Portrait by Steve Gullick
“Jason always strove for immediacy... lived for the ‘mistakes’
or the unplanned moments. It pushed everyone out of
their comfort zone to document those impulses, those reactions.”
— Ben Swanson
Singer-songwriter from Lorain, Ohio, who began to gain renown with his first project Songs: Ohia, featuring Molina solo or with cast of revolving members. After 2003, Molina played either under his own name or with his new project Magnolia Electric Co, which now had a stable line-up, until 2009. Molina’s struggle with substance abuse took him away from music until he passed away in 2013.
Jason Molina’s first project, which featured a revolving cast of musicians and an ever-changing sound, somewhere between indie rock, folk, and lo-fi. The second part of the name alludes to Molina’s home state Ohio, as well as a Hawaiian plant. The project produced seven albums from 1996-2003, it’s last Magnolia Electric Co. marking a switch to a new project of that name.
Magnolia Electric Co
Name of the seventh album (2003) by Songs:Ohia, which was later declared the first album of Jason Molina’s new project Magnolia Electric Co, when the band changed its name during a 2003 tour. The band, whose stable line-up included Jason Evans-Groth, Mark Rice, and Pete Schreiner, went on to record six more studio albums until their final Josephine in 2009.
Co-founder of Secretly Canadian, an independent record label based in Bloomington, Indiana. Started in 1996 by Ben and his brother Chris, the label’s early years were defined by a close relationship with Jason Molina, who signed with them in 1997.
Kentucky-born Will Oldham began performing from 1993-1997 under variations of the name Palace—Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music—according to when the sound or lineup of the band changed. After 1998, he adopted the stage name Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and has recorded a variety of albums under that name. Jason Molina was highly influenced by Oldham.
Didn’t It Rain
The sixth album by Songs: Ohia, recorded live by Edan Cohen at Soundgun Studios, Philidelphia, and released in 2002 by Secretly Canadian. All tracks were written by Jason Molina, and who played alongside Jennie Benford, Mike Brenner and Jim Krewson on the album. “Didn’t It Rain” is named after a traditional folk song popularized in the 40s and 50s.
After meeting Jason Molina at Oberlin College, Jennie Benford went on to perform and record vocals with Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. She formed her own project, the progressive bluegrass band Jim and Jennie & the Pinetops, with Brad Hutchinson in 1998. The band released three albums before breaking up in 2005.
Philadelphia-based Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner is a long-time musician who has toured and recorded with many bands across genres, and is known for his own projects The Low Road, John Train, and Slo-Mo. Brenner’s signature instrument is the dobro, or resonator guitar. He has also toured and recorded extensively with Jason Molina and his projects Magnolia Electro Co and Songs: Ohia.
Music producer, who worked on Didn’t It Rain in 2002 with Songs: Ohia.
Musician and record producer, Steve Albini is the founder, owner, and engineer of Electrical Audio recording studio in Chicago. He produced multiple albums with Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. As a musician, Albini formerly played with the bands Big Black, Rapeman and Flour, and is currently a member of Shellac.
To look back at Jason Molina’s music career is to confront a certain mythos – not one with the veneer of fame or fortune, but one which runs over with great talent, restless energy and a search for the humanity at the core of music. Molina went for authenticity over heavy production, insisting on recording in just a few takes without many overdubs, and let his lyrics speak long and deeply about sadness. He was incredibly prolific, recording 19 LPs in total, yet never achieved celebrity. Instead, he attracted a small but fiercely loyal following through his incarnations, from Songs: Ohia in 1996 to Magnolia Electric Co and his solo act from 2003-2009.
Just as Molina was starting his career in 1996, brothers Chris and Ben Swanson were beginning a fledgeling label out of Indiana called Secretly Canadian. The two heard Molina’s music, then on Will Oldham’s label Palace Records, and sought him out to sign on with them. Molina said yes, he would, if they drove the twelve hours to Manhattan to his show that night. It was a test. And they did. Molina became not only integral to the label’s early years, but also a close friend.
Now, a year after Molina passed away, Secretly Canadian is commemorating his life and career with reissues of his discography, complete with unreleased tracks, demos, and original drafts of lyrics. November 2 marks the reissue of the 2002 Songs: Ohia album Didn’t it Rain, which Secretly Canadian calls his “first perfect record.” Issue gathered Ben Swanson as well as musicians Jennie Benford and Mike Brenner, who both played on the album, to tell us a little about Molina as they knew him.
How did you start collaborating with Jason?
Ben Swanson:We found his email address in 1996 via Edith Frost, and cold emailed him. To our surprise Jason wrote back and told us if we drove the 12 hours to New York City to an instore he was playing, he’d hand us a DAT to release our first 7”.
