FIFTH ANNUAL KOKUA FESTIVAL
COURTESY RED LIGHT MANAGEMENT
"I'm happy to try to make records interesting to me and be able to keep doing it. It's been growing steadily, learning every step of way." -- Mason Jennings, musician
On a lifelong gig
Mason Jennings' musical roots tie in to Jack Johnson
Folk singer Mason Jennings remembers the first time he felt a kinship with Jack Johnson. "The both of us were playing this college date in St. Peter, Minn., six years ago, and there were like 50 people there. I initially knew about Jack when his first record, 'Brushfire Fairytales,' came out a year earlier. But we started becoming friends after when, coming off the stage at that college gig, he told me 'Hey man, keep playing, play some encores.'"
Fifth Annual Kokua Festival
With Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Paula Fuga, Mason Jennings, and Go Jimmy Go
Place: Waikiki Shell
Time: 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: Sold out
We know what's happened to Johnson's public profile after that -- it's grown such that his Kokua Festival this year sold out in 20 minutes the first day of ticket sales -- but Johnson, in turn, has been able to help Jennings as well.
Not only is Jennings on this weekend's festival bill along with Dave Matthews (who'll be doing an acoustic set with guitarist Tim Reynolds) and others, but his new album, "In the Ever," will be coming out May 20 on Johnson's Brushfire Records label. Jennings will also open for Johnson during the summer portion of the "Sleep Through the Static" tour.
"Jack and I are really alike as people," Jennings said by phone from his Minnesota home. "We have similar family values and (we're) trying to figure out how to save the environment, and be better to the Earth. We're in line with the importance of the core values of love and peace. Jack's amazing, with so many people listening to his music now."
Johnson even guests on Jennings' album, specifically on the song "I Love You and Buddha Too," sounding for the world like a combination of summer camp church song and lo-fi disco, complete with hand claps. (Jennings' previous album of 2006, "Boneclouds," was on the Glacial Pace imprint, distributed by Epic, and started by Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock.)
Although Jennings, married with two sons, calls the Upper Midwest home, he was, in fact, born in Honolulu in 1975.
"My folks and I lived there for a couple of years. My mom was a lingerie buyer at Liberty House, and dad worked at Bank of Hawaii. But we moved here to be closer to my grandparents who live in Pittsburgh. It'll be the first time in 21 years that I'll be back in the islands. I even have some cousins who are taro farmers there."
Both he and Johnson contributed to the soundtrack of the fanciful Bob Dylan film "I'm Not There," with Jennings doing his versions of the Dylan '60s folk classics "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
"The people from the film called me to do it," Jennings said. "They were fans of one of my earlier records, 'Use Your Voice,' and they wanted someone from Minnesota like Dylan, who was born in Duluth. But I'm glad I didn't have to try to imitate Dylan's voice, although Christian Bale was lip-synching to my singing in his scenes. When I saw that on the big screen, I thought that was pretty cool and I was amazed that Christian was able to hang with it."
COURTESY FRESH AND CLEAN MEDIA
Gotta guitar: Jack Johnson has brought another top-notch lineup to this year's Kokua Festival.
JENNINGS SAID he was "around 14, 15" when his love of music really blossomed. "That's when I started developing my own songs. I listened to Led Zeppelin a lot, Bruce Springsteen." When he was told that the album track "Soldier Boy" sounded like folk processed through the fuzz 'n' drone sounds of the Velvet Underground, Jennings said "yeah, Lou Reed, I'm a huge fan of his. Plus I listened to a lot of folk music -- Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt -- and that made me feel like I could do this for the rest of my life."
His sound, exemplified by the latest album, is almost a throwback to the folk music of the 1960s, evocative in a good way.
"I recorded the songs in the morning in my cabin, and finished them up by the afternoon. I like to work quick, like a child. I recorded up to 25 songs. I try to keep the sound raw and spontaneous."
Songs like "Memphis, Tennessee" and "Going Back to New Orleans" have a real sense of place, with harmonica and acoustic bass featured on the former, and the latter's train-like sound bemoaning a heavy heart caused by the world's troubles. "How Deep is That River" has a deep spiritual feel, complete with what sounds like a harmonium drone.
And his love songs are quite charming. "Something About Your Love" has a nice descending melody, as he looks forward to "coming home to be with you." The jaunty "Never Knew Your Name," featuring an upright piano and simple drum pattern, is a whimsical all-purpose love song. "Fighter Girl" has some neat imagery with a "you-and-me-against-the-world" attitude, and a sweet turn of phrase, "c'mon kiss-a-me."
"I'm happy to try to make records interesting to me," Jennings said, "and be able to keep doing it. It's been growing steadily, learning every step of way, but not to the point where it gets too overwhelming.
"And Minneapolis is a great place to live. The city really supports original, live music. There are nine, 10 bars here where people like me can play our own music. I've been able to do up to 30 shows a month sometimes. Because of that, it's taught me how to play out and, besides, it's easy to tour from here."
COURTESY ERIKA GOLDRING
Jack Johnson will pair with Dave Matthews, above...
COURTESY FRESH AND CLEAN MEDIA
...and Tim Reynolds, for an accoustic set. The two men did a benefit show in Seattle last week, celebrating the Dalai Lama's visit there.