A Conversation with Yo-Yo Ma
Mike Ragogna: Today I'm talking with the Julliard-at-nine, Mr. Harvard graduate with an honorary doctorate, and renowned international cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Yo, Yo-Yo.
Yo-Yo Ma: Hello, Mike. I only have one regret. I don't have a solar-powered cello. You have a solar-powered radio station, and that's very, very cool.
MR: (laughs) Thank you very, very much for the shoutout. Maybe we should look into getting you a solar-powered cello at some point.
YM: Exactly. It's digitally powered, but is only limited to the number of digits I own. That would be ten. There's a limit to that also, so if I could get a little assistance from our dear stars in the solar system, then it'll be much better.
MR: You got it. We'll talk to a few people and see what we can do for you.
YM: Thank you, Mike.
MR: By the way, we're the only solar-powered station in the Midwest. Just sayin'.
YM: That's good. Do you have enough stored power that on a rainy day, the station keeps going?
MR: Yup, all the essentials, .
YM: That's wonderful. Congratulations.
MR: Thanks and thank you for bringing it up from your end. Okay, on to you, sir, and those Goat Rodeo Sessions you had with Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile. Can you tell me how all of this came together?
YM: Well, Mike, I think it's really a story of friendship--friends and friends of friends. I've known Edgar Meyer--the great double bass player and composer--for twenty years. I'm the oldest goat. He's a younger goat, and he and I have recorded all kinds of things--Appalachian music, Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, Edgar's double concerto... Throughout the years, he would call occasionally and say, "You gotta meet so-and-so." A couple of years ago, he said, "You have to meet Chris, because I've known him all these years and he's one of these giant talents on the mandolin and he's a vocalist. Just meet him." I did and I was floored. We did two tracks on a recording that I did about two years ago, Songs Of Joy And Peace, and they improvised on the song, "Dona Nobis Pacem," or "Give Us Peace." It was just unbelievably thrilling to see the two of them work together. So, after that, I asked both of them if they would be interested in doing something else with me. They said, "Yeah, sure! But, the three of us need one more voice. How about Stuart Duncan, who's an incredible violinist." They'd known Stuart for twenty years, and sure enough, from the minute I met him--he was this great musician--the chemistry was fabulous. And that's how Goat Rodeo started.
MR: Is this gathering meant to go beyond just sessions? Will you be touring with this project?
YM: Well, we like each other so much that we're sort of trying to find ways to perform the music that we recorded, and hopefully, other music, live. We're going to do a cinecast on, I think, the 31st of January, that's going to be broadcast across the nation in different theaters. We're also looking into finding some touring possibilities. So, 7:30 on January 31st I think is the time. We're going to do it from the House Of Blues in Boston. I think in 2013, we're going to try to do some touring. Everybody's schedule is so crazy and complex that I think 2013 is the first available time that we could actually pull the four of us together, and Aoife O'Donovan, who's a beautiful vocalist. She sings with Crooked Still and she's going to join us for some of that tour.
MR: Will there possibly be another album in 2013 then?
YM: I have no idea, but the thing is that since this original album is pretty much based on friendship and collaboration, I think that we would all like to do more together. In what form it takes place, I don't know. It could be a recording, it could be more pieces that we tour, or just fun things. I really think that one of the great parts of doing anything in the innovative or creative realm depends on two things. One is trust between the different people involved, and that collaboration based on trust. And then also, a kind of generosity with what you know and what you can give. I think those components seem to be there amongst the goats.
MR: (laughs) Now, this goat rodeo is going to be traveling together in a Winnebago up to Boston, correct?
YM: Exactly, yes. We're talking about a touring bus, and I'm really excited about that. The only time I ever traveled in a touring bus was, unfortunately, when I was alone in Phoenix, Arizona, right after September 11. I was there, and of course, as many readers will remember, there were no planes flying. So, there was a touring bus from Nashville that drove me from Arizona back to Boston. It took three days, and I saw very, very wonderful slice swathes of America on those days, which were very sad days, too. Anyway, a touring bus sounds very exciting to me.
MR: You are entrenched in American culture. Let's face it, anyone who's on The Simpsons as themselves...
