For the last 25 years, whether with his genre-defining band The Jayhawks, with ex-wife Victoria Williams in the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, or simply as a solo artist, Mark Olson has been at the forefront of the alt-country movement as one of its leading figures.
Over the past five years Olson has been steadily touring with Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Ingunn Ringvold, Italian violinist Michele Gazich, and occasionally former Jayhawks bandmate Gary Louris, in a stripped-down approach that only seems to enhance the personal nature of Olson’s music. For Olson it is just another chapter in the ever evolving sound of the legendary songwriter.
This chapter saw another addition to it with the release of his latest album, Many Colored Kite, an intensely-powerful album that perfectly captures this current stripped-down approach of Olson. Olson took time to check in with Honest Tune from France, where he has been spending some time, going to school, playing music, and listening to a weird album by Jacques Bertin.
Honest Tune: Let’s start at the beginning. What music has always been there for you? What albums have been with you your whole life or influenced your music the most?
Mark Olson: There have been a lot of them really. Of course I have to say something like Desire by Bob Dylan, something like Gilded Palace of Sin by the Flying Burrito Brothers. Those are two I always put on when I was trying to write songs. They are both things that I love. There is stuff about them I really like. I think it is a different slant on lyrics, something really different about the lyric writing. It says you can really go somewhere with these lyrics. It doesn’t have to be one type of writing.
HT: Those are classic albums for sure. Is there anything newer that is really capturing you attention? A modern day Desire maybe?
MO: Oh yeah, there is a lot of good music out right now. There is so much of it, I sometimes can’t keep up on it. There is a Norwegian artist, Anna Berg. She has put out two really good records. Then I like the Fleet Foxes record. Those are two I would put up there that I listen to all the time.
HT: Anything really different or outside of your normal musical realm?
MO: I have this weird thing for this French album. I have listened to it about it a 100 times now. The reason I like it is because the arrangements on it are just beautiful. It is by Jacques Bertin. There are a couple of songs that are just poems. Then the other songs are this really nice classical guitar. He has a piano player and a bass, just those three or four instruments and his voice. I listen to that record all the time. I got it in a record store in LA. When I go into record stores I buy an album that I know and then I go into the foreign section and buy something completely that I have no idea what it is. Sometimes I hit pay dirt and sometimes I don’t [laughs].
HT: That’s one of the beauties of music, that sense of discovery.
MO: Exactly. I have no idea what a lot of this stuff is, and I just go by the cover or I read the back and just try to get some idea of what is going on. I am naturally attracted to more folk stuff; stuff that I feel has some tradition to it.
HT: It is fun to step outside your box and find something new and let it wash over. Talking about music you listen to, where do you see your music in the scheme of things?
M: [laughs] I don’t think about that much. The one thing I have always thought about is that I have always been in a manic rush to write songs my whole life. First with the Jayhawks, and then with the Creekdippers, which was seven records in seven years. Then all the records after that. I have been working on writing songs my whole life and I still consider that I am going to be doing my best stuff up ahead. I don’t use those albums (Desire and Gilded Palace of Sin) as a guide so much – I think of them as this is how far someone can take it who is very talented and I just want to do the best I can too.
I have been trying to find new ways of writing. I have found new ways to do it, and it is interesting because I have been doing it so long. It is sort of like working in a garden in a way, something I really like and look forward to.
HT: With these new ways of writing, how have you changed as a songwriter?
MO: When you first start out, or at least what I did when I first started, was to pick up a guitar and sing along with my guitar playing. Now I write a lot of songs lyrics first. Or I will write songs in circles with progressions and I use a lot of different tunes. I am more aware of grooves and what kind of groove I am going for. When you first start out with a guitar and a band, you just play and that kind of becomes the groove for the song. Now I have a real idea of what kind of groove I want to get. It comes from having played hundreds of shows over the past three years.
I have played a lot of shows where people don’t know who I am. So I have played shows under the situation where I have to go out and try and win them over. It is entirely different than playing shows where a lot of people know what you are playing. It is a whole different scene, and it has helped my songwriting a lot. To grab someone in a live scenario where they don’t know the song is a challenge. You have to have certain things in your songs – breaks, different types of grooves, different sounds from your guitar. It has been at the core of what I have been doing the last five years.
