If you like Americana, chances are you like the Jayhawks, and if you haven’t heard them, go back and check out the catalogue that likely influenced your favorite bands. Singer-songwriter Mark Olson began his career in music as the founding member of that successful alt-country band in 1985 and has yet to slow down, following the group collection of albums with over a half-dozen in The Creekdippers before going solo in 2007 with The Salvation Blues. Last month, he released his second solo effort, Many Colored Kite, and he’ll be kicking off an international tour in support of the album this Friday at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.
LA Music Blog recently talked to Mark Olson about his career with the Jayhawks, working with artist Ingunn Ringvold on the new album, and his thoughts on the current state of the music industry.
Photo by: Krissie Gregory
How do you think growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and where you grew up affected and shaped your songwriting?
Well, I think it had most to do with my family and the things that they talked about and what was important to them and ideas like that. My dad had this thing about how he wanted to be self-employed, and my mom was a bit of a radical in her thinking in a way. That made me want to be curious about the world and read books, and when I heard music for the first time, I wanted to try to play music. They supported that. They looked at the world in a very open-minded way, not really going along with the flow kind of a thing, and I think that influenced me. The kind of people they were influenced me more than the environment. The Midwest is what it is, but I think ideas are more important than what’s going on as far as the things around you.
I think that one thing about the Midwest that I’ve noticed when I go back there is it’s extremely isolated in a way. I grew up in the city sort of, just outside Minneapolis, but I have a lot of relatives in northern and southern Minnesota on farms and in small towns. We would go there in the summer, and when I have gone back there, I realized just how empty, not in a bad way, but just how quiet it is and there’s really nothing moving. In this day and age with televisions and video and things like that, people aren’t really outside of their houses too much.
I know I must have experienced that as a kid, just that certain loneliness out there on the prairie. The society is exactly how it’s been for the past 50, 60, 70 years. A lot of people leave those small towns. They come to the city because there just aren’t opportunities, so I suppose that influenced me in a way. I didn’t want to stay where I grew up my whole life. I wanted to go out into the world and do something.
Can you tell us about your songwriting process?
What usually works best for me with songwriting—and it doesn’t work this way all the time—is to have two concrete experiences and tie them together. Like with “Morning Dove,” I had this experience of working on this house out here, and when I finished with it, one day I drove up and there’s a bunch of doves around. Now that’s not that unusual here because there’s a lot of doves—for some reason doves live in the desert—but I remember that event specifically.
Then an idea came to me when I had come back from a long tour after a long time away from home and landed at the house again. There was the idea of making it through this hard tour and all the things that had gone on with that. I had those two events, and then I tried to tie them together in one song, so I’m kind of talking between the two events. That seems to work the best for me. It’s not just one idea, “Okay, this happened so I’m going to write a song about that.” I usually need two emotional influences, and they can be something physical, something that you see that actually happened along with a feeling about something else. Then I can just play along with a melody I’ve been working on on the guitar and start to add the lyrics at the same time. That seems to be the best for me.
I know it’s probably a cliché, but there is something to be said for getting in some kind of zen state where you’re just able to start coming up with lyrics as you sing along and write them down. I do the first verse just singing them out, and then write it down and move into the chorus or the second verse and just write them down as I go along singing them. Then at a certain point I’ll break that down and start writing without singing on a typewriter or laptop or with my pencil. That’s kind of the way it goes. I try to get as far as I can on the lyrics in the initial idea burst, and then later on in the studio, if I’m missing a verse or a bridge or something, I try to come up with it there. I try to get the first line of the song, and then from that line, I can try to develop it.
Photo by: Krissie Gregory
Do you remember the very first song you ever wrote?
Not so much. I know that my last year of high school, I went to Santa Monica High School. My grandmother lived in Santa Monica, and I left Minnesota and came out to live with her for a year. She read a lot of books and had some records around. I hadn’t really thought about playing music seriously, but when I got out of high school, I thought, “Well, what am I gonna do? I sure like music.” I’d been playing it a bit around her house, so I decided I would go back to Minnesota after high school and see what was going on there.
When I got back to Minnesota, I met my mom in the Black Hills or something, and I remember trying to sit out in a park there and write a song. I’m not sure which one it was, but when I got home to Minnesota, I bought a Woody Guthrie album, Dust Bowl Ballads or something, and that was really helpful because it was those three-chord songs. I went to the folk ex tempore right away, and I saw Dave Von Ronk right when I got out of high school. I found an old used record of his, and he had a lot of just like stories, so I was trying to write songs like Woody Guthrie and Dave Von Ronk. I don’t think I was very successful, but maybe a couple of the ideas worked their way onto that first Jayhawks record. “Cherry Pie” and a few of those kind of things would have been the first songs.
