You grew up in Hawaii, right—assuming you can prove it?
Mason Jennings: I couldn’t find my birth certificate if you asked. But I did for my first few years. My mom was a lingerie buyer there. My dad eventually grew sick of pastels, so we moved to Pittsburgh. I still have cousins that are farmers in Hawaii.
Your Wikipedia page has a rather cryptic line that summarizes your entire childhood in a single line, something about getting a guitar at 13, writing songs, dropping out of school, and moving to Minneapolis to play music. When did you actually move to Minneapolis—and why did you decide to come here?
MJ: I dropped out of 11th grade—I already knew what I wanted to do. I’d written a lot of songs. I came here for the first time and it just felt like home. I moved the week after Kurt Cobain died.
What did you do when you arrived?
MJ: I couldn’t get a gig anywhere, because I didn’t have a CD. So I bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder and made my first record in my apartment, above the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Eventually I got a weekly gig at the 400 Bar, Jim Walsh wrote about it, and things took off.
What kind of music did you hear at home growing up?
MJ: My mom was all Beatles, my dad was into folk, real traditional stuff like “Shenandoah” and Civil War songs. The first record I bought was Purple Rain.
Did you want to be Prince?
MJ: Yeah, but it didn’t work—I’m too tall to have my butt hanging out.
Were you a child of the ’80s?
MJ: Totally. I was MTV, I loved hair metal. It never suited my voice, though. If my voice was higher, I’d be doing hair metal right now.
Your new record is called Minnesota. Do you feel like there’s something Minnesotan about your music?
MJ: When I play outside the state, people often tell me y music sounds like Minnesota. It reminds them of the woods—it’s rural music.
You recorded the new record at your cabin outside Minneapolis. What’s it like there?
MJ: There are deer, foxes—that is the plural, right? Foxes? Foxes kind of meow, did you know that? It’s probably on the record. Anyway, it’s important for me to get away and pick up on my own vibrations, to not be affected by others’ energy when I’m working.
What are you listening to these days?
MJ: I don’t listen to a lot, actually. The Bad Plus—I’ve seen them more than any other band. Ali Farka Toure. Led Zeppelin. Taylor Swift, actually—she’s better than you’d think.
What does Minnesota mean to you as a place to live?
MJ: There’s a simple, but I think true, sentiment—do what you love and everything else will follow. And that’s easy for me to do here. This blend of sophisticated and rural, all these theaters, it’s a hub for the arts. Then drive an hour and there’s the woods. I always feel totally at home in Minnesota. No stress.
The new album feels that way, too.
MJ: It feels celebratory, a lot of kindness in the tone. Which is the way I feel. Things are going well. I’m having a great time.
You’ve got two young boys now. Are you raising them as real Minnesotans?
MJ: They’re the real deal. I can’t get them to wear coats in winter. They say, “Dad, you wouldn’t understand. You’re not from here.”