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Why Jason Molina Matters

On Tuesday, June 5, Seattle musicians will pay tribute to songwriter Jason Molina. Here are the reasons why.

It was a gray Saturday in April when I pulled The Magnolia Electric Company out of the record cabinet, set the needle to the first song on the first side and let the loping twang of Jason Molina's electric guitar fill our home.

Gray Saturdays are what Molina's songs are best suited for. Whether performing as Songs: Ohia, the Magnolia Electric Co., or just his lonesome self, the Ohio-born songwriter has crafted a desperate kind of poetry that needs a workless day to absorb and cloud cover to even begin to understand. These are not songs for sunny days, but neither are they content with the darkness. Molina's songs are sad, yes, but they are also filled with beautiful poetry, timeless riffs, transcendent melodies, palpable anger and, at times, a rich, pure life-affirming power. For many people, these songs have served as the soundtrack to life's seismic shifts, a healing balm to inevitable trauma. I'm one of those people.

The first record of his I ever bought was Axxess & Ace by Songs: Ohia. I don't think I had even heard it before I bought it. I was heartbroken and the cover image — a pair of cheap heart-shaped earrings on a purple clothe-board — grabbed me. There was no way this couldn't be a break-up album. I took it home and immediately fell under its spell. I sat in the middle of my near-empty apartment, drinking whiskey and ashing cigarettes into a hole in the floor while Molina belted it out. "Loooooooove... leeaaves... its abuser."

In retrospect, I was pretty pathetic. But in the grips of Molina's music I didn't feel pathetic. I felt in good company. His music showed mercy by finishing the job and tearing me completely apart. Then it put me back together, better than before. Molina got me through it (and luckily I did not accidentally burn my apartment building down). A few months later I met the woman I was meant to be with. She came over to my apartment, pulled out that Songs: Ohia record and put it on. She loved Jason Molina, she said. I thought she was just being nice. We spent many gray Saturday afternoons listening to Molina's croon, learning to be happy. When we moved in together and merged our record collections there were six Molina records in all: three from her, three from me.

The Magnolia Electric Company is one of mine. It's the final Songs: Ohia album released before Molina, liking the album's title, decided to rename his band the Magnolia Electric Co. It had been a year since either my girlfriend or I had played it. When I put it on that Saturday in April there was no trauma that needed mending. There was just a tinge of sadness in the air. While Molina's songs played in the background I decided to see what he has been up to since Magnolia Electric Co. released its last album in 2009. I searched his name and found this on his record label's blog, under the title "Where Is Jason Molina?":

Many of you have inquired as to Jason’s whereabouts and well-being since he canceled his tours with Will Johnson in 2009. Over the last two years Jason has been in and out of rehab facilities and hospitals in England, Chicago, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. It has been a very trying time for Jason, his friends, and his family. Although no one can be sure what the future holds, we feel very encouraged by the recent steps Jason has taken on the road towards becoming healthy and productive once again. Unfortunately, because he has no medical insurance, he has accrued substantial medical bills. We are asking all friends of Jason’s music to come together with a showing of financial support for him.

Molina's shared sadness helped me through my tough times and ultimately helped bring unknown happiness into my life. I figured I owed him. So, I sent a beacon out to my musician friends, asking if anyone wanted to play a tribute show to raise money for Molina. The response was resounding. Within a week the bill was full. This Tuesday, June 5, Jason Dodson, Pickwick, Lotte Kestner, Cataldo, Joshua Morrison and more will gather at Barboza to perform their favorite Jason Molina songs. (See the full bill below.)

Each of these artists were helped by Jason Molina one time or another. I asked a few of them how, and why they chose the songs they will be playing to return the favor. Here's what they had to say.

