensive path, and it can be intense for any artist who’s trying to always create and find inspiration but not go crazy and lose yourself, or lose the things you care about most.”