An Interview with Mark Olson (of the Jayhawks)

Paul Caparotta
Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold
Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold kick off their new tour at The Lost Church (moved from the Chapel) this coming Monday (11/20) in support of their new album, Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun (iTunes) -- and as of this writing, tickets are still available here. He was gracious enough to spend some time to speak with us yesterday and hope you enjoy the interview below.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today, we really appreciate it!

Mark Olson: I’m sitting with Ingunn, my musical partner and wife. We’re just finishing an afternoon rehearsal. Well, we might have an evening rehearsal too—we just found a really nice old guitar. We drove all the way to the South Bay yesterday to pick it up. I found it online, it’s a reissue of a 1962 Stratocaster. The reason it was such a good deal is that during the years of the reissue they started to make a lot of left-hand guitars. And it’s hard for people to sell those guitars now. They’re very affordable—you can flip them over really good. I was surprised how comfortable it is to play flipped over. The other weird thing about them is that the string tension is lower. I have it in a lower tuning so that actually enhances the lower tuning by having the string tension higher on the lower strings. It’s really cool. It just has that old sound. I really lucked out because I needed a second guitar. A lot of the songs on this record are in an open tuning. So I have to readjust for that. Basically, though it’s just my wife and I, we have a lot of gear—there has to be a limit! What I’ve done is put a capo on to get an alternate tuning—but it never quite gets it. I’ve been trying to find this right second guitar. I've gone through two other attempts to find the right guitar, and I finally found the right one yesterday. It’s a good omen for the tour coming up.

SFBAC: That’s amazing—will we see it at the concert?

Mark Olson: Oh yeah, it’s working itself in today and tomorrow.

SFBAC: We can’t wait. The first time I heard Spokeswoman of the Bright Son, it seemed so effortless. The reflective songs are intimate and the uptempo songs immediate. Obviously we know you recorded this at home—how did this impact the recording of the sessions?

Mark Olson: I can give you the exact way that all this happened: I decided I was going to do a home recording again. I took a crack at it with The Creekdippers and I was going to do it again with Ingunn—I was going to do it a different way. I didn’t want to have anything to do with Pro Tools. Mostly because of the “looking at the screen” syndrome, and also because of the “options" syndrome. I wanted to make the sound with just an amp and a guitar—basically a clean recording. I kinda came on to that through Richie Havens album “Mixed Bag.” He came into this LA recording studio, and it was obvious how the album was recorded -- It was recorded by very good musicians with very good engineers. Is there anything better than hearing Richie Havens sing, “Just Like A Woman?” That thing is just incredible, it’s like wow! So I wanted to go for a clean recording, basically. I researched it a little bit, and I came up with a Nagra field recorder. During this time, Ingunn and I had immigration issues and had to be apart quite a bit. When we were together we had to be traveling. In the beginning, the only way I could record with the Nagra was to do two instrumental tracks, bounce them and then sing our two vocal tracks. There’s no editing on those things! You can’t edit, so you have to do complete tracks. During the first record we made this way, Good-bye Lizelle (iTunes), I learned all these lessons from that record. So when it came time to do this record, I really had perfected some things. We went right down the line, you know?

SFBAC: I think one of the things that you're talking about, that I didn’t really realize, was that this was another happy accident: The slower songs being more intimate and the uptempo songs are more immediate.

Mark Olson: Exactly what you said. That was a happy accident, because of Danny the drummer. He came with his full kit. And on some of these songs he was playing quite dramatically. He had some nice toms stuff on "Dear Elizabeth" (iTunes), and on "Nicola" (iTunes) he was playing a big rock thing. As we went along it just wasn’t working on the other half of the songs. Even on "Mary Francis" (iTunes) we had a drum kit—on most of the songs we originally had a drum kit. About halfway through I thought, “Ok, we just really have to rethink this other half.” It turned out so good, because Danny’s a natural percussionist. When Danny went to the bongos (he has an old set of bongos that sound so good), that started it. During the time we had to mix we caught a lucky break…At the studio the final step was taking the full tracks that I’d been bouncing. I made the record where you deliver the record as is. There are no decisions to be made in the mix-down! I have to make good sounding records for not a lot of money, that’s the future! I have to be very focused. This very good engineer, John Schreiner, spent all this time working on the sound and getting the levels right. And we actually did two passes—on the first mix everything was pretty much done, but I went back a second time with him and made sure I got more of the levels on the vocals right. The only thing I would say I do different is rent or buy a couple of different vocal microphones.