Mike Brenner: I was friends with Edan Cohen, who had a small studio called Soundgun in Philly, where I live. I had recorded my own stuff there and played steel guitar on a bunch of other projects. Edan called me one day and said “I have Songs:Ohia here and Jason wants an upright bass. I can’t reach anyone, so can you bring your slide bass thing?” I had rigged up a bass guitar so you could play it lap style with a bar and picks. I could kind of get it to sound like a cello or weird upright. I brought that and a lap steel and wound up cutting on 2 tracks, all live, everyone in same room. I already knew Jim Krewson and Jennie Benford from around town. After that, I hadn’t heard anything from him until he emailed me about coming to Chicago to cut at Steve Albini’s studio, like next week, on what became the Magnolia Electric Co CD. By the time the disc came out, he had a different band and I started touring with them around the time the live disc (which I didn’t play on) was released. I played on most of the MECo discs since that point.
Jennie Benford: We were friends at Oberlin College.
What is your favorite memory of working together?
BS: Man, there are so many. My entire 18 years as an adult are so colored by working with Jason. He set the tone for the foundation of the label and how we learned to operate that its a very difficult question. One that comes to mind is when we asked him to sign his first contract (and one of ours) for Axxess & Ace and instead, he signed a Twinings Tea Bag and left it on the windshield of my car.
MB: Probably the Chicago session because I didn’t know anyone except for, once again, Jennie Benford. I had prepared a bunch of stuff and was hoping the parts would stick. The whole vibe, to me, was very electric, a bunch of people really trying, as a big ensemble, to execute these tunes. When I heard the playbacks, I was very pleased. Especially “Just Be Simple” – I really was hoping he’d be into the lap steel lick starting it and he was very generous with letting people do their thing on the arrangements.
JB: I liked recording “Two Blue Lights.” He was not always easy to harmonize with but when it worked, it was powerful. That song worked right away.
“I don’t think there’s any
doubt that Jason could put
on a great show in any incarnation.
Really, it is all about the voice
and how you frame it.”
— Mike Brenner
“Didn’t it Rain” was recorded in a living room.
What are your thoughts on this approach to recording?
BS: Jason always strove for immediacy. He seemed to get really bored with over-dubbing and mixing. Part of it was this greater trend in independent music in the mid-90s/early ‘00s, but Jason was always more thoughtful than that; than just doing the stereotypical Albini thing where its live in a room and you have to be this machine that plays the perfect take. Jason lived for the “mistakes” or the unplanned moments. He was a master of the booby trap or the random left turn. It drove many of his collaborators crazy, but it pushed everyone out of their comfort zone to document those impulses, those reactions. It wasn’t always successful, but I think “Didn’t It Rain” is the first time he really mastered that skill.
MB: Well, in truth, it was a bare-bones studio in an area of Philly known as ‘the Badlands.’ Dr. Dog took custody of that room after Edan moved on. But it was very sparse, everyone in the same room, not a lot of headphones action, everyone just listening to the sound in the room and the live vocal. For that type of material, it was the perfect method. Believe me, Jason wasn’t very interested in the tech side or cutting with headphones, overdubs, or cutting scratch vocals and re-doing them and all the other typical studio methods. He was big on trying to catch the moment and the performance.
JB: It was more of a loft in an old industrial building made into a recording studio. The floor was plywood and the walls were brick. There were giant windows. It was sunny and lovely. The space was pretty raw. Jason taped giant sheets of handwritten lyrics all over the walls. It was a great approach to recording. It was just us and the guy recording us, Edan Cohen. We played everything live.
Lyrically the songs on this album weigh pretty heavy.
How was he in person?
BS: Extreme! Most of the time Jason was a total goof ball. Just so funny, and weird. Talking with him wasn’t so much a conversation as a monologue that would meander seamlessly between truth and fiction. But in the moment, for him, it was all true. He would create his own reality and if you were around him, you were in that alternate reality with him. He created it regardless of the truth. It could be maddening at times, but I think there’s something really powerful and interesting in that idea. He was also be tremendously loyal and kind. And he had his dark moments, as we all do, but more often than not he was just a total goof ball.
MB: Quiet guy when i first met him. We got right to playing after I played the slide bass and he said, “Ok, that’ll work.” At the end, I wanted to do an overdub with my lap steel, a harmony line with the slide bass. I don’t think he wanted to let me but did anyway. I really didn’t know he was feeling this no overdubs, all live thing. At least, not as a hard and fast rule, haha, I think he had Edan mix the whole thing in like an hour and wouldn’t let him edit out a false start of mine. I called Edan up when I heard the mix and said, “I thought you were going to edit out my mistake” and Edan told me Jason wouldn’t let him. Sort of payback for sneaking an overdub on the disc. Still cracks me up. He had his vision and convictions and I respected that.
JB: He was a happy, funny person. A talker. Very spontaneous.
What do you think drove him to make music?
And to make it so prolifically?
BS: He just loved to work. It was ingrained in his personality. He was happiest when he was working and I think that’s what made him so prolific. He was also smart and aware enough to see when he was on a roll. He made a lot of incredible albums in a very short amount of time – in just a few years. He knew he had to capture that 4-5 year span as he was really growing into his own as a master songwriter. I think he was afraid it’d go away as he’d seen with so many of his heroes; so he decided worked fast as he was on a clock. And to an extent that happened. His talent never disappeared, but I think there came a point where he had to work a little harder to expand his boundaries, to “get there”. That probably happens in every profession, and I think its a real challenge when musicians are faced with that.
