Magnolia Electric Co.'s Josephine
Jason Molina's deep reservoir of dark-horse Americana doesn't always lend itself to easy sipping or casual toe-dips into the catalog. From his early years doing Will Oldham lo-fi noir (under the name Songs:Ohia) to his electric-drifter rock band (with Magnolia Electric Co.), Molina is an austere study in alt-country, his ever-growing discography littered with daunting monoliths such as the four-CD Sojourner box set.
Josephine, touted as a concept album, might not seem like the most accessible starting point. But opening track "O, Grace!" rolls in so gently on a bed of piano, acoustic guitar and winsome vocals, it feels like the Crosby, Stills & Nash tour bus just pulled over and invited you aboard. Josephine is also Molina's most ornate work, encompassing '50s slow-dance country ("The Rock Of Ages") and Appalachian a cappella ("Hope Dies Last") as well as his more familiar, Crazy Horse-inspired guitar grinding and lonesome folk laments.
The ghost in this recording is Magnolia bassist Evan Farrell, who died in 2007 in a Chicago apartment fire; according to Molina, it was Farrell who urged him to experiment with adding rich instrumentation to skeletal songs. Whether Josephine deserves to be called a concept album is debatable, but it is an album of eerie duality: Molina weaves a narrative of a man who leaves a woman for freedom and the open road, only to find he left his heart behind. At the same time, Molina seems to be paying tribute to musical partner Farrell, a fellow traveler who rides beside him in this world or the next. Molina spoke to eMusic's Matthew Fritch about the puzzling portrait of Josephine.
On the influence and tour-van humor of late bandmate Evan Farrell:
It'll take a lifetime to untangle all the things Evan brought to this record. After doing a long tour with him, there was no question he'd be part of this record which, at the time, was unwritten. Not a day goes by in the van when we're not referencing or extending one of his jokes.
He and I came up with these characters: Evan was this guy called Melvin Jeffcoat, who thinks he works at the Huddle House — or Waffle House. But basically, he just stands outside the restaurant and opens the door and gets free Mountain Dew. His best buddy is my guy, Avenue Jones, who hangs out in the median of the highway right by Huddle House. He thinks he's a traffic conductor. Avenue and Melvin get together once in a while and talk about work. On the road, you pass by a Waffle House every day, so there's a lot of life to that humor.
On being mistaken for an urban cowboy in London:
For the past couple years, I've been living in London, though I'm not there all that much because I'm usually on tour. It's an absolute nightmare to find quality musicians who own their own drum set or have a practice space. It's just been really hard to find a crew of people who don't have a preconceived notion of what it has to sound like to play music with Jason Molina. Talking about the Josephine record, inevitably the Europeans — and the English in particular — cite this record as being more "country" than any record I've ever done. If anything, it's the least country. They're reading into it way too much: the presence of slide guitar means it's country, and lyrically, a lot of them fixate on a place like Knoxville and romanticize it. "That's country." They're completely missing the whole song.
On "O, Grace!":
I was going to pitch this song. But the band really liked it and convinced me it was at least worth recording. It ended up being a pretty big part of the puzzle, lyrically. On this record, I wanted everybody to play everything they had an idea for. I didn't want it to be just Wurlitzer, drums and acoustic guitar. Jason (Groth) brought his sax to the session and ended up doing a really nice solo. I wanted a wider range of instrumentation, but since I tend to record things live and in one take, little things like extra vocal parts, backup singing and horn arrangements never even get tried out. I really don't believe in tinkering with the simplicity of documenting a song. If I wanted heavily produced music, I would do that. In the future, I'd love to do a record that's sprawling with instrumentation, but the things we added were tasteful. Those were the kind of things that Evan lobbied for.
On "The Rock Of Ages":
My family is from West Virginia, all coal mining and railroading people. I like words a lot, and I use a lot of archaic language in my day-to-day life, but the lyric about the carbide lamp [used on mining helmets] is not nostalgic or anything. That's intended to be the actual object I'm singing about. The backup vocals in this song sound like female voices, but it's just the band — all guys. It's got a real Phil Spector quality to it with the tambourine part.
"Josephine" was the first song I wrote after Evan died. After his death, I thought, "I quit." It's heroic to hear musicians say, when they lose a band member, "There was never any doubt that we'd keep going on." My first selfish thought was, "I'm not doing this anymore." I'd still write music, but I couldn't envision a time when I'd be back [recording albums and touring]. So I quit writing songs, but the first thing I turned to was music. I picked up a guitar and set an alarm clock — a real old-time, wind-up alarm clock, it's the loudest thing you've ever heard — in a room far away from where I was playing music. I'd sit down with a guitar and press record and improvise for an hour until that alarm clock went off. I'd improvise lyrics and everything without being self-conscious. It was me getting a lot of [the grief] out of my system. After doing that for a while, it was like, "Who are you kidding? You're going to make another record." Then I picked up a guitar and wrote a song, and everything I needed to say was there in "Josephine." You should read Josephine as a rebus, and everyone will get a different story out of it. I'm never going to show my hand because that's one thing I can keep as mine. I put as much information in there as I can. I'll leave it to the listener to figure out who Josephine is. "Josephine" is pretty heavily crystallized. I didn't flirt with a lot of abstraction in the song.
On "Map Of The Falling Sky":
It's one of my favorites. It was probably the second song I wrote after Evan's death. Since my first record, there's been a theme of traveling in different geographical and metaphysical worlds. The sense of not having a place and having to appreciate everywhere you end up. If you listen to all 22 songs that were recorded for this session, it covers all the U.S., other places, constellations. Places have such a personality. I've played all 48 continental states, and I think I've played 42 countries. I learned one thing about touring: never own a watch. You move around so much, the time zones become your enemy somehow. "Map of the Falling Sky" sums up everything about my songwriting. The sky might be falling, but I'd be looking at it and trying to figure out where the best place to be is when that thing hits you in the fucking head.
On "Little Sad Eyes":
It's jaunty, the way it begins, but if you listen to the lyrics it's probably the saddest song on the record. It's got the legs of a goat on the bottom and the head of a beautiful woman. The jauntiness isn't supposed to mask the lyrics or juxtapose something that's upbeat with something sad. That was just the best musical arrangement for the song that day. If we'd cut it the next day, it could've sounded a thousand times different. Hopefully the label will indulge me and put out the two sets of demos I did for Josephine. We also did a feature-length documentary on the making of the record, so if you put it all together you'll get a glimpse of how much work goes into one of our records.
On "An Arrow In The Gale":
This song mentions Josephine, too. I wanted the album to be really heavy in spots and I wanted it to be self-referential. There are a lot of musical passages in there that are references to other songs I've done, and the same [is true] with the lyrics. Reprising something so quickly makes it seem like [a novel that] you have to go back and read again. All of the hope is drained out, and it's kind of still gone. It's almost like the story is going to start over again but with a different bunch of characters. The song ends with a question ("Oh, which one of us is free, Josephine?"), which is not me trying to be cagey. I was definitely going for a style, and I think I achieved it.