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Sept. 26, 2020

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Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard and singer-songwriter Mason Jennings discuss new Painted Shield project

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Their relationship may have started six years ago, but as Stone Gossard tells it, he and Minnesota singer-songwriter Mason Jennings are still very much in “the honeymoon” phase. Back in 2014, Jennings was feeling collaborative and his manager reached out to the Pearl Jam guitarist, a longtime acquaintance, who was also working on material apart from his stadium-filling main band.

The two hooked up for a low-stakes 7-inch record highlighted by groovy ’70s rock rumbler “Knife Fight” leaving several other sketches on the table. At least until now.

“We realized to finish more songs it was going to have to be a little bit more back and forth,” Gossard said. “Sometimes when you set stuff down for a few years and then re-listen, it’s like you can hear it differently and you get energized by the history of it a little bit.”

On Wednesday, Gossard and Jennings announced that partnership has produced a full-length album under the name Painted Shield. The self-titled record arrives Nov. 27 through Gossard’s newly rebooted Loosegroove label.

About a year ago, Jennings got the collaborative itch again. The oft acoustic storyteller had recently gone through a divorce and was sitting on a batch of material, thinking the time was right for a little shake-up. “I thought back on working with Stone and I loved working with him back then,” Jennings said. “We hadn’t really dug into that next level yet and I thought maybe it would be a good time to try that again.”

While all but one track was recorded pre-pandemic, Painted Shield was largely a socially distanced project, the two swapping Dropbox files as they could while Gossard and his Pearl Jam buddies were also brewing their exploratory new album, “Gigaton.” Although the two records are completely different sonically, there’s a similar adventurous spirit coursing through Painted Shield, the band rounded out by Seattle singer/keyboardist Brittany Davis and drumslinger Matt Chamberlain, who logged a brief stint in Pearl Jam before making his career as an in-demand session player for everyone from Frank Ocean to Bob Dylan.

“Every day that I get a chance to be involved with collaborating with people and making music together, I’m learning more about what excites me and how I can be a good partner in whatever situation I’m in,” Gossard said. “So yes, they totally inform each other. All through the period of time that we were putting this record (together), we were doing demos for ‘Gigaton.'”

Songs like “Time Machine” and equally massive barnburner “Evil Winds” featuring slide guitar licks from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready pushed Jennings out of his comfort zone. It forced him to rethink his lyrical approach, aiming to be more of a mood facilitator than picture-painting storyteller.

“I was more channeling stuff like Led Zeppelin or The Strokes,” said Jennings, a self-described “shredder guitar player” in a past life. “Those are bands that I love that I don’t really listen to the lyrics the same way that I do when I’m listening to Johnny Cash or John Prine, you know.”

The sidewinding “Time Machine” blends widescreen desert rock riffs and sinister funk grooves, a free-jazz sax freakout bubbling up between Jennings’ uncharacteristically saucy vocals that sound more like a swaggering Mark Lanegan than the folkier charms Jennings is known for.

Ominous lead single “I Am Your Country,” which dropped Wednesday and is the only song recorded since the pandemic, started as a Chamberlain original and found Jennings recasting some post-divorce lyrics initially written as a father speaking toward his two sons. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Minneapolis protests that sparked similar unrest in Seattle and other American cities, Jennings reframed the song as a nation talking to a citizenry in strife.

Jennings, who’s lived in the Twin Cities since the ’90s, felt mixed emotions as the situation escalated on Minneapolis streets.

“I felt glad that people were standing up to this injustice that’s been happening for so long,” Jennings said. “But it’s scary to have your city be burning day after day and then a president that’s stoking the flames like that. It was very upsetting. Now, our city, I went driving around, a lot of it’s boarded up still. It definitely feels like a police state.”

While Jennings handled the vocals, Gossard did the heavy lifting on the music, sifting through demos up to 15 years old and recording at Gossard’s Studio Litho in Fremont with cameos from ace Seattle sideman Jeff Fielder, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and others. The further along they got, the more collaborative it became, with producer John Congleton at times stripping away pieces and adding the “spacious, atmospheric” shadings that give “Painted Shield” much of its color and texture. “Both Mason and I were really in a deconstructive state of mind in terms of anything can go on any given day,” Gossard said.

As for Loosegroove, Gossard and label partner Regan Hagar (who plays with Gossard in Seattle alt-rock outfit Brad) plan to release a single from local soul singer Tiffany Wilson and a solo album from Painted Shield’s Davis. Also in the works is an unreleased Brad album Gossard said was “pretty much done” when soulful frontman Shawn Smith died last year.

All that and hopefully “lots of Painted Shield records,” said Gossard, still feeling that honeymoon glow.

“That’s something you get, particularly in early times in bands. It’s like, me and Mason make 20 records together, by the end we’re like ‘Oh, (this is) crap,'” Gossard joked. “But right now we’re in the honeymoon and it’s glorious. We’re enjoying the newness of it all.”

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