HT: That’s a very difficult thing, to win people over with new stuff in a live setting. What did you find you incorporated from playing live into your new album?
MO: It starts with the first song on the album [“Little Bird of Freedom”]. I noticed that up-tempos, quick riffs into breaks work really real. I am only working with one other musician so the get on the riff, sing, get back on the music, sing, back on the music, works really with people. It kind of jars them. Also there is cross picking with the strum together, two different styles in one folk kind of arrangement. I am kind of half picking, half strumming on “Little Bird of Freedom.” That is all directly from playing live shows.
Another example would be “Many Colored Kite.” I am rocking the dulcimer. I have been playing the dulcimer for about five years and I noticed that it has a major effect on people. I put it through the PA and play it up-tempo, and Ingunn plays the djembe, and that really gets people going. The dulcimer is real high so my voice is below the dulcimer, which is different than the guitar which is kind of the same range as my voice. It is an interesting to have the instrument above and the voice below in the range of the spectrum. It works really well.
As far as finger picking stuff, I had this Merle Travis pattern I have done my whole life, and I consciously had to break out of that on this record. I had just reached my limit of songs with that pattern. So I had to come up with a new a pattern for the finger picking songs on this record.
HT: Did you change how you approach your lyrics also?
MO: Yup. I found that when I sit down to write now, I don’t edit myself as much anymore. I have a general idea, and I do a kind of stream of conscious, right here right now thing. Most of this record was in that style of writing. It hasn’t been labored over too much. It pretty much came out the way it was.
A lot of the record came from conversation with friends. Start talking to a friend about a topic. And then from what you talk about, sit-down later and write a song about it. It is a good exercise in songwriting.
HT: Are you one of those writers who is constantly writing songs and scribbling notes?
MO: Nope, I don’t always work on songs. I will go months and months without working on songs. I do work on songs every year though. I set aside time to write and during that time I will really get into it. Otherwise I do make a note here and there. Right now I am taking a class, and I have to write things for the class, and ideas for songs end up on those papers and I end up having to save all those papers. The only thing I do on a daily basis is when I read the paper or come across a sign or something that really impresses me I will take a mental note to come back to it later. It usually has to be an incident that happens in life. For “Morning Dove,” I had pulled up to this house I had been working on and all these doves had to decided to land on it and I always remembered that. Down the road I wrote a song about it.
HT: Do you ever feel disconnected to songs from your past, because you can’t relate to the incident or event in the song, or it doesn’t resonant with you anymore?
MO: I just went back and did three Jayhawks reunion shows and I didn’t find that to be true. They had worked on the set list, and they had pulled out a lot of the songs from the Blue Earth record, which was a record we hadn’t played in years. And I really enjoyed it. We played “Will I Be Married,” and it was really fun. I felt connected to those songs as something that was part of my life.
HT: Did you have a specific idea or goal for the album when you started writing these songs?
MO: That’s a really good question. My goal was that I had this band with Ingunn and Michele and we did like 250 shows, and then we did like 70 shows with Gary. That was over the course of a couple of years. I really enjoyed it, I enjoyed everyone’s company. Gary and I went to Australia and New Zealand and had a fantastic time, and I thought while I am still healthy and strong and we carry our own equipment, I wanted to continue this idea of touring light, playing everywhere we possibly can. The only way to do that is to have a new record. If the record is really good and people pass the word, maybe I can do this for another five years.
You can’t ever lay down your guitar. I had one year where I didn’t play so much, I worked on a house and that was good because when I came back I had renewed energy. Because once you lay it down you will never be able to get it back.
HT: What is next for you?
MO: Right now I am going to school. It is this international summer school. Students come from all these other countries. I am really just enjoying these two things, my new album and this school right now. This is a really good time in my life. I have two months of touring booked ahead. I am just looking forward to that. If I wasn’t enjoying it, then I wouldn’t be doing it. This is one of the best times I have ever had.
Photos courtesy of Mark Olson/myspace.com/markolsonmusic