On the day he died, a chilly Saturday in March 2013, Jason Molina was alone inside his two-story apartment on Indianapolis's Musket Street. A skillet's worth of spinach and garbanzo beans sat on the stove. Guitar-magazine cutouts plastered his empty fridge's door. A half-filled bottle of cheap vodka lay in the freezer. Cigarette butts littered the floor. A friend stopped by and found the door unlocked but chained from the inside.
These were the trappings of a life that came to an abrupt end, but there also were little clues that Molina, at the time of his death, had been hopeful about a new beginning. A receipt later found in the apartment revealed that the 39-year-old Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. front man—who hadn't played a show in three years—had visited a nearby Sam Ash weeks earlier to purchase a new guitar. He'd set up a small recording space in one corner with a few guitars, a propped-up microphone, and a basic tape recorder. Lyrics were jotted down. His penmanship appeared smooth and fluid—an indication of at least a brief period of sobriety.
Molina was legendarily prolific, releasing 19 LPs in 15 years, but he never saw mainstream recognition. While his overall sales failed to reflect his work's importance—he sold an estimated 200,000 albums worldwide—the cult songwriter inspired a broad swath of musicians, some of whom would transcend his accomplishments. He was the first widely recognized artist to sign with bootstrapped Indiana record label Secretly Canadian, and he helped transform the tiny independent upstart into an internationally recognized collective with a distribution group that's been home to Antony and the Johnsons, Bon Iver, Dinosaur Jr., Okkervil River, Phosphorescent, and Sharon Van Etten.
"[Jason] was large and multitudinous: commensurately inspiring and frustrating, goofy and gloomy, spontaneous and studied, generous and self-absorbed, loyal and flaky, wise and naive, trusting and paranoid, outgoing and reserved, honest and totally full of shit, and every blessed and profane thing in between," his former bandmate, Max Winter, wrote after his death. "And it's all there in his music."
Once he learned to control his commanding voice and found his way around the six-string guitar, Molina used his songs to confront the darker side of humanity. And though he struggled with his own fragility—and ultimately couldn't find his way out of the darkness—his music artfully explored the tension between the calm and the chaotic.
"He would crank his electric, but he would barely touch the strings," visual artist Will Schaff recalls. "You'd still hear tone and the chord changes. Then every once in a while he'd strum fully and this noise would come. It was such a beautiful use of dynamics—so much silence and so much crashing thunder."
Molina grew up the oldest of three children in a trailer park on the outskirts of Lorain, Ohio. Many residents of the tired blue-collar town, roughly 30 miles west of Cleveland, relied on the former Ford Motor Company assembly plant and U.S. Steel mill to make ends meet. His father, William, taught science to junior high students and his mom, Karen, was a bookkeeper.
As a child, he split his time between Lake Erie's coast and the coal-mining towns of West Virginia, where he and his two younger siblings, Aaron and Ashley, spent summers with their grandmother. On those trips, Molina and his dad frequently scoured the woods for Civil War artifacts. His mother stayed at home to grapple with her chronic drinking. She remained a functioning alcoholic until Jason's high school graduation day, when she swore it off. But the family's predisposition to addiction remained ingrained in his mind.
"Our family had its ups and downs," Molina's brother, Aaron, says. "He knew what we grew up in. He was the one that was always anti-alcohol. I would've marked him to be the one that didn't drink."
At age 11, Molina commandeered his father's high-end Pioneer turntable and impressive record collection. He gravitated toward hard rock (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin) and classic country (George Jones, Willie Nelson). Patti Smith and Hank Williams were among the earliest artists who inspired him to learn to play music.
- Courtesy Misra
- Molina played bass in his high school days, most notably with his metal band, Spineriders.
He first took up the trumpet, but soon turned his attention to a six-string guitar that belonged to his mother. He played the top four strings because it only had five functioning ones. Molina eventually scraped together cash for a bass, which he played in his high school metal band, Spineriders.
"He was total metal," Spineriders guitarist Todd Jacops remembers. "He had a jean jacket and was wearing a Metallica or Black Sabbath shirt when I first met him. He had long hair, longer hair than us, so we were really envious of that." The metal group played Lorain house parties, regional battles of the bands, and tiny Cleveland-area gigs.
As far as Molina was concerned, Lorain offered him two career options: work on the assembly line or enlist in the military. He wanted nothing to do with either. He instead enrolled in 1991 at Oberlin College, 12 miles from his hometown, and worked multiple jobs to pay for his tuition.