The early Jayhawks albums had a very Nashville sound to them. How did growing up in Minneapolis affect the growth of the band in that sound?
When I got back there, I ended up getting into a rockabilly band, and Gary [Louris] was in a rockabilly band too, though we didn’t know each other then. We were both into that kind of music on the level that it was sort of reactionary in a way. There was all the loud punk music, and at the same time, there was this rockabilly thing where there would be people down in these rock clubs dancing, and that was kind of fun. The whole idea of going backwards was sort of exciting, like back to the first Johnny Cash records, Carl Perkins, The Burnette Brothers, the Blue Caps. All these weird old bands with the reissue records in the record store. You’d go out and listen to this stuff. When you’re just learning how to write songs and play music, those three-chord songs are great ’cause you can kind of figure them out.
So we both had done that a bit, and then when we tried to start in with the Jayhawks, there was a radio show on called Classic Country. It was on Saturday afternoons, and we would tape that with our cassettes. The guy was a pedal steel player, so he’d give these long stories about “This pedal steel player played that,” and “This pedal steel player played this.” We were really into trying to write those kinds of songs. We went out and got Merle Haggard records and of course that Byrds record, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and the Flying Burrito Brothers records were these things that said, “Okay, these guys were playing country during this psychedelic period and look how much fun it seemed like they were having.”
I don’t think you can listen to that Sweetheart of the Rodeo album without feeling good. There’s something fun about that. It’s just crazy, and the lyrics seemed to be full of feeling, but at the same time, there’s something existential about the whole thing. That was sort of our feeling in a way. I couldn’t scream and yell. I wanted to play acoustic guitar, and all the punk and hard rock stuff was taken up. There were some really good bands that were playing in that style. There were so many other local bands that were more popular than us, and popularity was important on the level of we wanted to play on Friday and Saturday nights and try to fill up some of the bars.
We were unable to right away playing that kind of music, so we ended up going over to where there was a blues, folk, country scene on the west bank. The bars were really small, and we ended up filling up one of those bars. Then we had a manager who made a record with us. It took us a number of years even to get the local record company Twin/Tone to put out the Blue Earth record that came down the road, and by that time, we had started to get our own sound a little bit more. We had in a way abandoned straight country because we felt like we had done that and that’s what we had tried to do as far as learning how to write songs. We decided, “Let’s just try to play in a more open way using minor chords.” We had discovered The Band and more possibilities with music. I think that we used it as a way to learn. We forced ourselves to try to write those old-fashioned songs, and then abandoned it and just tried to write what came to us.
How influential do you think artists like Gram Parsons or the Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan were in shaping the Jayhawks’ sound?
It was a huge influence. It was the Byrds, and then when Gram Parsons got involved, and then the Dillards, and Bob Dylan, and then Bob Dylan lead to The Band. That was huge. That was the stuff that spoke to us, that we wanted to put on if we were at a party or something because it was kind of fun. It just had feeling and ideas. Country guitar playing, or now folk finger-picking, all these kinds of music are interesting, fun, and somewhat difficult to play when you’re starting out. You have to really work at it, and there are great heroes of it like Clarence White, who’s an unbelievable talent. Within that genre, you have certain people who are just unbelievably good. You could set your sights on them and see if someday you could write and sing and play like these people. They were kind of heroes. Merle Haggard, too. All his songwriting is just top notch.
We didn’t grow up around country music. We had to search it out. For us it was kind of like this thing that we really wished that we could go see it more, so when somebody did come to town, we were very excited about it. I think that kind of goes with people who are doing Americana music now in England and in different parts of Europe and places like that. It’s something that they really love the sound of. They haven’t been exposed to it their whole lives, but because they love it so much, they do a great job with it.
Since the Jayhawks, you’ve had solo ventures and also another band. How have you seen your personal songwriting process change throughout the years?
Well, it’s always been a part of my life as far as each year there are certain times when I sit down and start writing songs. When I left the Jayhawks, I got involved with the Creekdippers. I had about a year where I just worked on this house, but then we ended up making seven records in seven years. The first couple we did ourselves and sold ourselves, but then we got involved with a German record company, and we would go tour in Europe. If we made a record, we’d have a tour, and our tours were two to three months in length. Then we’d come home and get together one time during the year, and we’d make a record.
There was some kind of a yearly pattern that developed, and it hasn’t really changed for me. It’s like a season. At some point during the year, I’m gonna sit down and work really hard on songs. I really enjoy it. I’m gonna think about all the things that have happened in that year, and I’m gonna think about the music that I’ve listened to and different ideas that have come to me. That’s just kind of the way it is.
