Hospitals and Baseball Games: An Interview with Magnolia Electric Co.
Jason Molina seems to write more often than he changes recording names, and the result is a recent box set from Magnolia Electric Co.
Jason Molina is one of the hardest working musicians around. Over the past decade, his band has released an album every year -- first under the name Songs: Ohia, and now under Magnolia Electric Co. This year, Magnolia Electric Co. released its first box set, Sojourner. Box sets usually serve to archive the highlights of an artist’s career, but Sojourner is a collection of entirely of new music. Released in August 2007, the box set contains three new full-length albums, one new EP, a DVD tour documentary, five postcards, and a medallion -- all encased in a wooden box.
In Sojourner, Magnolia fans will be pleased to find familiar songs constructed with lo-fi, somewhat simple instrumentals and Molina’s strong vocals, steeped in melancholy and longing. Each of the four albums -- Nashville Moon, Black Ram, Shohola, and Sun Session -- is distinct in tone and dynamic, each a thoughtfully structured family of related songs. Still, as with all music touched by Molina’s songwriting, all four albums are connected by their soulfulness and themes of displacement, yearning, loneliness, and hope.
Between the band and his solo career, Molina finds himself on the road almost constantly. Yet, he sets aside time each day to write new music. Unsurprising from his prolific repertoire, songwriting is a central part of his life.
Molina spoke with PopMatters at the Black Cat in Washington D.C.
Why did you decide to release a box set of all new music?
I did it because I really, really didn’t want to have to go back and listen to and sequence all the old songs -- it would take so much time and energy. I felt like, while I was on a good streak of writing, a creative streak, I would just write new material. So that’s what I did.
Which it seems like you’re doing all the time.
Yeah, I try and write everyday.
And whose idea was it to release all the albums together like that?
It was my idea to somehow put it all together. I didn’t know if it was going to be a box set, but I wanted to put out all those records at the same time. We first did the Nashville Moon session -- that’s the one we did with Steve Albini -- and we did that right after a long tour. I really enjoy recording right after a tour. We’re tired, but the songs are really lived in by then. But at the same time, I was writing a ton of other new stuff, so I had this idea to do the Black Ram record -- which is the one I did with David Lowery. I did a record a few years ago called Ghost Tropic and it was done by getting in the studio without songs written and playing with musicians I’d never played with before. So I was really happy with Nashville Moon because that was the guys I’ve always played with in Magnolia. And I wanted to do another record where it was my songs in a band with people I’d never worked with. It’s risky, but it has always worked out.
Do you ever get criticism that your albums could use more variation or reinvention?
Not so much. I mean, with face-to-face criticism, usually no, because it’s usually bands that come up and talk to you and they’ll say they have favorites. It’s the press that ends up saying they specifically don’t like a record. I try to experiment with as many different types of thematic records -- within the sort of symbolic language that I have been using to write songs all these years. I’m never tired of it. But sometimes maybe it’s more country-influenced or sometimes maybe more psychedelic or a little more abstract. I’m not saying I’ve ever made a sprawling, really experimental record. But I challenge myself a lot and I think that it gives it enough variety.
Honestly, I mean, we sell so many records and at the shows, you watch people walk out with five different records some nights, and every one of those is really different. The consistency -- either the theme from record to record, or the band, the different musicians -- it really varies. So if I get criticism, I don’t worry about that, because I’m still being creative. I don’t know what I’ll do next but it’s gonna be something exciting, because to follow up a box set, it has to be something really exciting!
In your songwriting, there are a few themes that are really pervasive. You use certain motifs; for example, the moon, the dark, ghosts. And animals: rams, lambs, hens--
Yeah, wolves, birds, you name it.
Right. What would you say is the significance behind those motifs?
I don’t know. It’s just-- I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid. And I really don’t know, because I haven’t really formulated answers for that, and it changes in my mind all the time. But, basically, since I was a kid, I wrote songs. The language that I used was always about trees and animals and the moon and, just, the concept of horizon for me -- living in places that I always wanted to get the hell out of. I think it’s sort of like, when Johnny Cash sings a lot of those train songs. I think that’s the feeling that I had. I always lived by railroads and I would find places to just look at the horizon and I always expected there was something somewhere else. And sometimes I think that’s more a metaphysical somewhere else rather than just to get out of the town.