"The playing was really intriguing and the voice was really intriguing. At the end of it—I think he recorded in the bathroom at one point—he might have taken a leak. In kind of a creepy voice, he said, 'You can write me letters.'"—Will Oldham, describing an unsolicited demo Molina sent him
Geof Comings first met Molina at local coffee shop the Feve, where Molina manned the register. On his breaks, Molina sketched songs in the shop's back hallway. Comings recalls an epiphany Molina later shared with him: "He realized that the ukulele also has four strings, was a hell of a lot smaller, and made a lot more sense than playing a distorted heavy-metal bass for the songs he was writing."
During his college years, Molina earned the nickname "Sparky" for his hyperactive energy. He often seemed on edge to his friends, unable to relax as he darted from one conversation to the next. His friends recall him drawing elaborate art inside the back covers of library books, playing sad Civil War-themed songs on the ukulele at house parties, and attempting to memorize the entire Carter Family songbook. He began to move away from his metal roots into the world of folk, blues, and alt-country.
In 1994, Molina's college housemates grew increasingly fascinated with Palace Brothers' melancholic and mysterious new album, Days in the Wake. At one point, Molina told Jeff Panall, one of his roommates (and, later, a drummer in his band), "You know, my music is a lot like this."
Molina made an unsolicited demo for Palace Brothers' Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy). Tom Colley, one of Molina's housemates at Oberlin, agreed to deliver the demo to the bearded Louisville songsmith since Molina, who wasn't yet 21, couldn't get into Oldham's next Cleveland gig. After the show at the Euclid Tavern in November 1994, Colley handed Oldham's bandmate an envelope that contained a cassette. It also held an introductory note from Molina, who referred to himself as "Sparky."
"The playing was really intriguing and the voice was really intriguing," Oldham recalls. "At the end of it—I think he recorded in the bathroom at one point—he might have taken a leak. In kind of a creepy voice, he said, 'You can write me letters.'"
Not only did Oldham reply, he agreed to put out Molina's first single on his newly launched Palace Records imprint with Drag City. In January 1996, Molina made his official debut with a 1,000 press run of the seven-inch Nor Cease Thou Never Now. The recording project's title—Songs: Ohia—was partially derived from 'Ōhi'a lehua, a type of Hawaiian flower and a nod to Molina's early affinity for the ukulele.
Secretly Canadian cofounder Chris Swanson, then an undergrad at Indiana University, first stumbled upon the vinyl release at Bloomington's oldest independent record store, TD's LPs and CDs. "Anything Oldham-related I would snatch up real quick," Swanson says. "I had this crappy little record player in my dorm room and listened over and over. It felt a little more vulnerable than Palace. Oldham was this gladiator of sad rock, and Molina was this young poet. It was beautiful."
Austin-based songwriter Edith Frost, who first met Molina when they supported Oldham as opening acts on the same bill, introduced Molina to Chris Swanson and his brother, Ben, via e-mail. The brothers inquired about releasing his next album. To do so, Molina replied, they would need to meet him at an in-store performance at record store Adult Crash—in Manhattan.
The Swanson brothers drove more than 750 miles from Bloomington to New York, where they obtained the master recording. "It was this test," Chris Swanson says. "He always loved to give tests."
Secretly Canadian released 1,000 copies of Songs: Ohia's seven-inch single, One Pronunciation of Glory, in September 1996. It quickly sold out. The following spring the label released Song: Ohia's self-titled debut LP, known to listeners as the "Black Album" given its monochrome cover, to modest fanfare. By that time Molina had grown increasingly close to the Swanson brothers. He moved to Bloomington in 1997 and slept on an army cot inside their home, which at the time also housed the label.
In the three years after his 1997 self-titled debut, Molina released six subsequent full-length records, several EPs, and a handful of singles. He approached the business of his music with a large degree of informality. Working with the Swanson brothers, Molina insisted that he would only sign one-record deals with minimal terms. At one point he used a tea-bag label to finalize an agreement, signing the label "I accept. Yours, Jason." When he made the Songs: Ohia record The Magnolia Electric Co. in 2002, he paid his bandmates and collaborators with pizza, a handwritten copy of the lyrics, and an elaborate drawing for their help.
Molina distrusted outsiders making decisions about his career and dismissed the idea of hiring a manager. When he did make money, he often overlooked his personal gain to make sure his touring members were fairly compensated. He worked multiple jobs between tours to pay his rent. One of those was at Roscoe's, a Bloomington coffee shop that sold records, where he met his future wife, Darcie Schoenman.
"He wasn't afraid of doing shitty jobs," Darcie says. "He would get up at 5 AM to play music because he had a job during normal hours. He made time. He didn't have a choice."