YM: (laughs) I tried to get in on Arthur, but they made me wear ears, so I was more in the more Vulcan, Spock-like vein there. But you're right about The Simpsons.
MR: (laughs) And when you're on The Colbert Report, you know you've really made it.
YM: (laughs) Well, Colbert is a very funny guy, and he's very quick. It was a thrill to be on his show. It's a great crew and a great set, and I think the audience is very psyched, always, to see him. We were very honored to be on his show.
MR: You know, your credits are as long as my arm. You were on the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack, and the Master And Commander soundtrack, and many more.
YM: You're very kind to say that, but listen, I'm old. I'm an old guy. When you've lived a long time and you started early, a lot of years go by in terms of life experiences. I'm actually really happy about that because the experiences add up, and in some ways, it becomes part of your intuition--kind of the feel of something. Walking into a town that I've been to a number of times, I would have lots of memories of people, of friends, of experiences, and that's a wonderful thing. The hall ends up feeling like a living room. Rather than, "Oh gee, it's an anonymous space and I've gotta do something there." It's more like, "I'm really looking forward to going back and having a visit."
MR: That's beautiful. Yo-Yo, do you have that connection with an audience when you're being creative live? Do you feel the energy from them and give it back, I guess I mean like a "cycle"?
YM: Absolutely. I think if ever somebody wonders in an audience what that connection is--the magic happens when there is that active listening or active participation of an audience to what's happening on the stage, and there's the active awareness of what's happening in the room from the stage. If that circle is complete, magic happens. Magic doesn't happen when there's an interruption of that.
MR: What about in the studio? It's a different vibe there, so how does that affect your performance?
YM: Well, I think, in many ways, it's like the way that people who do photo shoots talk about the eye of the camera and the intimacy of that connection to the camera. For example, in the studio, the ears of the listener are really where the microphones are. So, the space between the sound source from, let's say, an acoustic instrument and the mic is the distance. In an acoustic hall with, let's say, 2000 seats, you may be reaching 80 feet in distance. But in a studio, it's much more intimate. Whenever I've tried to record something that I've just been playing a lot live in concert halls, immediately, the sound space has to become much more intimate and you have to change timing and sound projection--all of that--to fit into that new space. It actually can be quite personal. People like Glenn Gould famously loved the intimacy of the studio more than the hall. I love live audiences, because I think obviously nothing quite replaces that magic. But I think there's also tremendous magic that happens in the studio if you take in all of that sound space, and that instrument and mic relationship.
MR: Is it also fair to say that when you're performing and recording in the studio, it's such a personal experience that you're also doing it for you?
YM: Well, I think you're doing it for a number of parts of you or me. I think there's also a circular energy there too because the different parts of you include the person that decides what this thing is about. "What are you trying to say? What's your point? Why are you here? Why are you doing this?" And it has to be a very, very good reason. Then there's the person and the part of me that's saying, "Well, I now know why I'm doing it but how do I do it?" I have to turn that into real sound and I want to make it good. And then the third part is sort of like, "How's it going?" If you're telling a story, how is the story going? Is it a shaggy dog story? Am I going on too long? Is there a punch line? What's going on? How is it being received?" That's the attention paid to what else is happening in the room and who's in the audience. "Is the audience tired? Has it been an incredibly snowy day? What's going on, what are people reacting to, and how do we make this good for everybody?" So, if you can split yourself into those three components and you kind of hit good readings on all three parts, then probably there's a good chance there's some good communication going on.
MR: You've recorded about 75 albums at this point. Have you ever taken on works because they are even more challenging than the ones you recorded before them?
YM: Well, I think in order to grow, you have to take apart something so that growth can take place. Another way of talking about that is that you have to go to the unfamiliar or make the unfamiliar familiar. You have to make what is not your own and what is not yours your own so that it becomes internalized. I think that's part of being alive and part of trying to stay in the present. We're always changing. I'm a naturally curious person, so if someone does something that's really exciting and the conditions are right--whether it's a friendship or collaboration or that you're dying to do something or that the timing's right--you will take more of a risk to do something that's unfamiliar because all the other conditions are right.
