There’s a story behind every song that Mason Jar Music records. Now several of those stories have been woven together into a film.
The creative collective’s philosophy of "preserving analog principles in a digital age" had taken them to some interesting places before—like this stairwell. Even so, the members of the startup could not have anticipated finding themselves shooting a movie in Canada during the summertime.
The Sea In Between sprang from a bold act of generosity: Vancouver-based financial engineer Blayne Johnson invited musician Josh Garrels to his home on Mayne Island. Johnson’s whole family loved Garrels’ music and simply wanted to hear him play in person. The Portland-based, very much independent musician might not have made it to that area otherwise. Garrels and his benefactor soon extended an invitation to Mason Jar Music to join them and help create some of their signature sound experiences. Five days and 11 musical performances later, the adventure had turned into a movie.
"At first, all we knew was that we wanted to shoot performance videos with Josh in various locations on the island," says director Matt Porter. "It was my job, working along with [producers] Jon Seale and Dan Knobler, to figure out how we could then string these performances together into a cohesive feature-length narrative."
Although Mason Jar Music is all about the music, that didn’t mean the company’s first feature film wouldn’t have a story. At the start of shooting, it seemed as though the narrative would center solely around Garrels, who is fighting tooth and nail to grow his audience. Ultimately, however, The Sea In Between explores themes of faith, family, vulnerability, and the music business, while flitting between stories of the Johnson family and the inhabitants of Mayne Island.
"Everything changed the second we arrived on the island," Porter says. "I don’t think we could have anticipated the role that the island and its community would play in the final piece."
Over the course of the recording sessions, there were hazards that had to be overcome, like a tide coming in during the middle of the song, "Sailor’s Waltz." There were also collaborations that brewed out of intraband bonding between the roster of assembled musicians, recounted during "Pilot Me." The way that each experience is shot gives them the feel of having a story. Of course, with Mason Jar, the music itself does indeed come first and foremost.
"The musical performances were a huge part of the film," says Dan Knobler, a producer and cofounder of the company. "We have always had an obsession with turning normal spaces into recording studios. Before building out the basement of our Brooklyn home into a full studio, I converted my childhood bedroom in Manhattan into MJM’s first studio. In some ways, "The Sea In Between" was us taking that same impulse out into the wilderness."
In order to navigate the wilderness, Mason Jar Music needed a fully battery-powered portable rig versatile enough to handle several types of instrumentation, and high-quality enough to match studio standards. It would cost more than their budget could possibly allow. True to collaborative form, however, the group ended up partnering with microphone companies, Peluso and Sennheiser, as well as Gotham Sound in New York City, who set them up with an incredible Zaxcom Fusion 10 field recorder. These contributions were clutch. Without the proper equipment, the project would have missed its whole point.
"On a practical level, the acoustic properties of a given location change the way in which an instrument’s sound is perceived and therefore played," says Jon Seale, a cofounder of Mason Jar Music. "But other factors contribute, too, like proximity to other players and level of comfort play a huge role in shaping a performance."
Part of Mason Jar’s ultimate reason for being is to reveal something that most vinyl aficionados already know: that the circumstances surrounding a performance impact its recording. "The thrill of recording music live is what drives us," Knobler says. "Seeing that process unfold—the musicians rehearsing, the crew setting up mics, figuring out camera plans, and lighting—it really brings people into the process. Hopefully it reminds them that music, film, and audio are all crafts that require imagination and skill."
Starting March 27, The Sea In Between is available on Tugg.com, a platform where audiences can organize screenings for a film in their hometown—working off the Paranormal Activity model, where reaching a critical mass "tips" the film and it’s played in a local theater. For now, check out some Mason Jar Music videos in the slide show above.