MINNEAPOLIS — For acclaimed folk singer-songwriter Mason Jennings, it all started 25 years ago in a rented house next to Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis.
"I made that record in a house right beside the Bryant Lake Bowl. It's no longer there, but yeah, that's sort of how it all started here for me and the Twin Cities," said Jennings.
The record, Jennings' first and self-titled, is in its 25th year of circulation throughout the Twin Cities and beyond, while Jennings himself sits on the verge of releasing his 14th full-length studio album, "Real Heart."
Jennings says "Real Heart" is a departure from his earlier work, speaking to the evolution of his sound as a product of getting older.
"I think the perspective shifts a little bit. It's all pretty personal. I think the big difference on this record is it's not as many straightforward romantic love songs — a little more like a personal reflection record."
He added, "It doesn't feel the same to me as my earliest stuff; it seems a little more unabashedly folk — there's a little more sophistication to the harmonic stuff, too."
Jennings said the record, produced by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard and Regan Hagar for the pair's Seattle label Loosegroove Records, was four years in the making. Jennings said it started as a conglomeration of songs written mostly on guitar and piano from his home, comparing the final product to something you might have heard from Cat Stevens or Nick Drake.
"I started kind of collecting songs together and, I was like, well, maybe I'll send him [Gossard] 20 songs," Jennings said. "And then I was thinking maybe he would take the guitar off and we would maybe make an electronic album or something like that. So I sent him these songs, and he's like, 'No, I think it should be really acoustic; the guitar playing is really central to these.' So we ended up making a real acoustic sort of record."
Jennings and Gossard started working together in a smaller capacity in 2014, but in 2018, launched their new project Painted Shield with keyboardist Brittany Davis and former Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain. The quartet released their self-titled, first album in November 2020, after almost a year of writing and mixing at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Pearl Jam had just released 'Gigaton' and they were about to go out on this gigantic world tour, and then suddenly, Stone was home," Jennings said. "We were talking all the time on the phone and recording. That was completely because of the pandemic that the record got put out so soon, and it actually was really nice to have something to work on during that time."
Jennings says the band — whose sound draws from folk, rock and electronic influences — found so much creative juice during that time, they already have their second album set for release later this spring.
"It really got us working, so then we just kept on working past when we finished that record," he said. "We were kind of on a roll so we made a whole other record over this last year, too."
But before Mason had 14 studio albums and Painted Shield, he had Jitters coffee shop, 7th Street Entry and the 400 Bar — the latter being the site of his first weekly gig with his band for a few months in 1998.
"I think I loved 400 back in the day, just because it was so cool and intimate," Jennings said.
Now, he says he loves playing local theaters like St. Paul's Fitzgerald or Minneapolis' State, but it probably comes as no shock to locals that one venue still reigns supreme.
"I love First Avenue. That's probably still my favorite," he said. "Playing First Avenue felt good. It's always a treat."
Although Jennings is releasing two albums in 2022 — one as Mason Jennings and one as Painted Shield — he says plans to tour have been put on hold at least through spring. Earlier this year, he announced that he and his wife, Josie, are expecting their first child together in March.
"My wife and I have four kids from previous marriages,” he said. “And now a little baby. We're excited," he said.
For now, you can catch Mason at the Electric Fetus on Friday, Feb. 4 — the day "Real Heart" is released — for an in-store performance. To get in, you'll need to pre-order a copy of the album or CD through the Fetus.
And to commemorate 25 years of his first album, "Mason Jennings," it will be available to order on vinyl for the first time later this spring.
"It was supposed to be a demo, and then people in the Twin Cities just got behind it and started buying it, and the Electric Fetus distributed it to the Midwest,” he said, adding, “Thanks to the Twin Cities for supporting me all these years."
Looking back on a full career, and showing no signs of slowing down, Jennings says he's embracing the constantly changing climate around the arts, and that he's grateful for the chance to create — especially in challenging times like these.
"I think this is a really hard time for artists, [but] I think it's not going to last forever or anything," he said. "The reason I make music is to just create. The music — that's always the center of it."
Click here for more information about Mason's in-store performance at the Electric Fetus.
To pre-order "Real Heart," click here.
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