In songwriting, I needed language. And I always believed in singing about what I do. I just happened to have this more -- I don’t know -- just more symbolic language. Rather than singing about girlfriends and cars and shit when I was a teenager, I was singing about this stuff.
Which towns were you trying to get out of?
I grew up in Southern West Virginia and also in Ohio. I did most of my early songwriting in West Virginia, because I had more time and more friends that played music. Everyone that I played music with my whole life was a lot older than me. They weren’t exactly “bands” in the early days, we would just get together a couple times a week and I would write songs and we would play them. It was only later that we would play live and conceive of records. The places where I grew up are really important to me because I’ve never lived in one place for very long. So, traveling, being on the road all the time, moving around is definitely showing up all the time. Displacement has been the theme of my life.
Why did your family move around so much?
I think my family never really felt rooted anywhere. Although, they’re all from Southern West Virginia -- coal mining and railroad families. In the mid-60s, that was the last thing in the world I think someone from those places wanted to do with their lives, because they have their parents saying, “Don’t do this.” After several generations of it, someone finally has the balls to say, “Get out of town.” But you can’t just pick someone up and move them. You’re coming from a horrible situation, of course. But I think there was always some sort of yearning for living somewhere else, and I was just dragged along with that as a kid, but as soon as I was a teenager -- by the time I put together my first band I was like thirteen or so -- I was like, I am not going to stay here. I’m not gonna work on an assembly line, I’m not gonna build Thunderbirds, or work at U.S. Steel -- my options were really limited. So I made my own way out.
And I would imagine your family’s pretty supportive of your career?
No, it was never discussed. There was no support, but they didn’t care. They just really didn’t give a shit about what I was doing. I certainly wasn’t doing it for support, because that didn’t exist in my world. So I did it. I was like, whether you hate it or not -- and there were times when it was something they were annoyed by. They didn’t push me in any one direction. Punishment to me would be like they’d take my guitar away, which killed me. But then I would just write lyrics.
Can you talk about the religious imagery in your music?
I’m not a religious person. I think you make your own religion. I don’t take it lightly when I use language like that. It’s a cultural arm. A Bible doesn’t mean a Bible to me; a Bible’s just a book, but the word “Bible” might show up as a word in a song. And I take a hell of a lot of care to make sure that there would be no misunderstanding. People ask about it. I can remember the guys from Modest Mouse were obsessed, years ago, with a handful of certain songs of mine. They would just quiz me about it a lot. And I was like, well I guess I wasn’t clear enough, but the thing is, I don’t want to be that clear. It’s magic, it just falls out of the sky, I don’t want to have to explain it.
You still move around all the time, traveling on tour and living different places. Is there any place that’s home for you?
No. Still not yet, no. I live in London right now. I lived in Chicago for years and I would love to have a place there. But, circumstances came up where I had the chance to move. And that’s my problem: I take these chances.
It is. It’s true, Spanish-Gypsy blood. That’s what my family’s always told me. Since you were a kid, you were just destined to be gone. And I was like that. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be around anyone else because I had this whole world of making stuff and doing art. I love painting and with the tour, I never get time to finish my art.
What kind of painting do you do?
I did the art in the box set. And really abstract stuff. I love building things. Shit that’s really hard to do when you’re in a van all day. I have to work to be creative. I don’t think there’s any such thing as inspiration, no way. You see magnificent things in your life and you’re part of amazing things. And you can take those things and use them as a creative point. But music doesn’t come to me like lightening. I work hard at it. And golden moments, sometimes, are when you decide to throw something away. When you think that you’ve written a great line, you’re being a smartass -- it’s probably not that good. And maybe if you have ten, you might be on to something. Those are the moments of brilliance when you’re like, I never knew that I would get that eight-line song. It’s the moment when you just say stop -- quit adding to it, quit messing with it. It’s like insect wings. Just leave it alone. It can’t fly you put too much on there.
I also read a lot. I like contemporary fiction, I like modern stuff. But I’m a big fan of 19th Century writing in translation. Novels and a lot of great essays and things, outside of the historical value of them, I’m so excited to see them because Victorian writing is so generic. In that same era, people writing not in English -- the language is so different, even translated. I’m like, look at these other cultures, look what they were focusing on. Although, the fundamentals of life and love and relationships and death are there in any culture. But it’s a really good time for reading stuff like that.