Darcie, who lived in the same dorm as the Swanson brothers, first heard about a "songwriter named Jason" living on their couch in late 1997. At Roscoe's, Molina invited her to one of his upcoming shows. Darcie soon found excuses to call the Swanson household in hopes of hearing Molina's earnest and energetic voice on the other end of the line.
"He was very silly and sweet," she says. "He would do anything for me. If I was cold in the middle of the night, he'd get up instantly to get a blanket."
Molina often told Darcie he would die without music. But despite his crushing lyrics about "endless depression" (see Songs: Ohia's "Blue Chicago Moon"), he also accessed a sillier side of himself through his music. He wrote frivolous songs including an unreleased ode to pumpkin pie. And he dreamed up absurd propositions—like his business plan to turn a tiny brick carport across the street from Secretly Canadian's headquarters into a five-cent, home-brewed root beer dispensary called the Frosty Nickel.
Molina also was widely recognized as a habitual liar. The songwriter inserted smaller half-truths about tiny, irrelevant matters into daily conversations. Those tendencies grew over time as he blended fact and fiction. Or as one former bandmate put it: "The truth often got in the way of a storyteller."
"He built mysteries, but even that's not a mystery," says Jason Evans-Groth, Molina's lead guitarist. "We've sat around and told stories we've heard to find out where he's lying, to pull the truth out. That is just as charming as knowing the truth."
Molina emphasized making albums with minimal overdubs and recorded takes. He valued the authenticity that resided in spontaneous moments during live sessions. Scottish singer-songwriter and collaborator Alasdair Roberts remembers Molina creating parts of his vaporous and eclectic Ghost Tropic in the moment, improvising lyrics and arrangements in the middle of the tracking process. "He didn't have a lot of interest in playing a song more than, say, three times," says Ghost Tropic producer and Bright Eyes multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis.
Songs: Ohia's fourth album, Axxess and Ace, a heartbreaking collection of lo-fi love songs recorded in the South Loop during a $300 weekend studio session, led to Molina's deep affection for Chicago. In 1999 he moved with Darcie to an Uptown apartment off Montrose. He quickly adopted Chicago as his unofficial hometown and became a familiar face at the Empty Bottle, Lounge Ax, and other local venues.
In his early Chicago years, Molina released The Lioness, Ghost Tropic, and Protection Spells; collaborated on side projects like Amalgamated Sons of Rest, a group composed of Molina, Oldham, and Roberts that released a one-off EP; and split releases with the Frames, My Morning Jacket, Scout Niblett, and Oneida. In 2002, Molina traveled to Philadelphia to create his penultimate Songs: Ohia record, Didn't It Rain, with local musicians Jennie Benford, Mike Brenner, and Jim Krewson—whom he asked to listen to Neil Young's After the Gold Rush beforehand. Molina refused to edit out the recording's sonic imperfections, allowing his collaborators to leave indelible marks on his sparse and melancholic gospel-tinged dirges.
- Courtesy Secretly Canadian
- Molina at Electrical Audio, Steve Albini's recording studio, working on his seminal album The Magnolia Electric Co.
Molina's collaborators could sense that he was on the cusp of a breakthrough. It arrived in July 2002, when nearly a dozen musicians packed into Electrical Audio, Steve Albini's Avondale recording studio, to make what would be Songs: Ohia's final record, Magnolia Electric Co. Lawrence Peters, the Chicago country singer, recorded lead vocals for the Songs: Ohia track "The Old Black Hen" and was impressed with Molina's intense focus that week. The grizzled, experienced singer felt nervous because Molina pushed him outside his comfort zone. He recorded his part for the countrified ballad in a few takes, stuck around for the remaining part of that day's session, and watched Molina paint his masterpiece.
"It's rare to find a musician of that kind who can get to that depth of experience in a song," Peters says. "He can get down into the basement covered in life's emotions and heartsickness. Then bring it all upstairs into the light. He can touch that darkness and that depth and that sorrow and that tenderness."
Throughout that week, Albini helped the session's players get into their element and worked behind the scenes to bolster Molina's ambitious vision. Panall, Songs: Ohia's drummer, says he believes Molina felt particularly comfortable because his longtime Oberlin friends and past collaborators were surrounding him in his adopted hometown. That environment enabled Molina to take creative risks. The session culminated with the making of "Farewell Transmission," the album's seven-minute opener, which was recorded in a single take following a quick run-through of its chord progression. Molina's collaborators didn't have time to practice and had no idea how to end the song.