SFBAC: Well the songs are there, so there’s always an opportunity for you to revisit the songs using different mics down the road. It’s interesting that you mention using different mics, because digging into the harmonies on this album—your vocals are so complimentary. The two of you sound great together. Part of me would love to hear the entire album sung in harmony. How did you balance your voices to get that balance?

Mark Olson: That was done by singing the songs a lot! During the period when we were writing them, I would write basically the beginning of the song and we would work on the arrangement. During the arrangement time, every line we would start to sing and get an idea of what we were going to do harmony-wise. We learned that putting our vocals together as far as doing unisons works really nicely. We worked on the keys a lot; I hadn’t done that in the past. I worked more on the keys this time than I ever had. And Ingunn is always encouraging me to drop keys—it always seems to work better for me to drop keys a little bit. To go into a lower range always seems to work better for me. I think that comes from me having a naturally more baritone voice. Also, singing a lot live! After Good-bye Lizelle we played a lot of live shows. Half of our shows can be really great, and half can be tough. We just try to go through the tough shows with the idea that we are learning stuff, that we’re getting better. That we’re trying out different things and finding out what works—and doesn’t work! Ingunn is a very natural, gifted singer—that is a huge help. As far as how we’re singing on the record, we started out in the same room by my vocal on her microphone would create this little, tiny hollow sound that isn’t cool. So we ended up where she’s in one room and I’m in the other room, but since we sang the songs so many times we were right on time! All those vocal tracks are live—complete tracks—there’s no editing, no overdubbing. I would call how we did it by natural singing. We have enthusiasm for what we’re doing. Ingunn’s given me a lot of inspiration, and I like the sound of our voices together, and we’ve been working on that for a while.

SFBAC: There’s clearly love for what you guys do. The theme of love and persistence—all these songs have different stores. I love "Gravity Loss" (iTunes), where there’s this physicality to the song, being rooted into the ground but still in the air. There are these ideas of wandering, being found, of nature, of control—can you give us a little bit of insight into that song?

Mark Olson: Everything you said is what that song is about. That song started when we went to South Africa. During this period of time we were waiting, we went twice to South Africa because I had a friend there. I said “can you please find me a car we can rent?” We had this little car breaking down in Africa, it was “woah!” It was quite an experience. We went to this place called the Swartberg Mountains and that’s where this song comes from. There was a little library there in the town of Prince Albert—the oldest library in South Africa! There are all these beautiful Victorian houses there. I wandered into this library and started to read books and write out lyrics. It led to this geology hike—I’ve always been studied and been interested in geology. There was a geologist who lives in the mountains who gives tours. During our tour he took us up into this cave—and you want to talk about gravity! He had us climbing into this cave where there were ancient cave paintings; it was this very strange thing. (It was also very dangerous—I don’t know why he took us up there!) I got a lot of the lyrics from those days in that area…we had so many questions, a lot of the songs were filled with those type of questions. To me that song will always remind me of that area—those Swartberg Mountains in South Africa that’s just so wild. Wild animals all over the place—watch out for jaguars! It was a nice time for us. I especially like the outro for that song—I imagine it to be a whirling dervish kind of thing; spinning around in circles getting dizzy. Because of the gravity loss. We had been uprooted in almost every area of our life. That time—it could have been completely different, but it all turned out good.

SFBAC: That adds so much to the understanding of the song—very spiritual, very natural. That brings us to the next question: What about the title track? It feels like a mission statement, an invocation. Who is the Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun?