In the past few years, I’ve gotten a little more serious about it. With the Creekdippers, we managed to tour and we made a living, but in this day and age, I think you have to work harder to make a living. [LAUGHS] So I’ve been working harder, and I think I put that into both albums, the Salvation Blues and then into this last album. I built a volume of songs and then really worked on the performance level of them more than I did with the Creekdippers. We would just do a couple takes, and we were into cinéma vérité. We were gonna make records in our living room and do it that way. Now I’m back with the program of working out stuff and spending time in the studio as much as I can afford to.
On this new album you co-write two songs with Ingunn Ringvold. How did you two meet, and what made you decide that she was the one that you wanted to work with on this album?
We met over four years ago now in Bergen, Norway. I did 10 shows in 12 days in Scandinavia with the violin player from the Creekdippers, and I met her there. She had come down to the show with a friend who was interested in that type of music. They had a good jukebox or DJ that night after we played, so we sat around listening to this music and talking about music. I found out that she played the djembe, and I was really interested in that because I had always been struggling with this idea of folk versus rock, and I wanted to find a way to have some kind of drumming and percussion without having to rent a van to have a drum kit, just a basic, simple thing.
I had another show, and I asked her if she’d like to come. We ended up that night playing some music together, and I realized that she was a very good singer. She had natural rhythm, natural tones, and she was just a talent, a very talented musician. They’re born that way, and she was born that way, so I asked her to come do this other show with me. She did, and we kept in touch. Then as time went by, I did Salvation Blues, and when it came time to do the tour, I really wanted to make an investment in her as far as her being my musical partner. I wanted to do that. I felt that it would be worthwhile, that she had a lot of talent on the drum and on the singing.
We played 200 shows together, and now I figure we’re a team in a way. I really enjoy playing with her. She has a very positive attitude, and she grew up in a different country, so I’m learning some Norwegian, and I just have enjoyed the entire experience. She’s very enthusiastic about music and about playing and about touring and about traveling, and I like that. It’s been sort of like a second wind for me, her coming into my life on that level. It’s been like, “Okay, this is number two, chance number two. I’m gonna build this band around her,” and that’s the way it’s been.
Do you prefer the process of writing solo or writing within a group?
The band process as far as writing was just Gary and me, and I enjoy both actually. The thing about the band process that’s neat is when you have two people that are coming together to write songs, you can come up with stuff that hasn’t been formed so much in your mind. When I write on my own, I pretty much have formed it in my mind over a long period of time.
When I do the band stuff with Gary, it’s like, “Okay, we just cranked out these songs and they’re really good,” and then I don’t really think about them for four months and haunt myself with them [LAUGHS] So it’s sort of a relief in a way ’cause I do haunt myself with songs I write. When I write ‘em on my own, I think about ‘em a lot, and I enjoy having the freedom of not doing that in a way, but I suppose both ways are good. That’s just how it is.
Many Colored Kite is your second solo album, but your third release in the past three years. How do you feel that this album differs from Salvation Blues?
I wanted to achieve something with it in a way. I wanted to be able to take Ingunn and go out and try to have some type of musical career with her and I. In the past I had been writing more from an emotional state. In this one I tried to write from more of a philosophical state. I wanted to say things that were important to me, and I wanted to try to use all of the different styles that I had been working on, the folk style, the poppier styles, and along with the djembe and the acoustic guitar.
The main difference for me between the two albums is this one really has my voice and my guitar playing on it, whereas Salvation Blues was electric guitar and pedal steel guitar and keyboards. I took all those elements out and said, “Okay, if I’m gonna do this, I’m just gonna do it with my voice and my acoustic guitar. Ingunn will play the djembe, and we’ll add a couple things. If people are gonna like it, they’re gonna like it for this.”
Everyone wants people to like their music, but at the end of the day, if they like it because there’s electric guitar and pedal steel and all these other things, then at some point in your life you just have to go, “Okay, here’s my song. Here’s how I sing it, and do you want to book a show because of this?” [LAUGHS] It’s like that test you take. I feel like this was my “take the test” record. I was going to sing and play these songs and play basically most of the instruments and see how it worked out.
Do you have any personal favorite songs on this album?
Yeah. I like the melancholy stuff. That comes natural to me, and I really make an effort to go anti-melancholy. I start adding chords and lyrics on purpose to take myself away from it. [LAUGHS] That’s how I naturally sound when I pick up and write on a guitar, so I try to add other elements to uplift the album a little bit, but my favorite songs are “Beehive,” because it’s in a totally strange tuning, and it’s different lyrically, and “Morning Dove.” Those are my two favorite songs, definitely. If I was to sit down and just play a song for someone, those are the two songs that I would sit down and play.
You’ve had a career spanning almost 30 years now, and it seems like you’re not slowing down—
Well, the first 10 years we were in Minneapolis, we worked super hard, but we didn’t have musical careers those first 10 years. [LAUGHS]
Let’s say 25+ years then of playing music.