"Steve [Albini] did a beautiful job," Molina recalled in a 2011 Faster Times interview. "I noticed that at one point when it was a little too loud or a little too soft he came and opened a door to make it work, because it was just an ambient recording. When you hear that song kick off everybody knows it, and what's so disturbing to me is the way that I ended it is I was dictating to the band and Steve—I go 'Listen. Listen. Listen.'"
Panall immediately grasped the record's significance. On a drive with Molina to one of the record's final mixing sessions, Panall beamed with pride.
"Sparky, I think this recording is the most important thing I have done in my life," Panall said.
"Yeah, me too," Molina replied.
- The cover of Songs: Ohia's The Magnolia Electric Co., illustrated by Will Schaff
Following Magnolia Electric Co.'s sessions, Molina moved back to Bloomington, married Darcie, and put together a permanent band. He knew musicians Groth, Mark Rice, and Pete Schreiner from his earlier years in the midwestern college town and was familiar with their local punk trio the Coke Dares. But it wasn't until he saw Cinnamon Girls—Groth's and Schreiner's Neil Young cover band—perform Zuma in its entirety that he was convinced of their musicianship.
"He fell in love musically that night," recalls Chris Swanson, who attended the show with Molina. "He looked at me a few songs in—probably around 'Danger Bird' or 'Pardon My Heart'—and said, 'This is my band.'"
The new Songs: Ohia members hastily learned Molina's songbook. Because Molina hated rehearsals, the group's earliest practices lasted for 15-minute intervals, interspersed with longer breaks. So the group worked out the kinks—practicing without their front man—prior to recording its seminal live album, Trials and Errors, at Club Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. They only had nine shows under their belt before that evening.
Groth, Schreiner, and Rice—and later lap steel guitarist Mike Brenner and keyboardist Mikey Kapinus—complemented Molina in a way that few other musicians had before. They clicked from the onset, despite the fact that Molina rarely played the same set list twice, dove into lengthy instrumental passages without warning, changed tunings on the fly, and switched tempos on a moment's notice. Molina even failed to let the band know when he changed the group's name from Songs: Ohia to Magnolia Electric Co. They read about it on Pitchfork.
Magnolia Electric Co. formed just as the burgeoning Americana scene had begun to find a mainstream audience. About a decade ago, the popularity of music festivals exploded as tens of thousands of fans annually descended on Bonnaroo, Coachella, Austin City Limits, SXSW, Lollapalooza, and Pitchfork. The festival circuit often favored bands with transcendent folk and rock performers that could appeal to its growing audiences.
Magnolia Electric Co.'s peers—including the Avett Brothers, the Black Keys, and Wilco—saw their career trajectories soar, in no small part because of the growing popularity of festivals. At one point, Songs: Ohia and My Morning Jacket had reached similar levels of success. They even released a split EP in 2002. Soon after, the Louisville alt-rockers released back-to-back career-defining albums with It Still Moves and Z and fast-tracked toward booking arena tours.
In 2005, Secretly Canadian poured substantial resources into the release of What Comes After the Blues to help Magnolia Electric Co. reach that kind of acclaim. Groth felt like they were on the verge of making that leap. As critics took notice of Molina, he found the new attention simultaneously exciting and frightening. Instead of capitalizing on the momentum, Molina backed out of the spotlight, blowing off music journalists and refusing to sign long-term record contracts. Darcie Molina thought her husband wanted to eventually have a career similar to Tom Waits's—one with few interviews but ample collaborative opportunities—but wouldn't do the kind of work necessary to get to that point.
"It wasn't a fear of failure, but a fear of success," Schreiner says. "He resisted getting a manager. We self-managed to the detriment of getting bigger."
Few of Molina's college friends, bandmates, or early collaborators remember him having more than an occasional beer onstage prior to Songs: Ohia's name change, in 2003. But something changed not long after Magnolia Electric Co.'s lineup solidified. Darcie Molina recalls sporadic drunken episodes at home starting in late 2002. She first noticed a regular pattern a year later, when the couple moved to Indianapolis months after getting married, to shorten her lengthy commute. Molina struggled to make new friends and grew lonely without a sense of community. They bought a house, but that didn't quell his desire to leave Indianapolis.
"He was upset all the time about how he missed Chicago," Darcie says. "I was able to get a job with my company in Chicago. Then I was blamed for the two of us leaving the house behind. He felt like I was dragging him around due to my job. I was trying to get to a place where he was happy."
At Pop Montreal in October 2004, Molina consumed the better part of a bottle of Crown Royal alone as his bandmates went off to eat dinner. During the set, Molina crawled on his knees, toyed around with his monitors, and played songs hunched over between his stage speakers. He complained about the crowd and his alleged depression.
