Jayhawks founder Mark Olson on walking the line between folk and rock
A decade after starting the Jayhawks with Gary Louris, Mark Olson left the band in 1995, the same year Tomorrow the Green Grass was released, to look after his then-wife Victoria Williams, after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. While the Jayhawks continued to tour without him until the band went on hiatus in 2005, Olson went on to dip into his folk roots with the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, as well as releasing a few solo albums, most recently Many Colored Kite, released on Ryko last year.
In January, the Jayhawks toured in celebration the re-issues of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass. In advance of Olson's show at the Walnut room on Thursday, February 24, we spoke to the alt-country pioneer on his way from Houston to Baton Rouge about walking the line between folk and rock, touring with the Jayhawks again and Many Colored Kite.
Westword: I've heard you're a keynote speaker at this year's International Folk Alliance.
Mark Olson: Well, they asked me to do that, and I said I'd do it. On these last two records I made, especially the last one, Many Colored Kite, I've been trying to work this route between folk and rock for probably twenty years. It's kind of the culmination of that. I mean, it's like I can't make up my mind whether I want to be folk or rock, so I try to go right in the middle of it.
And that's where I find most of my inspiration as far as acoustic guitars, drum kits, different kind of instrumentation than a typical rock band. I don't know. It's just interesting to me. I like bands that did that. And also the Creekippers: we played for ten years in folk clubs in Europe, and I played in the Jayhawks for ten years in rock clubs in America, so I've got all these crazy past experiences. I try to put that all together when I'm making a record.
What is about walking that line between folk and rock that you really dig?
What I like about it is the live performance aspect of it. I mean, I basically, totally, set my life in this direction of that. This woman who lives in Norway, for that past four years, I've been playing with her, and she plays the djembe. I like the idea of that you can just get in the cab, or you can take a plane or a train. You're not tied down to a tour vehicle. You can be real light and move around. So I play the acoustic guitar, and she plays harmonium and the djembe, and so you have a groove.
The thing is, after making this record with her, she got deported from America, right when we were supposed to start the US tour. So we still play in Europe together, but we can't play in America anymore. It's unbelievable. It's ridiculous. You work so hard at something to develop a sound, and boom, it's gone. But we've still got Europe, and I'm still setting my sights on that kind of thing. How much music can two or three people make? That's what interests me.
How was playing with the Jayhawks again on last month?
I just finished the Jayhawks tour. The two records, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, are back out record stores for the first time in ten frickin' years. I mean, I just don't understand that. I guess they wanted to take them out of record stores for ten years for some reason. They should have been in the damn record stores. Come on! So we finally put them back in the record stores, and they throw some extra tracks on them. And we played a bunch of shows and had a really good time.
Do have any plans to work with Gary again in the future?
We worked on some songs and we recorded some stuff. Hopefully by June it will come out, and we'll do some summer touring on that.
When I first saw you guys, you were touring with the Black Crowes right around the time Hollywood Town Hall. And you've worked with Chris Robinson on your solo stuff too...
Yeah, I really like Chris. He's a great guy. He loves music. He's got a really great attitude about music. I'm going to his hometown of Atlanta pretty soon. I think the world of him and the other guys in the band.
Can you tell me about making your latest solo album, Many Colored Kite?
We went to Portland, Ingunn and I. She's the Norweigian musician I was talking about. We went to Portland to work with Beau Raymond, who I met by working with Chris Robinson. There are a bunch of studios in Portland, Oregon. So we would rent out these studios on off days, like they'd rent them on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. We didn't just rent the studio and put a bunch of money down. We shopped and went back and forth between studios. It was basically just Ingunn and I, and we basically just worked on the acoustic guitar and singing for a while.
And then we brought up Danny Frankel to do the drums. I've always really thought the world of his drumming. And Neal Casal put a couple of things on there. And then we have some violin from my friend in Italy. He came over and did that. And then we were done. It was just a real simple, organic thing where we had some time off. It wasn't like going in and recording all the time.
We took time off since we were shopping for deals. We did the best record we could with the money we had, and then Ryko put it out. So it was all around a really enjoyable experience. And I fell like there's a message on the record about being inclusive in your life. Many colored kite -- trying to find different things in your life and with other people. I hope I got that message across.
So on this current tour, you're just touring with a few people, right?
For me, at this point in my life, I just really love the people I'm playing with. With Gary and the Jayhawks. With the Creekdippers, here on this particular tour. With Ingunn in Europe. I never imagined that at this point I would have three different kinds of worlds. And then I just took all these shows and I said that as long as I'm able to, I'm just going to go out and play. So now I'm in the middle of being on the road for, basically, a year in three different groups. It's very bizarre. I show up, and it's all these new people. It's like, "Okay, here we go!" and then we're home and on to the next one. And every group has different dynamics.