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Before setting to work on his latest album, at the advice of a friend, the Minnesota-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist holed up in the back room of his wood-nestled cabin studio with just a guitar, electric piano, bookshelf, notebook, tape recorder, and one 90-minute cassette—then wrote all winter long. Emerging with the notebook and tape full of about 30 new songs, Jennings decided to skip his standard approach of self-recording and called on producer Bo Ramsey (Greg Brown, The Pines, Iris DeMent), as well as a wish-list-plucked lineup of guest musicians that includes DeMent and Neil Young drummer Chad Cromwell. The result of those "dream collaborations" and his own hard-won inspiration, 'Always Been' proves to be Jennings's most radiant and refined effort of his career.
Recorded at Minneapolis studio The Terrarium, 'Always Been' builds on the rugged, acoustic-guitar-driven indie-folk of Jennings's earlier work (from his 1998 self-titled debut to 2011's highly acclaimed Minnesota) with sunnier melodies and more hi-fi sonics. While Jennings credits the album's joyful spirit in part to "letting go and getting help from all these great musicians"—including Greg Brown upright-bassist Gordon Johnson, string virtuoso David Mansfield, singer/songwriter Pieta Brown, and several members of The Pines—at the heart of Always Been' is an undeniable sense of the wonder he rediscovered during his winter-long writing session. "Staying open to the feeling of awe, the feeling of being moved by things—that's the most important part of songwriting for me," says Jennings. "When I'm able to stay in a childlike state that's more about the heart than the head, that's when the songs really come in."
Lending its lyrics to the album's title, the tender yet powerful "Patti and Robert" perfectly embodies that openheartedness. Sparked by Patti Smith's 2010 memoir Just Kids and its account of the punk poet's relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe—as well as an encounter at a 2011 Neil Young tribute at Carnegie Hall, where Smith pulled Jennings aside to praise his performance of "Red Sun"—the harmony-laden track pays quiet tribute to "love that will not break."
Like "Patti and Robert," the stirring and soulful "Wilderness" also grew from a "strange unexpected seed" planted during an encounter. With its warm strings and lilting guitar, "Wilderness" finds Jennings weaving in mournful images of blackened trees and fallen angels, but nonetheless pleading the listener to "embrace this life with all its scars."
Although Jennings identifies "Wilderness" the centerpiece, the album takes on a far brighter mood with tracks like the playfully flirty, classically folky "Rainboots," the rollicking and jamboree-ready "Witness," and the album-closing, defiantly romantic "Just Try," a ukulele-centered track. But even in its darker moments—such as "Number of the Sun," a sorrowful serenade to a lost friend—'Always Been' has a gently restorative power. And on songs such as the slow building but soaring "Instrument" (on which Jennings sings of longing to turn into a guitar, a mailbox, and a telescope, then confesses "I want to live my life a brand new way" in aching harmony with DeMent), melancholy and joy get tangled up together to gorgeous effect.
According to Jennings, the richness of texture and emotionalism on 'Always Been' has much to do with his newly slowed-down approach to songwriting. "The songwriting process had gotten so accelerated for me—I'd have an idea for a song and get so excited about it and immediately throw myself into recording," he says. "With this album I took more time to focus and flesh everything out before I moved on." And in carefully bringing his new songs to life, Jennings found that certain books, movies, and pieces of music were "lighting up" and volunteering themselves as inspiration. "It's almost like I was being told, 'Take a little bit of this, a little bit of that'—like there was a guided path and I was just following it," says Jennings, listing Fats Domino, Louis Armstrong, authors Louise Erdrich and Haruki Murakami, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach among the artists who informed his songwriting process.
When it came time to record, Jennings turned the reigns over to Ramsey in order to give full attention to delivering a stellar performance on vocals and guitar. "Working with Bo really elevated my singing and playing," says Jennings. "He's very quiet, but he's got this heavy presence, and it was important for me to do a good job because I respect him so much." After recording, which included such magic moments as Jennings teaching DeMent to play the ukulele, the songs were handed over for mixing to Jerry Boys (another of Jennings's dream collaborators and the sonic master behind Buena Vista Social Club).
With the songwriting and recording of 'Always Been' so wholly charmed, Jennings says his main ambition is for the album to uplift its listeners. "Music's always been very transformative for me. I remember hearing 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' as a kid and having it hit me in a really deep way," he says. Noting that the medicinal quality of DeMent's albums was a major influence on the mood of 'Always Been,' Jennings adds that he ultimately aims to create music with its own healing effect. "I started making music because music saved my life when I was little—it was something I could go to and always have a feeling of connection, even when times were hard," he says. "Above all else, I want to make sure I always remember that trying to give other people that sort of feeling is the major purpose behind what I'm doing."