‘Why don’t people make records that sound unique all the time?’
2014 saw the release of Mark Olson’s Good-bye Lizelle – his best record since his heyday with The Jayhawks and quite possibly a career highlight. Shire Folk caught up with Olson down the line in Ireland where he and his Norwegian wife, Ingunn Ringvold, had just finished their latest tour. A man not short on opinions or enthusiasm, we soon got onto the joys of field recording and the evils of Pro-Tools, but first I asked …
SF: How’s the touring going?
MO: Very good. We’ve developed a show – they seem surprised actually! We’ve been working on this for a long time and the initial idea was – always this line between folk and rock, that’s where all the interest is for me; The Byrds, all those bands that were playing the game between folk and rock: the craziness of rock versus the poetry of folk, the beauty of folk versus the hard drive of rock. The land in between those two countries is so interesting. I started performing with Ingunn about seven years ago and she had a djembe; she’s played a djembe her whole life and she’s very good at it. I like the sound of it, the versatility of it and as time’s gone by I’ve learned how to play it, so that we can both be the drummer, so that when we play it’s not two acoustic guitars. When people think of a duo they think we’re going to turn up with two acoustic guitars. So what we turn up with is a djembe – either she plays it or I play it – and I play the guitar or the dulcimer and she plays the qanoon, because we had this connection – in California there’s a bunch of Armenians and we spent six weeks in Armenia and we dived into their music heavily and two of the songs on this album are influenced by that and they feature the qanoon, so that’s part of our show. So what we do is we start with the acoustic and the djembe, then we switch djembe players – I become the djembe player and Ingunn plays the qanoon – then I go to the dulcimer, the we come back to the guitar–djembe scenario. We also feature keyboards on this album, but we don’t carry them with us. We have these different sounds between two people. By the end of the show people say ‘I had no idea you guys played so many instruments’.
SF: You’re like a world music duo then?
MO: That was exactly our idea. Of course the Incredible String Band started this stuff for people who were coming from the folk world and the rock world, just using lots of different instruments … writing your normal guitar-based singer-songwriter songs for different instruments. It’s really fun and that’s what we’ve been doing.
SF: Our review pointed out the Incredible String Band influence as well.
MO: I like the 5,000 Layers of the Onion album especially, because I am attracted to straightforward verse-chorus-bridge, maybe some weird stuff on the intro and outro, but I like the basic songwriting thing. I like that format and the challenge of it, trying to come up with something unique, and the reason I like that album is because there’s ten very unique songs on it. That’s the attraction for me. I like the far-out jams too, but for the most part what really impresses me when I listen to an album are albums that have good, interesting songs, that are different from each other.
SF: Do you find The Jayhawks reputation a burden?
MO: No, I don’t think it’s a burden. I think it’s a good thing. I’ve written songs ten years before those albums, when I was very young, and I’ve written songs every day after those albums, so I’ve always written songs! I’m just glad that people like them.
SF: I recently got the first Jayhawks album that’s been re-released and it’s much more of straight alt-country sound.
MO: Our manager did that first. He made 2,000 copies and it was really fun and those were the first tours I ever went on. We were trying to learn how to play and write. If you listen to the early singer-songwriters from the sixties during the ‘the big folk scare’, their early songs are either Leadbelly songs or re-done Woody Guthrie songs, so that’s the way everyone learns. If you’re going to go down the path that I looked at – Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Byrds – those are the people when I heard records for the first time, it was like wow these guys are so great, what path did they go down? And they went down the path where they learned from their elders – they went back to the Blues and they learnt to play from those people. Now it’s very different. They go on YouTube and they assimilate many, many different influences and they [hope] to emerge totally unique, but I think that’s a little far-fetched. Most people, when they learn to play music, they have to start somewhere – you have to go to school. You look up to people and you try and work in a sound like them and then you try to branch out by yourself. That’s the basis: the apprenticeship process.
SF: The new album has a more organic sound than you’ve had in the past. Was it a deliberate move away from a studio-based sound?
