Mark Olson Sings the Salvation Blues

The former Jayhawks singer/songwriter crafts his first true solo album.



An evening with
MARK OLSON (of the Jayhawks)
Friday, August 24, 2007
Doors 8 p.m. | Show 9 p.m.

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Songwriters sometimes thrive on solitude, but Mark Olson has built his career on collaboration. In 1985, he cofounded the seminal alt-country band the Jayhawks with fellow singer/guitarist Gary Louris, with whom Olson shared both the songwriting chores and sun-soaked vocal harmonies. After releasing a pair of indie albums in their native Minneapolis, the band caught the air of major labels and released two of the most stunning roots-rock records of the 1990s, 1992's Hollywood Town Hall and 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass. Surprisingly, at the height of the band's popularity, Olson left the band, relocated to Joshua Tree in the California desert, and formed the band the Creekdippers with his new wife, Victoria Williams.


A decade later, the couple divorced and Olson began traveling, finally finding his roots in Cardiff, Wales. In 2006, Olson went on a brief co-headlining tour with his former bandmate Louris, leading some to speculate about a Jayhawks reunion, but Olson was instead laying the seeds for The Salvation Blues, after two decades in the music business, his first true solo album. The record, based on demos Olson recorded while traveling across Europe, is a warm welcome back to Olson's Jayhawks-era folk, and was released in an usual format: as a miniature hardcover book with dustjacket and photographs by Ingunn Ringvold and Krissie Gregory.


We caught up with Olson by telephone a blustery day on tour in North Dakota, where he talked about how the record came together and how the entire country could use a little "salvation blues."




You began writing the songs for this album after you traveled over to Wales. Could you trace us through the steps that brought you to going there in particular?


I played there at a place called the Chapter Arts Centre, and I met a number of people that night, and I found [novelists] Charlotte Grieg and her husband John Williams; for years they'd come to see me play. And I just really liked it. I had enrolled in school and was looking for a way to still play music and not go back to school, and they said "Why don't you come over here for a while and see what you can get going over here?"


So I went over there and they were writing every morning, so I said "I'm going to write my record," and I got started. They introduced me to an engineer, and the first two songs I recorded were "My Carol" and "Clifton Bridge." I felt like I had a good start there, and I just kept going for the next eight months. Ben Vaughn came into the picture and said he really liked it and for me to keep going, and I just kind of did that then. I went to Oslo, and then I went back to Cardiff, and then I went to Oslo, and then I went to Poland, and then I went to Minnesota. I wrote all the songs by hiring a local engineer and recording them with different people. But those were just demos; when it came time to record the record, I did that in L.A. with Ben Vaughn.


How did you choose which cities to travel to?


The reason was that I knew people, and they were involved in music, they had connections to music. It wasn't just an arbitrary "your place is pretty," it's like, I knew people that I had met touring. In Oslo, it was an engineer who had played before me once, and in Cardiff it was the two writers. In Poland, it was a guy who brought me over there to do some shows…I actually spent Easter with his family, his wife, and that was really nice. And then in Minneapolis, I got an apartment, and I tried to live there for a little bit and work on some more songs there.


How do you find the original demos compare to the finished product?


Well, I think the studio brought them out a lot more, actually. That was nice. One song, "My One Book Philosophy," is [straight] from the demo.


Did you have any temptation to beef that song up in the studio or did you try other arrangements at all?


I actually tried it once at the rehearsals, and I was like "Nah, I just really like that demo, it's just so crazy." It's kind of theatrical, you know? So that's what I did: I just kept it the way it was. I'm glad I did, too. I had never really sang a song like that before, it's kind of like…old Broadway or something.


Do you find that the songs take on a different life in the live setting?


Oh, yeah! I have a really good group. Because I was playing over in Europe, I have an Italian violinist and a Norwegian singer/piano player. They're my basic group, and then I hired this [drummer] named Jimi Hey from Beachwood Sparks, and he's fantastic. He also plays the bass, so we go from a folk group with no drums to a rock group with drums within the four people, that's really neat. We go about half and half some nights. It's like two different bands, and it really is nice for the pacing.


One song I found interesting you included on the record is "Poor Michael's Boat," which dates back to the Jayhawks days, right?


