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Songs: Ohia
an interview with Jason Molina by Martin Williams

It's the final moments on the last date of a long-haul tour for Songs:Ohia and Jason Molina has gladly acquiesced to requests from the Knitting Factory audience by delving deep into his back catalogue and fishing out a song from his eponymous debut album. As if by some divine intercession, some spectral admonition to avoid revisiting his past, he's mid-way through the song when his beer, perched atop his amp, topples and spills, shorting out the electrics and cutting him off mid-flow. It's a handy metaphor for the music Jason Molina has issued under the rubric of Songs:Ohia in the five years since his initial 7" Nor Cease Thou Never Now. While squeezing broadly into an amorphous singer-songwriter mould, he's made it part of his protocol to never stand still or retrace his steps, making each subsequent album a subtle but significant kiss-off to its predecessor. 2000 proved to be a musically fruitful year, as Songs:Ohia released two very different records, both anchored by Jason's powerful tenor and the unwavering intensity of his songs. In collaboration with Ali Roberts, along with Arab Strap's Aiden Moffatt and David Gow, Molina made The Lioness, following it up in the autumn with the starker Ghost Tropic, which paired him with members of the Nebraskan collective Lullaby for the Working Class. With two Steve Albini-helmed records in the pipeline, and another that backs Jaosn's songs with the horns and harmonies of Philly soul, this year is proving to be equally busy and productive for Songs:Ohia. After the beer incident Jason consented to answer a few questions by email, which took place sporadically over the next few months. [It should be noted that while the questions have been rewritten in an effort to make the writer appear less of a dimwit, for the sake of fidelity Jason's responses have been left as he wrote them.]

You recently returned from an extended tour. Was that your longest so far, and are you happy to be away for such lengths of time?
I wasn't away from home that long I guess, it was more like 7 weeks then 2 off then 4 on. I have done this on purpose because I am preparing for my next record and I think that some important things happen for Songs:Ohia on the road. One thing is I am able to hear some of the new songs transforming night after night in front of an audience, it almost is like trimming the fat. Another important thing that happens is I am exposed on tour to dozens and dozens of very interesting bands that either open for Songs:Ohia or pass along their recordings to me. I love to hear this underground stuff, there are so many great ideas and so much hard work that goes on there that I really count it as an important influence on my own music. I wouldn't say one band individually, but as a whole, these things have their place.

Is this how you got in touch with the folks who have a hand in Ghost Tropic, specifically the Lullaby for the Working Class people?
Basically I knew none of their music, only I had heard a few things, mostly there was a certain excitement about getting to go out and see their studio and do some work there in their house so I was more than happy to go out there to do the record. I think there are going to be a lot of really beautiful sounding records done out there at the Dead Space studio, if people are willing to travel out to Nebraska to work there.

Are you still able to write or paint while on the road?
I find that touring is one of the most productive times for me to concentrate on writing. The Protection Spells record I did was a product of recording things I wrote while on tour, plus I was able to collaborate with a lot of musicians who I could not otherwise in the USA, namely Ali Roberts and Richard Youngs. As for my art, it does not get done on tour, instead I do really brief sketches and mostly collect things for when I get home, bits of paper, pages from old books, posters etc. All of it I go through and see eventually what I could include in a painting some way.

Do you feel any waning in your enthusiasm or commitment over such a long period or touring?
Music is my blood, I don't know how to live without it. It also is hard hard work for people who do this I think, but they don't ever want to let it show. I think there are no plans you can have with music, you can never take it easy if you are a songwriter, ideas will dog you until they get what they want, there are no breaks from it all, and if you can see this as a calling, and meet it on its terms, I think a good relationship may develop. Also a violent and abusive and extremely depressed situation can be born out of songwriting.

Is there a theme or thread that holds your work together through its different phases and settings and collaborations?
Lyrically each record is tied to the other songs on the same LP, not in an operatic sense, but due to their having been written all about the same time, there are certain reappearances of themes that I intended.

Ghost Tropic is more textured and less purely song-based than previous Songs:Ohia records. Would it be fair to see this as the influence of LFTWC and was that an overt aim in your decision to work with them? Do you enter into recordings with an agenda?
The blueprint for each project is a concrete thing, basically words and chords, the rest gets built on the spot, depending on who can play on the records and what instruments are there. My main approach to Ghost Tropic was to do anything but remake The Lioness and the next record will be to avoid making Ghost Tropic. One thing that I have been happy to gravitate towards is the less pure form of song structure, not to say there is a great innovation here, only that I am working within a songwriting tradition that thankfully does not seem to rely on songwriters remaining in any one area for too long, for example folk, or rock realms The next two Songs:Ohia records are planned to be large collaborative works, there will be a great test of the raw material on my part and a great test of the musicians, myself included, I am hoping to come up with something of value as far as projects go, it has been a long hardworking era since Ghost Tropic was finished, so in the spring I am going to get some of these larger ideas put into practice.

What were the reasons for the cancellation of your spring visit to the UK?
Well for starting out, I would say that I don't have a proper UK booking agent, I have been over the years concentrating on Ireland and Scotland since Songs:Ohia do very well there. England never has worked out when it came to working with agents that were honest or decent. And the sad old case of working with someone good who decides at the next tour to go into retirement. I still remember doing sold out London shows a long time ago, but I have only had consistent interest from of all people John Peel who has all but come over here and dragged us to London. He is still first on the list of people to thank and to meet when we next make it to London. Cargo UK and the great folks working for our team there are currently working on some things now, so hopefully in the fall, we will make it.