MR: It's building muscles--you break down the old ones to build the new ones.
YM: Exactly. And I think that's what I love with The Goat Rodeo Sessions. On the one hand, you can say, "How are you doing all this stuff because it's unfamiliar to you?" But the fact that I've known Edgar for so long and think that Edgar and Chris work so well together and that they've known Stuart for so long makes it obviously the right thing to do. It's like, "Of course we're going to do this." Whatever doubts I may have had were dispelled after our first rehearsal, when the people that I trust the most said, "It's gonna be great." I'm just putty in their hands. I say, "Okay, great." And guess what? That's the way it happened throughout the whole year when we got together at the recording sessions, or when we did a media tour. It was just really smooth sailing and lots of laughter and lots of joy and really good work was done.
MR: You sound like a contemporary rather than their mentor.
YM: Oh, I'm certainly not a mentor. I'm a goat, remember? I'm an old goat. (laughs) And then there are the young ones.
MR: (laughs) And what do you call a young goat?
YM: I don't know--kids? A kid!
MR: A kid! But if you call them "kids"...
YM: Well, they call me "Old Goat," so I can say, "Well, you're just kids."
MR: (laughs) Is there one story you can share as far as you goats' recording process works?
YM: Well, there's a story with the whole term "goat rodeo." We had a goat rodeo song, and the working titles for all the songs were different kinds of rodeos. There was "Irish Rodeo," there was "Jewish Rodeo," there was "Dutch Rodeo." They were just working titles, but then we had to think of an actual title for the album. We were thinking, "What do we call this? Contemporary American?" (laughs) We couldn't come up with something that defined the sort of fun, creative aspects of this romp. And finally, I think Chris looked up "goat rodeo" on the contemporary urban dictionary or something, and found the definition that we loved. As an aviation term, it's mayhem up in the air--if you're to land the plane, a hundred things have to go absolutely right for there to be a safe landing. At the landing, the pilot says, "That was a goat rodeo," and we thought, "Gee, that sounds like our sessions. Let's call it Goat Rodeo Sessions." Believe it or not, the record company thought, "Wow, this is great. We like it." And you know what? It does! It makes people ask the question, "Well, what is it?"
MR: Sony Classical, these days, is a different Sony Classical than it was before, in that they take on different kinds of recordings relative to classical music. But it seems to be a new era for classical music, one goes hand in hand with virtually everything, so why not cross those boundaries. Why not have a little fun with it.
YM: Absolutely. Classical tradition has always been a fusion and an amalgam of different traditions coming together, whether it's sacred, secular, or folk. I think the separations came when recorded music started to be marketed. Of course, when you market something, you find niches. You find categories. But, actually, the people who were writing and creating classical music always took from different traditions, whether it's Bernstein or Beethoven. They all did. So, this is just going back to its roots. Actually, a lot of classical tradition was improvisation. So, that's also another part that's kind of being soiled and re-tilled. I think that makes a lot of sense.
MR: I have to mention, Yo-Yo, how you were also named the Peace Ambassador in 2006.
YM: I think they meant as in p-i-e-c-e. I think it was just a spelling error.
MR: (laughs) Was it fun being the Peace Ambassador of 2006?
YM: Well, one of the things that I love about this type of role is that I think there are a number of ways that bring people happiness in life. I think when your political, economic, and cultural engines are firing on all cylinders, we have a happy society. And I think the three have to work together, and they're separate but equal. In a sense, the only reason to do music is because it gives people meaning. It gives meaning to life. And obviously, we need strong political stability. Obviously, we need a strong economy that is vibrant and innovative and all of that. But to work towards actually bridging gaps between people or between peoples, I think, in some ways, that could be done through cultural means because culture goes deep inside someone's core. In many ways, it's one ear to another ear. It's two eyes to two other eyes. It's person to person. It's more a scalpel than a cudgel.
MR: Wow, that's beautiful. Now, I have to be mischievous because of this being published in The Huffington Post and all...
YM: Yes, of course.
MR: Do you feel that it's sometimes in politicians or political parties' interests to go after the arts and they're funding because it's the least understood area of development as far as communications goes? Do you think there's maybe a conscious effort to pull that back?