"I dreamt about what the handbills looked like with Magnolia Electric Co. and the Avett Brothers. The fact that I even got to be a part of that, to this day, is mesmerizing, completely flattering, and unbelievable."—Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers
Groth recalls a three-show stretch in the summer 2005 that clued him in to Molina's drinking problem. After a show in Belgrade amid a grueling six-week European tour, a Serbian promoter presented the group with a bottle of homemade slivovitz as they departed for the next stop in Croatia. Although the Zagreb gig went off without a hitch, Brenner noticed Molina covertly swigging from the 140-proof gift he stashed in his bag. By the time they'd driven the five hours to Vienna, Molina couldn't get out of the van without his bandmates' assistance. They were initially puzzled by his condition. But their driver revealed that, in his rearview mirror, he'd seen Jason down three-quarters of the bottle.
"That show became the template for ruined shows," Groth says. "We were on the lookout and knew when to hide liquor. We'd look for it, see the signs of it, and do Operation Hang Out With Jason to make sure he wasn't drinking more."
Later that year, Magnolia Electric Co.'s members tried to enact a no-beer policy before gigs. Although Molina initially joined their pact, he dropped out after a few shows. Schreiner went booze-free for an entire tour to prove his point. At that point, Groth didn't see Molina's behavior as alcoholism. He simply thought his friend was depressed and failed to grasp his drinking limits.
- Dan Peterson
- Magnolia Electric Co. in 2006; from left: Jason Evans-Groth, Mark Rice, Pete Schreiner, Michael Kapinus, and Jason Molina
In 2007, Darcie Molina was offered an opportunity to work in London. Molina, who had studied in London one semester during his Oberlin years, initially embraced the opportunity to live abroad.
In his first year overseas, Molina hit the road hard and played more than 130 shows. Due to a scheduling conflict that fall, Bloomington musician Evan Farrell filled in for Schreiner as a bassist in support of Sojourner, a four-album box set and mini documentary. Then, after the tour, two days before Christmas, Farrell died in an apartment fire. Molina stepped away from the road for several months to cope with the loss.
Molina, left to his own devices while Darcie worked long hours, penned lyrics in coffee shops, wrote songs at home, and walked around London to soak up its history and architecture. When bored, he drank.
"It was going to go one of two ways," says Henry Owings, founder of the music magazine Chunklet and a friend of Molina's. "It was either going to be amazing and he was going to tap into this weird London scene or he was sadly going to drink because he didn't have anybody there."
After ten months away from the road, Molina returned to the U.S. for a two-week tour and to record what would be Magnolia Electric Co.'s last album. Molina had failed to send the group new songs prior to the three-week recording session at Electrical Audio. Despite his lack of preparation, Molina remained relatively stable on the string of tour dates. And his spontaneous creative instincts kicked into gear during the recording process. Josephine captured an impressive display of the band's range, including stunning anthems ("O! Grace"), wistful sing-alongs ("Whip-poor-will"), and elegiac ballads ("Shenadoah").
Chris Swanson felt Josephine had the potential to be a career-defining album. With Americana's resurgence in full swing, Molina had his best shot in years to receive some form of long-overdue recognition. But the band suffered during its 2009 tours due to Molina's drinking. He constantly needed assistance. His bandmates had created a rotating schedule to handle babysitting duties.
Nevertheless, the Avett Brothers, who were regularly selling out theaters and playing to 1,000-plus crowds each night, asked Magnolia Electric Co. to open a string of west-coast dates two months before Josephine's release in July 2009.
"It was a huge deal for me to be playing alongside those guys," says Scott Avett, who credits Molina's plainspoken lyrical approach as a major inspiration behind Emotionalism, his band's 2007 breakout record. "I dreamt about what the handbills looked like with Magnolia Electric Co. and the Avett Brothers. The fact that I even got to be a part of that, to this day, is mesmerizing, completely flattering, and unbelievable."
On some nights that tour, Magnolia Electric Co. lived up to their reputation. Groth says the first of two sold-out nights in San Francisco at the Fillmore remains one of the band's greatest performances. The second night, Seth and Scott Avett decided to join Molina onstage for "Hammer Down"—what Scott Avett considers a "masterpiece of a gospel song." Molina could barely strum his guitar, sang erratically, and humiliated his bandmates.
"I was embarrassed for him," Groth remembers. "They were people who looked up to him and were excited to have us there. He was a trashed old man, not being able to sing his song with them."
Drummer Mark Rice grew weary of Molina's drinking and left the group in mid-2009 to attend graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design. "It just breaks your heart." Rice says. "There's no reason why it couldn't have been great. It was only because he couldn't control it."