That's right. It didn't make the cut on the two records I was on, and I always liked the song. I told Gary [Louris, his former Jayhawks bandmate], "Hey, I'd like to do this" and "Why don't you come out and sing?" and he actually played some rhythm guitar and sang on it, and it came out really nice, I thought.


How do you see that song fitting into the overall theme of the record since it wasn't written under the same circumstances as the other songs were?


Yeah, but I did demo it in Poland, so it must have been on my mind. And I hadn't played it in ten years, so… I think if you don't play something for ten years, it's brand new again. [laughs]


What was it like playing with Gary Louris again, both on the tour last year and on the record, since you hadn't collaborated in so long?


It was great, it was fantastic. I really enjoyed playing with him. It's just like we fall right in together.


Salvation Blues is your first true solo album after so many projects that were collaborative songwriting and performance. Do you see yourself continuing as a solo artist?


I want to really try to make this album work, so I'm looking at a good year of touring ahead. That's my goal: make this thing work. And then we'll take it from there with a new album, but first step is, y'know… I'm just getting my touring legs under me. We've done 5 shows now, and we're just going great guns.


There's one lyric in the song "Salvation Blues" that I find really interesting, and that's the repeated line "And these blues will help us all," which is a very hopeful message from a record that was born out of a pretty dark time. Could you explain what that line means to you?


It means a couple things to me, but there is just one part of it. I grew up in a Catholic/Lutheran…it was right down the middle. I had a very strong Catholic family, and then I was Lutheran, and we went to Church every day and all that stuff, and I was always, like, scared to death when people would come up to me and say [deepens voice] "Do you know Jesus? I am having a personal revelation of Jesus!" and talking in tongues and kind of the "born again" thing. That always frightened me. "I'm saved!" and all that stuff… And so, I thought a little "blues" towards that aspect might do people some good. It's like, there's more to it than just "I'm saved!" It's a lifetime thing. But that was just one aspect of it.


I always wondered why, during this period of time when politics got mixed up in it, mainline churches didn't really stand up a little bit more and say something about all that. My grandmother did! She said, "Watch out for the born agains, Mark! Watch out!" [laughs]


There was that aspect, it was a sort of a family thing, that… And I don't have [anything against it], if somebody's born again, I think that's great. I'm just talking about my own personal feelings, I would get nervous. I get a little scared, TV preachers and things like that, they make me feel weird… I don't know what else to say about it. I can't put my finger on it.


What do you think of the widespread effect that religion has had on the political atmosphere in this country?


It's been something else, hasn't it? [laughs] It's been the story of our times, and that's what I mean, is to watch when institutions of our society, the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Methodist Church, not stand up and say something when they sliced and diced the electorate with this thing they did, you know? It's just a little much, I thought. It was like, "Republicans believe in God, the Democrats don't." It was a weird thing they sold. I don't know….very strange.


That was kind of the underlying message, and it was strange, and I was surprised that there weren't more people that were like, "Stop, stop, stop, stop!" And then the fact that they went to these megachurches, and enlisted megachurches to be telling people who they should be voting for, that was strange, too. It was like society had become so fractured, there wasn't anything for people to believe in, so the megachurch stepped in and gave them some hope on some levels, but they shouldn't be telling them what to vote. That seems ridiculous, to be voting in lockstep with religious leaders, it's just craziness. Our Constitution was against that completely. There was a separation of church and state, and it just went out the window.


[dismissively] Anyways, that's that.


[laughs] That was a great tangent I wasn't expecting to go on…


That did have something to do with the title Salvation Blues, there was that element. It's been bubbling underneath our feet for this past eight years, or whatever it's been, or since the whole Clinton… y'know, thing that happened, that crazy thing when they tried to impeach him over that dumb thing he did. That was just nuts, absolutely nuts.


How did you find people's perception was of America as you were traveling around Europe writing and recording the record?


In general, we have a lot of allies in Europe, as far as all that's concerned. We have a lot of people that want to be with us. People in general are really good, and they don't judge on a current political thing. We have a lot of strong collections to Italy, Norway, Germany, France…. we have great connections to those people, and I'm sure everything's going to be fine with all that.


After you wrap up the current tour, what are your next plans?


After I finish the tour? Well, hopefully, that'll be in one year, and then my plans are go somewhere, clear my head for a couple months, and then think about another record. Those are my plans basically. | Jason Green

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