MB: Jason was a very creative guy in general and iIthink he loved the whole myth of rock and roll and recording and touring, guitars, cadillacs, etc. He also had a lot emotion and sadness inside him and I think maybe the writing was therapeutic for him in some way. Whereas, i don’t think the touring was very healthy for him and rarely is for anyone, myself included.
JB: He was very gifted with language. He was very articulate. He loved words and I think lyrics came easily to him. He loved playing guitar and rocking out. He had been playing music since his teens and the more he developed as a musician, the more he was able to tap into the magic he was after.
Townes Van Zandt
American folk singer-songwriter active from 1965 until his death by substance abuse in 1996. Townes never achieved significant fame, but had a small and devoted fan base, and many popular musicians have since covered his music.
Who would you say his strongest inspirations were?
BS: I think it changed all the time. He was obviously in love with Dylan and Young, but he was always reading some intense new author or discovering some old blues musician or whatever. He was infinitely curious about most forms of art.
MB: Townes, Hank Sr., Will Oldham, Neil Young.
“He inspired people around him
to work hard and treat music-making
as a very important job,
the MOST important job.
Improve your skills. Put in the time”
— Jennie Benford
Despite a cult following and critical acclaim, Jason seemingly shied away from the mainstream and larger public recognition. What are your thoughts on this?
BS: I think like a lot of musicians he was torn about it. Of course he wanted his music heard by the most amount of people, but he was very protective of his art. He never wanted to compromise his vision, his songs. I think, ultimately that’s one of the main factors at play.
MB: I think he wanted it as much as anyone else, but was probably conflicted about it and his other issues really made advancing into the mainstream impossible.
JB: He had people coming to his shows right from the first album. I think he liked the audience he had and had no interest in expanding it. He knew he could expect a roomful of people who cared about his music and listened closely to what he was doing. Even when he changed the band name he knew people would find him. I think he wanted enough people listening so that he could keep making music and that was enough.
A post on youtube says: “I have seen Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co., and Jason Molina solo and all 3 incarnations have been amazing.” How do you feel about his incarnations?
BS: They were so different. Ohia was always more ramshackle, more revolving cast of players. It could be really good, but I don’t think it Jason really learned how to consistently play a great live show until the Didn’t It Rain / Magnolia Electric Co. records came out. There are so many reasons for that, but I think that’s when he started to really dig into the live shows. My favorite live memory of Jason was one of the last shows with the Chicago band (who played on MECo), and they did a 20 minute medley of all the Ohia “hits”. From “Captain Badass,” to “Lioness,” to “Black Crow,” to “Vanquisher.” Just a few lines and the chorus from each. It was incredible partly because you began to realize all the Ohia songs used the same 4-5 chords, and also, what total hits these songs could be. There were guitar solos and just everything. I wish there was a recording of it, I would kill to hear that again.
MB: Well, I guess, technically I’ve played in both bands and certainly saw Jason play solo. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Jason could put on a great show in any incarnation. Really, it is all about the voice and how you frame it.
JB: I love his early sound but love his lyrics more in later years. They became more personal but more universal, larger.
What’s your favorite song of his and why?
BS: Unfair question! I would say that there’s two songs that embody the best of what Jason could do so completely in a way that’s so rare to see. “Didn’t It Rain” and the full band version of “The Big Game Is Every Night” are Jason at the height of his craft.
A folk musician, formerly of San Francisco’s The Court & Spark. After relocating to North Carolina in 2007, he formed Hiss Golden Messenger with Scott Hirsch. The duo have since released five albums.
MB: “Farewell Transmission,” I know, not the most original of choices, but the whole intro and build up into the tune and the “Mama, here’s come midnight…” bridge to the”’listen, listen” at the end… It just kills me. While we were touring, when I would play the intro lap steel line, audiences would just start clapping emotionally. We recently did some tribute gigs with MC Taylor singing (Songs:Molina, we called it), and every gig had people weeping visibly during that song.
JB: “Hold on Magnolia.” It is a powerful song to sing. It feels good singing it. It should become a classic song, passed down through generations.
Jason was so influential to many of his contemporaries, who cite him as a personal hero – what impact did he have on you?
BS: I mean, like I mentioned before, he was intrinsic in the development of the label, and I can’t be more thankful to him for that.
MB: Well, we were bandmates and collaborators to a certain extent, so it probably can’t be summed up just based on artistic output alone. As an artist and singer, he really had a great thing going on and I felt probably would have reinvented himself yet again into something else had he had more time. On good nights, I saw how powerful his music could be. Unfortunately, he had other stuff going on that made being in a band with him complicated at times.
JB: He inspired people around him to work hard and treat music-making as a very important job, the MOST important job. Improve your skills. Put in the time.
Can you tell us something we don’t know about him?
An animated shape-shifting ball of meat from the TV series Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
BS: He could do an amazing Meatwad impression.
JB: This is known but not mentioned often: he was a visual artist as well. I have one of his beautiful drawings, entitled “Police Dog Blues.” It hangs on my kitchen wall