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The saddest white boy alive

Despite missing his thousand-songs-per-year quota, Magnolia Electric Co.'s Jason Molina keeps on smiling

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Does Jason Molina find it at all strange that he's constantly compared to Neil Young, but never to Richard Thompson?

"Well, why don't you be the first?" suggests the Magnolia Electric Co. frontman. "Yeah, people should have noticed the Richard Thompson thing a long time ago. I had a thing for Fairport Convention, and I've seen Richard Thompson a bunch of times in the last 10 years. He's been really inspiring, and he's just a hard, hard worker. And man, that's what I want to be."

So much so, in fact, that Molina says he writes a thousand songs a year, which has a lot to do with why Magnolia Electric Co. is one of the best indie bands in the country.

"But last year, I didn't make my thousand," he admits. "I was on tour a lot and our bassist died. It was a harrowing year, so I ended up a little bit short, but somehow still smiling."

In a futile attempt to keep pace with his muse, Magnolia's last release was an ambitious box set of all-new tracks.

"We sort of shot ourselves in the foot with the Sojourner box set, because most people believed that it was old material," says Molina of a project that included three albums, one EP, a DVD and a medallion (!), all enclosed in an attractive wooden box. "As a music fan, I hate buying those things where it's like, you know, the T. Rex record with 17 outtakes or, like, that [expanded] Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain. I believe that if the artist says this is what the record is, that really is what the record is."

Currently, Molina has four more albums in the can, and is already anxious to do more. Among them is the forthcoming fifth Magnolia Electric Co. release, Josephine, a Steve Albini-produced album that boasts a horn section and a lot of country elements while retaining what he describes as a "minimalist" feel: "Basically, I think subtracting the cliché is the best way to approach songwriting. When you find you've run into a flat tire, you just change the tire."

Sabbath and shortwaves

A northeastern Ohio native, Molina had moved to Chicago by the time his first band, Songs: Ohia, changed its name to Magnolia Electric Co. And while he now lives in London, Molina insists he's still "Midwestern down to the core."

"I grew up as a sort of punk rocker/tape trader. I didn't live in an area where we had a real music scene, or access to music magazines and articles about bands. Even commercial radio was pretty much absent. So we sort of invented our own ideas. You know, whatever sounded best for the song was important, rather than making sure you sound like the Ramones."

As a guitarist, Molina had an even more primal influence: "The very first stuff I ever learned was Black Sabbath. I was obsessed with them since I was a tiny kid. I wish I could say it was something romantic like I started out playing Hank Williams but, you know, I could play that stuff without trying. I could sing you Carter Family songs until the sun went down, because there'd always be somebody on a front porch actually playing that music. It wasn't from records. And no one sat down and said," — Molina adopts a patronizing schoolteacher voice — "'Now, this is the Carter Family, and they were legendary country musicians and so you should listen to this.'"

In fact, Molina says he barely listens to music at all these days, apart from the old 78s he buys for next to nothing and whatever he tunes into on his shortwave radio.

"I'm not a Luddite," he insists, "I just haven't grasped the new way to buy music. I'm definitely a shortwave freak. I tune to West African radio and stuff from Russia — I love it. Get yourself an old thrift store shortwave and tune it to the world! Sure, you can get everything online, but it's kind of, like, manicured; you don't have to work with it."

Plus, it doesn't come with all that static and wow and flutter.

"Right, it doesn't have all those screaming sci-fi Theremin sounds," Molina evangelizes. "You'll be listening to something for 20 minutes, and you'll be just engaged beyond belief, and then you'll lose the signal! And you're never gonna catch who the artist is because, even if they do announce it, it's in a different language."

Bleak like me

Molina's taste for the erratic extends to his own guitar playing, which he likens to early country and blues traditions where "you're not stuck playing a strictly metronomic style of music."

"Some nights, it's terrible — I'm mystified that what I play sounds terrible. Or I'm really excited that it sounds great. For me, it's a very organic part of the song. It's literally an extension of the lyrics."

Of course, those same lyrics have earned Molina a reputation for being a bit morose.

"People say, 'Man, your stuff is so depressing.' We got this great one: 'You must be the saddest white boy alive.'"

Actually, Molina seems cheerful enough in real life, and he's enormously thankful that he's come of age at a time when independent labels allow artists more freedom (if less money) than their predecessors.

"Someone like Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, Neil Young — these guys never had that. It was major label or nothing, and then they had all the stuff that goes with being part of that kind of system.

"Townes Van Zandt is a great example. Somebody gave me a Townes record and the production was terrible. He's a great songwriter, but he probably had no control over the production on a major label back then, no chance in hell that he could say, 'I think that maybe we don't need a flute solo on this song.'"

Still, Van Zandt's songs have stood the test of time, and there's a good chance Molina's will as well.

"You can't learn how to write songs by sitting down and listening to a record — you really can't," concludes the author of thousands. "At some point, you have to just sit down and write your own damn song. And then, if it's a good enough one, you're gonna have to follow it up with a better one."

bill@csindy.com

Purchase a CD: Magnolia Electric Co. - It's Made Me Cry - EP

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