Songwriting Like a 9–5: Erin Osmon on Jason Molina

Posted by on July 20, 2017

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In 2008, just after completing the final studio album he would ever record, Jason Molina wrote a long message on his Blackberry to a friend asking for songwriting advice. His first piece of guidance began: “Wake up one hour earlier than usual. Don’t fuck around with this hour. Have a glass of water and go to the toilet and sit down at a desk and write. One hour and not on a computer… You ain’t writing a song or a poem or a masterpiece. Just write.” Whatever name he went by — Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co., or his own — he spent nearly two decades refining that rigorous and unrelenting approach to making music. He wrote and he wrote, constantly pushing ahead and seeking to expand the boundaries of the stark and contemplative world he charted in his songs.

When Molina died in 2013 from complications related to alcoholism at the age of 39, he left behind a body of work that feels almost edgeless in size, scope, and emotional depth. Across hundreds of songs (not counting all the distinctly beautiful live recordings available online), he constantly found new hollows in his voice, new landscapes that touched the edge of the void. He didn’t just venture into the void alone, though: his songs spoke directly to his listeners who found themselves there too, and they said, “We’re in this together. Let’s help each other up.”

Erin Osmon’s Riding With The Ghost is the first book-length treatment of Molina life, and it’s a captivating exploration of his expansive and empathy-nourishing world. Osmon has been chronicling music in the Chicago area for more than a decade, and her book doubles as a history of the Midwestern artistic communities that strengthened Molina throughout his career. Her biographical readings of his songs reveal new understandings of the tenderness, melancholy, and mystery that define his music. But she doesn’t stop there. The narrative of the doomed artist often erases the complexities that define a human being, but Osmon sheds new light on the nuances and contradictions of her subject’s life.

Molina was a fabulist and a voracious lover of history, a visual artist and a collector of antique books. His brooding, meditative recordings belie the breakneck speed of his songwriting process and his aleatoric, seat-of-the-pants approach to recording. He expressed his fandom for Tammy Wynette, Black Sabbath, and Peaches alike. He wrote hundreds of staunchly un-gloomy songs about domestic topics including cats and pumpkin pie. Riding With The Ghost, published in May by Rowman & Littlefield, captures the heaviness and levity that coexisted in Molina’s personality, and it enriches a moving and inexhaustible artistic legacy. Osmon and I corresponded over email about Molina’s life and work, the people who shaped them, and the experience of writing a book for the first time.

When did you decide to write this book? What were you most curious to learn when you started?
As longtime fan of Molina’s music I was of course shocked and then devastated when he died. I think a lot of people had this initial impulse to do… something. You know? Whether that was recording a tribute, donating money or writing an essay on a blog about their favorite album, there was this outpouring of grief and support that happened all at once. I too had those impulses. I wanted to do something, and as a writer and researcher my thought was to work really hard to tell an accurate, balanced and empathetic version of what happened, to help correct some of the conjecture swirl and misinformation.

My journey began with an article and in writing it I knew I could do more. There was a lot more to tell. Molina was such a uniquely hardworking, creative, cantankerous, hilarious and romantic person from a compelling background that I identified with as a fellow Midwesterner. He accomplished a lot in a short amount of time, and in a rapidly changing musical landscape.

As you interviewed other musicians, what commonalities did you find in their characterizations of Molina’s music and its effect on them?
Nearly everyone who spent any significant amount of time Molina talked about how binary he was — how he was really gregarious, performative, and always trying to make people laugh. Alternatively, he was very introspective and required significant personal space and alone time. When he was on tour he took long walks in the early morning hours to make sure he had this space. It resulted in some of his best songs, like “Hammer Down.” I think this duality really shows up in the music.

Was there a turning point when your interviews and research fell into place as a narrative?
There were definitely some really tender, reflective, full circle moments that surfaced as I learned more about the end of his life. It made me realize just how impactful the people who supported Molina along the way really were, how they shaped him as an artist and human being. These friendships are almost as essential to the story as Molina himself.

Musicians in Chicago and Bloomington played a major role in Molina’s development. When you first moved to Chicago, what were your impressions of the city’s music? 
I recently worked on a set of liner notes that in some part had to do with the DIY punk scene that was percolating in Chicago in the late 1970s — when bands were playing at places like O’Banions and Oz. It made me think about how long this bootstrapped, fiercely independent music making tradition has existed and been supported here, by a fringe network operating outside of the VERY bureaucratic, corrupt and broken governing body of the city that wants to tax and regulate everything. And this is just referring to “rock” music, really. There’s a much longer tradition of this in the blues and folk scenes, for example. Molina certainly benefitted from this network, as his friends ran one of the best DIY spaces of the era, in Crosshair and the Butchershop. He also benefitted from the great network of independent clubs here like the Hideout and the Empty Bottle. The clubs are still here, thankfully. Though DIY spaces always change hands, there remains a very vibrant network of them in Little Village, Pilsen and Humboldt Park, among other places. I think there will always be this drive in Chicago, to work hard, do your own thing and stick it to oppressive structures in the process.

