Jason Molina moves restlessly over the musical landscape like an itinerant traveler or an out-dated Willy Loman, staking out territory that echoes the desolate, winding rural roads, parched gray skies and rusted factories of his Midwestern youth. Hawking this stark sound under the moniker of Songs:Ohia, the Ohio/West Virginia native sings with a tender, aching tenor weighed down by our collective sins and the difficulty of redemption in this modern day Gomorrah.
Molina's music employs Christian tropes -- "every serpent's doubled-tongue takes a turn with your soul" on "Didn't It Rain's" "Ring the Bell," for example -- in portraying a heartfelt affliction of loss, longing, pain and bewilderment. Often his characters are haunted by their reticence, lust or life's unending exigencies, but seem or feel unable to escape. It's a bleak outlook, and not one for which Molina provides too many hopeful answers. Speaking from Indianapolis, his new home after a brief tenure in Chicago, he is both forthcoming and oblique -- like his songs -- in explaining what drives him and, by extension, his characters.
"What you feel is just as important as what you say, and when you're not saying what you feel, even with whatever limited means you have of saying it, something's wrong in your immediate world," Molina suggests. "Somehow if I'm going to continue playing music, I have to take those things that I feel and put them into a kind of arbitrary structure of songs, and make it say what I need to hear said.
"Or I would just put on a James Brown record, and I would be totally content."
Molina isn't joking when he refers to the "arbitrary structure of songs" that he has recorded as Songs:Ohia. Across 10 albums and numerous 7-inch releases, he's approached his music as a jazz artist would, improvising lineups and situations that posit each album more as a beatnik "happening" than some grand artistic vision. Each starts with a unified set of songs, and then Molina plans the sessions and recruits players as if he's coaching "fantasy football for rock & roll."
"I can write what I think is a strong song, and if I don't write anything else around it in three months that fits with it, that song goes out the window. It doesn't get carried along, because I think songs have their vitality in proximity to something else that's related," he says. "I write the songs as a record. There are times at the end you realize a song didn't work, although it was the thing that spearheaded an entire record.
"I `also` build in a lot of traps. I'll have the raw material of the songs, but then I'll purposefully not rehearse them with a band," he continues. "Then I'll juxtapose a group of players who I've played music with a lot, with someone who I've never met before. So I don't know what the chemistry is going to be like with me and this person, and `with` that person and the other members in the room. I'm trying to get a kind of chemistry that is independent of the actual songs and hopefully will be totally unique to the record."
The results are familiar yet idiosyncratic. Whether it's the spare sound of "Didn't It Rain," the closeted warmth of "The Lioness" or the loud, rock-ish intimacy of "The Magnolia Electric Co.," his latest, each album benefits differently from Molina's varying approach. While Magnolia Electric Co. was recorded in one take with a mixture of former Songs:Ohia players and complete strangers, "Didn't It Rain" was recorded in a derelict factory with players who first encountered the songs that day. By reimagining the very concept of Songs:Ohia on a by-album basis, Molina has ensured that each new piece of work will be something distinctive.
"I'm not going to become some amazing virtuoso on an instrument, even lyrically. I'm not going to make leaps and bounds, but if I'm working every day, I've got to push the tools that I have into making something new," he explains. "Why repave the same road? The road's there if someone wants to use it. They'll use it whether it's just muddy or dirt. It doesn't matter. You don't need to keep sweating in the sun to make sure you can drive your jeep over it."