Just a few weeks ago, during one of my many idle Internet searches, I was poking around about info on Magnolia Electric Co./Songs: Ohia frontman Jason Molina, who had all but disappeared from music several years ago due to unspecified health problems. I didn’t find anything new on his condition at the time, but today I perhaps discovered why that was: Molina had passed away over the weekend at age 39, of natural causes. Further digging revealed that an addiction to alcohol was apparently why Molina stepped into the shadows. I somehow missed that was the root of his struggles, which made me even sadder.
I was quite a fan of Molina and his many projects; Songs: Ohia’s sparse work was a very formative inspiration in my late college years, and Magnolia Electric Co.’s Fading Trails was a favorite soon after I moved to St. Louis. “Lonesome Valley” in particular hit me in the heart like a brick–so much so that I vividly recall going to see Magnolia Electric Co. open for Son Volt at the Pageant in St. Louis, despite being sick with a fever, because I had a desperate need to hear that song live. (They played it.) As a songwriter, Molina was so adept at capturing loneliness; that, coupled with an acute awareness of mortality and desolation, lent his music such an ache, it was hard to shake. His songs burned, rather than skimmed, the surface.
In August 2003, I interviewed Jason for the alt-weekly Cleveland Scene, for a feature loosely tied to the fact that he was a Cleveland native. We talked a lot about his time here as a musician–and about plenty of other things, too. I found my entire transcription of that interview, and will post it when I have some time to clean it up. In the meantime, here’s text of that feature I turned in then (which somehow doesn’t seem to be online).
(Originally appeared in Cleveland Scene, summer 2003)
The mixtape—once a staple of indie kids and poor teenagers everywhere, but rapidly becoming obsolete now that a stack of blank CDs is often cheaper than a McDonald’s cheeseburger—was the original musical catalyst for Songs:Ohia visionary Jason Molina.
“[They] would have Slayer on ’em, and Black Flag, and then they’d have Jimi Hendrix,” the Oberlin-born, West Virginia- and Lorain-raised songwriter recalls about the influential compilations. “That’s what got me to first hear things like Suicidal Tendencies or Big Black, or especially some Midwestern bands—it’s what got me to hear the Jesus Lizard for the first time. Maybe even knowing a little clue about the geographical location, or their proximity to us making music in Ohio, was important, because you would say, ‘Hey, just over in Chicago are all these really great bands.’ I didn’t really have any vision of having to leave Ohio, or leave any of the places I lived, to go make music.”
Indeed, Molina is currently based in Indianapolis, and he began his musical career in the Cleveland heavy metal band the Spine Riders during the late 1980s. He fondly remembers playing at the Euclid Tavern, and the time his band almost opened for the Butthole Surfers at the Agora Theater.
“The network that sort of goes into producing a show, promoting a show… I think they were afraid to take a chance on us beyond just the band’s word that they thought we were worth having,” he says. “They wanted a presskit, and we were like, ‘What the hell is a presskit?’ And they’re like, ‘You’re 15? I don’t know if this is gonna work out.'”
Molina can certainly laugh about that time now, as Songs:Ohia have gained notoriety and critical success in indie circles for sparse, sprawling tunes inspired by the simplicity of spirituals and the raw emotional bloodletting of the blues. Frequently compared to Neil Young’s country-rock or Will Oldham’s lo-fi intensity, his albums revel in their bare instrumentation—2003’s Magnolia Electric Co., his most accomplished work to date, even sounds stark despite rich layers of haunted Americana riff-bending.
In fact, Molina cites the way he approaches creating Songs:Ohia’s tunes as probably the most direct effect of his heartland upbringing.
“I think just generally the work ethic of the Midwest has probably had more to do with my music overall,” he posits. “Which is just that I really treat it like it’s a serious thing, like it’s a job. I spent a lot of time in a lot of Midwestern cities—Chicago, Cleveland, Omaha. Even living in southern West Virginia, there is a uniting theme somehow, in just the idea that you have to work for something.”
Songs:Ohia’s staggering back catalog, which includes ten albums, a handful of EPs and a smattering of 7″ singles, obviously demonstrates Molina’s workhorse mentality. The symbols and themes running through his lyrics also occasionally echo the demanding labor environment of rust belt industrial sectors—notably “Bring a Coleman lantern and a radio / Cleveland game and two fishing poles and watch with me from the shore / Ghostly steel and iron ore ships coming home,” from a song on 2002’s Didn’t It Rain.
Meanwhile, characters in other songs strive to reconcile past heartache with their present emotional states, indirectly paralleling how Cleveland still struggles to shed its Mistake On The Lake reputation. When Molina sings lines like, “I am standing on a crossroad trying to make up my mind / I’m trying to remember how it got so late / Why every night pain comes from a different place / Now something’s got to change,” from Magnolia’s “I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost,” it’s oddly reminiscent of the city’s battle to overcome and forget its own ghosts—the Fumble, the flaming Cuyahoga River, the loss of the steel industry—and instead focus on its thriving architectural and cultural rejuvenation.
But while these dirges and lyrics often conjure the salt-of-the-earth dreamers peppering small towns all over the Midwest, Molina downplays their content as stemming specifically from his Ohio experiences.
“Any place where you spend time making art or making music, it should have some bearing on what you’re doing,” he says. “Even if you’re just in jail and you’re sitting there drawing or writing or doing something, trying to be creative within whatever environment you have. It’s gonna weigh in—[although] it might not be in an obvious way.”
Just as abstract is the way Molina bridges musical genres within his albums, a further testament to his formative years—a time when he says he “didn’t see much difference between blues music and pretty hard, Chicago-based rock.” Part of the backing band on this current tour is the Coke Dares, an Indiana hardcore trio, while he recorded with bluegrass musicians on Didn’t It Rain.
“More people than you would think can actually do that—you don’t have to be a jazz bass player strictly,” he says about his disparate approach. “You might know a thousand standards and you might be a great improviser, but when you go back and forth between the genres, it’s really exciting.”
In retrospect, it’s quite easy to see that Molina’s inventive mentality actually has quite a bit in common with—and is a direct reaction to—the painstakingly constructed song jumbles he devoured as just another headbanging adolescent.
“When you grow up around all those classic rock radio stations where Michael Stanley is a star of the scene, I think there’s a quickness with which we were able to absorb that hard rock stuff and turn it into something new,” he says. “There are actually a lot of songwriter-oriented people who have lived in the Midwest who came from that AC/DC, denim-and-leather scene, doing what I think is pretty interesting music. I know [Red House Painters’] Mark Kozelek and I were at one of the same Iron Maiden concerts in Cleveland. You see the way that he absorbed years of that kind of stuff and put it into his music; it’s not in an obvious way, but it’s there.”