When the news broke on March 16, 2013, that Jason Molina had died, a shockwave of grief reverberated among everyone who knew him, either personally or through his music as Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. He'd seemed to be on the upswing in his final few months, recovering from a decade-long struggle with alcoholism and hopping among numerous treatment facilities. His mournful, gorgeous songs, which mostly less fell on the scrappier end of the folk-rock spectrum, were deeply adored by a passionate following; artists from Glen Hansard to The Avett Brothers have cited Molina as a hugely important influence.
A little less than a year after Molina's death, a handful of his former bandmates from Magnolia Electric Co. reconvened for a brief run of shows under the title Songs: Molina – A Memorial Electric Co., celebrating Molina and his impactful oeuvre. Now, nearly three and a half years after its original run, Songs: Molina rides again, propelled largely by the release of Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost, a biography by Erin Osmon.
"When Jason died, I felt the need, like a lot of people, to do something. People wrote tributes and played covers. As a researcher and a writer, I wanted to know what happened," Osmon says.
The project began as a longform article for the Pitchfork Review, but as she interviewed Molina's friends and family members, Osmon was struck by their testimony about his life. Osmon's project blossomed into a full-blown book, which was published by Rowman & Littlefield on May 15. When it came time for a promotional tour, it felt only natural for Songs: Molina to come, too.
In early January 2014, the first string of Songs: Molina shows began at The Pinhook in Durham before hitting Asheville, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Though Molina never lived in North Carolina, it was a starting point that made sense: Jason Groth, who played guitar in Magnolia Electric Co. from 2002 until 2009, was in Raleigh, and in Durham was Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor, who stepped in on vocal duties. He had become close to Molina after Taylor's band The Court and Spark toured extensively alongside Magnolia Electric Co. (He'll rejoin the band for its Durham date on Wednesday.) It was convenient, too, for another band mate who based in Philadelphia. The shows were at times heavy and joyous, cathartic for audiences and band members alike.
"There was an acknowledged heaviness everywhere, but people were happy to be there. It felt like a relief somehow," says Groth. Pete Schreiner played bass in the band for the same stretch as Groth, and Joseph O'Connell, who makes music as Elephant Micah, knew Molina through their mutual involvement in Bloomington, Indiana's music communities. Both have returned to the fold for the second round of Songs: Molina, along with Mike Brenner, Mark Rice, and Mikey Kapinus.
When its initial run ended, the group agreed that, if they had a good reason to do it again, they would—they're not interested in becoming a "state fair cover band," Groth says. They all returned home, though Schreiner and O'Connell would eventually join Groth in Raleigh. O'Connell moved to town with his partner after she landed a job at N.C. State in early 2014, and Schreiner arrived in June of last year for a fellowship at N.C. State's D.H. Hill library.
The release of Osmon's book, however, felt like an appropriate time to start up "the Magnolia machine" again, as O'Connell puts it. Molina was a prolific songwriter whose output slowed only when his illness worsened. He was so enthusiastic about performing new material that older songs quickly fell by the wayside; fans who came to shows wanting to hear cuts from the back catalog were left disappointed. There were still many tunes, like "Lioness," that Molina wouldn't play and that the band never got to relish. The memorial shows are an opportunity to revive onstage some of those less celebrated pieces of Molina's vast body of work.
"Engines want to run. They don't want to start and stop—they don't want to stop, for sure," Schreiner says. "We did build a big engine that did a lot of stuff. There's inertia."
Beyond offering another opportunity for the return of Songs: Molina, Osmon's book has revealed even more for Molina's surviving associates: affirmations, explanations, and, in some ways, closure about a man who was brilliant and complicated.
"If there's one thing that's really come across in all of the testimony that I've heard people give about their friendships with Jason and their relationships with him, it's just that he was really kind of hard to figure out," O'Connell says.
Osmon found that to be true as she conducted interviews for Riding with the Ghost. Molina excelled at being different things to different people.
"Jason could show many sides of himself, and he often showed you the side that he felt like you needed, or the side that he wanted to show you," she says. He could be a pain-in-the-ass trickster, a cryptic thinker, a collaborative mentor, a sentimental romantic; it was possible to know one or some of these Molinas, but rarely all of them.
Reading Osmon's book helped Groth better understand his own relationship with Molina, especially the period toward the end of Molina's life when friends and family were taking sometimes drastic measures to help him. More than once, Groth and others had to dragoon Molina into going to a hospital.
"Even though he would tell us thank you, or it seemed like he was grateful, it was hard to tell, because he was so sick," Groth says.
But Osmon's other interviews revealed that Molina had, in fact, told his wife and other friends how grateful he was for their help. Knowing that, Groth says, has helped him find some peace.
"I don't think I would have known it had someone not put the time into talking to everybody about it. I would have tried to feel it. Now I can at least know that it was written down, and feel a little bit better about it," he says. These discoveries about who Molina was as a person—not merely assigning meaning and analysis to his songs—were the most important part of the project for Osmon.
"The intent was always to tell a holistic story about this person who I felt was really fascinating, and the scene and the friends who helped him in his meteoric life," she says.
Groth, O'Connell, and Schriener all still carry lessons they learned from Molina as a musician and a man. In preparing for this next string of shows, O'Connell says, he's realized Molina's uncanny knack for improvisation .
"The music, even the recordings, sounds like there's this real unplanned quality to it. I think that's really amazing to behold—somebody who is comfortable and competent enough in what they do to let it unfold in real time. That speaks volumes about the magnitude of who he was," he says.
The pain of losing Molina still hasn't completely evaporated. The memory of him remains an active presence among those closest to him.
"He and other friends that have passed away, I still kind of talk to. I don't know how to think about somebody who's dead, really," Schreiner says. Groth, meanwhile, still has vivid dreams about Molina, usually involving some sort of Keystone Kops-esque rigamarole as they try to get to a show. He says he misses Molina now even more than he did four years ago.
"I was really just kind of angry, upset, and weirded out. I felt like I had to grow up real fast," he says.
No one can replace Molina's spirit or completely recreate his gifts; to even attempt it would fly in the face of his nature. But even away from spotlights and stages—through plastic and paper, through songs, stories, and memories—the machinery he engineered keeps on humming.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mourning Becomes Electric."