Check out an Excerpt of ‘Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost’ by Erin Osmon
Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. has been gone for five years now; he passed away in 2013 of the effects of alcohol abuse. Now, his family has given their blessing to author Erin Osmon to write his biography, titled Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost.
Osmon has shared an excerpt of the book with TIDAL’s readers detailing how Molina and his band teamed up with Scottish band Arab Strap to record 2000′s The Lioness, and how that record went through a rare rework for the particular singer-songwriter. Read up below, and pick up the book when it hits shelves May 15.
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After the gig in Barcelona, [Jason] Molina and [Geof] Comings took off for a pair of dates in London. During this tour overseas, Molina carried a two of hearts playing card in his guitar case, which at every show he removed and taped somewhere where he could see it. It acted as an extension of the cover of Axxess & Ace, one heart representing [his wife] Darcie and the other himself.
After rounding the club bases in London, Molina and Comings drove north to Manchester and linked up with caustic Scottish indie-rock act Arab Strap, whose core was the two-piece of vocalist Aidan Moffat and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton, and who were riding a hype wave after their remix of producer David Holmes’s “Don’t Die Just Yet” broke into the UK charts. Songs: Ohia had played a couple of shows in the States with the two Scots and happily agreed to join them for the string of five dates.
Their initial U.S. tour dates together had come as a welcome surprise after it was booked through Arab Strap’s agent. It was Moffat’s first time in the United States, and it proved to be a rather arduous jaunt, though the couple of dates with Molina really lightened his mood. Moffat had purchased Molina’s very first single on Palace Records when it came out, and the Black Album, too. “The two-piece guitar and drums setup is pretty common these days but seemed unusual back then, and it really worked for me. I loved them,” Moffat said. He added that he saw a lot of himself in Molina. “He was really good fun, too. Like a lot of folk who write about darker feelings, he often seemed very much the opposite of the Jason in his songs.” Molina had been writing about the rapture and complexities of new love, but also the hard work of the everyman. And, occasionally, about how the two meet.
Nine of the songs would eventually comprise the album he called The Lioness, an apropos image de panthera conjured by Darcie’s crimson locks and canyon-deep love of cats. After the tour, Molina and Comings decamped to Scottish comrade Alasdair Roberts’s empty apartment in Glasgow — he was away visiting a girlfriend in Denmark — to wait out a five-day stint before they had to leave for a festival in Amsterdam.
Moffat, having fallen in love with the new songs Molina had been playing on the road, invited the pair to his parents’ house in Falkirk, about twenty miles northeast of Glasgow, which was currently sitting empty on the sales market. Molina, Comings and Moffat played fast and loose on Arab Strap’s Tascam four-track recorder in Moffat’s parents’ garage before he suggested that the group book some studio time at Arab Strap’s home studio, Chem 19. At Peacock Cross Industrial Estate, about twenty minutes south of Hamilton, Molina taped his two of hearts playing card within eyeshot, on the window of the studio’s control room.
“We were little more than an audience,” Moffat said, explaining that their drummer David Gow added scant keyboards. Moffat also convinced Molina to allow him to add a drum machine on the song “Being in Love.” Moffat particularly loved watching Molina write the song “Baby Take a Look,” which the group then performed off the cuff without any rehearsal. For the most part, though, the dream team of Molina and Comings steered the session. When they were done, in his packing haste, Molina forgot the two of hearts.
Back in the States, after several spins of the recording he’d just done in Scotland, Molina was dissatisfied with the result. He’d been sick during the session and thought his voice sounded weak. He also wasn’t happy with the Marshall amp he played on in studio, as he was a Fender man all the way. Regardless, after returning to Bloomington, he submitted the tapes to Secretly Canadian with a handwritten note that read,
To Secretly Canadian
I am hereby submitting to Secretly Canadian Records first, the new Songs: Ohia + Arab Strap recordings for consideration.
After taking a spin through the recordings, Chris Swanson of SC largely echoed Molina’s dissatisfaction, but for different reasons. “The lyrical content was relying too heavily on workingman tropes,” he explained. “The poetry felt more like a lecture series, and the music was more rhythmic and punchy than graceful and musical.”
Molina invited Jonathan Cargill and Swanson to set off with Geof Comings and him for a June–July 1999 tour through Europe. After playing a handful of gigs, the pair realized that many of the songs Molina was playing live would be better suited for the suite of heartworn material Molina wanted to package for his new album. To Swanson, though, a re-record seemed like a huge ask.
The foursome of Comings, Molina, Cargill and Swanson booked additional time at Chem 19 near Glasgow. When they entered the studio, Molina’s two of hearts stood on the control room window, where he had left it months earlier. Molina, Comings and Cargill recorded along with friends Alasdair Roberts and Richard Youngs. Feeling a tremendous responsibility to play his part correctly, during the intro track, “The Black Crow,” Roberts can be heard faintly whispering at the fifty-second mark, “Is it out of tune?”
“One of the best things about working with Jason was that he gave the other players total freedom to express themselves,” Cargill explained. “It’s the dynamics of the songs and other musicians that dictate what one should play, so as long as you can sense the vibe, and play within that, then more than likely it will sound good.” At the session’s end, Molina packed up his guitar and headed off, his two of hearts intact and in tow. On the tour the trio of Molina, Comings and Cargill also captured many of the live and improvised tracks that would appear on Molina’s 2000 tour-only release Protection Spells. Molina’s tiny, beloved Pignose travel amp delivering the sounds for the homespun recordings, which Chris Swanson also contributed to from the road.
In the first Lioness session with Arab Strap, fourteen songs were captured, but only “Lioness,” “Baby Take a Look” and “Nervous Bride” made the final cut. The remaining six tracks were essentially Molina and Comings, with assists by Cargill on bass and Roberts, though that became largely lost in the early Internet PR cycle of misinformation. The presence of Scottish songwriters gave the press something to latch on to other than overwrought Will Oldham comparisons. This was likely because Molina gave them a “thank you” shout on the album’s credits, and their name appeared on the press release. As such, The Lioness was widely touted as a joint venture between Songs: Ohia and Arab Strap. “I guess it was a more interesting story than ‘Just Geof Again,’” Comings remarked.
Despite the overstated presence of Scots, The Lioness marked the only time that anyone, especially someone from the label, ever convinced Molina of a reworking or self-edit that massive. “Molina is a very binary person,” Chris Swanson explained. “He’s either immediately embracing what you’re saying, or he’s immediately rejecting you. There were ecstatic truths with him and you couldn’t get caught trying too hard to strategize. He’d immediately shut it down.”
Though Molina would grow increasingly weary of album-related details and corresponding marketing and PR — he found mixing, choosing album artwork and doing interviews particularly daunting — The Lioness proved to be a clean synthesis of his and Secretly Canadian’s visions. “It felt like a major give from Jason,” Ben Swanson said. “But he was obviously satisfied as he used the entire [second] session.”
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