YM: I'm not qualified, I don't think, to talk about what politicians do or what politics does. I mean, I'm an observer and, obviously, a participant in the sense that I do vote, and that's nice because I try and think about what citizenship means and I try and talk about that as a musician. I think what I can talk about is how incredibly important it is for everybody to participate because it's the only system we have. If we don't participate, it really then gets run by people who are participating, and if you don't like it, then participate. So, I do think it's important--and I know friends who would disagree with me--that culture should try and remain a separate engine from politics and vice versa, because when politics or a state starts to say, "You can't do this" or "It must be this," then we're getting into some kind of totalitarian regime. It's the same thing with culture. You know, culture deals on a different time frame than politics. There's no election cycle in culture, and the time frame could be 50 years or 2000 years and that's not politics. So, there are different truths that actually need to be addressed from each engine. I think when you start confusing the two, you get a mish-mash, and probably less meaning and more confusion.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
YM: For new artists, there are two important things. Know yourself, which is hard to do because you keep changing. Who are you? And then also, know the world. And make a relationship between the two.
MR: Thank you so much for your time, Yo-Yo.
YM: Thank you, Mike. You take good care.
2. Quarter Chicken Dark
3. Helping Hand
4. Where's My Bow?
5. Here and Heaven
6. Franz And The Eagle
7. Less is Moi
8. Hill Justice
9. No One But You
11. Goat Rodeo
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
LINDI ORTEGA DOES CHRISTMAS
What is it about Lindi Ortega? Whatever is it, here's some more of it in her new Christmas video, "Christmas Eve With You," exclusively presented here at The Huffington Post.
A Conversation with Mason Jennings
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Mason. How are you?
Mason Jennings: Hey, I'm good. Thanks for having me.
MR: Your new album, Minnesota, is like your seventh album or something, right?
MJ: Yeah, it's my eighth.
MR: (laughs) Exactly, this is like your eighth album, right?
MJ: (laughs) Yeah, it was a record that I made in Minnesota in my studio and it turned out to be mostly a piano based record. It's my first record that is mostly piano.
MR: On "Raindrops On The Kitchen Floor," you have a very unique way of dealing with your subject matter. Could you go into the inspiration for that song?
MJ: Yeah, it was just a beautiful Spring day, and that song just kind of wrote itself. It just kind of flowed out, and I was kind of surprised because the last record I made had a lot darker content with a lot more electric guitars. After coming off the road from that tour, I think I just naturally gravitated towards more of a solace instrument, like the piano. I wrote that song, I recorded it, and then I just felt like it needed a little something in the chorus--a little magic. So, I asked my friend Jason Schwartzman to sing some backup vocals and add some magical player piano and stuff like that in there. So, he added some nice stuff to that as well.
MR: "I asked my friend Jason Schwartzman..." Is that the Jason Schwartzman?
MJ: Yeah, he's got that cool band, Coconut Records.
MR: Yeah, that's cool. So, this is your eighth album, or so you say. Did you think that you would get to this point in your life, where you're still making music and making records many years later?
MJ: Yeah, I was hoping that I would get here. I hope that will be the case for the rest of my life. I really never thought about there being an endpoint to it.
MR: Well, with the amount of material that you have created, sometimes it's hard to reflect on where you were before getting here.
MR: Speaking of getting here, can you remember the early, salad days of Mason Jennings?
MJ: (laughs) Yeah, I made my first record on my own. I went and saw an artist counselor in Minnesota and said, "What can I do to get this going and have people hear my music." He said, "You've got to make a CD. You've got to get something together." So, I just saved up all my money from waiting tables and got an old reel-to-reel four-track to set up in the living room of the apartment that I was living in. There, I recorded all the instruments for what would be my first CD. From there, it just started to take off. People in the press were starting to write about it in Minneapolis, I started selling out shows, and I slowly started touring the country a little at a time. It just has kept growing and growing, and it's really cool.
MR: Wait, you mentioned an "artist counselor?" That's an unusual phrase.