Jason Dodson (The Maldives, Sons of Warren Oates)

1. How did you first discover the music of Jason Molina?

I used to run around with these anarchist biker kids about 10 years ago, and they were always talking about going to see this Jason Molina guy, and the way they talked about him, I thought it was just some friend of theirs. I didn't formally start listening to his music until the final Songs:Ohia record came out, the transition into Magnolia Electric Co. That album was a game changer for me. And then I went through his back catalog. Right before What Comes After The Blues came out, I was in Northampton, Massachusetts, and I was able to see him for the first and only time at the Iron Horse Music Hall. Afterwards, I was a fly on the wall, while he and his band talked outside after the show. We shook hands, and talked briefly about Seattle, and he recalled that those same Anarchist biker kids actually gave him places to stay while he was on tour. And that settled it. From that point on, there was no persona in music, no bullshit ego, and no separation from artist and audience. Those biker kids didn't act like they knew Molina, they did know him. He was a friend of theirs. And his music speaks to that familiarity and honesty.

2. How did you chose the songs you will be playing at the tribute?

I have always been a fan of slow burners, especially at the close of an album, and "Blue Chicago Moon" is among the best of them. The line where Molina repeats "endless" seemingly forever, until it climaxes with the single word "depression," kills me. It was the first time in his music that I realized that there was something much darker and more personal happening in his songs. When I listen to Molina, I don't see myself in the song, I only see him. Time and space become irrelevant to the darkness that Molina is channeling and expressing. That is a rare and often harrowing experience in music. When I hear "Blue Chicago Moon," I see the song as Molina's attempt to sing himself out of the darkness. But when I play it, the perspective changes. When I sing his lines "You are not helpless/I'll help you try/Try to beat it," I am singing to him, and I am trying to help him beat it.

Anna Lynne Williams (Lotte Kestner)

1. How did you first discover the music of Jason Molina?

I've been listening to Jason Molina for 13 years. I first heard a Songs: Ohia song ("Lioness," i think) on one of the compilation CDs that the CMJ magazine used to put out every month; I discovered so many bands on those discs. I ran out and bought the Lioness album. Actually, Jason was the first "celebrity" that I ever contacted when I first got an email address and started making my own music. Secretly Canadian helped me to get in touch with him and I sent him my very first awful album and he sent me some positive comments on the lyrics. It meant a lot to me.

2. How did you chose the songs you will be playing at the tribute?

"Being in Love" and "Lioness" are my favorite songs on any Songs: Ohia album. I immediately knew I wanted to do "Being in Love" because of the lovelorn lyrics and the fact that the whole song is the same chords and I wanted to have a choir singing the chords along with me. Since I have tendinitis and it's hard for me to play the guitar, the idea of having some girls singing the chords instead came to me immediately. Now we have a cellist and keyboardist as well. It's sounding pretty great. 

Alex Jones (Keaton Collective)

1. How did you first discover the music of Jason Molina?

I first heard the Songs: Ohia Magnolia Electric Company album about eight years ago. I can't remember where it came from, but I remember being obsessed with the album and, for a while, it was all I would play in my truck. I would drive to work every day listening to "Hold On Magnolia" because I could listen to half on the way there and half on the way home. I was going through a tough time and unhappy with where I was at and the song was like my friend that told me everything was going to be ok. The lyrics really drew me in and the quality of Jason's voice was unlike anything I had heard before. 

2. How did you chose the songs you will be playing at the tribute?

"Just Be Simple" was the first song I chose because I loved the lyrics and the flow of the song. The line "Everything you hated me for, honey there was so much more, I just didn't get busted," in particular, always stood out to me. I think everyone can relate to being on either side of that one, and I think I can relate to both sides. "No Moon on the Water" was one song that stood out off the Sojourner box set. I loved the drum beat from the first time I heard it. I wanted to put our own take on it with more drums and guitars and the lyrics are as intense as you can get; they really draw you in. The song "Such Pretty Eyes For a Snake" was another song I was obsessed with for a while. I loved the way that it builds and I loved the raw quality of the live recording. The line "in fact I learned how to make a living out of making mistakes" always stood out to me because as songwriters that is basically the idea, more or less. 

