Remain Happy Ever After: A Conversation with the Jayhawks’ Mark Olson

The Jayhawks
Hollywood Town Hall

Your words hung high in the rafters

And settled down like rain

Remain happy ever after

Happy ever after

— “Settled Down Like Rain”, Hollywood Town Hall (1992)

Shortly after the tour behind the Jayhawks’ 1995 album Tomorrow the Green Grass, co-leader Mark Olson quit the band. He had had enough. Enough of the touring, the studio hassles, the pressure from executives. But, mostly, he had had enough of the disappointment that comes when you craft a heartfelt piece of work which stubbornly refuses to find commercial success. Four excellent records into a decade-plus-long career, and Olson felt like he just couldn’t keep this train moving any longer. As he recalls today, “it wasn’t a joyous ride, man.”

Olson’s band would continue on, helmed by his longtime co-conspirator Gary Louris, a gifted pop singer-songwriter and melodious lead guitarist. Under his direction, they would craft two very good, and one great, Jayhawks records before disbanding in the mid-2000s having never achieved the success that most of their listeners believed was owed them. But, even during this frequently rewarding period, most of those same listeners harbored lingering the belief that the band had been irretrievably diminished by the departure of Mark Olson. His humble vocals, cryptic lyrics, and Gram Parsons-conjuring acid-country feel had slipped away with him down to his new home in Joshua Tree, California (literally across the highway from the motel where Parsons took his final hit).

I went down there to meet him and his then-wife Victoria Williams back in 2000, and was struck by the simplicity of his life in the desert. They had a few animals, donkeys and chickens, and a wide and dusty view of endless hilly sand. They also had a home studio, and they recorded spare, ramshackle records right in their living room (most of which would be released under the moniker Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, to scant public notice, despite the fact that they are simply wonderful folk records). I recall his telling me that they taped some vocals in the bathroom. Special effects, man.

By the mid-2000s, following the demise of the latter-day Jayhawks, Louris and Olson began to collaborate again. Olson’s marriage was breaking up, and Louris was looking to try his songs in new settings. (He would also record a beautiful if slightly uneven solo album, Vagabonds, in 2008.) They began to run through the old numbers, try their hand at writing new material as a duo, and even dust off some old tracks that they had been considering for the post-Green Grass album that never was. The result was the simple, folky, and highly welcome 2008 Ready for the Flood, recorded mostly as an acoustic duo, and sounding for all the world like a raft of great but forgotten demos circa 1995.

In reality, just such an animal actually existed: the so-called Mystery Demos, culled from two early ’90s sessions, had been floating around the internet since the early 2000s. Now that Gary and Mark were back together, playing, writing, and sounding as good as ever, it seemed time to take a look at that stuff, and think about making it available to the general public. Thanks to the folks at Sony, that’s just what we got this past week, as both Hollywood Town Hall, the Jayhawks 1992 masterpiece (among the very best records of the decade says this reviewer), and its tremendous 1995 follow-up Tomorrow The Green Grass have been reissued with all the b-sides included. On top of this, the latter release comes with a second disc comprised of about 40% of the so-called Mystery Demos. It’s a treasure trove for fans and neophytes alike. But, good as this was, nothing made fans more happy than when they heard that the Jayhawks were getting back together in the same classic lineup that toured Tomorrow the Green Grass: Louris, Olson, Marc Perlman, Karen Grotberg, and Tim O’Reagan. A new album is on the way. The Jayhawks are back.

As the reconstructed band prepared to open a short tour in support of the new material, I caught up with Olson at his hotel in mid-town Toronto. A warm, generous, and thoughtful guy, Olson was plainly brimming with excitement on the eve of his first bona fide tour with the old band in 15 years.

You know, this neighbourhood you’re staying in is called Yorkville. It was the Haight-Ashbury of Canada in the ’60s, the centre of the folk music scene and hangout for the hip kids. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn…

Then they must’ve torn it all down! I played in a club just last year in Boston where Joan Baez got her start. I forget the name of it but it’s still there. It’s been in Cambridge all these years. It’s just this little tiny place, but that’s where it all started, those little cafes.

What about you, that how you guys got started, as folkies?

