Hope Springs Eternal

Mark Olson finds salvation in being one of the vocal and lyrical laureates of American music.

Mark Olson The Jayhawks Victoria Williams Joshua Tree Norway Sandy Denny Jean-Paul Sartre Rainer Maria Rilke
Mark Olson contemplates life after his failed marriage to  Victoria Williams.
Mark Olson contemplates life after his failed marriage to Victoria Williams.
Betrayal of self and others, homelessness, regret, and existential dread were once subjects not associated with Mark Olson. But the founder of the Jayhawks and longtime partner of Victoria Williams began to know them intimately after his marriage to Williams dissolved two years ago.

Olson's new album, The Salvation Blues, is both his first truly solo project and his first step back toward who he is: one of American music's poet laureates. Olson's voice still has a twangy quiver of innocence, and his sound still ripples with northern soul and lucent folk rock. On The Salvation Blues, which is packaged like a New Directions first edition, complete with dust jacket, he writes about the crimes and confusions of his recent past -- the "death trips" and "medicines that will make you ill" -- and catches glimpses of mercy along the way.

From his home in Joshua Tree, California, Olson recently shed some light on his new release.

Scene: The new CD has some of the most beautiful packaging I've ever seen.

Olson: I've always focused on lyrics, so I tried to bring that out in a book form. When I first started in music, I set out making actual records and going to record stores. And part of the deal was always looking at the albums. Now with CDs it's all so tiny; it's not the same. There's some humor in it too, the whole Jean-Paul Sartre thing. It's supposed to feel like a travelogue. I've read books like that, and they always interest me -- that another place, another time feel.

You composed the record over two years, here and abroad.

Most of it was done in England and in Norway. In both places I was able to meet an engineer and go about writing and demo-ing songs -- twice in England, twice in Norway, in Poland, and back in Minnesota.

That was a pretty rootless period for you.

I didn't really have a place to live, so that facilitated it. My basic point of operation was my aunt's house in Colorado. She's only five years older than me. She was my confidante. She was pushing me to go back to school, but I do this better than anything else, so I started writing and writing.

Over time, did that rootlessness turn into a different kind of roots?

It was like touring. People might not remember, but Victoria and I toured a lot in Europe over about a five-year period. I was very used to traveling. It gave me time to focus on what was on my mind. You can do that anywhere, with just your guitar and a Radio Shack tape deck. It's a light occupation.

What was it like giving up your home in Joshua Tree?

That wasn't a nice experience -- for myself or Victoria. It was really hurtful for her. If I had to take it back, I wouldn't have done what I did. But it happened. Now I live right down the block, and we're involved in each other's lives on a daily basis. That doesn't make it any better, but it's something.

Some of the songs were co-written with Victoria.

During this time, we even toured together twice, and I helped her put a demo together recently. When it initially happened, we weren't involved in each other's lives, and we'd been involved in every minute of every day for 10 years. It was kind of shocking.

Was it hard to sing those songs without her?

I wouldn't say specifically her, but I'd grown accustomed to doing things in a certain way. We made a mistake with the Creekdippers: We never went out and got a producer and made a well-produced record. We should have done that at some point. We always did it in a field-recording way.

This will sound terribly pretentious, but do you know the poet Rainer Maria Rilke?

Oh yeah.

His idea of going deep into your greatest fears and pains, and finding a key to something else -- to joy even.

Thinking over the past few years, I didn't know what would happen -- how I would make a living, where I would live. I feel a little more mature now, I guess. I realize what I had and how immature I was to take it for granted. I don't know about joy, but I have a better appreciation for the fact that I had some really nice stuff in my life, and I let it go -- and by my own hand. I don't think I'll make that mistake again.

There's a line in your song "Sandy Denny" [about the late British singer]: "The things we dislike in others, we find in ourselves."

Yeah, that was my aunt and I talking. She works with nuns, and they go through this thing sometimes in their 40s. And because of their lifestyles, they have to face something. There's a dark and light side to people. I sometimes have a reaction to people, where I really don't like them. But the reality is, they're exhibiting things that I'm like.

On this album you seem to be looking for some forgiveness. How do you know when you've been forgiven?

I don't know. I don't know. For me, it's simple common sense. I have to work hard every day -- just keep working and make my way back.

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