Remain Happy Ever After

A Conversation with the Jayhawks' Mark Olson

by Stuart Henderson

26 January 2011

L to R: Marc Perlman, Karen Grotberg, Mark Olson, Gary Louris & Tim O’Reagan. Photo © Steven Cohen. 

After you left the band, many fans noticed that the Jayhawks’ lyrics changed a lot.

After you left the band, many fans noticed that the Jayhawks’ lyrics changed a lot. You’re a really elliptical writer, very mysterious. Gary is a lot more straightforward. Clearly you always collaborated on melody, but did you and do you collaborate on lyrics?
We collaborate on lyrics. When we write together we collaborate on lyrics. I tend to push on lyrics more, as far as… lyrics, when I write, I hear it in my head, there’s no other way to put it. Lyrics occur to me, I write them down on a piece of paper, and hand them in. So to speak. In early days I edited myself a lot more, but now I am more confident. I really like wordplay. I like looking at things from a different side, That really appeals to me, looking at situations from a different angle. And I like to think in terms of different people and how they view things in life. I take a kind of philosophical approach to life. I feel that you have to write from a point of view and I think that the reason people call my writing somewhat vague is just because when you’re talking about point of views… When you get really harsh on one specific point of view you can turn people off.

I try to look at life in general as somewhat of a mystery. So that’s why I do that. I think there is a lot of mystery to life. There’s a lot of things we’ll never know the answer to, and I try to put that in the lyrics. Life is unresolved. You’re never ever going to… I spent a lot of time looking forward, trying to figure things out. But I want to try to live more in the moment. This has always been a kind of personal struggle. I find I’m always trying to work things out, settle things down, make everything OK, and so I realize I try to write lyrics in a way that say I’m never going to know the answer to these things. I’m never going to figure things out.

Is there comfort in that?
Yeah. Sure. Because I’m trying to communicate to myself and to other people that this is the real struggle. There aren’t any pat answers. But, I am not a proponent of chaos. Throughout all of this, there is mystery, but there is a guiding light.

There’s a real sacred feel to that statement.
I am pushing in that direction, pushing down that road. But, I am not a person who ever wants to be on some soap box directing any sort of traffic. I am talking about a person who is involved in the struggle. There are all sorts of ways to write, and this is the one that comes natural to me. Something inside of me, whatever, that… during different points in my life I have spent a lot of time all by myself. I wouldn’t say that that’s a good thing. The only thing it has helped me with is that I tend to have a voice going on, and I tend to, when it comes time to write something, there have been songs when the music is done, and I can just go away and do the lyrics. I can sit down and focus, and all of a sudden I get a story going, and I write it down. There’s a thousand people writing lyrics and I don’t know how I stack up against them. But I do know that I have found a way to write lyrics that work for me.

There’s a thousand lyricists, but only a handful of really good ones. Is there any lyricist that really floored you, inspired your approach?
OK, I’ll tell you, There was one person. His lyrics just floored me. But, it’s a strange one, OK! [Laughs. Hard.]. It is Sir Douglas from the Sir Douglas Quintet [Doug Sahm]. And why I say that is because I liked how, in the record, the Mendocino record [1969], he is talking about deep stuff, in way. “If you’re gonna live in Texas you gotta have a lot of soul.” He has this crazy story involved in this record: he moved to California and there’s a lot of crazy hippies out there, but he’s still drawn back to this soulful place in Texas where people were real, and women were loved and… There’s just this story in there and the way he writes about it is unconscious. He was an unconscious lyricist. I know this. He just made this stuff up so quickly. And that inspired me. There’s so many great lines on that record, they’re almost goofy. But, even on some of his later records, “stoned faces don’t lie baby when you’re high”.  Just crazy, off the wall stuff. […] You won’t find it on any of the reissues. You’re going to have to go into a record store, and find the Mendocino record. [This is not quite true. You can find a version put out by Acadia Records in 2002 on Amazon for like $25 dollars. Guessing Olson is not an online shopper.] You’re going to have to get the LP. Within that record are what I believe to be the greatest off the cuff lyrics. And, it also has the element of philosophy, and fun. So there’s all that.

I think that Gene Clark was a great lyricist too. Really interesting, and massively underrated on that level. I also really liked the Flying Burrito Brothers. I mean what is a better song than “Sin City” on a lyrical level? And then of course Bob Dylan, and of course Neil Young, and of course Joni Mitchell. All of these people were just massively talented. The way they put words together. I feel that that generation that was able to listen to those songs when they first came on the radio must have been moved by it. I mean, how could you not be moved by “Mr. Tambourine Man”? It’s like this philosophical rant, and it makes you feel different than you felt before you listened to it.
All these writers, like you, have a way of mixing the light with the dark. Finding the mystery there, exploring it. Darkness mingling with playfulness, freedom.

That’s what music represented to me. When I was a kid, when I heard that sixties music, when I lived with my grandma for awhile and we went to a bluegrass festival, the thing that impressed me about it was the freedom. These people were up there, smiling, laughing, dancing. What must it be like to be a musician? We went up to the Winnipeg Folk Festival a long time ago as the Jayhawks, and basically learned… a lot. We saw a lot of great musicians. I mean Bonnie Raitt was there, and… and I had the same feeling then.

These people are so free. They play this music, they sing about important things in their lives, politics even, and but they do it with a smile. It just must be such an uplifting way to live. Of course as time went on I learned that, well, that’s up to you, really.


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