I mean definitely, all the songs were written with acoustic guitars. And Gary [Louris] and I would work on the songs with two acoustic guitars. So we could sing them that way and they sounded nice — that’s why we ended up putting out the “Mark and Gary record” later on [Ready for the Flood (2008)]: because we enjoyed writing songs that way, and we wanted people to hear how they sounded when we first wrote them. That was part of it. And taking it to the band completely changed them, but they still had those roots.

We definitely sat and listened to so many groups. The Band. Joni Mitchell. Neil Young. And we wanted to try to write songs that were as good as theirs. But, I mean, come on. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”? Very difficult to write a song that good. But we tried. And, now we’re down the road a bit and people still want to hear these songs. They’ve lasted, at least a little bit.

Why, if your songs were that good, didn’t you guys ever break?

I don’t know. There was a lot of violence in the music [at the time, the early 1990s]. It’s the only way I can put it. If you were to put on a lot of records from when we were around, and that were really popular, like when Lollapalooza and all these things were going on, there was a certain amount of violence, glorification of drugs, and self destruction underlying these things, and our songs weren’t anything about that. So, you put us up against groups that are drawing thousands and thousands of people, and here come the Jayhawks, and it’s like: it didn’t really work with those people. That was an overarching youth movement at the time.

Sounds pretty bleak.

I’ll put it to you that, ah, it wasn’t so much fun, really. It wasn’t a joyous ride, man! [Here, Olson laughs. Hard.]

Well, I mean, you did quit after all.

That had to do with: I’d been in the band for quite a while. I’d just got married. I found a house down in Joshua Tree. And, I wanted to try something else with my life. I felt like we’d given it 100% on those two records, and we’d landed where we’d landed. And those guys wanted to go on, and I wanted to stop. And they went on.

You’d been together by then, what, ten years?

It was over ten years. Playing in Minneapolis in the bars. For years and years and years. Drove around in a van to a couple of different cities, New York, Chicago. With no success whatsoever. So we had done that. I had been, from day one, in it 110%. But I just reached a point… you know, that happens to people.

What was it like watching your old bandmates making records without you?

What was it like watching your old bandmates, you old band, out there making records without you?

Well, I think it would be strange except for the fact that I had a really full life. I think that goes for everybody. If something happens in their life and they go off in a different direction… You can’t sit around thinking about the past and begrudging people that you were with all the success in the world. Unless you don’t pick up and move on. And I did pick up and move on. I had a really wonderful time! Playing music, I had a really musical life post-Jayhawks. We put records out ourselves, we toured all over the world, I had two wonderful musical partners. I mean, playing with Victoria Williams was a joy! There’s no other way to describe it. It was a joy-filled experience. So, for me to be like, during that time, to be upset… it’s bad form! [Laughs]. Anyone that saw me during that time saw that when I was playing with Victoria, I was enjoying myself. It wasn’t anything like the Jayhawks, but how could it be? It was something completely different. I didn’t have any desire to re-work a band in that form. I wanted to go with the people I was around and play music. I really discovered some different paths, you know?

We loved, we listened to the Holy Modal Rounders, and kinda patterned our name after them, actually — the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers. We were into the outrageousness of that kind of thing. We had that element, that psychedelic folky… I mean, Victoria Williams with the wah wah banjo. Just a great range of music. I felt really fulfilled. I didn’t have any feelings of angst, or whatever.

So, what brought you and Gary back together?

That started a long time ago, actually. In 2001 Gary came out to my house (shortly after you did, actually). And we wrote a song together. You’d think it wouldn’t have taken so long, but we did that in 2001 and here we are in 2011. Basically we planned at that point to do some shows up ahead, which we did, and then we got together again and wrote some songs. Then we did the “Mark and Gary record” and toured all over with that. We were… for me it was really fun to just work the harmonies so up in front. When we played with the band sometimes that was really difficult to focus in on. But in the acoustic setting, man, it’s all about the harmonies in the singing.

It’s the putting out… I think that we all wished that they’d put these [re-issues of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass] out years ago. But, in the past few years we really pushed them to put them out, and of course we’re going to play when they come out.