Yeah, let’s say that for sure. [LAUGHS ]
As far as how the industry has evolved in that time, what are your thoughts on the changes that are coming about regarding the digital era and just the way people are getting their music out compared to the way things were back in the ‘80s?
I have to say that the way things are right now, I enjoy. For some reason it feels like more of a level playing field to me. When I first started out, it seemed impossible, like this was an impossible mountain to climb, to actually first of all find someone to put out your record, and then to have your record get out to the public and have people hear it. That changed a bit for us when we did the Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass records because that record company really pushed us and got us over to Europe.
The major thing in my life was when American Records sent the Jayhawks to Europe. It really changed my life. I just really am glad they did that. They got us over there to Holland and England, and all of a sudden, things started to change musically for me and I think for the band too. It just was like, “Wow, there’s this whole other world, and we’re playing music for them, and it seems to be working. It seems like people are really into this.” Prior to that, I felt like it was very difficult to play music for a living. It just felt difficult for some reason because there were so many groups that seemed to be just enormous and huge and grunge rock. It just seemed like we weren’t stacking up against that. We’d see these bands, they’d make a record, and boom [LAUGHS] they’d be 70 times bigger than anything we’d imagined.
So that was back then, but now it seems more like a level playing field. There’s a lot of groups, all kinds of groups, and people that like music are into it for the pure joy of liking music. I went back to Minnesota at one point in the mid-90s, and I was asked, “So you’re a musician? How many records do you sell?” [LAUGHS] like that was like important. I never thought about that when I got into music. That wasn’t the point, but that’s how it became there for a while. It felt strange in a way. It doesn’t feel that way anymore because it seems like it’s not even about selling records for sure anymore. It’s about trying to be creative and getting shows and going out and doing what you love. That’s sort of where it’s at right now, unless I’m totally delusional. [LAUGHS]
Mark Olson Tour Dates:
08/27 – McCabe’s Guitar Shop – Santa Monica, CA
09/07 – Cafe Du Nord – San Francisco, CA
09/09 – Mississippi Studios – Portland, OR
09/10 – Triple Door – Seattle, WA
09/11 – Green Frog Café Acoustic Tavern – Bellingham, WA
09/12 – Varsity Theater – Minneapolis, MN
09/13 – KAXE Radio Stations’ Closing Tent Event – Grand Rapids, MN
09/14 – Pizza Luce – Duluth, MN
09/15 – High Noon Saloon – Madison, WI
09/16 – Club Garibaldi – Milwaukee, WI
09/17 – Schubas – Chicago, IL
09/18 – The Rudyard Kipling – Louisville, KY
09/19 – The Old Rockhouse – St Louis, MO
09/21 – NightCat – Easton, MD
09/22 – World Cafe Live – Philadelphia, PA
09/23 – Jammin’ Java – Vienna, VA
09/24 – M.E.A.N.Y. Fest at Joe’s Pub – New York, NY
09/25 – Iron Horse – Northampton, MA
09/27 – One Longfellow Square – Portland, ME
09/28 – Wildfire Bistro – Ithaca, NY
09/29 – The Rock Shop – Brooklyn, NY
10/01 – Objekt 5 – Halle Saale, Saxony-Anh, Germany
10/02 – Rätsche – Geislingen, Baden-Würt, Germany
10/03 – Music House Eltershofen – Eltershofen, Baden-Wuer, Germany
10/05 – t.b.c. – Belgrade, Serbia
10/06 – t.b.c. – Zagreb, Croatia (local name: Hrvatska)
10/08 – t.b.c. – Weimar or Offenburg, Germany
10/09 – Dreikoenigskirche – Dresden, Saxonia, Germany
10/10 – Music Star, Live in Norderstedt – Norderstedt Harksheide, Hamburg, Germany
10/11 – Kulturforum Kiel – Kiel, Schleswig, Germany
10/12 – Petruskirche – Berlin Lichterfelde, Berlin, Germany
10/13 – Feierwerk – Munich, Bavaria, Germany
10/14 – Laboratorium – Stuttgart, Baden-Wuer, Germany
10/15 – Engelstede Cafe – Engelbert, Netherland
10/16 – Jugendzentrum Karo – Wesel, Germany
10/17 – Paradiso – Amsterdam, Netherland
10/20 – Debaser Slussen – Stockholm, Sweden
10/21 – Woody West @ Pusterviksbaren – Göteborg, Sweden
10/22 – The Tivoli – Helsingborg, Sweden
10/23 – t.b.c. – Orebro, Sweden
10/26 – Mono – Oslo, Norway
10/27 – Credo – Trondheim, Sør-Trønde, Norway
10/28 – Hulen – Bergen, Hordaland, Norway
For more info on Mark Olson, check out: