When he hears the Biebs, Mason Jennings will halt his spinning radio dial.
That is, if he’s with his two children, who sometimes compare the two musicians.
“They’ll say, ‘Dad, you’re not pop like Justin Bieber, but…’ They’re trying to classify it all the time, trying to make sense of my music.”
Jennings says the genre’s instant hook and connection might well have imbued his own songs, which officially increase in number with the forthcoming Always Been, due out Nov. 12.
Just this week, Jennings embarked on a tour to support the release, departing from his adopted state of Minnesota on Thursday. This Sunday, he’ll stop in Lincoln at The Bourbon to play a show opened by Lincoln’s Jack Hotel.
That increasingly keen pop sensibility shows itself on “Lonely Street,” the first track of Always Been.
“It sets the tone energetically as a joyful record and one based on melody,” Jennings says.
That joy, he says, comes from a mature love rooted firmly in family. It’s evident on 2008’s In the Ever, its album title referring to the place Jennings’ son calls the place he existed before he was born. It's also pervasive on 2012’s Minnesota, a “collage of love,” and Jennings has time and again credited his family as the most important part of his life.
After listens to Always Been, he says his friends have one recurring review: “There is a lot of heart on there.”
But while tracks such as the country-dance-prone “Rainboots” and foot-stomper “Witness” could bring down the dust from any barn’s rafters, Jennings says the more subdued “Wilderness” serves as the album’s centerpiece. The central theme of the record, he says, finds him coming to terms with the messy details and paradoxes in life, “learning to walk through that interwovenness with joy and with grace.”
And once he found the “Wilderness,” he could build the rest of Always Been around it. “When you find that center of the wheel,” Jennings says, “you can tell how big it is.”
This time around, though, the process of constructing a new collection of songs began after a bit of a dry spell. After nearly a year of writer’s block, Jennings holed himself up in a cabin with only a handful of tools at his disposal: a guitar, electric piano, bookshelf, notebook, tape recorder and one 90-minute cassette.
From his remote writing workshop, Jennings emerged with a full tape including more than 30 songs, which he’d pare down to the 11 that comprise Always Been. In contrast to his most recent record, Minnesota, the analog approach helped Jennings avoid the instant gratification of “let’s write this, record it, email it to someone to see what they think.”
“I was overwhelmed by all the technology,” Jennings says, “and it was getting in the way of the true core, the mystery of songwriting.”
With songs in hand, Jennings then called upon the help of Iowan musician and producer Bo Ramsey. Whereas much of his previous work — dating back to his 1998 self-titled debut — had been self-recorded, Jennings says Ramsey helped to elevate the performances, including a handful of guest spots. Folk singer/songwriters Greg and Pieta Brown and Iris Dement, upright-bassist Gordon Johnson, string player David Mansfield and several members of The Pines all pitched in as supporting cast on Always Been.
The pop musicians he’s listened to as of late joined a list of influences including Fats Domino, Louis Armstrong, authors Louise Erdrich and Haruki Murakami and composer Johann Sebastian Bach. And while Jennings isn’t confined to singing an interpretation of Bieber’s line, “If I was your boyfriend, I'd never let you go,” books on relationships such as Patti Smith’s Just Kids inspired Jennings’ “Patti and Robert,” a take on the punk poet’s romance with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
But let’s not disappoint the Beliebers:
“I’ve been exposed to so much more pop music over the last few years,” Jennings says. “That’s definitely gonna have an impact on me.”