Mason Jennings has been missing.
The beloved Minnesotan musician quietly released his 13th album, “Wild Dark Metal,” in March. Then he promptly disappeared from social media and stopped making public appearances.
It would be easy for Jennings to blame it on grief. He lost five friends to illness, suicide and one to an accident over the two years he was writing the album. His parents also received cancer diagnoses during that time.
But that’s not what kept Jennings away, not entirely. His fiercest struggles of 2016 concerned the ongoing decimation of the music industry while he tried to figure out how to survive as an artist in a digital culture that he feels devalues his craft.
These are not petty concerns. When Jennings finally came out of hiding to meet with a reporter at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts last month, he was visibly distressed about his role in a world where trolls spew hatred via YouTube comments, where concertgoers watch from their iPhone screens, where there’s virtually no barrier between artist and audience.
“For a while I would check in with social media and I would interact with it,” Jennings said. “It was fun, for like a minute. And then it went horrible on me.”
Jennings likens the dawn of social media to the discovery of fire. And he sees value in stepping back, in assessing his relationship to the medium. “When something gets invented like that — something that changes the game so much — for me it seems smart to take a minute. Or you’re going to get totally torched.”
Jennings, a high school dropout, moved from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis in 1994, lured in part by a music scene that produced the Replacements, the Jayhawks and Prince. As a young, scrappy musician, he did his share of hustling. He played solo gigs at coffee shops such as Jitters. He recorded demos, which were systematically rejected by record companies.
In 1996, Jennings pursued coaching from Springboard for the Arts, a St. Paul organization that helps artists think like entrepreneurs. He dropped a pile of cassette tapes on the desk of Suicide Commandos frontman Chris Osgood, Springboard’s director of artist services at the time. Jennings asked for help. Osgood counseled him to get a headshot, write a bio and come back with a full-length CD.
Jennings did exactly as he was told. And that self-titled album, released in 1997, sold well enough that the singer-songwriter didn’t necessarily need a record label’s backing.
Jennings even turned down two record labels, Rick Rubin’s American Recordings and Warner Bros., both in 2005. That same year he signed to Glacial Pace, an imprint at Epic Records founded by Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock. But even back then, he could see that the industry was changing. Jennings would arrive at Epic for monthly meetings regarding his 2006 “Boneclouds” release to find entire hallways of staffers had been laid off.
Gone is the era when artists like Jennings could focus on recording and touring to support their albums. These days albums are essentially free through streaming services. And touring is the predominant way for musicians to earn a living. It’s something Jennings has done relentlessly for 17 years. But the singer-songwriter, now 41, is tired of spending lonely nights in motel rooms.
“That’s not what I dropped out of school to do, to be in the touring business by myself,” said Jennings. “It’s an awful life.”
Surely Jennings has seen worse. He described his family as a “total mess” when he was growing up. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it out of my teen years — I’m still surprised I did,” he said.
He suffered from depression and extreme anxiety — at one point he was hospitalized, though he maintains he was not suicidal.
Given that history, it seems unthinkable that industry flux and the internet would knock him down. He is 6 feet 2, after all (and lumberjack handsome to boot).
Longtime friend Benson Ramsey (of the Pines) described Jennings as more sensitive and intense than most musicians. “The kind of songs that Mason’s writing, they come from a deep place,” said Ramsey. “And if you’re touring and you’re writing these songs and putting that much energy into a record, it can take a big toll.”
What if, for example, you picked up your deeply personal record at the Electric Fetus and found the cover graffitied with odious remarks from an anonymous critic? Or imagine the store was giving away that record for free. These are the metaphors Jennings uses for the current state of the music industry. And he sees in this world an inherent judgment about the value of his art.
“How the hell do we do this?” lamented Jennings. “There’s no buffer and there’s no infrastructure and society is deeming you worthless. It’s really brutal.”
Music fans might be disheartened to hear these existential pronouncements from such a talented musician. Jennings has a voice as inimitable as Bob Dylan’s and a sonic range that spans from heartfelt folk (see: his 2004 album “Use Your Voice”) to lo-fi electric rager (2009’s “Blood of Man”) to piano ballads (2011’s “Minnesota”) to sweet and simple ukulele (2013’s “Always Been”).
What’s more, “Wild Dark Metal” is possibly Jennings’ best album yet. It’s raucous, edgy and distortion-heavy, mixed by Grammy-winning engineer Shawn Everett to be “the kind of record that you want to turn all the way up.”
The title of the album is taken from the final line of Peter Matthiessen’s novel “Shadow Country” — “the world is painted on a wild dark metal.” It’s a heavy sentiment, fitting for an album that centers on themes of love, loss, death and destruction.
Sean Carey (of S. Carey and Bon Iver) contributed drums, keyboard and vocals to the album. He described Jennings as “very excited” about the results of their three-day recording session in the summer of 2015.
But by the time the album was released last spring, Jennings wasn’t in the right head space to promote it or play it live.
Jennings insists he isn’t alone in his despondency. “Privately, when they talk to me, all of my friends are losing their minds in this climate. Nobody can figure out how to handle it or deal with it.”
“There is something about music nowadays where it feels sort of disposable,” Ramsey agreed.
Despite taking time off to paint, to coproduce the Pines’ new EP “Pasture II,” to parent his 13- and 10-year-old sons while his wife of 14 years attended computer programming school, Jennings remains tortured about the state of the world and the state of his industry.
“Personally, I’m not sure I’m up for it,” he confessed. “I’m not sure I want to be in that climate until it shifts. Or maybe I want to help change it.”
Whatever Jennings decides, his voice is too timeless to become a ghost of the music industry. His fans know this. Search Jennings’ name on Twitter and you don’t find haters toting pitchforks — you find listeners quoting his lyrics and gushing over his songs.
And deep down, beneath the internal furor, Jennings must know this. After all, he agreed to this interview. And he’s playing his annual First Avenue concert on Saturday night.
How will Jennings go on? For now, he intends to “make music that’s from a place of an open heart, make music that has its own frequency that can hopefully help people,” he said. “And then try to figure out how to interact with this new world we’re all living in from a place of love and openness.”
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer and book author from Minneapolis.