Hamilton Boyce (Song Sparrow Research)

1. How did you first discover the music of Jason Molina?

I first discovered the music of Jason Molina through my good friend Nash. He got What Comes After the Blues and used to always play it in the car on road trips. We've taken a number of cross country trips together and that's one of those albums where you are on some desert highway driving at sunrise and the music just takes you over. I remember the first time I heard the record just being totally blown away by its raw emotion and honesty.

2. How did you chose the songs you will be playing at the tribute?

When deciding what songs to play for this show, I started noticing that many of Jason Molina's lyrics could be read almost as a suicide note. "When it's been my ghost on the empty road / I think the stars are just the neon lights / shining through the dance floor / of heaven on a Saturday night / I saw the light." I really wanted to do "Hammer Down" to celebrate that we are fortune enough to still have him around as well as his incredible ability to be expressive and sometimes painfully truthful through his music.

Alexandra Niedzialkowski (Cumulus)

1. How did you first discover the music of Jason Molina?

A note on my love for Jason Molina has to start with a quote from a 2007 This American Life piece written by Starlee Kine. As she's going through a devastating break up, she tries to articulate why sad songs feel so good: 

 There is something so satisfying about listening to sad songs. They're, like, how you would actually be spending your day if you were allowed to just break down and sob, and grab ahold of everyone you met. They make you feel less alone with your crazy thoughts. They don't judge you.

Whenever Jason Molina comes up in a conversation and I try to describe how much his songs mean to me, the first word I can come up with is "comfort." His words of sadness, loss, love, and death have comforted me in my darkest moments. His songs help me cry, and they have become so familiar that for a moment I can breathe amongst all of the things changing around me because I know every word he is about to sing and every chord he is about to strum. They rock me to sleep. Even when his guitar is making the most angular, crushing feedback, it is still soothing. I'll never forget the first time I heard Pyramid Electric Company. It was the weekend of my 18th birthday and I was laying on my living room floor next to a boy who would unknowingly shape my music taste for years to come, the record playing from my dad's record player. He left town with the record, it belonged to him after all, but I knew I would have to ponder those songs to let them really sink in. I needed more, but I was living in Oak Harbor and record stores were not exactly easy to come by.

A few weeks later, I got in a teenage fit with my mom who I had to visit every other weekend in Kelso. I "ran away" for a few hours, escaped through the bathroom window with no shoes and found myself crying in the rainy dugout of some high school baseball field nearby. I called this special boy and told him about all of my parent frustrations and he told me that he had bought something for me that day; my very own copy of Pyramid Electric Company. Once in my hands it became my prized possession; my first vinyl record to call my own, and my favorite album of all time. I literally feel like you can't fully get to know me unless you come over to my house and listen to that record. It has been the soundtrack to so many crucial moments in my life, it has become a part of me. It has always been a dream of mine to cover a song off of that record, so Tuesday night will be forever engraved on my mental bucket list. 

I have to admit it feels a little scary to even try and play these songs in front of other people and do them justice. I am nervous and excited to hear different voices singing familiar words in interpretations they have made their own. I also know it is going to be a beautiful and vulnerable night if we all really get into it. Not all of Molina's songs are sad, but you have to admit we are in for a night of reflection and swelling hearts. If there is any sadness in the room it will be that sadness that moves us into being thankful for our friends and community, and for the songs we cherish and hold so close.  For a man that countlessly reminds me that I am not alone, and is always there to comfort me in times of need, I think I can speak for everyone involved and say it is an honor to return the favor. 

Purchase tickets to the Jason Molina Tribute here. Or contribute directly to the Jason Molina Medical Fund hereMark Baumgarten’s At Large column appears regularly on City Arts Online. If you have something you think Mark should see, in the flesh, email markb@cityartsmagazine.com and tell him about it.

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