Mason Jennings, left, and Jack Johnson shared the stage at First Avenue in 2002
Photo by Jeff Wheeler,
JACK JOHNSON & MASON JENNINGS
With: Money Mark. When: 4 p.m. Sun. Where: River's Edge campground, Somerset, Wis. 1-888-247-3305. Tickets: $37.50. 651-989-5151.
HEAR SAMPLES FROM JENNINGS' NEW ALBUM AT startribune.com/music.
SEE the two perform "I Love You and Buddha Too" at startribune.com/a4482.
When Mason met Jack
- Article by: CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER
- Star Tribune
- June 19, 2008 - 5:02 PM
A sign of just how long ago Mason Jennings met Jack Johnson: Both singers were opening for Pete Yorn at a Gustavus Adolphus College festival in St. Peter, Minn.
"I walked off stage, and he was just standing there saying, 'Man, keep playing,'" Jennings recalled of the 2000 encounter. "I didn't know who he was. He doesn't look like a musician at all, you know, he looks like some buff jock guy. So I thought it was kind of weird."
Johnson remembered, "I sat there for one of his songs and then decided I wanted to hear the next one, and eventually I settled in for the whole set. I was blown away."
So that's how the athletic, laid-back Hawaiian surfer dude and the scrawny, introspective, snowbound Minnesota kid became friends. One liked the other's music.
Little did they know that, eight years later, Johnson would be one of the biggest stars in music and have his own record label, which now counts Jennings on its roster.
Jennings' new disc, "In the Ever," came out last month on Johnson's Brushfire Records, officially transforming an eight-year friendship into a first-time business partnership. The Minneapolis singer/songwriter will tour with Johnson through the summer, playing to crowds ranging anywhere from 15,000 -- what their show Sunday at River's Edge in Somerset, Wis., probably will draw -- to 80,000, as was the case at last weekend's Bonnaroo fest in Tennessee.
Already, the indie-folk stalwart is getting a lot more attention thanks to the guy who weirded him out at Gustavus. But both singers insist they're friends first.
"He's just one of those guys I like being around," Johnson said.
"A lot of the guys you meet on tour, they're slugging it out in the clubs, and it's all about the business. We both met during that time when we were trying to get our things off the ground, but our friendship wasn't rooted in that at all. And our conversations still never have anything to do with the music business. It's always about the concepts of songs and other topics."
After their initial meeting, where they later talked and traded CDs, Jennings and Johnson said they each listened to the other's disc nonstop in their tour vans for the next few months (Jennings' "Birds Fly Away" and Johnson's "Brushfire Fairytales").
"A couple months later, we called each other up and went out on a co-headlining tour," Jennings recalled. "And that's when Jack's music started blowing up. By the end of the tour, we were playing arenas. It was crazy.
"I think it's so amazing the kind of music he puts out is so popular. He sings so quietly, and it's just sort of this kind, positive music, and it's No. 1 in, like, 15 countries. It's strange to watch someone you know get that famous. But with him, it's extra weird because he's always been like, 'Oh, I'm just a surfer. I don't think about it at all.'"
Into the woods
While Johnson was flooded with fame and buried in sand for the cover of Rolling Stone, Jennings' career developed much more gradually.
He garnered a small but dedicated audience and scattered critical acclaim with self-released albums such as "Birds Fly Away" and 2002's "Century Spring." In 2006, he wound up on a major label, Epic Records, thanks to support from another bigger-name supporter, Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock.
Signing to Epic, though -- which issued his last disc, "Boneclouds" -- wasn't the right move, Jennings said: "It was fun to work with Isaac, but the label was too big and the people were more suited to do acts like Shakira and the Fray."
Jennings also wasn't satisfied with the recording experience for "Boneclouds," which he made at the esteemed Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minn., using Epic's meatier recording budget.
"What happens in a big studio is you just wind up working on the album too much and you start running out of money," he said. "I thought to myself then that I didn't want that to happen again with my next record, where I'm sitting there watching the clock. So I went and bought a place in the woods."
