Mason Summit, who practically grew up on local stages, looks inward to branch out
By Bliss Bowen
With four warmly reviewed albums to his credit, including the just-released “Summer Cold,” singer-songwriter and sophomore-year college student Mason Summit would appear to have a competitive edge at USC’s Thornton School of Music. But while the well-spoken Santa Monica native’s grateful for what he’s accomplished so far, he’s focused on setting new challenges for himself.
“I’ve had a nice community of fellow musicians and a supportive family, and I’ve been able to do a lot of things being in L.A.,” he observes. “But I also know a lot of people who are way further along in their careers than I am.”
Poised beyond his years, Summit has virtually grown up on local stages while being mentored by industry veterans. Session players accustomed to backing the likes of Rita Coolidge, Mavis Staples and Joe Strummer joined him throughout his 2016 album “Gunpowder Tracks” and 2014’s “Loud Music & Soft Drinks.” A more lo-fi approach was dictated by the intimacy of the 12 songs comprising “Summer Cold,” which he mostly performed and recorded alone at home; three tracks feature bassist Jeff Frantom and drummer Jarren Heidelberg, school bandmates in The Jars, mixed by longtime engineer John Groover McDuffie.
“I was demoing these songs right as I wrote them, and there was this immediacy, the excitement that you feel when you’ve just written your song, that was captured there in the energy of the performance,” he says. “Also, by nature of me learning how to engineer, there were certain sounds I was coming up with in the synth and guitar parts that I really liked. I realized if I were to move to a studio, I would just be importing a bunch of audio files from my home sessions. That felt pretty counterintuitive. I basically wanted to get better at everything, and the only way to do that was forcing myself to do it.”
An ardent fan of Elliott Smith (he divides his musical life into “Before Elliott” and “After Elliott”), Summit sensitively plumbs loss and emerging self-awareness throughout “Summer Cold.” The bittersweet title track’s protagonist sounds almost happy about catching a lover’s germs, and “Catch & Release” and “Like Hell” (“I miss you like hell and I hope I never see you again/ Because the ending was so perfect, every wavering goodbye/ No remake could match it so I won’t even try”) cradle romantic misery in hopeful arrangements.
He showcases his work at various L.A. venues, including Beyond Baroque, where he hosts the quarterly Noise Parlor, now in its fifth year. He also performs at Library Girl, the monthly literary series at Ruskin Theatre created by his mother, writer Susan Hayden. (Full disclosure: Hayden is a friend of this writer; like many others in the local creative community I was introduced to Summit’s music via Library Girl and watched him evolve onstage from an earnest boy into a thoughtful young artist with a sturdy command of melody and metaphor.)
Summit learned his first guitar chords from his father, charismatic actor Christopher Allport, who also accompanied his first performances, playing Johnny Cash classics at The Talking Stick in Ocean Park. The title track of Summit’s debut album, 2012’s “Absentee,” addresses Allport’s tragic 2008 death in an avalanche while skiing in Wrightwood. Summit readily acknowledges his father as a formative influence.
“I was a child of like 8 years old observing my dad in the bedroom writing a song,” he recalls. “That just made it seem like a normal part of life that everyone did; you would live your life and then walk into your room and come up with a piece of art. I think that more than anything was important to me. …
“The older I get, the more attached I become to holding on to those memories. On the 10th anniversary [of his death], my brother and I played some of his songs together; he was at a place later in life where he was reflecting on his early childhood and adulthood. Taking those songs apart and playing them, I just really respect him as a musician and a songwriter and vocalist. He really had the skill.”
Looking ahead, Summit’s most immediate goal is to place music in film, television or a commercial; he’s dabbled in scoring student films, and he’d like to “do it all” like main influence Jon Brion — composing for film, making original music, and producing other artists. He’s presently reaching out to audiences beyond hometown comforts. In December, his first proper tour (in tandem with singer-songwriter Irene Greene) was almost derailed by wildfires and an exploding car engine, but he says that nightmare turned into “one of the best experiences of my life.” He’s planning another mini-tour up the coast this weekend.
“We played in this record store for a couple hours to complete indifference. But when we played the Make Out Room in San Francisco, the third gig, that’s when it felt like a tour. We were meeting fellow musicians, everyone at the club was so nice, and the booker put together a curated night of like-minded people,” he says.
“It’s real hard playing to indifferent audiences, as any songwriter knows. But that’s why I wanted to do it.”
Mason Summit performs with his band at TRiP (2101 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica) at 9:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16. Tickets are $10. Call (310) 396-9010 or visit masonsummit.com.