MJ: Yeah. There's a resources and counseling for the arts center in St. Paul, Minnesota. There's a guy, Chris Osgood, who was in a punk band called Suicide Commandos, which is one of the big punk bands from Minneapolis. He helps a lot of musicians get in touch with writers or get an outline for how they can get their music to the right people that might be able to help them start their careers. He was really helpful to me when I started out.
MR: We know Minneapolis, of course, through Prince and all of his acts of the '80s and '90s. But what is the Minneapolis music scene like these days?
MJ: It's pretty great. It's eclectic--you have Atmosphere, who is a big hip-hop band, and you've got Tapes 'n Tapes, which is an indie rock band. There are a lot of great singer/songwriters--Haley Bonar and Jeremy Messersmith--and then one of my favorite groups, The Bad Plus, is out of there, and they're a jazz group. So, it's all over the place stylistically, but the bands all get along, and it's a really supportive scene.
MR: Nice. The Bad Plus, by the way, is one of my favorite left of center jazz groups ever. I love that group.
MJ: Me too. I think they probably influenced a lot of my new record too. It's one of the those groups for me that I listen to pretty non-stop.
MR: Nice. Let's get into a couple of more songs from Minnesota. The song "Bitter Heart" that starts off the album is almost like you're doing a Randy Newman meets Andy Pratt thing--wait, do you know who Andy Pratt is?
MJ: No, I've never heard his name before.
MR: He's somewhat of an obscure artist, "Avenging Annie" was his classic, and he did a couple of albums with Arif Mardin but I digress! I guess where I was going is that this album seems to be more of a "mature" album, though I'm not sure that's the right word. Is that the right word?
MJ: Maybe. For sure, for me, it's in the spirit of play still, so it still feels kid-like to me in that way. I guess the piano and some of the scenes lent some maturity to it though.
MR: A lot of it seems to be about adulthood, being a husband and father.
MJ: Yeah, for sure.
MR: What is your take on the landscape of the music scene right now?
MJ: Oh, I think it's kind of interesting how it's separating. You have these big blockbuster, major label singers like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry who have a record that lasts for years, the singles keep getting released and there is a lot of money behind them. It's kind of exciting because the way those records sound and they way they're promoted is like an exciting Summer blockbuster movie. Then, you have this awesome other group with people like Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and all these interesting groups that sound original, and are able to top the charts too. They don't sell as many records, but they have a great fan base, they play a lot of nice theaters across the country, and it's just really inspiring to me how a lot of groups that probably wouldn't have been heard ten years ago are getting the attention that I think is due them.
MR: Very well said. It seems like our music landscape is opening up for indie acts these days because the major labels are funneling so much money into big blockbuster acts, which frees up a lot of space for the indie movement.
MJ: Yeah, and it's great. It's an interesting climate.
MR: Mason, you're in that boat--the indie boat--as well.
MR: How are you finding it out there? What's your day like?
MJ: My day is good. The thing about it that I really like is that the people that are coming to the shows now are just really tuned in to it, you know? I'm able to get people who have really found the music on the internet or wherever they find it, and really have interacted with it in a personal way. So, when they come to my shows, it's really intense for me because the crowd is so respectful. I make sure I go out and talk to the fans after the shows and I meet tons of people, and it's really inspiring because all kinds of people hear about the music that probably wouldn't have if it was a scene-based promotion. People find out about it all kinds of different ways now, and because of that, I get a whole different range--people in their seventies, teenagers, and a lot of couples that come in and say that my music is the soundtrack to their relationship. It's just really inspiring and it fills me with gratitude when I get to talk to people about that.
MR: By they way, you mentioned the word "soundtrack" and I just wanted to mention that you had a couple of songs in the very popular indie movie I'm Not There.
MJ: Yeah, it was a little nerve racking. Todd Haynes, the director, called me and said that they had been listening to my record Boneclouds on the set, and he wanted me to do the earlier Troubadour stuff and sing Christian Bale's parts. At first, I was like, "I don't want to do it if I have to imitate Dylan. That's the last thing I want to do." He was like, "No, don't imitate him. Just sing it how you would sing the songs. Just look at the song on paper and sing it how you'd sing it." So, I didn't really think too hard about it, and I just went into the studio and did it really fast. It was really cool to be part of that project. I liked the idea of making a movie that expands someone's character rather than trying to pin it down. I love that idea.
