Mason Summit brilliantly shines on the darkest January days.
The Los Angeles indie folk rock singer-songwriter thaws the winter blues with his latest magical single, “‘Round January,” which drops today via all streaming platforms.
Summit’s track fuses sorrowful acoustic guitar strums and delicate drum taps with vibrant electric and slide guitars – “I hope one day I can tell you this won’t last/And be right/Cuz I know how you get when the sun sets early/But there’s a better way/There must be surely/But maybe you’ll make it out alive/Maybe you’ll just survive.” It’s also ideally suited for a fruitful collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline.
In a sense, Summit’s exquisite combination of acoustic, electric and slide guitars represent the warring emotional factions within us. Deep inside, there’s a hope that wants burst through, but the darkness fights back with a vengeance.
“It’s specifically the month my dad died, and it’s also when I introduce the song now, and what makes it more broadly applicable to different people’s lives is seasonal depression. I probably experienced that unknowingly since before my dad died, you know the melancholy of those months, especially like the line, ‘when the sun sets early,’” said Summit, who also struggles with the lack of daylight in winter.
“It was just instant depression for me. It made me tired all the time, and I didn’t want to get out of bed. I don’t have it as bad as a lot of people, but it definitely influences my mood in a disproportionate way.”
Two years ago, Summit penned “‘Round January” as a response to a songwriting class prompt at the University of Southern California (USC). The prompt required students to write a song to their eighth-grade selves.
“And that was a week when a lot of people brought in some heavy stuff,” said Summit, a songwriting senior who will graduate in May. “It was just so provocative, and so I was thinking back to eighth grade, and middle school in general is when people tend to be struggling and trying to find out who they are.”
For Summit, the track also advocates the importance of therapy in tackling seasonal depression and other mental health challenges. He came from a family that believed in its long-term healing power.
“When I got to school, I met a lot of people who didn’t come from that and ended up having a lot of undiagnosed issues. They just didn’t know how to deal with it, and it took them so long to have the courage to go to therapy or go to a psychiatrist and start treating their illness with therapy and medication,” Summit said. “Whereas I had already started to sort that out by that time, there were actually specific people in my life I was writing it for as well as myself.”
Recording ‘Negative Space’
“‘Round January” will be featured on Summit’s upcoming fifth album, “Negative Space,” out April 3. His self-produced release weaves dark themes of depression, fear and fatalism across 10 striking tracks, yet includes subtle hints of hope and growth. “Probably until we get to ‘Round January,’ there’s a lot of regret and a lot of trepidation definitely. Some of the songs are more personal in that sense and others are more conceptual,” Summit said.
Summit recorded “Negative Space’s” tracks at two friends’ studios last February and March, while he added overdubs, keys and synths during the summer and mixed it in the fall. His musical collaborators and backing bandmates in The Jars – Jeff Frantom (bass) and Jarren Heidelberg (drums) – performed on four of the album’s 10 tracks.
“It was a very different approach for me recording-wise because my last album (2018’s “Summer Cold”) was mostly home-recorded. I had found that I was really attached to the spontaneous arrangements that I would come up with when I was demoing the songs, and I didn’t want to wind up chasing the demo in the studio to recreate that. I just put out the demos,” Summit said.
“This time, I was writing songs for the past couple years that ended up on this album. I didn’t really demo them at all and that opened it up for a lot more experimentation in the studio. I planned a lot less. I had ideas and stuff that I had arranged with my band, but I had everything in my head instead of having these really specific things that we had to go back and copy.”
Summit also will release two additional singles – “Doomed from the Start” on Valentine’s Day and the album’s title track, “Negative Space,” on March 13 – before dropping his latest full-length project in April.
As a USC student, Summit is a studio veteran who started recording his own music with hand-held tape recorder at age eight. He later recorded music on GarageBand and learned more techniques at a family friend’s home studio by age 15. Summit recorded his first three albums, “Absentee” (2012), “Loud Music & Soft Drinks” (2014) and “Gunpowder Tracks” (2016), at that same home studio.
Summit also grew up in a creative Santa Monica household – his father was an actor and musician and his mother writes poetry and hosts literary events. As a child, Summit listened to Janis Joplin, the Monterey Pop Festival, Brian Wilson, Elliott Smith, The Phantom of the Opera and Jon Brion. He started singing Johnny Cash songs and playing guitar with his dad at local coffee shops until age nine.
“I remember trying to write lyrics when I was third grade. Basically when I started learning other people’s songs, I wanted to have songs of my own, but I didn’t start writing songs and demoing them and considering them to be finished songs until was 12, which was after my dad died,” Summit said.
By high school, Summit released two albums and started hosting a variety show called “Mason’s Noise Palace” at Beyond Baroque, a nonprofit literary arts center, gallery and performance space in Venice. The show included comedy, acting, poetry and music from local youth and coincided with his mom’s literary events.
“It gives up-and-coming performers a chance to try out their stuff in a nice space for the first time. There’s been a lot of first-time performers there. It’s gotten older as I’ve gotten older,” said Summit, who still hosts the show today. “It’s pretty much always been people that are my age. That was the intention of the show, and I wanted to give people who weren’t performing around all the time an opportunity to perform.”
Moving into 2020
With a new year and decade underway, Summit will prepare for the April release of “Negative Space” and perform live with his girlfriend and singer-songwriter Irene Green. The duo will appear live together on KXLU (88.9 FM) Jan. 26 in Los Angeles and book additional shows soon.
“We’ve written just a couple of songs. It’s good to have someone around anytime you have something brand new that you’re working on to get honest feedback,” said Summit, who recently performed with Green at his mom’s wedding. “We give each other honest feedback on our stuff because we both have different specialties, and that’s been really cool.”