Remembering Jason Molina, A Musician Who Refused To Look Back

Apr 22, 2014
Originally published on April 22, 2014 12:34 pm

A little over a year ago, singer-songwriter Jason Molina died at 39 due to complications from alcohol addiction. He released hundreds of songs and dozens of albums under the moniker Songs: Ohia and with his band Magnolia Electric Co., and collaborated with many other musicians. He was also the driving force that helped make Bloomington, Ind. record label Secretly Canadian an indie music mainstay today.

This past weekend on Record Store Day (April 19), the label released an ornate box filled with all of Molina's out of print 7" records as a kind of formal send-off. This week, some of the many artists he influenced are following suit with Farewell Transmission, a double-disc tribute compilation to benefit the MusiCares Foundation. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters spoke about Molina with a few of the musicians who knew him best; hear his appreciation at the audio link.

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Jason Molina was a successful musician on a small, independent label from Indiana. He sold tens of thousands of records and influenced many of his peers. But a little more than a year ago, Molina died at age 39. He was an alcoholic. Now two new releases are paying tribute to the singer/songwriter.

Here's Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters.


CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Jason Molina started out under the moniker Songs: Ohia.


MASTERS: Songs Ohia was basically just him as he told Indiana University student filmmakers in the mid-1990s.

: I listen to a lot more complicated music than what I play. But I'm just one guy - I can only do so much - and I'm not into overdubbing and stuff if I can avoid it.


MASTERS: Molina recorded this song in 1995, but it's been out of print and was just re-released as part of a memorial box set by his longtime label, Secretly Canadian, despite the fact the label says Molina was always reluctant to revisit his old songs. He used the stage as a workshop to flesh out new material and broaden his sound.


MASTERS: Molina's lyrics frequently expressed a kind of despair and that appealed to Jim James, lead singer of My Morning Jacket.

JIM JAMES: There was this beautiful darkness about the way he expressed himself, both lyrically and musically, that I think went right to the core of what people feel, you know, in an everyday way.


MASTERS: This song was released on what many fans, including Jim James, consider Molina's best record. It's called "The Magnolia Electric Company" and it marked a shift for Molina says Jason Evans Groth who was tapped to play guitar in the band Molina named after the album.

JASON EVANS GROTH: I'm excited now even that I got to be a part of that shift. He was taking chances doing things that seemed a little more traditional than he did before, but to him it was a big change. Playing standard chord structures and taking the chance to write songs that were a little in the more the traditional rock vein.


MASTERS: The band toured constantly, cramming up to seven musicians into a van and even managed to make a little money. In 2008, they recorded what would become Magnolia Electric Company's final album: "Josephine." The sessions were captured in a documentary.


MASTERS: The film shows a different side of the solitary Molina, opening up to his fellow musicians in the studio.


MASTERS: Molina seems content during the session.


MASTERS: But then things fell apart on the tour that followed. Guitarist Jason Evans Groth says they watched Molina's health quickly deteriorate, as his drinking became more of a problem. He says one night, Molina would be spot on.

GROTH: And then the next night he's unable to the hit the notes, he doesn't know what the words are, he's playing the wrong chords and he's soloing for minutes on end in the wrong key.

MASTERS: Magnolia Electric Company finished its tour and Molina spent the next few years in and out of rehab.

GROTH: I remember getting a message where he said I've been listening to a lot of our songs and it's strange how prescient a lot of these lyrics are that I wrote about myself. You know, and I know he was referring to his struggle with alcohol.

MASTERS: For his part, My Morning Jacket's Jim James hoped Molina's songwriting would be therapeutic.

JAMES: I always hoped, for him, that it would eventually manifest itself into like a way out. You know 'cause I think that was something that his music could take you to this super dark place. But I always felt like there was like a suggestion of some kind of way through that to a better place. And that's what I always hoping that he could find for himself.

MASTERS: But Jason Molina died in March 2013 in Indianapolis.


MASTERS: The remaining members of Magnolia Electric Company lend a couple of songs to a memorial album, out today. It includes a song the band played live many times but never recorded, with guitarist Jason Evans Groth singing the lead.


MASTERS: It's a song that Groth says has Jason Molina begging to remember for the sober musician he was, a musician who nevertheless refused to look back.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters.


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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.