MR: Yeah. It really was the whole of all those parts that made up the character.
MJ: Yeah, it was really cool.
MR: Let's talk about your touring life for a little bit. Who are some of the acts that you've toured with over the years?
MJ: I toured with Modest Mouse for a while. In the last few years, Jack Johnson and I have done a few tours together, which are really fun. Alexi Murdoch and I did stuff together...just a bunch of different groups. There's a guy from Calgary that I like named Chad VanGaalen who a lot of people don't know about, but he really blew me away. He's on Sub-Pop, and check out Chad VanGaalen if you want to check out some really interesting music. Right now, I'm out with a great band called The Pines. They're from Iowa and they're really good. They're sort of country-tinged, quiet, mystical sounding folk songs. They're actually backing me up for about five or six songs at the end of the show. So, it's fun to be on the road with them.
MR: Let's get back to Minnesota. I would love to hear what is behind the song "Bitter Heart," great track.
MJ: Thanks. It was definitely a song that was a return to believing in some sort of higher power for me. It was coming to terms with not being in control and just letting myself open up and love. I was just trying to relinquish some of the fake idea that I had control over things that I didn't. So, that's where that kind of came from.
MR: Moving on through the album, we get to "Hearts Stop Beating." When I heard that, I thought, "There's the single," whatever that is these days.
MR: It hits the chorus and you do your Mason Jennings thing on it.
MJ: (laughs) Cool. I don't know what you mean, but... (laughs)
MR: What I mean is you drop in that extra couple of vocal "Jennings-isms," giving it a real signature.
MJ: Oh, cool. Thanks.
MR: And what is the story behind "Hearts Stop Beating"?
MJ: Well, the idea of it came from a memory of when I was in high school and I stole my mom's car one time with my friends. I remember that I came to his house, I threw rocks at his window and he was like, "What's going on." I said, "We're going to the beach, man." He was like, "I'll get my money," and I remember him throwing like eighty dollars in twenties out the window. There were just bills floating down from the sky, and I remember thinking as a teenager, "This is so sweet! We're leaving for the ocean tonight." That image kind of started me off on the song, and it just sort of went from there.
MR: Now let's talk about "Clutch," it being my favorite song on the album.
MJ: Yeah, it's probably mine too. There's a little bit of everything in that song that kind of encapsulates the whole record. I'm not even sure where it came from except that the form of it was just interesting to me--the shape of the song. I used the same shape on "No Relief," the album closer, too. It sort of starts with the piano, goes into something, and then goes back out. I'm really interested in the idea of time moving back and forth, kind of like gypsy music or Led Zeppelin, so I worked with some of that on this.
MR: You mention Led Zeppelin. Who influences you musically?
MJ: The Bad Plus is a big one. The idea with Led Zeppelin was that on every record, all the songs stand alone in their own musical style, but they sort of make up a record that has a definite feel to it. That's something that has really influenced me over the years. On all my records, the song is king. I try to give each song what it deserves rather than trying to get the whole album to sound the same. As far as songwriters, I really like a lot of the older stuff like Cole Porter songs, and I definitely like John Lennon a lot. As far as new people, I like Regina Spektor, and I like Joanna Newsom. Those are some of my favorites.
MR: Nice. What is your creative process like? How do you get inspired and then how do you get that down as a song?
MJ: I don't write anything down, usually. I have a studio that's kind of out in the middle of the woods in Minnesota, and there are a lot of instruments there. I just make sure that I keep it in the spirit of play. I look around and say, "What sounds fun to me today?" I'll sit down and play drums or I'll sit down at piano or guitar and usually, I'll just be playing around and realize that I've almost finished a song. If it's not feeling good that day, I'll work on something else. I'll work on practicing something or...I don't force it. I just try to make sure that I'm open to that spirit of fun. It's sort of like when you're a little kid and you make up a game. I try to keep that spirit in the songs.
MR: I love that idea of letting go, coming at it as a kid and being innocent about it.
MR: "Rudy" and "Wake Up"--I'm don't even know which one to ask you about first.
