I’ll never forget the moment I first heard Jason Molina’s music. After all, how could anyone forget the fragility of his voice, constantly veering toward breaking point but never quite losing control? Not to mention the lyrics he sang, as painfully blunt and poetically gentle as any in the American musical legacy, with the gossamer-thin melodies and haunting atmospherics of his every composition so suffocatingly emotive. Molina was a talent in the order of Townes Van Zandt, Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley, and Nick Drake, yet in the three years since his death, his legacy has failed to make an impression in the hearts of new listeners. In many ways, the man who lived the life of a troubled underdog and permanent outsider has had the death of one, his songs destined only to be heard and adored by a lucky and precious few.
A private man, Molina was born and raised in a trailer park on the outskirts of Lorain, Ohio in 1973, the oldest of three children. A Ford Motor Company assembly plant kept the small town running, lending Molina a blue collar sensibility that would remain a constant theme throughout his life’s work. Energetically high-voltage and with a lightning-fast temperament, Molina was known by the nickname Sparky from a young age. Of his friend, former bandmate Max Winter once wrote: "[Jason] was large and multitudinous: commensurately inspiring and frustrating, goofy and gloomy, spontaneous and studied, generous and self-absorbed, loyal and flaky, wise and naive, trusting and paranoid, outgoing and reserved, honest and totally full of shit, and every blessed and profane thing in between. And it’s all there in his music.” After taking an early interest in heavy metal, Molina soon gravitated toward alternative strains of classic American music like folk, country, and blues. Music would be Molina's saviour, outlet, and exorcism ritual, tracing the story of his life as he confronted his own quiet darkness.
In 1994, Molina enlisted a legally-of-age friend to attend a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy gig where he handed the artist formally known as Will Oldham a demo tape. Molina adored Oldham and the music he released with his Palace Brothers group, remarking to friends that Oldham’s songs reminded him of his own. "The playing was really intriguing and the voice was really intriguing,” Oldham later told The Chicago Reader of Molina's early material. "At the end of it - I think he recorded in the bathroom at one point - he might have taken a leak. In kind of a creepy voice, he said, 'You can write me letters.’” Somewhat surprisingly, Oldham agreed to release Molina’s first demo, recorded under the name Songs: Ohia in a 1,000 press run of the seven-inch single Nor Cease Thou Never Now.
"Anything Oldham-related I would snatch up real quick,” said Chris Swanson, co-founder of then-infantile recording label Secretly Canadian, of his first discovery of Molina's demo in a used record store a couple of years later. "I had this crappy little record player in my dorm room and listened over and over. It felt a little more vulnerable than Palace. Oldham was this gladiator of sad rock, and Molina was this young poet. It was beautiful.” Chris and his brother Ben soon signed Molina, who become a close friend, even moving to Bloomington, Indiana to take up permanent residence on the brothers’ couch. Over the course of his career, Molina would form the backbone of the influential independent label as it grew to become the home of everyone from Antony and the Johnsons to The War on Drugs.
Molina would go on to release seven albums over the next seven years under the Songs: Ohia name, the only core and constant member of a rotating group of little-known alternative country musicians. He lived a frugal life, working multiple jobs even as he toured, and paying collaborators with pizza, handwritten lyrics, and detailed drawings. But by 2003, Steve Albini had also taken an interest in Molina, and the influential producer soon took a direct hand in recording the latter Songs: Ohia releases. Renaming his band after Songs: Ohia's final album Magnolia Electric Co., Molina married his longtime girlfriend Darcy, and in many ways looked set for a breakthrough of sorts. The cracks were not to show until a couple of happy years had passed them by.
"It’s rare to find a musician of that kind who can get to that depth of experience in a song,” country singer Lawrence Peters, who recorded vocals for Magnolia track Old Black Hen, remarked of Molina. "He can get down into the basement covered in life’s emotions and heartsickness. Then bring it all upstairs into the light. He can touch that darkness and that depth and that sorrow and that tenderness.” For the album, the band were recording the songs live in ambient spaces, as Albini struggled to contain the dynamics of the on-the-fly and sometimes-improvised recordings by shutting and opening doors as needed. Yet the recordings contained an emotional depth that overflowed with every syllable, a testament to the weight and power of Molina’s art.
In the years following Magnolia, Molina balanced solo releases with a more-or-less permanent group of bandmates united under the Magnolia Electric Co. name. Yet the ever-insular Molina refused to hire a manager or push his music into the world and, as contemporaries like The Avett Brothers and My Morning Jacket reached and then overtook his success, Molina’s friends became aware of his alcoholism, and the singer began to derail the upward trajectory of his own career. It was tragic for his friends, who had always known Molina to be a light drinker prior to the early 2000s, to see him in such a state. His mother had been an alcoholic, but Jason had always held against addiction of any sort. "Our family had its ups and downs,” Molina’s brother, Aaron, would later say. "He knew what we grew up in. He was the one that was always anti-alcohol. I would’ve marked him to be the one that didn’t drink.”