Mark Olson: There are two different things coming out of that song. First, there’s a very direct thing from my life. I went to live with my grandmother when I was 14. She had a big, direct influence on me becoming a musician. She was very well read, and kind of religious. There was a lot of discussion…she had an influence on me, these ideas where I’d sprinkle in that there is a religious side of life. A reality that we can’t necessarily see, something that maybe some people see on occasion. I had an experience like that shortly after she died. She came to me in a dream—a three-night dream. For some reason I call it “The Creation Dream.” She was speaking to me in the Irish language. She was telling me something; she was passing me information—trying to tell me that I have a destiny! Everyone has something they are supposed to do. She was a spokeswoman talking to me about something I was supposed to do. Boy howdy—she didn’t want me to do something that was going to cause my personal destruction! The other side of the Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun is definitely, definitely, definitely religious imagery—of course it is. It’s a known image. As far as my religious and spiritual imagery that I’ve used since the time I first started writing songs, it’s in many of my songs. You can hear it—"Pray for Me", so many songs. Yeah, Red’s Song—I’m sneaking it in! I figured that, wait a minute, there’s no way in this world of today that you can bring up that there might be something else to life that isn’t about money, basically. There’s something else, there’s something about time, there’s something about love. There’s something about these things that are important, something I wanted to talk about. There’s something I wanted to pass on that my grandmother wanted to pass on to me. Somehow in this crazy world I found this woman, in Norway. We had this similar background and we immediately hit it off. From the first day, we were essentially dating. Basically from that first day I decided: I wanted to form a band around her. Later on I discovered that she had a great gift for melody, that she could hear string arrangements. I was lucky enough, I don’t know how it happened, that we could put these pieces together in this way. I’m definitely an outsider in that American sense of the word. I just don’t hear the way they hear music in Nashville. A long time ago I decided I wash going to do this outsider thing. Isolation can bring you your own ideas, your own way of doing things. From here on out I want to play it as an outsider with a message with a talented partner. And we’re doing it for the love of it—for the art. It’s definitely easier to be creative and make records outside of the business structure. To be playing outdoors—now I write and play so many of my songs outdoors—I just love it! My wife loves it too!

SFBAC: It’s interesting how you said that the outdoors were an important element for you. When I saw you a few years back you were in the dark, deep basement that was the Cafe Du Nord—pretty much the opposite of a vast outdoor space. You were playing "Salvation Blues" and it was so killer. "Clifton Bridge" (iTunes) really spoke to me—there are moments when I say to myself “There’s hope in our hearts, there’s a future in our soul.”

Mark Olson: We’ve been ending our sets with that song!

SFBAC: No way!

Mark Olson: Oh yeah! We have this incredible thing where no one can play along with it. It’s a real duo thing, because the verses are way uptempo from the chorus. And then we add a double tempo part in the song, so there are essentially three tempos in one song. It’s nice and it works really well.

SFBAC: It’s good to know you’ll be playing some of Salvation—do you think we’ll hear any Creekdippers songs? "Still We Have a Friend" is one of my favorite Mark Olson songs, though pretty much all December’s Child is incredible from beginning to end, that song in particular is just—forgetting, remembering, some people falling away, some staying constant…

Mark Olson: December’s Child has the same sequence that happened here. We really went out on the road, worked hard and then came right into December’s Child—similar to what Ingunn and I did with Good-bye Lizelle and this album. When you are playing a lot and have a lot of enthusiasm for the people you are playing with, you can do nice records in that type of mode. There are just some really cool things about December’s Child. We recorded in a very beautiful, rural part of the country. There was a gravestone in the middle of an empty field that had the name of our violin player. There were all these strange things going on in the background—I just wanted to be in the studio to finish the album quickly. After, I went out in the woods, swimming in a creek, and left. As far as songs off the Creekdippers, we’re doing "Walking Through Nevada" and we’re doing "Eyes are the Window"—we’re doing "Climb These Steps" from December’s Child, and "Flowering Trees" off the first one. We’re ready and we have them in our set!

SFBAC: We’re really looking forward to hearing them! While you’re in The City, anything in particular you’re hoping to do? Amoeba? A pint at Magnolia?

Mark Olson: Actually, we are checking out a Norwegian seaman’s church. I think it’s off California Street—way up high. They have some sort of Christmas party there. Not too far from that place we want to hit up all the good Chinese food! And not far from that I’d love to go into North Beach, check out the a cafe right by the book store [City Lights]…those are the things I want to do.

SFBAC: Mark, thanks for being so generous with your time. We’re really excited about having you in The Bay.

Mark Olson: That you very much!

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