Unpacking the life of Jason Molina is no small task. The front man of Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs: Ohia, whose records helped build Bloomington's Secretly Canadian label into a critical darling, wasn't just tirelessly prolific—he'd written so many songs he was often unable to recall their titles—but also a notorious teller of tall tales, frequently lying for no conceivable benefit. Chicago writer Erin Osmon, who just published her first book, Jason Molina: Riding With the Ghost, had to work hard to get inside the head of this mysterious character. "One of my goals was to include only information I could corroborate," she says. "It was never about Osmon's guesswork over the meaning of Molina's lyrics. I wanted to write a true biography."
Osmon attended Indiana University in Bloomington from 1998 till 2002, right when Songs: Ohia and Secretly Canadian were beginning to grow together. (She's also a regular contributor to the Reader, where I've edited her work.) Her fondness for Molina, who died in 2013, was deepened by his mythic-poet mystique, which he cultivated with cryptic lyrics, starkly minimal instrumentation, and the use of slow-morphing, heartbreaking negative space in his songs.
Riding With the Ghost begins where Molina did: in Lorain, Ohio, just west of Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie. The book details his childhood—marked by Tom Sawyer-like adventures and a tenuous relationship with his alcoholic mother—and his time at Oberlin College, where he developed a desire to make music that was "homespun and DIY like punk," in Osmon's words. In so doing, it fleshes out its portrait of a wily songwriting savant, one who was as endearing to friends and family as he was frustrating to them.
The book arose from a 2014 long-form article called "Hold on Magnolia" that Osmon wrote for the Pitchfork Review, and it snakes through Molina's collaborations, lineups, and recordings at a level of detail that occasionally forces you to double back just to make sure you have the players in order. Molina would sometimes go off and cut a record without telling his regular backing group, not out of spite but out of willfulness—he stubbornly insisted on creating any way he deemed fit. He was a midwestern nomad too, moving from Bloomington to Chicago (where many of his Oberlin friends had relocated) and back again. Though his music was often stark and pensive, Molina had immense trouble sitting still, always imagining that the next home would be better than the current one.
The cover of Osmon’s book
Osmon had to do some serious legwork to put together the biography. "I first reached out to [guitarist] Jason Groth [of Magnolia Electric Co.] and went from there," she says. "I was researching and writing the whole way through. It was a lot of work, I'm not gonna lie." As a result, though, the book has a handle on many of Molina's idiosyncrasies. For example, he painstakingly devoured album reviews and press coverage about Songs: Ohia, and detested the comparisons to Will Oldham and the Palace Brothers that his work attracted early in his career. He was dogged in his songwriting process, and on tour he'd wake up at least an hour before his bandmates to settle into work. His methods produced triumphant results on records such as 2002's Didn't It Rain and 2003's Magnolia Electric Co. The latter album precipitated a name change for his band as well as a shift into Crazy Horse territory. The band Magnolia Electric Co. worked with engineer Steve Albini for the majority of its run, and its releases included Josephine and the box set Sojourner, which Osmon grew to love thanks in part to the song "The Old Horizon." "It smacks of The Boatman's Call era of Nick Cave," she explains.
The majority of Riding With the Ghost is about the development of Molina the songwriter. But what made him such a peculiar character—his secrecy, his eccentricity, his occasional bouts with self-destruction—no doubt facilitated his rapid slide into alcoholism. The last quarter of the 200-page book reads fast and increasingly bleak: Molina bounces from city to city, in and out of rehab, trying to beat the diseasethat killed him at age 39. Osmon explains that Molina's wife, Darcie, who runs his estate, helped her greatly during the process of writing the biography—she had so much key information that the project couldn't have happened without her. Osmon is pretty sure she was the first person Darcie had talked to (outside her inner circle) about Molina's death.
"There were definitely tears shed," Osmon says. "Laying out that part of the story and living with those details for almost four years makes you deeply attuned to emotions. One thing that was really beautiful, though, was the lengths Jason's friends went to help him."
Osmon reads from Riding With the Ghost and hosts a Q&A with members of Songs: Ohia on Sat 6/17 at 7 PM at Quimby's, 1854 W. North. She also reads Sat 7/22 at 9 PM at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, where she'll be followed by a performance featuring members of Songs: Ohia who appear on Magnolia Electric Co. and special guests.