As he downed vast quantities of alcohol alone in hotel rooms on the road, Molina’s health dramatically deteriorated during the latter part of the ‘00s, and he proved fiercely resistant to treatment, despite the best efforts of his loved ones. "He’d wake up, drink, pass out, wake up, drink, pass out - all day, every day,” Darcie Molina later recalled. "He was not a functioning human. He’d drink, smoke a cigarette, scream about something, pass out. Rinse. Repeat.” In between hospitalisations and failed interventions, Molina forced himself onto the road for shows which were alternately disastrous and incredible, usually tending toward the former. He played his final ticketed performance on March 26, 2010 in his then-home London, after which he seemed unable or unwilling to perform. What followed was three years of failed convalescence and soul-crushing darkness - a blackness that eventually swallowed Molina whole, as it had always threatened to.
Darcie kicked Jason out after he let her down one too many times with a relapse in 2011. She still conspired with friends and bandmates to get Molina help, though the practically-penniless musician struggled to pay for treatment. At one point that year, he dropped off the radar, bought a one way train ticket to New Orleans, and vomited blood all the way, with hotel staff soon rushing him to the hospital... "I think he went there to die, but it didn’t work,” says Jonathan Cargill of Secretly Canadian. His friends eventually got Molina into a long-term rehab facility in West Virginia, and as part of his treatment Jason took to tending chickens and goats on a rural farm. The work was good for Molina, and there was at last a ray of sunshine in his bleak existence.
There was hope during that period, and fans heard from Molina for the first time in years. "Treatment is good, getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn’t want to,” the singer wrote in a 2012 blog post. He was going well, reconnecting with friends despite the occasional relapse into drinking, and he had even begun to tentatively record new music in Indianapolis. Few expected things to grow worse for Molina, when out of the blue a local friend knocked on his door at 7pm on that fateful, cold Saturday night. Inside the apartment Jason was dead, his organs finally having given out after one thousand drinks too far. Spinach and garbanzo beans sat on the stove, half a bottle of cheap vodka sat in the freezer, and one of the greatest artists of our time lay dead among the cigarette butts and torn scraps of half-finished lyrics.
“I don’t think it’s sad,” Molina would tell people of his music, according to bandmate Winter, “I think it’s pretty hopeful.” Yet the heartbreaking desolation of his songs is an enduring testament to a man whose demons would ultimately consume him. As artists like Elliott Smith and Nick Drake have shown us, those who make such tender and lonely art are often desperately unwell and die commensurate deaths. That Molina’s music contained every possible human emotion is a proof of the energetic and vivacious man his friends knew so well, but it was the dark and private core of Molina’s heart that ultimately dictated the terms he lived and died by.
Jason Molina’s music has ultimately meant more to me than any other artists’. Few songwriters have explored the dark side of the soul with such poetry, such fearless inspection of every flaw and weakness, such bravery and clarity of vision. His was a beautiful spirit that showed us every part of his self with absolute honesty - a rare thing in life and art. To lose his utterly compelling and distinct voice is to lose an artist of immense worth, whose absence cannot help but be felt in every creative sphere. Not since Tom Waits had a songwriter introspected so deeply, so humanly, so devastatingly sweetly.
I have described Molina's music as "at times unbearably sad and at other times celebratory and free" before. Ultimately, he was a documentarian of the down-and-out dejected heart of America, and a spokesperson for the disaffected, the isolated, the downcast. But more than that, he was a gentle spirit who strove to make sense of his world against all odds. At times, he struck that balance just right, and we saw joy and humour light up his compositions; at others he was despondent, and we heard him as though from the bottom of a well, crying out as he drowned in his sorrows. Categorisation is not necessary for an artist as original and profound as Molina; indeed, his recordings bear little resemblance to the peers and movements with which he is commonly aligned.
Molina ultimately sold 200,000 albums over the course of his career, spanning 16 studio albums and over 24 other releases. It wasn't enough to sustain his livelihood, nor to enable him to stay in treatment long enough to get well. His mistreated body quit on him, and in death it seems that folk hero canonisation eludes Molina, trapped on the outskirts of existence now as much as ever. In the three years since his passing, we’ve seen that Molina’s legacy belongs not to the people, as an artist like Jeff Buckley’s legacy does, captured by the popular lexicon and assimilated into culture’s understanding of itself. Rather, it belongs to the lonely American heartland that Molina documented so closely and with such compassion. It belongs to the places beyond the large cities, way out in the ether of human experience, away from the bright lights and down in the depths of the everyday. It belongs to everyone who has known heartbreak, loneliness, and the need for understanding; it belongs to you and I, if we care to want it, if we are willing to confront it.
Great art always has been and always will be more powerful than any other force on earth, and I will always be personally grateful to have loved Jason Molina's music. For me, as for many others, he has been an interpreter of internal thoughts, a companion who seems capable of real understanding, and an idol for expressing the inexpressible. It's indelibly clear that he gave everything in each and every recording he made, committing the intricacies of his soul to wax even as his personal demons consumed him. They are rare and beautiful gifts he gave us, these missives from a soul in its decline. I urge every music lover to let the emotional weight of these songs carry you beyond yourself, far into the shadows of places you've never dared venture before. Eventually, we all must face the darkness through which infinite light glows.
Many of the quotes and biographical facts in this article were sourced from Max Blau's brilliant profile of Jason Molina, originally published by The Chicago Reader in 2014. We highly recommend giving that article a read for more information about Molina's life.
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