Molina's nosedive continued on Magnolia Electric Co.'s summer 2009 European tour. He had booked a tour bus instead of the typical passenger van. Groth thinks Molina wanted to ride in a bus to demonstrate the band's success and to devote more time to songwriting on the road. But tensions rose inside the bus's close quarters.
"He loved to be comfortable," Groth says of Molina. "He wanted a place to hide to drink. I don't think he slept for two-and-a-half weeks on that tour. Or he would sleep with a bottle in his hand."
Molina's band members said that during a two-week break between tour legs, he promised to see a doctor. But on the next string of dates, nothing changed. Molina still needed assistance walking and getting out of the van. He developed a cough that would last for 20-minute spells. He chain-smoked and subsisted on a diet of beef jerky, beer, and whiskey.
Former Codeine drummer Chris Brokaw, who opened several shows on that European tour, remembers some drunken episodes, but also recalls spontaneous collaborations inside their van. Molina limited his boozing in front of musicians he respected like Brokaw, John Doe, and the Sadies, with whom Magnolia Electric Co. shared the bill. During the band's final performance of that tour—and, unbeknownst to them, their career together—Groth says Molina's voice sounded the best it had in months, despite his hands fiercely shaking onstage. Once the show, in Turkey, ended, he downed two beers in rapid succession.
"I think I need to take some time off to get my shit together," Molina told Groth later that night.
"The alcohol is killing you," Groth replied. "Take a year and get some help. Go home, be with your wife, figure out what's going on in your relationship, and figure out what you want to do. Call us for help. Call us because we're your friends. We're ready to go on tour when you're ready, but we don't want you to think that you have to do this."
After the two embraced, Molina walked to a corner store and purchased a bottle of whiskey. The next day, while his friends went sightseeing around Istanbul, he drank alone inside his hotel room.
A month later, in late November 2009, Molina and Centro-Matic front man Will Johnson were about to embark on a lengthy tour behind their recently released collaborative record Molina & Johnson. The veteran songwriters had crafted the album outside of Denton, Texas, more than a year and half beforehand—writing, recording, and mixing the record in just nine days. Johnson, a prolific songwriter in his own right, found renewed inspiration in working with Molina.
"He reemphasized the importance of a very simple, powerful melody," Johnson says. "How even peddling on just one string and singing a line, if it's written well enough, can resonate with the listener."
The duo chatted at length about the prospect of touring with members of their respective bands. A second joint record had already been discussed. However, less than two weeks before the tour was scheduled to kick off, members of Magnolia Electric Co. and Centro-Matic received a short e-mail: "Jason's sick. He can't come."
According to his wife, Molina pulled the plug on the tour after spending ten days in a London hospital for flulike symptoms that doctors attributed to withdrawal. Molina scrapped a subsequent string of American shows that were booked for early 2010. But the hospitalization didn't stop his heavy drinking. He frequently returned to the hospital throughout the next year for alcohol-related injuries such as a failed attempt to fix a shower curtain at 3 AM that resulted in a gash to his head.
"He'd wake up, drink, pass out, wake up, drink, pass out—all day, every day," Darcie Molina recalls. "He was not a functioning human. He'd drink, smoke a cigarette, scream about something, pass out. Rinse. Repeat."
In March 2010, Brokaw attempted to salvage a canceled UK tour with collaborator Geoff Farina by rescheduling a few last-minute solo dates and a final show in London. On a whim, he e-mailed Molina and asked him to fill in for one performance. He responded almost immediately: "I'll be there and I'm looking forward to it."
On March 26, at London's now-closed Luminaire, the two songwriters shared the stage for what would be Molina's final ticketed performance. Molina covered Blind Willie McTell's "East St. Louis Blues," and together they performed several songs. Brokaw says the set's drifting, improvisational folk arrangements stick with him to this day.
After the show, Molina responded cryptically when Brokaw asked about his abrupt European tour cancellation. "Sometimes you get to a point in your life where you're working all the time," he told Brokaw. "Then all of a sudden you realize that you really need to pull the brakes."
In January 2013, Molina and I exchanged a few brief e-mails. I wanted to write about his road to recovery and asked if he would discuss his three years away from his music career. In response, he shrugged aside notions of his songwriting influence ("limelite! me? ha ha ha," he wrote).
He claimed he was "doing o.k." but wasn't ready to share his struggles. "[M]entally not ready to do much other than watch John Wayne movies," he replied. "Writing is slow but improved."