MO: I really appreciate from the UK that there’s been people who’ve noticed the album and I think it’s because in the UK there’s been this huge history of listening to music and I’ve been listening to the same records since the early days, so there’s this historical aspect. I’m doing this on purpose! I’m saying that this music that comes from the sixties and the seventies and the eighties, all I’ve listened to over my lifetime, is important to me. The way that they wrote lyrics, the way that they sounded … and I am in a way footnoting some things here. I love the Incredible String Band. I love Bob Dylan. They meant something to me. I bought the albums on vinyl – the first record I made was on vinyl – then the CDs … the CDs were a catastrophe, but we don’t have to go into all that! I’m on purpose showing my love of music. The thing that I love most about music is some of the theoretical ideas, the inspiration, the joy of music from the sixties – the discovery points. I always had a problem from day one … my fantasy world, that music was a joy and you’d play it in the woods … I wanted to be a songwriter so people could experience that, but I went into the real world of the music business and that bubble burst. I did it; I played the game because I wanted to continue to be a musician. When I got a chance to try it out again, from that moment on I basically made records myself. I engineered them myself in a kind of field recording method because I’m naturally a very physical person, I love the outdoors, and when I walk into recording studios, people who have been there camped in a corner of the room with that level of stress for a number of weeks – I CAN’T DO IT! I’m not that kind of person. I can’t sit and listen to the same thing over and over, so I adopted a field recording method and that’s what I’ve used for seven albums in seven years with the Creekdippers. I recorded them on an ADAT [Alesis Digital Audio Tape]. I had a theory, but I’ll admit my theory didn’t translate to the general public – they didn’t buy it – but my theory was that you could go in, do a track, listen back and boom! do another track, boom! listen back, do the next track, so when it came to doing Good-bye Lizelle I decided this time I was going to take my field recording technique and I was going to get a better field recorder – the best field recorder I could find was a Nagra – and this time I was going to listen back to every track ten times, twenty times, a hundred times, until I felt like that track was the best that I could make it and then I bounced the tracks – like with early Beatles records – and then I’d record the next track. I’m not using any EQ, I’m not using any Pro-Tools. Every track is not edited – you have to do a whole track. If I’m going to do a background vocal like on ‘Cherry Thieves’, we just play the whole track and the background singers, which were Ingunn and her sister, we have to do it 2, 5, 20 times until we have the perfect unique track. So we’re not doing the modern thing where they’re EQing, using lots of compression, lots of reverb, lots of Pro-Tooling … we’ll just do it five times and pick the best. I don’t agree that engineers should have so much power, when musicians should be writing, talking and singing their ideas – that’s what’s most important to me. It’s not the engineering ideas, it’s not the perfection of Pro-Tools. This doesn’t appeal to me. Go back and listen to Rubber Soul. It’s so loose and unbelievably joyful and the recording quality of the instruments, the pitch tuning … it’s magnificent music and I can’t get over why everybody has bought into the Pro-Tooling idea. All of a sudden the engineers rule the sessions and I don’t know why musicians are so weak in their nature to not stand up and say enough of trying to make every album sound like the next, big Nashville thing. Why don’t people make records that sound unique all the time? If a record is made in this person’s house in Montgomery, Alabama it should sound like that. It shouldn’t sound like it’s trying to be made in a big studio. I don’t understand the crowd sensibility of people today. Music represented personal freedom to me as a youth, so I didn’t have go and work in an office job or work on a farm with someone telling me what to do all the time.
SF: It’s often the mistakes that are left in that give records the human element, although some great albums have been studio-based.
MO: Of course some of them are great, but why does everyone have to try to do it? I went out of my way to say I’m not going to try to do a Pro-Tool album, I’m going to do what I have in my heart to do. I took a field recorder and I went outside and recorded. I recorded in so many different locations. I never recorded in the same place twice. I take the studio, pick it up and move the microphones and I would go around. You know what, some people say, man, this doesn’t sound right, this doesn’t sound like a normal album, but I’m going to be who I am now. I’m going to sing and play music the way my heart moves me to do and I think the results are liked by people who have listened to A LOT of music.
SF: It must give you immense freedom as well?
MO: During the recording it did. Every day I was getting up and saying OK, another day of this – this is awesome! Now I’m trying to put together different agents in different countries and trying to build a touring career from scratch again … and this approach is good for the heart, but not the pocket book. So that’s where I’m at. I’m not sure I had a choice. My best option was to go for something totally unique and play my cards that way. If I’m going to make any dent in the music business I’ve got to go outside a little bit. If I make a record that sounds like a Nashville-produced record, I’m not going to be able to stand out on my own.
SF: Your wife has had a lot to do with this album – you didn’t feel like giving her a co-credit then?
MO: That came from the fact that I’d been in The Jayhawks and I’d put thirty years into it, so it just seemed like it should be ‘Mark Olson’, but in that regard I included her in everything because I wanted her to be a part of everything. The other part of that is that she’s a unique talent – her singing is just perfect, we sing well together. She has great ears – she was born a musician. She’s a natural. People don’t understand that in America she’s singing in a foreign language! I’d like to hear them sing in Norwegian, y’know. She’s amazing. She’s a woman playing the drum with power, she’s playing the Armenian qanoon, which has 72 strings, using traditional Armenian tremolo – the minute Armenians hear her they go, whoa, real tremolo!
SF: Your voices blend well – you’ve obviously got a history of sharing your voice with someone else.
MO: Yeah I like harmonies. I’ve never been that good on covers because when I do covers I start singing the lower melody. It’s really interesting to me to go off on an alternative melody and that’s what low harmony singing is about. High harmony singing is more about the distance, the thirds and the fifths, but low harmony singing, when someone has an established melody and you go off on the lower end and come up with another interesting harmony, is super exciting. In fact I just got this thing from Homespun videotapes – a woman from Sweet Honey in the Rock – she’s singing spiritual songs from South Africa and she’s pointing out how to do five different harmonies. So I’ve been listening to that and I was thinking I was pretty good at harmonies, but wow! She’s doing all five parts in the studio, one after the other and layering them. She’s magnificent at them. If you could do a nice harmony in a song – the Louvin Brothers, the Byrds, the Beatles, Parsons and Emmylou Harris – it’s just the most beautiful moment in a song. It can be ragged, but in that ragged, every now and again, you’ve got to hit the sweet spot.
Good-bye Lizelle is out now on Glitterhouse Records