Jason Molina has been the very model of the cult artist since 1997 when his obtusely named Songs:Ohia project issued its first self-titled volley over the bow. Over the years, he's gone though countless support changes, a couple different project names, the latest being Magnolia Electric Co, and his voice has grown a little smooth. What remains consistent is his dark night of the soul introspection, his adoption of the moon and ghosts as characters in the human drama acted out in his songs. Also, he's gained a reputation as a difficult motherfucker to deal with, eschewing Dane Cook "I Heart My Fans" willingness to bend over and cough for the press and the dorks like me that come up at every show, thinking he'll be impressed that we bought a rare tour single on eBay for $75. To me, he's one of the few songwriters in the indie rock thing that matter. He's our Neil Young without the CSNY bankroll. So I was giddy as a school girl that he took the time to answer some questions.
OutsideLeft: How much does the recording situation affect your songwriting? When you get ready to write a song, do you have a recording environment in mind? Does that direct the lyrical or musical aspects of the songs?
Jason Molina: The recording situation, i.e. the physical environment does have a great deal to do with the sound of the music that ends up on a Magnolia record. We work live and the way that an engineer targets what is important to capture from the band and what is important to consider as an ambient element, all are important to keeping our records sounding interesting after a few listens. There are considerations that I make a few months out when deciding to record a record. This is the time when I think of possible arrangement choices, different instrumentation etc. When I write songs, I am only writing with that individual piece in mind. I don't plan for the final recording until I have a group of songs that seem to need to be presented together.
OL: For material that's recorded in the studio, its seems that the material is lighter, more wistful and self-confident in tenor, whereas in the garage stuff like Let Me Go and Protection Spells, the protagonist in the songs seems more fragile and open. Is this a concious thing?
JM: This is just one reading from one listener. I don't approach any recording lightly, however I am always careful to let the music, from take to take, evolve. I do not feel like I have to have a crystal copy of what was in mind when I walked in. I leave the end to the ending, literally.
OL: You've recorded under a number of different identities over the years. How do you come to choose what is/was Songs:Ohia, what is Magnolia Electric Co and what goes under your own name? Is the Songs:Ohia mantle done, or is there a possibility of another release?
JM: In my mind Ohia is done, that was 10 years of very hard work and a lot of learning and exploring. This Magnolia era will be full of the same kinds of things but under a new flag. If it's me writing the songs, it's Magnolia. Sometimes I have a record's worth of music that I am interested in recording without the principal players, this is nothing new, and it keeps it so that I am always getting closer to finding what it is that I really do want to bring to Magnolia.
OL: You have a very devout fanbase, which can work both for and against an artist in the creation of his work, and you are known for keeping your fans at a distance, to let the music do the talking. How do you view your relationship to your fans, and the artist/fan dynamic in general?
JM: I always have known that the answer here is that I do not do this for fans. I do not do this because I feel like I should entertain people. I have not gone one step in the music making world, and all of the work it involves with thinking what would the fans think? What would the label want? I see it as a piece by piece building of something. I do need help to do this, that is where the fans and the label and the band come in. It takes a huge army of people to support something that has no defined ending, no defined goals. Other musicians and bands do things for their own reasons. To me this is important work and I have to keep doing it. If I walked away from the business side of music tomorrow I would be happy. I know we've done good work. Keeping a distance preserves something.
OL: Like I mentioned before, it seems that the recording situation has some bearing on the feel of the material for each record, but on Fading Trails, it was recorded in 4 different studios. Was this a conscious break from how (I assume) you worked in the past, or just a matter of how things played out?
JM: The label, Secretly Canadian, felt like a unique approach to this material would be to pull out certain representative songs and configure these into a single record. Each session was approached and recorded and finished with the intention that it would be its own record. We will see how the rest of this material will be presented, but I am excited to know some of the inner workings of this. I know that people are going to be very surprised and happy in a few months.
OL: What does the moon represent in your songs? It comes up a lot, even in two titles on Fading Trails? Are the common objects in your lyrics: moons, stars, ghosts - are they coded ciphers for something or just images you like and say what you want?
JM: I look at my songs as parts of a rebus, this is my way of talking and so I think it is honest. These things are all real to me and I present these not as characters in a story, but the whole story on their own.
OL: I know you are a painter, but your artwork doesn't appear on your album covers (or does it and I'm just mistaken) Do you like to keep those worlds separate? Do you want to prevent a painting from being a symbol for something else instead of standing on its own?
JM: I have thought about this over the years, and it comes up in interviews a lot. From my experience songs and paintings come from the same place and they are equal to me in value. I like to collaborate with different musicians even though I have an idea of what I want. I also like to extend the collaboration to the artwork. Sometimes I have an idea that will work; if I don't, then I start looking for artists to work with on the cover art.
OL: Finally, I plan on catching you at the Spanish Moon in Baton Rouge. Was the song "Spanish Moon, Fall and Rise" inspired by the place. I'm guessing that the owners told you the story of how it's rumored to be haunted.
JM: That place is certainly haunted. I wrote the first version of this song alone, locked in the Spanish Moon. It is a favorite song of mine. I was able to just let that place put together the song for me.
Magnolia Electric Co. Fading Trails (Secretly Canadian)
Jason has two current releases out. Magnolia Electric Co's Fading Trails, where material was pulled together from four different full band sessions. Under the Magnolia guise, he takes on a twngier, more honey-drenched view of his internal prism. This release finds the Nashville-esque feel of the band in its best form, especially in the album opener "Don't Fade on Me" and the slide-and-organ-saturated "Talk To Me Devil Again" with the whole band in sympathetic vibrato and pulse with his voice. It might be the best performance this group has put to tape. The aforementioned "Spanish Moon, Rise and Fall" hold salience in that it was penned in one of my favorite watering holes. Spanish Moon is a ramshackle rock club in Baton Rouge that has lived, like everything around here, hundreds of chequered pasts. The word is that it was used as a morgue during a particularly deadly flood years ago, and many bands that have spent the night there report the presence of ghosts.
Jason Molina Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go (Secretly Canadian)
The other is the skeletal, spooky Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go released under his own name (only the second of his myriad of releases to do so). This was recorded in the garage in almost pitch darkness on the last nights in a place before moving to a new city, and, like a good short story, everything points at that mood. His voice is submerged in cavernous echo, and it seems as if one of his ghost buddies is adding the kind of subtle piano to his economical guitar picking. I think this shows him at his strengths, going further down that dark road than most will go. Past recordings like this (The Ghost, Protection Spells) sound like what would be on a tape sitting on the floor of a studio apartment after the occupant mysteriously disappeared. The sound quality here is a step up from his jambox days, but there is that same sense of immediacy here without being cloying or smothering. Molina is not one of those songwriters giving you an awkward gaze, he's trying to avoid yours.
It opens with "It's Easier Now," but the negative space between his words and the sound of every damn creak in the room indicate the contrary. The mood only gets lonelier as the record progresses, like on the softer "Don't It Look Like Rain" and the nearly somnambulant "It Must be raining There Forever." This is the shit, where his inner drifter says fuck it and hits the road without saying goodbye. It's not overly sentimental or bitter, just honest with the dark and the moon and the stars that you are left with when everything else falls away. The most harrowing moment here is on "Get Out, Get Out, Get Out" where his croon echoes over a dying pulsar drum machine and a barely acknowledged guitar. When he gets to the title in the chorus, you understand he's been warning you all this time. Not every song is yours, nothing is ever really yours, and you need get out while you still can.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com