Mark Olson – Sweet Release

Facing personal tumult head-on, Mark Olson “finds himself” on new post-divorce album

BY Gregory Gaston | Posted 08/22/2007

  Mark Olson made the best of bad situation, traveling the world and writing his new album after a divorce from longtime partner, Victoria Williams.

Hacktone Records

Mark Olson made the best of bad situation, traveling the world and writing his new album after a divorce from longtime partner, Victoria Williams.

While it’s true that everyone leaves their home eventually, one way or another, whether out of necessity or desire, it’s equally true that not all journeys bring you back full-circle. Of course, that’s the risk we take, for better or worse.

This certainly applies in the case of Mark Olson, the former Jayhawks co-founder. In 2005, he divorced his wife, Victoria Williams, the eclectic and widely acclaimed singer/songwriter with whom he formed the Creekdippers. After that, Olson hit the road in search of the confidence to start a new life.

This hard-earned venture led to his aptly named solo debut, The Salvation Blues, released earlier this year. From the gentle opening song, “My Carol,” onwards, the record feels like a familiar but stirring missive from an old, keenly-missed friend.

From his home in California, Olson explains: “It’s not a tell-all divorce record, but it was inspired by my having to get off my butt and do something. I don’t know. What I took away from the divorce was that I really had a nice life and I messed it up — congratulations, Mark.

I got that in my head and started thinking about coming to life.”

Candid talk from the Minnesota native, though his lyrics have long reflected such plain-spoken sincerity. Olson’s fans go back to The Jayhawks’ prime during the early ’90s when the genre-limiting label “AltCountry” had yet to be coined. Like their peer pioneers Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks combined a love of Roots music with a Post Punk sensibility. All of which led to a career’s worth of glorious harmonies, Byrds-ian jangle guitars and a canon of melancholy, golden-hued classic songs.

Blend The Beatles’ melodic swirl with Neil Young’s dusty twang, and you get close to their Midwestern sound. Along with their predecessors, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, The Jayhawks helped make Minneapolis a musical nirvana before Seattle’s Grunge-encroaching claim to that crown occurred shortly after they debuted.

Olson left The Jayhawks and his hometown behind in 1995 to embark on a new life with Victoria Williams and their homespun project, the Creekdippers. They moved to Joshua Tree, Calif., and built a home in the desert. From arctic Minnesota to the more fevered California, geography has helped define Olson’s music. Joshua Tree is the fabled land where Gram Parsons died and was buried in a hidden refuge like some Apache renegade, as well as the place that first inspired U2 to explore American Roots music during the ’80s.

“I still live in Joshua Tree, down the block from where I used to live with Victoria,” Olson says. “This place is wide open, and human activity kind of ceases on some levels. After living in the city your whole life, you take another look at the stars here, the wind. There’s also an artistic community here. And then there’s a regular town that’s affordable, too. This is where I have all my stuff, which was in storage for a few years.

“I bet a lot of people here don’t even know I’m a musician,” he continues. “I think they thought of me as Victoria’s husband for many years.”

This statement typifies Olson’s understated modesty. His love for this region is obvious, which must have made leaving it all the more difficult.

“Victoria and I split up, so I really didn’t have a place to live,” he says. “I stayed with my aunt in Colorado off and on — only five years older than me and she has three kids. But I wasn’t really going to be making a life there, so I thought I’ll just go to Europe and see a few people until I figure this out. I went to Cardiff, Wales, and stayed with some friends — both of these people are writers, they write books, and basically, with their help, I said, ‘I’m going to write now.’ They introduced me to an engineer and I started doing demos.”

Though he now chuckles during the retelling of this story, it’s not hard to imagine the painful dislocation inherent in such a move. That’s reaffirmed when you listen to his reedy tenor and the wracked lyricism of “National Express,” one of the major songs that deals with trauma on the new record (“These traveling blues got a hold of me/It makes no difference where you stay/Where’s my home?/How could I lose this in a day?”).

As anyone who has ever traveled for a long stretch of time (beyond vacation days) knows, the road becomes your life in a hypnotic blur of gonzo experience, heartache and renewal. Olson’s new songs are filtered through this wide-open lens and are stronger because of it. His new music stoked his wanderlust. He recorded songs in Wales, Norway and Poland.

“This is my first real solo record,” Olson says. “I worked with Gary Louris, a strong musical person, in The Jayhawks, and then Victoria, another extremely strong person, musically. And I’d never kind of stepped out and done something on my own. This was my first time. It was exciting. Until I had my first three or four songs, I didn’t know I was going to do it.”

Speaking of Louris, Olson confesses, “Gary and I did a tour on the West Coast last year. He sang on this record a bit and we actually already have put a record in the can that’s going to come out next year at some point. He has his own record coming out and after that we’ll probably put ours out. We want to tour again, but it doesn’t make sense to tour without a new record. But we got it going on.”

This foretells great news for Jayhawks fans, as well as for those enthused with both of the songwriters’ solo projects. Olson looks forward to fleshing out his newest incarnation and this bodes well for his current tour.

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