By then, Molina had tried to become sober countless times, typically lasting for less than a week. Meanwhile, he told Darcie a litany of transparent lies—he'd contracted AIDS, he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he had engaged in multiple affairs—to avoid conversations about his alcoholism. Gradually, she began clocking longer hours to avoid his increasingly unpredictable behavior at home. She eventually gave him an ultimatum: their relationship would end if he didn't get sober. So in February 2011, while they were still living overseas, Molina reluctantly agreed to attend his first addiction treatment program.
Six weeks later, the songwriter was discharged from the facility right before his wife's birthday. By the time he reached his apartment, he was drunk. Darcie demanded that he live somewhere else.
"He said he was drinking the whole time," Aaron Molina says of his brother. "It was almost like he had a psychiatric episode in the hospital and he never really recovered."
Months earlier, Darcie Molina and Groth started an e-mail exchange (later expanded to other close friends) to keep tabs on Molina and devise a plan to help him get sober. Schreiner flew to London with two return tickets in hand and convinced a stubborn Molina to come to Illinois.
"That was the last time I saw him," Darcie says.
Back in Chicago, Molina slept on a cot at his former bandmate's practice space before being set up with his own apartment. His recovery was hampered by his finances; he'd left behind the United Kingdom's nationalized health care coverage and was now uninsured.
"He was in and out of the hospital and was going to have to pony up for his bills," Aaron Molina says. "That was tough."
He never fully reconnected with friends at places like Electrical Audio or the Empty Bottle, and continued his solo drinking. Molina entered his second rehab facility in Chicago, binged upon discharge, and was quickly readmitted. Once released, he briefly disappeared, checking into a luxurious downtown hotel where he blew most of his latest royalty check. Darcie Molina and his friends followed his movement through his bank-account transactions. They panicked when he purchased a one-way train ticket to New Orleans.
And with good reason: train-station authorities soon found Molina's abandoned luggage and cell phone, and dialed Schreiner, his most recent call, to report his lost belongings.
According to several friends, who pieced together what happened next through subsequent conversations with Molina, the songwriter passed out inside the train station and was taken to a local hospital. Before anyone realized his whereabouts, he purchased another south-bound rail ticket. Molina vomited blood on the way down to Louisiana and eventually arrived at Maison Dupuy, his favorite New Orleans hotel. A worried desk clerk found him puking in the lobby's bathroom and called 911. Paramedics rushed him to a nearby hospital's intensive care unit before he could even check into his room. He spent a few days recovering in the hospital before aimlessly wandering around the French Quarter.
"You assumed he was dead," Secretly Canadian cofounder Jonathan Cargill says. "I think he went there to die, but it didn't work."
Several weeks later, Molina resurfaced on Cargill's doorstep. Groth and other Bloomington friends pleaded with Molina to settle down, devise a sobriety plan, and find a steady job. They felt he could stay clean with the right supervision and a structured daily routine. Molina initially consented. But soon he fell off the wagon again.
"Treatment is good, getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn't want to. I have not given up because you, my friends have not given up on me. . . . I am taking this in much smaller steps than I'm used to. Keep the lamps trimmed and burning!"—From a blog post Molina wrote detailing his "long hospital year"
Early one morning, Cargill and Groth convinced an inebriated Molina to get in a car to pick up a prescription for his fake shellfish allergy—his latest excuse in a long line of fictitious ailments. They drove more than 60 miles northeast to an Indianapolis addiction treatment center. Once he was admitted, the DTs kicked in, and Molina detoxed over several days. He repented from his drinking, thanked his friends for their continued support, praised Cargill for being his protector, and agonized about the uncertain state of his songwriting career.
Molina's hospital bills continued to pile up. When the Indianapolis facility became too expensive, his sister and other family members found an affordable long-term rehab program near his grandmother's home in West Virginia. As part of his treatment, he began living on a farm where he helped raise chickens and goats. To offset costs, the songwriter and his family gave fans his first official public update since he'd canceled the Molina & Johnson tour nearly two years earlier, and organized a medical fund.
"It has been a very trying time for Jason, his friends, and his family," the Molina family wrote. "Although no one can be sure what the future holds, we feel very encouraged by the recent steps Jason has taken on the road towards becoming healthy and productive once again."
The time on the farm initially worked wonders. According to Cargill, Molina regained color and he put on healthy weight. But he objected to the program's religious overtones. Not long after, a serious infection landed him in a nearby hospital. Once released, he relapsed during a temporary stay with his extended family, downing mouthwash in the absence of liquor.
Molina's family sent him back to Indianapolis in April 2012 for his sixth rehab attempt. He gave little notice to his Bloomington friends of his return. In early May he wrote a blog post detailing his "long hospital year," acknowledged fan letters, and alluded to Autumn Bird Songs—a mini LP he had recorded for friend and artist Will Schaff's long-awaited book, which was published that September.
