jeudi 16 mars 2017

Have you owls in Scotland?

Je vous parlais encore il y a peu de Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.), par le biais d'un morceau enregistré le 11 septembre 2001, et du récit de cette session par le musicien écossais Alasdair Roberts.

Cela fait aujourd'hui 4 ans que Jason Molina est décédé. Je trouve un peu par hasard cet autre texte d'Alasdair Roberts. Je le reproduis ici. 

Il intéressera celles et ceux d'entre vous familiers de ces musiciens (ou de Will Oldham). Les autres, sans doute moins.

I first met Jason Molina in September 1995; I was 18 and he was 21 or 22. This was before the first Songs:Ohia record. I'd just moved to Glasgow and I was getting heavily involved in the music scene. Jason and I both had singles coming out on Will Oldham’s Palace Records. Will had mentioned Jason to me during a telephone conversation, saying that his music sounded 'very old.' One day I received an unexpected and intriguing letter from Jason, on blue airmail paper in an elegant and old-fashioned script. It might have been sent from the 19th century (that is, from a North American of the 1800s as imagined by a teenage Scot who hadn’t been there).

We began to exchange letters. Jason was living in London on exchange from Oberlin College. I remember the general tone of his letters rather than what they contained, but I do recall a couple of sentences: 'Have you owls in Scotland? One does hoot outside my window as I write.' This was before the internet, email and 
the 'digital music revolution.' Then, all my recording was done at home to four-track cassette, and I suppose it was similar with Jason – but I hadn't yet heard a note of his music.

We spoke on the telephone and I found he was a down-to-earth fellow, contrary to the impression that his letters might have given me – and very friendly. I had expected to be intimidated by him – but I was easily intimidated back then. We agreed to meet, and I rode to London on a free coach taking students to a protest 
(not that I was apolitical, but I don’t remember what the protest was about, and I am sure my presence was not missed). So that was the first time we met. At that point he had long hair in a ponytail and seemed inseparable from his leather jacket. We spent three or four days exploring London, stopping here and there for coffee or food, visiting galleries and some of Jason's favourite spots, and talking.

I am sure Jason, bright and boundlessly energetic, did most of the talking, because I was a shy lad back then. I remember him spontaneously bursting into wordless song as we walked – clearly a born musician. Jason talked about Ohio and I about Scotland. We discussed music, inevitably (Kraftwerk, Trans Am, Gene Autry and Merle Haggard), art (Joseph Cornell, Cy Twombly) and literature (Edna St Vincent Millay, Seamus Heaney), all subjects about which he was very knowledgeable and passionate. We spent time with other American students; sitting in a cafe on the banks of the Thames, I remember that the subject of 'Meat 
Henge' came up. This was an idea that Jason and his friends (although I suspect it was mostly Jason) had had for a conceptual rock opera featuring a megalith hewn not of stone but of animal flesh. This was an inkling of Jason’s sense of humour, or at least one aspect of it.

I remember sitting one evening in Jason’s flat, candles lit, him singing and playing his four-string tenor guitar for about an hour. This was the first time I had heard that music, that sounded so unfathomably old and wise, belying his relative youth, its sombreness in contrast to his apparently up-beat personality. The first thing I 
heard him sing was an old song about the Erie Canal, then Freedom, Part 2 from that first Palace Records single. Jason had heard that there was a ‘traditional music’ session going on so a group of us went along. He introduced himself to the assembled musicians who were seated in a closed group around a table, their 
backs to the pub. Jason sang Freedom and they responded favourably before closing the circle again.

Eventually I caught a train back to Glasgow, carrying a cassette of Jason’s songs – demos for the first Songs:Ohia LP on Secretly Canadian. I spent the long Perthshire winter of 1995 listening to it. It still moves me most of all Jason’s music, despite everything great he made and all that he achieved later.

In 2000 I went to Lincoln, Nebraska to record with Jason. The Ghost Tropic LP emerged from these sessions. Apart from The Lioness LP session at Chem 19 near Glasgow (with Arab Strap and drummer Geof Comings) earlier that year, on which I played on one song, this was my first real experience of working with him in the studio, and it was fascinating and deeply rewarding. In some senses he had a really clear idea of what he wanted – the songs were within him and simply had to come out – but in terms of the arrangements and what drummer Shane Aspegren and I came up with, and how engineer Mike Mogis recorded it, he liked to be surprised and was prepared to take our ideas on board. 

Jason played each song once for us to learn it – songs more defined by mood than by structure, so it was more a case of tapping into that than learning lots of chord changes. We’d play each song a few times, then record two or three takes. Jason liked doing things as live – and as quickly – as possible. I'm not sure whether that remained true throughout his career, but I suspect that his fondness for capturing that spontaneous and unrepeatable moment of creation, live and in the studio, was with him until the end. I believe that Jason possessed that quality which in an Andalucian flamenco singer might be called duende – the music’s spirit coursing through him.

Later, I was fortunate to tour with Jason. A trip through Florida and the South with Magnolia Electric Co. sticks in my mind keenly. I will always be very grateful to Jason for inviting me along – it's difficult to imagine that I would ever have been able to travel in and experience those places otherwise, and there can't be many Scottish musicians who have had that opportunity. Thanks, Jason.

By then, his ever-evolving music had developed in tandem with his fellow musicians – it rocked more than Ghost Tropic – and he had a well-deserved cult following, playing to packed rooms every night. The tour ended at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia and I vividly remember driving, with tour manager Dirk Knibbe, back to Jason’s Chicago home the following day. A gifted raconteur, Jason enthusiastically regaled us all the way with many stories, including the tale of H.H. Holmes, who was the subject of a then-recent book entitled The Devil In the White City by Erik Larson. Holmes was one of America's earliest serial killers, luring his victims to their deaths in a specially constructed 'Murder Castle' during the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Jason told this macabre story well, although he was equally gifted as a teller of less gruesome tales, not to mention jokes. 

I enjoyed staying with Jason and his wife Darcie in Chicago on a couple of occasions. Once we visited a yard sale; a piece of wood with a message written on it caught Jason's attention. I read it: 'Some hae meat and cannae eat…' – Burns' Selkirk Grace, of course! This appealed to Jason greatly, who bought the plaque and took it home. It was magical to find that message, so Scottish and yet so universal, there in Chicago. Of course, Jason’s music touched people very deeply on this side of the Atlantic. I just toured in Ireland and the name of Jason Molina was respectfully mentioned wherever I went – in Rathfriland, Dublin, Derry, Belfast and Limerick.

I've tried to give a summary of the man, Jason Molina, as I knew him. I am aware that there are others who knew him better, who knew different sides of him. I sense that he was a very complex individual, and I don't think that anyone who knew him would dispute that. He created a singular body of work in a relatively short span of time and it's regrettable that we cannot know where his restless creativity might have led next. I feel honoured to have known him and considered him a friend, although an ocean separated us. The memory of the times I spent with Jason and the sound of his voice will stay with me forever. Rest in peace.

Alasdair Roberts, Glasgow (November 2013)

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