On Saturday, we lost of one America’s finest songwriters and most prolific pioneers of independent music. Jason Molina died of organ failure due to alcoholism on Saturday, but it wouldn’t become known to most of the world until yesterday. His immense and intense catalogue of music caught momentum under the Songs: Ohia moniker from 1997 til 2003 and continued on as Magnolia Electric Company. If Songs: Ohia was his Neil Young, Magnolia Electric Company was his Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Constantly keeping his audience guessing, he also recorded under his own name, Pyramid Electric Company, Amalgomated Sons of the Rest and did a collaborative recording with Centromatic’s Will Johnson under the name Molina and Johnson.
Through his various projects, Molina made some of the greatest records of the late 1990’s-2000’s. Didn’t It Rain and Magnolia Electric Company remain among my favorite emotive and cathartic records of all time. The pride of the Secretly Canadian record label and independent music in general, I was happy to hear them when they came out, and have always held them close and dear through the years. I paid tribute to Mr. Molina yesterday listening to almost his entire catalogue and noting its continuing progression. While the songs maintained their inherent sadness combined with a certain stoicism, they seemed especially haunting and all the more chilling.
As an homage to Molina and his fans, I dug up the first story I wrote about Songs: Ohia back in 2002– just after he released one of his greatest works, and just before he changed his sound all together. The following interview is unedited and hopefully pays tribute to this truly important songwriter. Our hearts go out to his friends and family…….
Interview from Boston’s Weekly Dig (December 2002)
Jason Molina is trouble’s troubadour. His songs are beautifully chilling, but with just enough subtle warmth and light to be completely cathartic. So many great musicians hail from Chicago, but none seem to speak its language like Molina. His songs all seem to be sung under the same grey skies and all seem to summon a mystic strength that lurks among its despondency. Since 1996, Molina has appeared on about 50 different recordings, whether that’s part of a compilation, collaboration, EP, LP, 7” or single. Constantly reinventing himself through different monikers, the unifying thread that ties each of Molina’s recordings together is that dichotomy of fragility and strong-willed stoicism. Molina’s most popular works are filed under the name Songs: Ohia, and the ones that aren’t are usually ultra-rare collectors items found only in the hands of those who caught on early, or those with enough money who peruse the eBay market. Jason Molina has no band; both live shows and albums have an ever-changing cast of characters. He strays from routine and uses spontaneity as a creative tool. Molina’s last album as Songs: Ohia, Didn’t It Rain, was a collection of seven extended songs that seemed to have been stranded out it in a downpour of his emotion and then brought inside and told eerily by the warmth of a fireside. The album, from its feel all the way down to the instrumentation and lyrics seemed so well-conceived, but that’s the most interesting part—it wasn’t. It was recorded live and without practice. It all goes to show that Jason Molina can do more with a guitar and his passionate vocals than most bands can do with an unlimited team of personnel and months of over-production in the studio. Molina’s latest work is a collaborative project with Will Oldham and Alasdair Roberts called The Amalgamated Sons of Rest and two new Songs: Ohia albums will surface in the near future. Presenting an electronic conversation with Mr. Jason Molina:
You have a rotating cast of characters on each of your albums, how does it
work when it comes to touring time. How often do you play solo?
I don’t have any set percentage of times I show up on stage with a band or not. I have to sometimes consider the impracticality of bringing a whole pack of musicians to remote places. It helps that since I started out people have come to the shows not expecting one or the other. In Boston I will be alone this time.
I read somewhere that Didn’t it Rain was all recorded live. To what degree were the songs worked out before you met up with the players? Was there much practicing or was it more spontaneous?
We never practiced those songs. I would show them the chords and most of the time we didn’t even have to listen to me singing the whole thing. The complexity in those songs is in their “tone” not so much the note-by-note delivery of them.
How often are your albums created with the same spontaneity?
I just work day-by-day at these records. Usually within three days it should all be done, much more than that it starts to fall apart. I like to think that strengths in these recordings lie in whatever elements cannot be re-done.
The sound of Didn’t it Rain is amazing. How important is the recording location
in the conception of an album? Where was this one recorded?
Didn’t it Rain was done in an old brick building in Philadelphia. The Magnolia Electric Company [the upcoming LP] was done with Steve Albini in Chicago. The location, specifically the rooms where we did each of these recordings was important, but not more so than the assemblage of players and engineers who know what they’re doing.
Your albums each have a different feel, but the songs on each album are cohesive. Is that a conscious thing?
I try to get a good family of songs together and the thread of music or lyric that seems to be the binding element is what I try to feature in the recording of the LPs.
I’m assuming Didn’t it Rain’s cohesive element is Chicago life.
Well, the Midwest. You can’t run out of things to say about all that grey.
How has your songwriting changed since you moved to Chicago?
I live most of the time in the Midwest, so I wouldn’t notice anything dramatic about the influence of Chicago in particular upon the songs. When I wrote Ghost Tropic I attempted to take the theme of being lost, dislocated, way out past the boundary and put it into a record. I then concentrated on putting a foot down and saying something about finding a place, you understand? And then the two new records coming out The Pyramid Electric Co. and The Magnolia Electric Co. are working out the people in the place.
Talk a little about the upcoming records. I heard it was just going to be one record stripped down and now it’s destined to be two records featuring a whole cast of players.
The Pyramid Electric Co. is just coming out on vinyl and it’s me alone in a room with an electric guitar mostly and a piano. It has a depth to it that I was very pleased with. Sonically and lyrically there seemed to be a great reaching to get something done which I had not been able to do before. A short while after that comes out, the other songs I did with [Steve] Albini will come out as The Magnolia Electric Co. And that one is with a 10-piece band playing live, it really isn’t like anything else I’ve done. It has elements of straight Nashville circa 1960, the first Jackson Browne record, Harvest and 1950’s American guitar, especially Link Wray’s guitar tone turned down. . . I ain’t kidding.
On the new record I found people to sing the leads on some of it. I just sit out and let them go. It’s educational to hear the way Albini recorded each of the different singers and made it all sound.
You’ve done a bunch of 7″s in your day. Talk about the magic of the 7″.
There is nothing like it. I suppose I have done about 15 of these maybe, and this year I am doing quite a large project involving 7”s only. I am doing the next set of releases as Jason Molina. Since the Magnolia Electric Co and the Pyramid Electric Co. were trying to change things, I need a way to ease into being something that is not Songs: Ohia. This new 7″ project is one where I do my new record over the course of a year with about 6 different labels and each record comes out as a Jason Molina record and I’ll have some theme which ties them all together. Then I am sending out the masters to various labels of my own choice and submitting them like the old days, seeing who will be willing to put them out.