"Treatment is good, getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn't want to," Molina wrote. "I have not given up because you, my friends have not given up on me. I do still need your support however that takes shape, good vibes are worth more than you might think." He ended the message with cautious optimism: "I am taking this in much smaller steps than I'm used to. Keep the lamps trimmed and burning!"
Later that month, Schreiner grabbed coffee with Molina at an Indianapolis Starbucks prior to a few shows he was playing with the Coke Dares. He was hopeful about his friend: Molina sounded better, talked about becoming a mentor to other addicts, and, for the first time, intimated he was an alcoholic. And after visiting with friends in Bloomington, Molina declined to see the Coke Dares to avoid a potential relapse.
Soon after, Molina lost access to his addiction treatment due to his overwhelming medical bills. The once-promising road to recovery retreated. On some days, he remained sober, coherent, and easily reachable. On others, he would binge and grow silent again.
The one silver lining was that Molina had quietly returned to making music. He gave Secretly Canadian an effort he'd coined The Hospital Album. Chris Swanson says Molina recorded a 12-minute a cappella track because he didn't have a guitar in that particular rehab facility—or likely the manual dexterity to play the instrument.
For Magnolia Engine Works, the name of the solo project he was hatching at the time of his death, Molina had created a Facebook page, made business cards, and begun hand-drawing 10,000 album covers for an anticipated casette release. Those final songs were crafted in deteriorating health and reflected his troubled mental state. Some tracks stand among his finest work and others serve as a reminder of his struggles.
During his final months Molina bounced in and out of an Indianapolis emergency room located a short walk from his Musket Street apartment. Swanson had prepared to help the songwriter move back to Bloomington, where he'd be under the care of friends. But hours before Swanson returned from SXSW to begin the process, a man named Michael Pettijohn, a 55-year-old Indianapolis resident unfamiliar to many of Molina's longtime friends, stopped by Molina's apartment and found the door unlocked but chained from the inside. Unable to enter the apartment despite having a key Molina had given him, he called the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department at 7:12 PM on March 16, 2013. Both an officer and medical examiner arrived at the scene and discovered Molina's body. His organs had given out. The songwriter's tremendous promise had finally caved under the burden of his alcoholism.
In the wake of his death, music critics wrote glowing tributes to Molina. "Jason leaves behind him an enviable body of work that will be continually rediscovered because what Jason wrote wasn't fashion," Owings wrote in a Chunklet post. "It was his heart. It was his love. It was his demons." The New York Times called him a "balladeer of heartbreak."
Band of Horses paid tribute with a cover of "I've Been Riding With the Ghost" during a Jimmy Kimmel Live! appearance. Academy Award-winning Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard, formerly of the Frames and the Swell Season, recalled Molina's early impression on his music. "Jason Molina gave me so much," Hansard tweeted. "Hope, a song, protection spells. He put The Frames on course." Strands of Oaks front man Timothy Showalter wrote a song, "JM," as an homage to his primary influence.
Graveface Records released Weary Engine Blues, a 36-song collection that includes covers from former collaborators (Oldham, Roberts, Johnson) and folk contemporaries (Mark Kozelek, Damien Jurado, Jeffrey Lewis). It also featured Schaff's artwork, including an illustrated map based on Molina's lyrical imagery. British rock band the Wave Pictures recorded an entire album of Molina songs that raised money for a memorial gift. Another compilation, Farewell Transmission, features renditions of his songs performed by My Morning Jacket, Catherine Irwin, and Wooden Wand—with a portion of the proceeds donated to MusiCares, an organization that assists musicians battling addiction, depression, and other health issues.
Last January, 150 people packed inside the Hideout to hear a group of Molina's former collaborators perform his works. A cast of Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. bandmates rotated on lead vocals. The concert climaxed when nearly a dozen musicians packed onto the stage for a cathartic and triumphant rendition of "Farewell Transmission."
On Record Store Day 2014, Secretly Canadian released a box set of rare Songs: Ohia's seven-inch singles. The label also plans to keep reissuing Molina's earlier releases. "We're sitting on about 13 master tapes," Chris Swanson says. "They're just gorgeous."
At Secretly Canadian's Bloomington headquarters, the house that Molina helped build, nearly a million Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and Dead Oceans records fill the label's main warehouse. When the Swansons, Cargill, and others finally did well enough to construct a second storage facility next door, there was no question whose name would be engraved on the front. Today, a plaque near the entrance reads: "The Frosty Nickel, 2013. In Memory of Jason Molina, 1973-2013."