By BRUCE DENNILL
Mark Olson’s Good-bye Lizelle finds an Americana legend collaborating with a Norwegian (his partner, Ingunn Ringvold) on a release distributed by a German record label (Glitterhouse) and featuring tracks recorded in, among other places, Armenia, South Africa and Finland.
Olson, having mentioned that he’s had to drive into downtown Joshua Tree to get reception for our Skype chat, chuckles.
“Put that way, it sounds a little crazy.”
He’s not an artist known for embracing conventional industry formula, but even by Olson’s standards, this album has come together in a pretty strange way.
“It wasn’t a decision I made,” he says.
“We had immigration issues. Ingunn’s papers took five years to get sorted out, and we couldn’t be in the States while that was happening. It was no something I wanted to do, and it was only by the good grace of other people that we had a positive experience.”
“Other people’s struggles are so much more than ours.”
Olson’s focus on other is typical. He’s a relationships guy, which is part of the reason he’s not much of a fan of the major label approach.
“Ah, Glitterhouse is not a normal situation,” he declares.
“In a normal label, there’s a hierarchy. This is a collective, and input is balanced artistically and financially.
Olson likes a good meeting of the minds. He’s said of his relationship with Ingunn that it was wonderful to meet someone from halfway around the world and find that he shared more with her than some people who lived in the same town as he did. The same is true to some degree of his music: sometimes the themes he writes about are more openly embraced by European audiences than those at home.
“There’s an interesting reason for that,” Olson says.
“My grandparents were Norwegian dairy farmers in Minnesota. I grew up in an old-fashioned place on the prairie. I think that nowadays, the values of our grandparents have been lost. But in Ingunn, I rediscovered something familiar. I could laugh as I used to. We hold the same things valuable, and the keys fit together.
“On the musical side, I’m very curious and am always investigating the roots of the music I am listening to. That led to discovering the Armenian qanun [a dulcimer-like instrument], so we went there to learn more. It’s about figuring out more about folk music, which is what the Jayhawks were about – amped-up folk music.”
It wasn’t just the Eastern European instruments that made their way onto the album, though.
“No… When we were in South Africa, we went to Oudtshoorn” – Olson mangles the pronunciation, but has the grace to admitting to doing so immediately; perhaps he can sense my confusion in the silence – “where we bought an old Farfisa organ. It still runs on batteries! I’ve always wanted to try that sort of stuff out. And we used a lot of djembes as well.”
“We have three musical ‘landscapes’ when we play live now: djembe with electric guitar; the Farfisa and an acoustic guitar; and the qanun with a djembe. It encourages high-velocity creativity, working with those combinations. It’s a lot of fun.”
Olson also discovered that there’s a sort of collective personality to different regions around the world.
“In Europe, I think they appreciate searching – in fact, someone told me so in Stuttgart – but America prefers things cut and dry.”
Being forced to be out in strange locations played into another passion of Olson’s – field recordings. He’s a self-proclaimed fan, preferring the spontaneity of laying down tracks wherever he is and on the equipment he has with him at the time to the tightly controlled studio environment.
“My early experience of recording involved going into a studio where an engineer had control. That bothered me,” he explains.
“And then ProTools arrived, and suddenly you had 10 000 options for a drum sound. I like to be physically active when I’m recording; ProTools is the opposite. For this album, I went and found an old-fashioned Nagra recording machine and a couple of microphones. I loved the portability: you can set it up in different places, so it keeps you moving.
“We recorded the songs Cherry Thieves and Which World Is Ours in a cabin in Herold in the mountains above George in South Africa. We managed the most amazing harmony sound – and we haven’t been able to discover a high-end way to replicate that sound. Then there’s the fact that you’re bouncing tracks across – it’s all performance, no drop-ins, which keeps you from adding too much.”
The results have been described as “a homemade, vintage sound”.
“I had no exact plan”, Olson continues.
“I’ve learned lessons as I’ve worked – throughout my life. When you’re recording in strange locations, you need to think on your feet. Problem-solving focuses the mind. You have your strengths. Mine is lyrics – weird patterns and beat poetry – but I’m constantly focusing on what I need to get better at. I think more musicians need to understand that part of the equation.”
Adding exotic instruments to this already unpredictable blueprint seems a touch risky, but Olson loves the chance to learn and experiment.
“The qanon is an ancient harp with 77 strings, and there are different versions in countries all over the Middle East,” says Olson.
“Ingunn plays it very well. She learned it at an Armenian school. We stayed in an apartment there for seven weeks. And now she keeps learning while we’re at home. There’s a huge Armenian community in Los Angeles, and we get together with some of them regularly to play.”
The sequencing of Good-bye Lizelle is strange. The expectation from long-term Olson fans will be for Americana, harmonies and a country-rock or folk feel. Instead, on the first two tracks (Lizelle Djan and Running Circles) on this new album, they get challenging rhythms and odd keys. What was behind the decision to put those tunes first?
“Lizelle Djan was the most ‘synthetic’ track of those we recorded for the project,” begins Olson.
“Lyrically, it sets the theme for the album, though the music is a bit, ‘What’s going on here?’. ‘Lizelle’ is a South African woman’s name – she was at our wedding. I remember have a sense of meeting someone and then leaving them and not knowing what’s going to happen in their lives. There’s a bit of that in the song.
“Running Circles also came out of that South African trip. I saw some kids playing cricket – barefoot. In America, that doesn’t happen. There’s also a line about a huge yellowwood tree we saw. And there was a less literal angle to it. I was in South Africa waiting for a visa for my home country – if that isn’t running around in circles, I don’t know what is.
“So those two songs did have a lot to do with what we’d been through, and they were important to us, which is why they fit together on the album. I’m at a point now where I’m just trying to write the best song I can. Getting gigs to keep my career going is more important than thinking too much about who’s going to like what in terms of the order of the tracks on an album.”
That a founding member of the Jayhawks, one of the most influential outfits in Americana, should be worrying about keeping his career going is strange. Olson did leave the band a long time ago (two decades, now – though there have been occasional reunions and collaborations), and he’s distanced himself from the Jayhawks brand in many ways so as to get listeners to focus on what he does as opposed to what he did. Still, much of the marketing for his current shows makes reference to his past glories. Is it difficult to get listeners educated as to what he’s up to now?
“I’m not really involved in trying to educate people,” Olson shrugs.
“There are songs from that time that I have a real connection to and which I still love to play. Sometimes I use one or the other tag in the gig marketing; sometimes the venues do – it’s a bit of a mess, to be honest.”
“I’ve been putting out records since 1985, and I still have no formal marketing strategy! If I had to do it all over again, I might make a different plan, but for now, I’m happy to get some people to hear some of my music; to focus on the poetry and enjoy what I do.”
Mark Olson’s new album Good-bye Lizelle is distributed in South Africa by ASP Records and is available now.