Blues music is supposed to be cathartic — a way to process and package pain in ways that make it palatable; to take our hurt and ache, set it outside ourselves, give it a tune and rhythm that makes it tangible and real yet somehow less terrifying.
Jason Molina, who died Saturday at 39, of what his label, Secretly Canadian, calls natural causes, wasn't a blues singer, exactly. In a prolific underground career spanning more than 15 years, his songs mostly took on the form of confessional folk music — a man and a guitar, or a man and a band, singing bruised and barren songs of longing and lost salvation like so many others before and since.
He recorded under a variety of names — his own, Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., to name a few — but in all, he wrote in his own unique symbolic shorthand. The moon, for example, lurked in countless Molina songs as a figure of both menace and light. In one of my favorites, the 2006 solo song "Get Out Get Out Get Out," he sums up so much of his work and worldview with a string of elegant laments: "Something must have happened to both of us / Something must have happened, something always does ... I lived low enough so the moon wouldn't waste its light on me."
Still, Molina's songs wove that self-pitying sadness — songs of a man cowering under a sky he cursed, or peering into horizons that seemed empty — into expressions of bracing, strangely soothing beauty. His open, aching voice could convey overwhelming emotion with the slightest inflection; if you loved his music, you'd swear you could feel a word or phrase or hook in your blood.
I got to meet Molina once, back in 2005. I'd heard stories that he could be prickly and unapproachable, to the point where I hesitated to say hello, but decided to suck it up as an act of selfishness; I just couldn't resist the chance to tell him how much I'd come to love his music. The man was sweet and warm to the point where, when we parted, he reached into his bag and handed me a sheet of paper. He'd been scribbling some strange drawings — a little reminiscent of Dinosaur Jr's album covers, but primitive and drawn in black pen — on the back of loose paperwork while bored on tour, and figured I might like one as a keepsake. He was right.
That sheepish generosity, coming from someone whose relationship with the world could be so difficult, stuck with me, and always will.
In 2007, I recorded a piece for Morning Edition to profile a then-new box set of Molina material; before his publicly acknowledged struggle with alcoholism and money woes started slowing him down a couple years later, the singer churned out so many songs, he couldn't be contained by just an album each year. As I was putting the story together, I reached out to the singer Glen Hansard, with whom I'd once exchanged stories of shared Molina fandom. (Hansard recorded a split 7" with the singer, and a few times brought him along on tour with his band The Frames.)
"There's something about the sensibility of what he does that's so incredibly traditional, and yet so modern," said Hansard, who discovered Molina's music while driving late at night, having bought one of his CDs thinking it was by someone else. "It's like that Leonard Cohen thing: incredibly melancholic music that for some reason leaves you with a smile — not a smile, but leaves you with a kind of sense of hope."
That lingering thread of hope which survives in Molina's music is what I try to embrace in his music; it's the idea that the singer lived to process his hurt and put it into all the beautiful, meaningful songs he could while he still could. I never thought a day would come when Molina's music could get any sadder, but here we are. I'll still celebrate it — and still find warmth and comfort in its worn, weary grace. But it hurts like hell that he's gone.