Jane Austen and stuff like that, I can appreciate it on a level, but most of it is shit I’m not interested in; the relationship shit that happens in a lot of books, there are twists and turns and that’s real life to me, but some of the other stuff, I’m not interested in. And it’s the language that they use. Focusing on things other than people in the relationships. And that’s the kind of songs that I write. I’m writing songs but I’m not trying to invent characters. When I use a gender and I say she or he, it’s just because I had to use a word. But that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily singing about a human. Or even something in the physical realm. To me, songs are -- like a Marc Chegal painting or something, I look at a lot of that work and I’m like, that’s exactly what I meant in this song.
Anything specific you’re reading right now?
I’m reading a bunch of Norwegian stuff in translation. Spanish stuff in translation. And now that I’m in London, I live in East London and I’m being exposed to cultural shit that I had never dreamed I would ever get a chance to be a part of. In Chicago, it’s divided up into neighborhoods sort of strictly. I think it’s a very cool city. I love it. And it’s integrated in its way, but I’ve never lived in a neighborhood with an ethnic community that I know absolutely nothing about. It’s really inspiring, musically and culturally. When I’m traveling I just go around asking, what is the best traditional musician that’s still alive. And people are so happy to turn you on to interesting music and literature. I’ve lived my whole life like that, seeking it out. MTV was never part of my life. Music magazines were never part of my life.
Back to songwriting, you write a lot about trying to find your way. Your lyrics talk about being in the dark and finding yourself at a crossroads -- do you think you feel more lost than most people?
I just don’t think people have found a language to talk about it. I’m not more depressed than a depressed person. My life is that music. My life is these songs. It was my language and it happened to be writing lyrics and making music. I had to make a language to deal with the world. My language was music, because there’s already language there -- I could pull from ten thousand years and never even scratch the surface. I would suffer much more than I already do if I had no way to express what I was feeling.
But I have a working method to try to always be writing, whether you’re up or down and having the best time of your life or worst time of your life. I mean, I was bailing a friend out of jail. And during all the red tape, I pulled out my notebook and started writing. I wasn’t writing shit about getting your friend out of jail, I wasn’t writing about the weird atmosphere at jail. But I think about it, and yeah, I’ve sat in hospitals and written or at a baseball game and written. And those don’t turn into songs about those events.
I invest everything into songwriting. I had never really approached performance. To me, it was like hired entertainment. It sucks because for years people have been paying money to see us play. But I had never considered it. I’m on stage playing all these songs and sometimes I don’t even know there are people in the room. When I start to question why I do it and then I realize, I guess there are tens of thousands of people who know who the hell we are. And that’s almost scary to think about, but the record sales and shows don’t lie. And it’s like, I consider now, more the fact that I’m up there. And it’s like, oh, I’m really ensuring this in a wide realm. And to me it’s another way I can get this out, to stand up here and sing. I still don’t know why. Again, I don’t know what the end goal is, but I just do it anyway.
Do enjoy performing?
I enjoy it but I couldn’t say why exactly. I love playing music with other people. And I also love having hour after hour on stage. I’m just meditating out loud. It’s not music that I think is that beautiful or that poetic, but to me it is. It’s a sort of out-loud consideration of the world. And I’m flattered that people dig it.
In your performances, how is playing solo different from playing with the band?
My guitar-playing has to be a lot more conservative in solo situation. With the band, I love to play loud and I like to do a lot of improvising and also, playing with the band, you can play the dynamics so much more. Solo has to be pretty straightforward delivery. But I’ve toured solo for years -- like every year -- and with the band, so I learn a lot from touring with the band for my solo shows, but I also learn a lot from the solo shows that I bring to the band shows. It’s mostly things like dynamics. Because, I don’t write those songs that are sort of strummy, melodic, singsong kind of songs, and I can really stretch out some songs make them really sad and long when I’m playing solo; but, with the band that structure needs to be somewhat preserved.
I read that you’ve studied blues and country music in some depth -- which is clear from your style and lyrics. Who are some of your influences from these genres?
I listen to a lot of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson. As far as ‘40s and ‘50s players go, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed. Everything like Charley Patton. I love ancient recordings. In country music, I love Texas swing and I love ‘40s and ‘50s music.
I didn’t hear some of that music on recordings until very late. I was at least 20, I believe. I was I think 19 when I first heard Carter family music on a record, but I had Carter family music before because in West Virginia, I had seen people playing songs and heard people sing that music. But it’s not like I had heard it on the radio or anyone had records of it, so I had to go discover it on my own.
And I didn’t realize, you actually started out in metal bands in Cleveland?
Well, it was like rock. We were obsessed with the Butthole Surfers and Big Black. We listened to a shitload of stuff. We were from a trailer park, so we didn’t have a record store. We just traded tapes and we had this network of people all over the country of people who would find a cool song and put it on a tape and mail it to us. And we’d find something and send it back to them.
Those first bands I was in, it was crazy music. Nothing like what I’m doing now. But the music was original and I’m really proud of the shit we recorded in the ‘80s because the document is there that I was always doing this.
How’d you transition to the kind of music you make now?
My band was made up of guys older than me. As they all went off to college and things, so I was kind of stuck behind. But I had written a range of music. So rather than race to put together a new band, I just started to collaborate with other musicians. And by the time I got to college, I had already toured regionally, I already had dozens and dozens and dozens of tapes full of songs. So as soon as I got to school, I just latched onto people right away who were like me.
You’re always working -- constantly touring and releasing a new album every year. How do you find the time, energy, and motivation to write music, when you’re so physically exhausted?
The motivation is just there, because I don’t know what the end goal is. I didn’t start doing this to make money, because I’ve been writing music my whole life. These tours get brutal and I’m just wiped out. But that’s just physical. The spark is still there. I don’t know, I get up in the morning and I’m excited that maybe I can write a song today. But yeah, I get beat. And we’re towards the end of a pretty heavy-duty tour. And I am really tired. The only thing is, the voice suffers a lot. This is like, no partying. This is, literally, the show is done, wrap up all the records and stuff, the guys have to do all the counting, and we do everything ourselves, all of our own driving, everything. You’re getting to the hotel where you’re gonna sleep at four in the morning and we gotta be on the road at nine.
Well, you can! But it would kill you.
Anything else you want to talk about?
No, I think you hit on a lot of awesome stuff. The songwriting stuff, no one ever really digs about that.
See that really surprised me, reading other interviews with you. Because, it seems that lyrics are so central to your music. Not that instrumentals don’t play in, but there’s some music with such a stronger focus on lyrics, structure, arrangements --
Right -- rather than having this really, well thought out, excellently orchestrated music. Which I appreciate. But it’s like, this is a strength and I work on it. But when it comes to arrangements and putting together a record, for me -- I’ve concentrated hard on the lyrics, and tried to write a family of songs that need to be side-by-side. That takes a lot of creativity also, to get it right, and I’ve tried to get it right. And I’m really proud of all those records that I did.
Then, with the box set, in terms of grouping songs together, how did it work when you already had Nashville Moon in place?
Yeah, well at the exact same time, I knew I wanted to do another record like Ghost Tropic where I wanted to write in the studio and play with musicians I don’t know. I had these themes and I had an idea for a record that would partner well with Nashville Moon no matter how divergent the sound was. Because I knew it would be very different, because I wasn’t playing with my known band. But Ghost Tropic is thematically a really lost record. That’s what it feels like, to feel lost. And I felt that way a lot -- having moved around like 11 times in five years, I felt like I had to write a record not rooted in a place.
Whereas, Nashville Moon is very rooted in things, people, events, and places. Although when you listen to it, it sounds like they’re singing about a place, but you can tell it’s coming from someone who’s not at that place. That feeling. That’s how I knew the records would couple well together.
And then I had all these songs that I had intended to do as a full record, and that ended up being the solo songs in the box set. I had excellent recordings of some of that material that I wanted to put out, but everything got lost or stolen. But instead, I found these sketchily recorded home-versions of this music. I thought it was really strong. And I wasn’t going to put them out, but I thought they were compelling, so I had a few people listen to a few songs. And they said, “You have to put them out.” And that’s how it works sometimes. Someone will hear a song and say, Why don’t you put that on a record, and I’ll say, “I’m not really sure -- ” and they say, “No, you have to do it.
Every New Year’s day, I burn everything that’s not finished. Everything that’s not released. It’s just too much. There’s a fuckin' wall of four-track tapes that I’ve never put into any solid order -- never made a record out of them. And there are stacks and stacks -- literally like 20 notebooks full of lyrics that I’ve never put with songs. Purging it like that -- it’s liberating.