I did a lot of interviews for Eventide, but only one was conducted through an exchange of letters. That was with Jason Molina, whose early work as Songs:Ohia had already caught my ear, and whose albums made after this — particularly the utterly stunning Didn’t It Rain — have rarely left my stereo. I’d been struck by Impala, Songs:Ohia’s second album — though describing exactly why I find these albums so powerful is hard to do. The best advice I can give is to listen and let the songs sink in; Molina’s songwriting has a powerfully atmospheric effect, and at its best — which it often was — it was hypnotic.
At the time that this interview was conducted, Molina was on the verge of releasing Axxess & Ace, Songs:Ohia’s third album. Molina would go on to release numerous fantastic albums through numerous projects — including Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. — before his death in early 2013.
This interview was conducted through the mail, and appeared in issue 5.
I saw in another interview with you that you’d been playing music for a long while. When did Songs:Ohia begin?
I’ve been playing and recording for the last ten years steadily. In high school I usually played in Cleveland only. I was never a fucking bedroom rocker; I always preferred to play live. It was a true measure of a song’s worth before I had people who wanted to release my records. I never had any plans to record records but I always wanted to tour.
What are the origins of the name?
The name comes from the Ohia blossom, a flower in Hawaii. I’ve played the ukulele & bars and various four stringed guitars since I began playing music and a lifelong love of palm trees; it all just fits in there somehow. The name is Songs; the :Ohia is tacked on. There are other versions such as Songs:Unitas and Songs:Radix.
Can you tell me anything about the releases that are coming in the near future?
In the past weeks I released a seven inch with Appendix Out on the Liquefaction label in the U.K. My song is a recording from around 1990 or 1991. September 26 [brings] an EP on the Acurela label in Spain. It is the most unique Songs:Ohia project, just boombox recordings and some spoken word with Casio. It’s really worth tracking down, but it’s not going to be too easy to get in America. November first is a seven inch of Songs:Ohia and Rex on Temporary Residence Ltd. Then, January first is the new LP on Secretly Canadian called Axxess and Ace; it’s all love songs and it features Edith Frost and Julie Liu (Rex), among others.
1998 also has been a big release year for the Impala LP, but 1999 has some things that outdo all that I’ve done so far, and what I’m most proud of. The vinyl version of Axxess and Ace is going to be limited, so if it’s your thing, don’t wait for it.
How extensively have you toured?
I have toured all of the U.S. east of the Mississippi extensively. I have done Holland and England, and am leaving to do Spain, U.K., Holland, and Germany this month.
How would you compare the labels that you’ve been on, specifically Secretly Canadian and Happy Go Lucky?
Each label is very good at what they do. I am happy with them both. I am a hard artist to work with because I feel like if I’m not out there on a stage playing, I’m losing it, so these labels cover my recording needs, releases only. Touring comes sporadically, and it has damn near bankrupted me without proper booking. It is the live show where I work on the new songs. So it’s just lots of writing until I get to go out and play for people.
Are you able to make a living off of Songs:Ohia?
I have not even come close to making any money on Songs:Ohia. I’ve totally wiped my self out financially on touring and paying the musicians. I work two jobs and these pay my rent. I didn’t have a bed for six years and just slept on a fucking army cot. For the record, however, I never got financial help from anyone but my own hard work to do this. It comes down to getting off your ass and touring no matter what, if that’s your deal; for me, it meant travelling around the world with great people and meeting many more. I’ll trade being rich for friendship any fucking day; friends do not suck, money does.
What do you do when you’re not doing the band?
I do my paintings and drawings. (I’ve got a show of my work in January in Chicago). I’ve been doing art and music at a nearly equal pace this whole time.
Do you consider Songs:Ohia a band, or more of a project with different members?
Songs is a project, based around my songs, a few of my chords, and lyrics. It just is a matter of time and place who plays on the records and tours. I wish I could get all of my friends on records and tours, but it is getting harder to do that when nobody gets paid to rock. It is hard for these people to quit school, jobs, their life, basically, for some rough roads and empty bellies and pockets.
The songs on here have a very unique feel to them, almost like they’re suited for the late night or early morning. Is there a specific time that you find that you write the majority of your songs?
I write all the time, but there always seems to be a sense of instability or transition in the recording and the songs. We just do it and that’s all I know.
Who do you see as your contemporaries?
Ali Roberts (Appendix Out), Edith Frost, Will Oldham, Arab Strap, Catpower, all of these kinds of people, I love to play shows with or would love to. We’re touring Europe with Arab Strap and just finished a U.S. tour with them, and a show in Holland on October 16-17 with Silver Jews and others is exciting.
The use of organ on Impala is interesting; in a lot of places, I think it gives the songs an almost 70s, progressive rock feel to them. Was there a specific reason for the use of more organ on this album than in the past?
I have been trying to years to save enough money for a Rhodes piano, and just got it. We used it on the Arab Strap shows, but the more reedy organs and synths are also very adaptable to my songs, but I think the keyboards in John Cale’s work really do a lot for his guitar playing, so I like to use keyboards as much as possible for the same reason. The new records use them in very different ways than Impala; more of a flat tone growling under the songs is what I’m going for.
Lyrically, there are several religious references in your songs-are you a religious person, or is there another reason that you’ve used them?
I’m not at all a religious person. The references are partly earthbound: just part of this Western image vocabulary which is limiting but oftentimes relevant because evil is evil straight out; there is no gray area there.
What is the songwriting process like for you?
Songwriting is work, it’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid. It’s something in the Lake Erie water I grew up in. I’m just a regular guy who just has a fucked up way of dealing with his personal life; I tell it to people I’ve never met, I go to Spain and sing it for them, I go to Holland and sing it for them, etcetera.
What are your goals for Songs:Ohia?
Goals? Tour more, stop being in debt, make one beautiful song before I die, one that just makes sense and sums something up for us all. I am in love with this world and its people, and the celebration of feelings; pain, sorrow, and extreme joy are all parts of the life that we call “ours”. To just be an honest and good person is my goal. Don’t jack people.
Anything to say in closing?
Come out and see Songs:Ohia; I won’t rip you off. Ever!