MJ: (laughs) They're the same in different ways.
MR: Just dive in, buddy.
MJ: I'll dive into both of them together. They're both kind of songs about the underdog overcoming things that are bigger than them in their life--good fighting evil and all that kind of jazz. "Rudy" is an interesting one because I'm sort of known for my acoustic guitar work and this is the only acoustic guitar song on the record. I thought it was fun because the topic of it is a myth, so it's kind of fun that it's the most familiar sound, but the most mythical lyrics I've done in a while. Then, that song just walks right into "Wake Up," which is a song about addiction and overcoming internal battles. That song is probably the most folky song that I can remember doing with almost talking vocals. So, they kind of go together. They're kind of like bookends of overcoming struggles.
MR: Mason, you are categorized on iTunes as a folk artist. Do you see yourself as a folk artist?
MJ: No, I kind of just see myself as an artist. I think the spirit that I go into music with is pretty expansive. I'm very comfortable doing something like "Witches Dream" right next to something like "Bitter Heart," and it's always been that way for me. My first album has a song called "Godless" on it, which is totally like a punk rock song. To me, it's more like an artist songwriter, but it's not even just a songwriter because I like to sing my own songs. I think "artist" is the best word. In my head, that's the one that resonates with me--or singer/songwriter since I definitely write my songs and sing them. But I don't see it as folky, and whenever I get put into folk festivals, I don't fit in with that school because to me, it feels too defined or something.
MR: I do love folk music, and I do love a lot of those singer-songwriter festivals that end up happening in the summer.
MJ: Yep, they're fun.
MR: But sometimes, I just want more of that punky element in there. I don't necessarily want "polite" with my folk, you know?
MJ: Exactly. I guess one way to look at it is that I like stuff with contrast. In the old school sense of folk, being "of the people," I think that is for sure what I make--it's homemade sounding. To me, it's a lot like folk art, where people just take what they have to make something that they need to make--something that is really eating at them that they have to make. That's how I look at my music. I definitely have to make it, so in that sense, it's folky, but I definitely like the idea of contrast. I like something scary being next to something funny, and something kind next to something edgy. I like contrast in my art.
MR: How has Mason Jennings grown from the first album to now?
MJ: As a person, my perspective has opened up so much, being a father--I have two little boys--and being married and just feeling that love for someone else. I'd die for those guys, so I think that shifted my perspective as a songwriter to a wider field of love. A song like "The Field" from my last record...I don't know if I would have been able to write that when I first started without being a parent. It kind of reminds me as I get older of a lot of authors who write their masterpieces in their forties or sixties even. I was always wondering why it took longer for authors to really understand the full range of human emotion and get all the characters right. Now, as I get older, I feel like I might just be touching the beginning of that experience. It's kind of exciting for me and I wonder how I'll be able to write when I'm sixty or even engage in any kind of art when I'm in my sixties.
MR: What kind of advice would you have for new artists?
MJ: Not that I really have any advice, but I think one thing I've learned is that there really is no pot of gold out there other than that you get to play music. I think at the beginning, I thought, "If I could just have this person hear my music, everything would be cool then." What I've learned is that you still have to wake up in the morning and do your stuff. The thing that I still enjoy most in my life is being with friends and family and making music. So, if you're in the music business to make music, you're going to have a good time because you get to make music. But if you're in it for other reasons, it's a pretty tough walk, actually. If you love making music and you love what you do, I think it's going to be a great walk for you, and I wish you luck.
MR: That's really sweet advice. Now, would you have taken that advice if you heard if from you these days?
MJ: I'm trying to, man. It's definitely tough touring so much, and things like that, but I love music so much that I can't imagine ever stopping making music. The touring part is a challenge as I get older, but the making music part is always a joy. Being around other people that are interested in music and sharing that with them is just such a fun life.
MR: Thanks Mason, it was nice getting to know you. I really appreciate the time that you've spent with us today.
MJ: Thank you. I appreciate you having me.
1. Bitter Heart
2. Raindrops On The Kitchen Floor
3. Hearts Stop Beating
5. Witches Dream
7. Wake Up
8. Well Of Love
9. No Relief
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney