"I love song craft," says longtime folksinger Mason Jennings, who's spent the bulk of the past 25 years onstage and in the writing room. "A song is like a boat on the water, and you're trying to make it float using as few pieces as you can. If you do it right, a song can be very healing. This album feels that way to me. It's a love letter to songwriting."
He's talking about Real Heart, his fourteenth solo album. Jennings calls it "the unabashed folk record that I have been wanting to make for years," pointing to the project's warm mix of acoustic guitar, unforced vocals, and autobiographical lyrics. At the same time, Real Heart also reaches beyond the genre's boundaries, making room for nuanced layers of horns, strings, and piano. The result is a record that both reclaims and redefines Mason Jennings' role as a leading light in the folk community, with production from Malfunkshun's Regan Hagar and Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard.
The last time we heard from Jennings, he was stretching his legs with Painted Shield, the synth-based supergroup whose self-titled debut album appeared in 2020. Recorded alongside Gossard, drummer Matt Chamberlain, and keyboardist/singer Brittany Davis, the album traded the organic sounds of Jennings' earlier work for something more digital and driving. Fronting a band was a new experience for Jennings, affording him the opportunity to work with new collaborators and genre-crossing arrangements. It also shed new light on his own music.
"Being in that band really freed me up as a solo artist," he explains. "The Painted Shield album was so bombastic that it allowed me up to put my folk hat back on once I began writing these new songs. Real Heart exists within the world of Nick Drake, John Fahey, and the acoustic Led Zeppelin songs that I love so much, with arrangements that often remind me of Tom Waits.. That's the sound of this record, and I didn't worry about bringing in new elements from other genres, just for diversity's sake. I let this music be what it wanted to be."
Real Heart is the sound of a musician easing back into his own skin and making art not only on his own terms, but on his own turf, too. Jennings began recording the album at his lake house outside St. Paul, Minnesota, strumming each song while staring at the water outside. "I live in a house that's all glass windows, and I'd stare at the big lake while tracking these songs," he explains. "I used one microphone and kept everything very basic, and that's a big part of the record's vibe. You can hear the room itself. It's less about performance and pretense, and it's more like we're sitting in a room together, having a conversation. The cover art is a woven wall-hanging that my wife Josie made that is hanging on our lake house wall. That sets the tone: warmth, home, and intimacy."
Songs like "I Feel Loved" and "Tomorrow" return Jennings to the acoustic-driven folk music that launched his career years earlier. Born in Honolulu and raised in Pittsburgh, he released his debut record in 1997, following a pivotal move to Minneapolis. Jennings' contemporary interpretation of a classic sound quickly earned him a number of allies, including fellow musicians like Jack Johnson and Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, both of whom released his albums on their respective labels. Rolling Stone hailed him as a "Minnesota folk king," while the New York Times asserted that "Mr. Jennings is just waiting to sell millions of records." A prolific writer, he released studio albums at a steady clip throughout the 2000s and 2010s, flying the flag for American roots music long before the Americana genre received its own category at the Grammy Awards.
Along the way, Jennings set the trials and triumphs of his own life to music. Recently 2018's Songs From When We Met found him recovering from a messy divorce, falling in love again, and moving beyond a longtime battle with agoraphobia. Real Heart follows four years later and deals with similar themes of healing and personal betterment. Recorded during a global pandemic that brought his touring career to a halt, the album finds Jennings focusing on the things that really matter, including his craft and character. "I've learned that's OK to be my real self," he says. "These songs reflect the struggle to take care of myself and be the person I truly am. To come to terms with the fact that I grew up in a family system that has generations of trauma and dysfunction… To get the protective denial off of me and accept where I come from, my part in then recreating those 'familiar' dysfunctional relationships in my adulthood as a misguided attempt to heal my childhood and family system… To take accountability for my actions and go forward doing what I can to heal and change my behavior, and hopefully put an end to the generational dysfunction. I finally feel like I'm in a safe emotional space and a nurturing, healthy partnership, and that allows me to do this work. It’s impossible work to do if we don't feel safe in our own home."
"It also has songs about dreams, demons, and me coming to terms with different things in my life," he adds, "like getting in touch with that wounded, childlike part of myself that needs to be heard and healed and reparented. To really listen to what my inner child has to say and to honor him and give him the unconditional love he never got. Because, as I have learned the hard way, if I can't love myself, I can't love others."
Those deep lyrical insights are matched by the music itself. A folk record with envelope-pushing elements and unexpected aesthetics, Real Heart broadens its reach with horns, strings, and other overdubs that were added at Stone Gossard's Studio Litho in Seattle. "Real Heart" transforms itself from a stark piano ballad into a warm piece of orchestral pop, while "On the Brink" mixes an anthemic folk melody with keyboards and light blasts of brass. Backed by lyrics that are as bold as the arrangements themselves, Real Heart is an album for the modern moment, charting one man's journey toward stability during uniquely rocky times. "We're only as strong as our weakest link when we're stranded here together on the brink," he sing during "On the Brink," either talking to a lover or to the world at large. Either way, it's good advice, and it's that rare balance — between the intimate and the universal, the traditional and the progressive, the stripped-back and the fully fleshed-out — that gives Real Heart its potent punch.