So, for these shows, are you going to stick with the material from the two reissues?

There’s so much material coming out on these two albums that yeah, we are focusing on those two albums. And new material we’ve written, stuff from the b-side of those two albums, and then stuff from the very first Jayhawks record too [the recently re-released Bunkhouse record].

Let’s talk a bit about those “Mystery Demos”. They are the highlight of these reissues for so many of your listeners. What’s the “mystery”?

When we did Hollywood Town Hall we had a number of songs ready for that album. I think there may have been… There were two “Mystery Demos”, actually. And I think that both of them relate more to Tomorrow the Green Grass. I think with Hollywood Town Hall there was a certain level of like: if we’re going to bust out we’re going to have to just write more songs and better songs. So we did. We wrote a lot of songs. And we put them down in two different sessions. One was in California at Geroge [Drakoulias]’s apartment, literally sitting in front of one mic. No idea it was ever going to come out. Just to have the songs on tape. And the other one was in Minnesota with a violin player [Mike “Razz” Russell] who had never heard the songs before. We were just kind of thinking we’d record the songs and jam them, and he could come along, you know. And he ended up playing on the new album. He played with the Creek Dippers, too.

So we set about writing the songs. I had the idea in my mind that I wanted to be really cranking out records. Two records a year, or something like that you know? And I had this feeling that if we presented this much material, then maybe we could get on that kind of train. But that wasn’t ever going to happen in this day and age because they wanted things “timed”, and everything is just a really long process. So a lot of songs got lost in the shuffle.

But, over the years a couple people got ahold of them on some fan page and started talking about them, and Gary and I got back together… There’s more [tracks] than are even on the new Tomorrow the Green Grass reissue. There’s more. But, some of them are just basically pieces, not entire songs. You have to realize, we played a lot of years even before we went to Hollywood Town Hall and some of them predate that too. There were a number of years we didn’t make a record after [the Jayhawks’ 1989 album] Blue Earth, before Hollywood Town Hall. There was a lot of time, and there was a bit of a direction shift. We started listening to some different stuff like The Band, even a little bit to the Grateful Dead, and we had a number of songs in that vein that never, that didn’t go anywhere. We played them a couple times at live shows. That’s it.

When Gary and I got together to make the “Mark and Gary record”, we set about writing songs. And at the same time, we knew that we had a lot of good old songs, so we started to re-rehearse some of those and a number of them ended up on that record. We would add little parts too, that was fun. There’s “Turn Your Pretty Name Around” and “My Gospel Song For You”, and [sings: la la la] another one. The last song on the record. [“Cotton Dress”.] And “Bloody Hands”. The “Mark and Gary record” must’ve had like 14 songs on it [15, actually], so there’s a lot of songs between new songs and reworked ones.

But there were still some orphans, even after that record?

When the time came to put these reissues out, I think we just wanted to show people these songs. There’s still a few left behind, though. […] Some ended up with [Louris’ side-project] Golden Smog, some on my records, but just a trickle.

I always thought that the Golden Smog number “Won’t Be Coming Home” would have fit perfectly on Tomorrow the Green Grass. Even better than some of the stuff that made the final cut.

I know. It’s funny that that stuff didn’t end up on one of our albums. It was a difficult thing, the song selection. And I didn’t really have anything to do with, it was more involved with George [Drakoulias] because he was the producer, and that’s the way it is. We just had a lot of songs, so.

For many people, I think the biggest revelation on these b-sides and “Mystery Demos” is the song “You and I (Ba Ba Ba)”. It’s like the Beach Boys meets Neil Young. Any chance you’ll play that on this tour?

It’s a funny thing because we brought it up. We were asked by the band what songs we wanted to work up, and we gave them a little list at the first day of rehearsal. And we didn’t include “Ba Ba Ba”. But, the second day we came in, and we had actually worked on it, Gary and I, just for fun, and we said OK, we’re going to be doing “Ba Ba Ba” now, and like their faces turned white! [Laughing.] I mean, it’s got about 17 chords! You know? It was a fun song to work on for us because we were just trying to find chords that worked with different harmony la las. Yeah that song is really good. But, we didn’t work it up. There’s a limit!

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.