Jennings isn't kidding: Instead of dropping money on studio time, he bought a cabin about 45 minutes from Minneapolis, where he and a painter friend (who shares it with him) can work in solitude. The bulk of "In the Ever" was recorded there using two microphones, his laptop computer, a drum kit and bass guitar, most of which he played himself.
"I'd go out there in the mornings about 9 a.m. and just write a song in the morning, have lunch, record it in the afternoon and be home by dinnertime," Jennings recalled. "I did that every day for three or four months."
"In the Ever" harks back to Jennings' earlier, rawer albums, which were recorded in a similar fashion (though not by choice back then). It's almost entirely acoustic. Tracks such as "Never Knew Your Name," the somber lament "Going Back to New Orleans" and the first single "Fighter Girl" sound pure and more stream-of-conscious, like journal entries instead of tediously crafted and toiled-over Yes epics.
The new song getting the most attention -- thanks mostly to Johnson, who has been singing it on tour -- is a simplistic and even goofy gem called "I Love You and Buddha Too," which name-checks Jesus, Buddha and other deities in a plea for religious tolerance: "Why do some people say/ That there is just one way/ To love you God and come to you/ We are all a part of you/ You are un-nameable/ You are unknowable."
Johnson said, "There are other songs on this record that I probably love more, but that's the one we sing around the house. Even my little 4-year-old sings it. It's a good kids' song. It has a positive message that the whole world should hear right now, yet it's simple enough for kids."
Mason don't surf
Only after they became friends did Jennings and Johnson find out they had a lot more in common than a penchant for singing with acoustic guitar.
They were born in 1975, for one. Both happened to be born on the island of Oahu, too. Jennings only lived there until he was 2 (his mom was a lingerie buyer for the Honolulu department store Liberty House), but he still has relatives there.
One other big thing: Each has two young sons (Mason's are 1 and 3).
"We're both really into our families," Jennings said, suggesting that's one reason mega-fame hasn't gone to Johnson's head. "Family keeps you grounded. And so does staying anchored to wherever you call home, which for him is Hawaii and for me is Minneapolis."
Those wildly different home fronts bring up a trait they don't have in common at all: surfing skills.
"He's all right at it," Johnson said, charitably.
Jennings admitted otherwise: "We went out on the North Shore of Oahu, and both he and his brothers were like, 'Don't even step in the water or you'll get killed by the undertow.' And those guys were just flying all over the place. They're amazing. Me, I wasn't going to try any of it."
Interestingly, Jennings also hesitated to climb aboard the Brushfire roster. Johnson approached him to join the label five years ago, but Jennings didn't think he would be a good fit. "At the time, it was known more as a surf label with Jack and Donavan Frankenreiter," he explained.
Since then, Brushfire has expanded to feature such nonoceanic artists as G. Love, Rogue Wave and another Jennings-like singer/songwriter, Matt Costa. With backing by Universal and the obvious value of having Johnson's name attached, it's bound to give Jennings more exposure.
Johnson knows firsthand, though, that there can be a downside to working under another singer's shadow.
"Ben Harper and G. Love were both fans who gave me a big push early on -- a huge help," he recalled. "Then the first year or two after that, every interview I did was asking about those guys. I really appreciate that connection, but it was nice when it split off into my own thing."
For now, Jennings is all too happy working with his friends (including Emmett Malloy, Johnson's manager and surf-filmmaking buddy, who runs Brushfire).
"It's nice because I think they're people who would listen to my records whether I was with them or not," he said. "That's why I felt like I had the freedom to make a record I love and to turn it in as-is. I figured they'd be just as stoked as I was about it."
Johnson clearly was stoked.
"There are certain people whose music really does magical things to me, like Greg Brown and Neil Young, and it's funny when one of them is also a friend, like Mason," he said. "I'll just be listening to his record around the house, and I feel lucky that I can call him up and tell him how much his music means to me, and to get to talk to him about it."
Mason's right: Jack's fandom is a little weird, but cool nonetheless.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658
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