If you want to interview Chicago-based singer-songwriter Jason Molina, you must follow some ground rules.
First, Molina does not talk publicly about his personal life. He will not reveal whether he's married or even if he has a family. In addition, he doesn't like to refer to specific incidents in his life, whether happy or tragic, that may have inspired his songs. All he will talk about is "the music."
For Molina, that means 13 albums, four EPs, and numerous seven-inches and compilation appearances, not to mention an active touring schedule, all accomplished within the past nine years. He has issued records under the pseudonym Songs: Ohia, his own name, and as the leader of Magnolia Electric Co., a band he assembled three years ago. (Before that, he used different musicians for each project.) Most of Molina's output has been recorded for the Bloomington, Indiana, label Secretly Canadian. He has been praised by publications as varied as Paste magazine (which called Magnolia Electric Co.'s recent What Comes After the Blues "an album of glimmers and soft coronas") and the British weekly paper New Musical Express.
Those nine years of music-making have spanned an evolution of style, from the trenchantly confessional The Lioness to the eerie Ghost Tropic. Many reviewers have noted that Molina's Magnolia Electric Co. has augured in a fascination with Americana, citing Molina's increasingly vocal similarity to Harvest-era Neil Young. But he patently denies being part of any tradition that would lump him with Will Oldham, My Morning Jacket, and other modern practitioners of the melancholy, country-tinged lament. "Just current songwriting," he says of his present mode, "with very, very capable musicians helping me put it onto tape and perform it live."
Some musicians draw elaborate connections between their art and their lives; Molina uses technical jargon to draw attention away from his life. While he believes the details of the recording process are more descriptive of his music than the impressions it leaves on the listener, he acknowledges that most people say it sounds depressing. "I'm not trying to create an atmosphere of despair in the songs," he explains. "I'm just trying to honestly deliver the lyrics and the melodies so that they're most powerful." He places a premium on raw acoustic accuracy over overproduced artifice.
The most striking quality of What Comes After the Blues is its rough-hewn production: fuzzy and guttural, even slightly muddled. Molina freely sings the praises of Steve Albini, the legendary musician and producer -- famous for his work with Nirvana, the Pixies, PJ Harvey, and many others -- whom he worked with on the Magnolia Electric Co. sessions. Molina draws a distinction between the active contribution of a typical "producer" and the more passive, archival role of a "recorder," as Albini is credited in the liner notes. "He sits there and makes as accurate a recording as possible, so that it truly sounds as it did when we were playing it live," Molina says.
The songs on What Comes After the Blues tilt from midtempo waltz to slow, mournful balladry. On the slightly bitter "The Dark Don't Hide It," the six-member group rocks with an easy bar-band grace, with backing vocalist Jennie Benford trebling below Molina's wry words. But on "Hammer Down," it's Molina and a guitar, and he sings, "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."
As downcast and uneven as What Comes After the Blues gets, the performances themselves are warm and inviting. It's a noticeable contrast to Molina's Songs: Ohia catalog, which often feels painfully introverted. Again, Molina chalks it up to the recording process.
"Since we've been doing the Magnolia stuff, it's been a much more sophisticated type of recording, because we've actually gotten to record all of the last Magnolia record in the same studio, with the same engineer, and working consistently and regularly in electrical audio. It means that the record simply sounds a lot better," he says. "A lot of the earlier records are limited by the fact that we had to do an entire record in four-track in one day in somebody's living room. And it really sounds that way too... When you're recording in someone's living room and you can't wake up the neighbors or something, you tend to have to play around your circumstances, meaning a lot of times playing very quietly or playing very slow."
Molina admits that he writes songs to express himself, to help himself "process the world. I'm thinking out loud but with a melody," which may explain their diary-like nature. He has always considered music to be his only livelihood, even as he balanced making records and giving concerts with working at shit jobs to pay the bills. "I washed dishes, I bussed tables, I worked in a library, I used to make Kodak slides, I've worked in museums, I did landscaping. I did a lot of pick-up work, which you basically have to do if you're going to be a touring musician."
The turning point came in 2000 with The Lioness, an album he recorded in Scotland with Arab Strap. At the time, Molina was working at the Art Institute of Chicago. "People took a real interest in that record because of the unlikely combination of bands," Molina remembers of the Scottish indie favorites best-known for mordant offerings like The Red Thread.
Now, with a regular backing band in Magnolia Electric Co. and a brand name he can profit by, Molina has strayed far from the stripped-down style that first brought him critical favor. Some of those early advocates don't like his new direction: Pitchforkmedia.com gave unfavorable reviews to Magnolia Electric Co.'s two records, the live EP Trials and Errors and What Comes After the Blues. Molina says he hasn't seen the review, but merely answers, "I guess everyone's entitled to their opinion."
But the fickle critics who hastily dismiss Molina's recent output are missing the point. From Songs: Ohia to Magnolia Electric Co., there are no real masterworks in Molina's solid catalog. His work shouldn't be heard as a series of highlights and lowlights but as an oeuvre, a contiguous body of work from a singular Midwestern artist.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.