Could you describe the music you're working on at the moment? And what are the future plans for Songs:Ohia?
A very busy year is in the make for Songs:Ohia. Currently we are doing a week long session in Philly which will be an approach to my music from the angle of early 70s soul arrangements, horns, small string sections, and 3 part female vox. It is an approach that involves as many producers as have ideas, and very little production. We have done an experiment that worked very well already, so we want a whole record of it. That is in June. Standard for Songs:Ohia is to make an out of nowhere leap from record to record and it would literally kill me to do another Ghost Tropic right now. I never try to restore any moods or atmospheres on a record and put the new version onto a record. I like to see from session to session and from band to band how strong we can make a totally new thing. Chicago is currently showing a great deal of support for these new Songs:Ohia projects. I learned a good deal in the past months doing shows with Appendix Out, Cat Power, Damien Jurado, and Glen Hansard. I was watching each of these songwriters closely and got to see in real time all of the strong parts of their music that is not easily put on tape, at least not that I have seen, I want to strive towards getting that weird magic between a group of strangers and their earliest impressions of my songs, only recording those impressions and standing aside when it's done, not fucking with it. Also this year in September I am doing two records with Steve Albini. Both are meditations on this dirty music engine called Chicago. One will be a solo recording, mostly me and guitar, not a folk record I can assure you, but one that honestly portrays I hope, my way of doing songs in as direct a manner as possible, not full of characters that are invented or absorbtions from other people that I come into contact with, I have not been able to really see the same magic about the Chicago music scene that gets written all the time about, I think it is mainly a fiction. What really goes on here is hard work, hundreds of bands and very very few songwriters, there is an atmosphere here but it is not a romantic/collaborative thing that it is shown to be in other places. I have had a good deal of things to say about all of this, and a good deal of things which i don't feel that the songwriters working here in Chicago are willing to admit or deal with about this city, which is in all its beauty and creative wellspringedness, still a heap of misery and I think kids move out here from their rich ass suburban life and just re-establish it in the city, never really giving a rat's ass about the fact that this is a place where there are much more important things happening to real people that what post-bullshit is happening. I can tell you right now that there is no such thing as Post Rock, if anything, everything after Bon Scott died is what I would call post rock.

You wrote, "it would kill me to do another ghost tropic right now." Was the recording a difficult process, or is this related to what the material itself took out of you?
The material, it wan not a kind of atmosphere I think I would want to try to purposefully recreate, it is a dark record but I felt it only to be a brief look at a much more severe and troublesome place, that kind of material only pulls you further and further towards it, so I did that record and appreciate it, but it would be wrong to put it into a form that could be made over.

It sounds like the recordings you will be doing with Steve Albini in September are fairly well thought out even at this early stage. Does this mean that the music and words are already written, or are you working with a theme and a deadline?
I work with a basic frame for a record, I have a few set songs to tie the thing together and the rest I just work on at the time of the recording, I tend to find a strong relationship happening when I have been working hard for something new, or musically, lyrically, untried by me, so the new stuff is exactly that.

Can you shed some light on this web site entry: "for most of April, Jason, Dan Sullivan, Jeff Panall, Rob Sullivan will be sitting on as session players on several Irish bands' recording projects being done in Chicago by Steve Albini"
Well, Songs:Ohia have gone into some uncharted waters as far as collaboration from release to release, it is important for me to work with people not so well established that a recording done with them will automatically sell it. I simply want to work with a highly talented musical team, and this to me means going to shows, listening closely to records that are hard to get, finding music that is not currently put out by any label, and looking for these musicians as potential musical partners. In Glasgow and in Dublin we have found a huge friendship and it seems to tie the cities together in a way that people can't define but a positive way, when we are working together. To our good luck, about four or five bands like this will be over here making records and we (myself and the musicians playing music with me here in Chicago) have been asked to come and work as studio musicians on their projects.

The press release that accompanied the original release of Impala made repeated mention of your Lorain, Ohio roots. Do you consider the place to exert an implicit influence over you and your work?
I know that a working class background is something that is romanticized by music and art writers, but anyone from this kind of past can see its glamorization as fraudulent. I just do work, and it is my work, so I have pride in it, it has never been seen as any ticket out of my past, if that were the case I should have decided to make much different music. Like I said, it is something that matters, and matters strongly to me personally, but being broke is not a philosophy, learning to strive for something beautiful even amidst trouble, that is something I can relate to.

I'm interested in a question Brian Eno poses himself repeatedly in the diary of his that was published a few years ago. He seems to be someone with more than a passing interest in things scientific, and he posits that while science has a definite reason for being and, as such, a 'scientist' can have a concrete grasp on why they do what they do and what the benefit will be, ie. Find a cure for a disease, explore the universe etc. He is constantly dismayed that the worth of 'art' cannot be quantified in the same way. As someone who is a visual artist as well as a musician, what are your thoughts on the question of what 'art' is for?
It is true that I do a good deal of visual art as well as the music. I know it draws from a very similar part of my brain, and I never feel like one is better at doing what has to be done than the other. I say it is all only worthwhile if your soul is in it, even the minimalists who are successful have distilled something very elemental and gotten at best a clean view of something soulful broken open. Art is always a fight and it never pays the way something say, scientific does, you could ask Eno if you see him if he does not look into his musical crystal ball, that brain of his and have profound respect for whatever is there, whatever is presented to him, whatever he presents, this kind of respect given to the artistic discoveries of songwriting and art making assures a lifelong relationship with what parts of the creative world are worth looking into, you will never retire from that kind of work, but from science you can bail out whenever it suits you.

CWAS #8 - Summer 2001