Molina’s of love of books is no secret, but I had no idea he had such a voracious interest in history. What did his reading habits look like? 
His love of reading began somewhat as a product of being isolated on the banks of Lake Erie. They didn’t have cable or internet, and so the Molina boys dove into reading and the outdoors. Jason was obsessed with the Civil War and his research comes into play in a very clear way on his first album. He was reading a lot of Studs Terkel and Gwendolyn Brooks when he wrote The Magnolia Electric Co., which makes sense given its themes. The very unique thing about him was that he read straight through sets of encyclopedias, typewriter manuals and really dense volumes of poetry. There wasn’t anything too dry or seemingly impenetrable for him. He liked a challenge, and often preferred to read things would have been considered an antique –think thin pages, small type, leather bound, gold leaf. King James level stuff.

You write about how Molina often expressed his alienation from the more affluent young artists around him. In college he wrote a song called “Rich Kids,” and in a 2001 interview he tried to distance himself from the more privileged airs of Chicago’s post-rock milieu. How did his concern influence his approach to music?
Working class identity was very important to Molina because it’s who he was. It’s how he grew up. Though he hated the factory mentality of his hometown Lorain, he really identified with its Everyman undercurrent. And actually, that structure of punching a clock crept into his process. He really believed in the act of working. He treated songwriting like a job, a 9-5. He wasn’t a guy that needed, as he saw it, a frilly quest for inspiration. He sat down at a desk with a dictionary and a timer and worked.

As you describe in your book, other artists like Edith Frost contributed enormously to the larger musical world Molina participated in. Where there any you found particularly inspiring while you wrote about Molina?
Molina had a knack for surrounding himself with really talented and giving people, like all of the various members and contributors to Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. As I said before, they are almost as important to his story as he is. I love Edith Frost’s first record for Drag City, Calling Over Time. Dan Sullivan, who had a solo project called Nad Navillus, is a supremely talented guitar player and arranger. His work definitely deserves greater recognition. The musicians in Magnolia Electric Co. are all top notch, session-level players.

Alasdair Roberts is also absolutely brilliant. Here is a person who was passionately studying and interpreting the folk traditions of his native Scotland, long before there was this sort of hip, renewed interest in thrift store Folkways finds and the Alan Lomax Archive. His guitar playing and voice are studied yet enchanting and free. His solo material is referential yet visionary. If someone wants to fly me to Scotland to spend a couple of weeks following him around, I’d happily do so. Sign me up.

Throughout the book you make a distinction between the do-it-yourself, community-oriented ethos of the ’90s and the brand-driven “indie” lifestyles of the mid-’00s and beyond. How does Molina embody the former for you? To what degree do you think that distinction separates Molina from many of the artists who built careers in his wake?
Molina had to fill unexpected cancellations in his months-long touring schedule from pay phones in rural Georgia. He kept notebooks filled with phone numbers and had to hope that someone would pick up. When he started, email was a luxury afforded only to college students, transmitted over a dial-up modem. That’s the biggest difference. There was this massive communication barrier that just doesn’t exist today. There also weren’t these legions of festivals with big budgets and PR forces. No blogs. No Facebook. Indie was truly an ethos in that way. Your record was maybe written up in CMJ, Punk Planet, Maximum Rocknroll or a tiny zine. The rest was word of mouth. That’s not to say that bands today don’t work really hard to promote their music on these channels that are available to them, which are so saturated. That’s today’s unique challenge — being heard in a space where everyone is blasting a message.

I imagine a major challenge for any biographer is addressing dark episodes in a life. Especially as you were working on the later parts of this book, it must have been difficult to confront the tension between Molina’s work and his personal life. How do you think about that as a music writer? How do you weigh an artist’s life against their work?
I don’t believe that it’s truly possibly to separate the artist from the art. An artist’s life is always entwined in the work and vice versa. That’s why its so important and so fascinating to explore all of it, no matter how hard or ugly it is. I know a lot of creators will disagree with me. I know many believe that the truth behind something isn’t essential to its being, or that there’s some benefit to having the truth remain a mystery. I’ve never felt that way. I find the story behind some of my favorite literature as fascinating as the work itself. Gertrude Stein is a classic (and perhaps very cliche) example of that. The same is true of Molina. Understanding where he came from and what he was experiencing really heightened his work for me — even if it was just him talking in funny voices and goofing off with his friends.

Regarding the later parts of the book: I am a person who feels things very deeply. At times I struggled, on a personal level, with having to constantly revisit and live with a lot of the tragedy and sadness associated with the last years of Molina’s life. And it was nothing compared to what his family and friends went through! My struggle was nothing compared to that and I am in no way trying to compare me writing a book for three years to what they lived through. I felt so fortunate that they even wanted to revisit it with me. On the other hand, I found a lot of hope and magic in some of the moments he experienced with his friends and family who were so desperately trying to help him. The friendship narrative was so strong and so profound. I think in a way it was for them, too, these people who really rallied around Molina. These people who tried to save his life. I also found a lot of hope in the fact that he continued to work and create and seek out new music. There was a lot to be inspired by amidst the tragedy.

What do you look for when you read about music? What matters most to you in longform music writing?
The best music writing is the result of of good questions, better listening and keen observation. Where writers lose me is with a sort of “me me me” mentality. There’s a joke I tell sometimes, which is maybe sort of bratty. I think there’s also truth in it…

A music writer interviews an artist for the first time: “You’re a genius! Tell me more!”

A music writer interviews the same artist: “Let’s talk about me.”