Voice of the Western Horizon: Remembering Jason Molina

Voice of the Western Horizon: Remembering Jason Molina

While I lived was I a stray black dog
While I lived was I a stray black dog
While I lived was I anything at all

It has been two years since Jason Molina passed away.

After a tragic battle with the bottle, the singer-songwriter and musician died on March 16, 2013. He was 39 years old.

We honor an artist that always kept the lamps trimmed and burning, with this playlist of Molina-favorites, both as Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., as well as under his own name. And be sure to dig into our tribute list below, with related artists like My Morning Jacket, Hank Williams and Neil Young.

There has been an increasing interest in the legacy of Jason Molina in the years since his loss, with cover songs, tribute albums and other projects being made and in the making. We give you a short overview over his life and his music.

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There is a Hawaiian legend that tells how the Ohia tree came to be.

As the story goes, Pele – Goddess of the Flames – killed the young lovers Ohia and Lehua, but received orders from the other Gods to bring them both back into the world alive, so they could remain together for all time. Pele transformed Ohia to a tree growing on volcanic ground, while Lehua became a beautiful red flower thriving around the trunk of the tree.

Jason Molina also came from ash soil, growing up in a trailer park just outside of Loraine, Ohio, a bleak part of the American Midwest’s Rust Belt.

As Molina told me back in 2005, when describing his roots, ”Steel mills, shipyards, factories, a really beat-up, beat-down town. Looking out at all those factories in the winter nights… they just went on for miles…”

In the mid-’90s he moved to Cleveland, and later to Chicago, to start a lifelong career in music. First off with some sparse, lo-fi ghost folk under the moniker Songs: Ohia, the hyper-productive Molina released seven studio albums between 1997 and 2003, with Didn’t It Rain (2002) recently revitalized in a deluxe edition.

As Erin Osmon — author of the forthcoming Molina biography, Riding With the Ghost — said to Spin about the album,

“Despite the uncharacteristic compromises he made in the studio, Didn’t It Rain remains a testament to a vision that could only have been spun by Molina’s mind, with its meditations on images from the banks of Lake Erie in ‘Blue Factory Flame’ and romantic observations of Northwest Indiana’s steel factories and industrial open graves on ‘Steve Albini’s Blues,’ the product of Molina having recently relocated to Carl Sandberg’s ‘City of the Big Shoulders.’

Jason Molina’s grip on the American musical tradition was deeply rooted in both blues and country, and it was rooted in the Rust Belt.

Such were his personal demons part of the geographical landscape he knew so well: The abandoned factories, the dismal towns, the taste of gasoline and the odor of hopelessness. He walked at night and he wrote for the night. With Ghost Tropic (2000) he went about as far into it that darkness as any man can go.

In an excellent feature for the Chicago Reader, Max Blau wrote,

“Molina emphasized making albums with minimal overdubs and recorded takes. He valued the authenticity that resided in spontaneous moments during live sessions. Scottish singer-songwriter and collaborator Alasdair Roberts remembers Molina creating parts of his vaporous and eclectic Ghost Tropic in the moment, improvising lyrics and arrangements in the middle of the tracking process. ’He didn’t have a lot of interest in playing a song more than, say, three times,’ says Ghost Tropic producer and Bright Eyes multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis.”

With the diesel gospel of Didn’t It Rain and the last album as Songs: Ohia, titled Magnolia Electric Co., in 2003, he gradually turned towards a fuller and more blue-collar, band-oriented expression.

As American Songwriter aptly described the dualism,

“Jason Molina led not just one, but two careers in music. The Ohio-born singer-songwriter was both the soulful front man of a rock and roll band, and an evocative poet behind some of the most haunting indie folk songs of the last 20 years. That voice – weathered and ragged, or hushed and gentle – belonged to the same artist, but depending on which side of the Magnolia Electric Co. divide you’re listening, often guided dramatically different sounds.”

Molina told me back in 2005, regarding the transition from Songs: Ohia to Magnolia Electric Co.,

“After 10 years as Songs: Ohia I simply needed a change. Magnolia means new musicians, the approach is quite different and the attitude more professional to how and why appear on stage. There is really nothing more than a celebration of something new, and right now that is Magnolia Electric Co. After I made the album of the same name, it became clear to me that all the songs had a close relationship and were bound together by the magnolia: It is a tree and a flower, and it has followed me everywhere.”

Magnolia Electric Co. also marks the beginning of his long time relationship with famed producer Steve Albini, who ended up doing the studio recordings all of Magnolia’s studio albums.

They formed just at beginning of the burgeoning Americana scene at the time, but never enjoyed the mainstream success of contemporaries like My Morning Jacket, Wilco or Avett Brothers. Part of this was due to Molina’s own reticence.

As Max Blau explained, “As critics took notice of Molina, he found the new attention simultaneously exciting and frightening. Instead of capitalizing on the momentum, Molina backed out of the spotlight, blowing off music journalists and refusing to sign long-term record contracts.”

Molina hammered down every word as if it meant his life. And maybe it did.

His lyrical universe was filled with imagery in the vein of modern writers like Chris Offut, Chris Holbrook (Hell and Ohio) and Frank Bill (Crimes in Southern Indiana) — authors concerned about the areas around Appalachia and the Great Lakes, writing about a people, a culture and a landscape torn between rural downfall and post-industrial struggle.

And like those writers, Molina dug deep in the darkest corners of the human mind. He wrote blues songs for the 21st century, songs about the roads and crossroads, ghosts and death, the moon above and hell below. He wrote about the loneliness inside ourselves and loneliness that surrounds us. He wrote with a beating heart, that bled clear through his shirt. And he started drinking.

I didn’t know how blue I’d get
I didn’t know how I’d get blamed for it
I didn’t choose to go down this road
No one chooses to be sick

After releasing the wonderful album Josephine in 2009, Jason Molina went quiet.

Then, some disturbing reports of hospitalization and about illness. Money was being collected for a medical fund. A short note that said things were going better. “Keep the lamps trimmed and burning,” he said from rehab. And then the message came that it was over.

After learning of Molina’s passing, Steve Albini made the beautiful observation, “I loved hearing Jason Molina sing. He was a genius at turning a phrase and making it into something more than the words in it.”

And how correct he was. Almost every line Jason Molina wrote down could have been carved into a tombstone. I choose this one, for the man who went down the wrong road both ways:

“Some of us only lose the dark to get lost in darkness.”

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