Reporter's Notebook: Mark Olson interview transcript

Photo by Steve Cohen

City Pages: Tell me about your songwriting process on the new album.

Mark Olson: Well, we started from the ground, basically. We did a tour, and we said, well let's do a new record. So in August, I went to his house, and we didn't even know that this was going to be the writing session. We just thought, before we even talk about an album, let's start writing songs and see what happens. So we worked a week straight, a couple times a day we'd get together, and then we'd take breaks and go out and finish different parts on our own, and come back and put them all together. You know, songs are like pieces. You just put the pieces together. Some of them took three, four days. Some of them took a day. It's just kind of an intense period of writing. You don't do that all the time. We cleared our schedules and focused on the writing.
CP: What led to your decision to start writing together?

We wanted to make a record. There's no way to do that unless you have some material that's worthwhile. So that's the goal. You don't want to show up at the studio without any songs. [laughs]

CP: How long has the album been done?

Olson: It's been done now two years. Not done, mixed, but we finished the sessions two years ago. That's the way it works in this business. It just takes a while for things to come through the pipeline.

CP: Can you give me a brief history of your relationship with Gary? How has it fluctuated over the years?

Olson: Basically, after I left the Jayhawks, I got married and bought my first house. And it's to my discredit that I didn't stay in better contact. I just went into a mode, well, I'm married now, I have a house now, I'm going to fix up the house now. And then I started touring in Europe with Victoria and putting out records and doing that. And I take responsibility for not picking up the phone more often. Shoulda done that. Eventually, though, we got in contact, and we worked on some songs, and we did two tours, and now it's led us down this road where we're playing every night together, recently, and it's just a ball. Just a gas. I would say, as far as our relationship, it's like it was when we first met, basically. We both enjoy music, we like the sound of guitars and singing, and we both get excited about that. Gary's always been a person in my life where good things have happened when I play music with Gary. That's how I feel about it.

CP: How would you describe Gary as a singer and songwriter?

Olson: He's very responsible, as far as getting -- a lot of it is getting the things you need to get together and getting to play and doing it in a good way, having your guitar sounding great, being in good health and good shape. Gary's always done that, and he's always been a very talented singer and songwriter. He's always been that from day one. Working with him, we both try to do the best we can, and a lot of the harmony singing is kind of unspoken stuff. How we learned to do it -- we just started off, we learned some harmonies from the Louvin Brothers, initially, and we just started -- it's the way the tone of our voices go together, it's the way you use emotion in the tones, it's the way you hold the notes, it's the way you don't hold the notes. And then technical stuff, mixing up -- we discovered that even unison seemed to work really nice. And then breaking off from unisons. For most of the time I've done the low parts and he's done the high parts, but now we switch those around a little bit, sometimes, and that makes it interesting.

CP: There's something very natural and unique about your voices, and the way they complement each other. Does it feel as natural as it sounds when the two of you sing together?

Olson: Yeah, we started -- how we made this record was really how we started in apartments all over Minneapolis and St. Paul. Over the years, we both had different places and we ended up in all those places. We weren't writing songs every day, but when we were rehearsing the band in the early days, we would rehearse three times a week, and we'd have a gig once a week, probably. Or once every two weeks. And we'd get together and write songs about once every two weeks, maybe, and try to add new songs to our set list. And then when we'd be doing an album we'd get together a bunch more and try to come up with bunch more ideas to put on the table for the album. We'd sit down with cassette tape and a boombox with a record function on it, and we'd each start strumming and go from there. We'd each bring in musical and lyrical ideas, and songs. Build parts. Sometimes you'd just have one part that you'd put on cassette, and later you'd come up with another part. And a lot of it had to do with discovering new kinds of music. I remember when we first discovered the Band, and when we first discovered Nick Drake, and stuff like that, that definitely influenced our songwriting. Even though we didn't ever set about like sounding like someone else, we would incorporate different themes and ideas along the way.

CP: The members of the Jayhawks are all still quite active. Would you say that the Jayhawks are just as vibrant as they once were, if only in a different way?

Olson: We're so vibrant, we're shining! [laughs] I think it's great. We all have relatively good health, and there's opportunities, and we're all trying to go out there and play music on a level that's in an everyday way. That's what I really enjoy, is to have a schedule that has me playing music more times than not. That's what I really enjoy to do, and that's been happening the past couple years, so it's been a good couple years now.

CP: How do you stay motivated and inspired?

Olson: What it is, is when you play live. When you play a lot of shows live, and when you see other  bands live -- by touring a lot, I see a lot of other bands. And that's very inspirational, because you want to incorporate different kinds of music, different kinds of grooves. You just want your live show to be the best it can. Following great musicians over the years, like -- for some reason, in Europe, you hear Nina Simone all the time. You never hear her in America, that much, but she's just a fantastic musician. Her vocals, her piano playing, the songs she chooses -- that's inspirational. We played, Gary and I played at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass just recently in San Francisco, and we saw Odetta right before she died, and it was just like, hearing all those intense songs -- she was singing with just a piano player, and it was just like -- how can you not want to play music when you hear something like that? How can you not want to try to pick up a guitar and try to sing something that has that much meaning? I don't think there's a big problem with working to keep going, it's more like, I want to keep going on all kinds of different levels, you know?

CP: Do you still feel rooted to the Twin Cities, and does playing here feel special?

Olson: Of course it does. I have some uncles that farm, dairy farm, in Fairbault, and they came up to the show with their whole family. My sister came to the show the last time I was there. So that feels really special. I have a lot of relatives up in northern Minnesota that aren't able to come, Otter Tail County, that aren't able to come to the shows, but I try to stop in there. It's been a couple years now since I stopped in there. What can I say? I grew up there. I spent all the time until I was 17 there. What can you say? It's where you grew up. It's like no other place. It's too broad a subject to broach, in good ways.

CP: Is there a chance of another Jayhawks reunion like the one that happened in Spain a few months ago?

Olson: I'm open to that. I'm sure that it will happen. I'm open to that. I don't see why not. At some point, I'm sure we'll do something like that. The reason that Spain happened was that they had everything organized in a really good fashion, and just contacted us and we went and did it.

CP: What does the title of the new record, Ready for the Flood, mean to you personally?

Olson: It's a lyric out of one of the songs. I just enjoy being at home now, not reading the news -- when I'm touring, I'm always reading the newspaper, so I'm enjoying a no-news situation. But if you read the news every day, you kind of get this overflow feeling of impending doom. That's what "Ready for the Flood" is about, apparently. We are all headed down the road to perdition. [laughs] And on some level, we'd better be ready. Does that mean stocking up on water, and things? Or does that mean spiritually getting ready? I'll leave that for the listener.

CP: Anything else to add?

Olson: I just want to say thank you for doing this. City Pages were one of my first ever musical magazines, where I would run down the block to grab to see what was going on in town.