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An interview with a modern day troubadour Mark Olson

Mark Olson at McCabe's
Mark Olson at McCabe'sSHGfoto

This past Friday, over huevos rancheros at a Culver City diner, the Examiner sat down and spoke with Mark Olson in the early afternoon before his gig later that night at McCabe's.. Rather than rehash Olson's history with the Jayhawks, and Creekdippers, which is well documented elsewhere on the internet, we spoke at length about touring, his new album, his song writing, and many other aspects of his philosophy, and lifestyle as well as his perspective on the music industry. Below is a transcription of the first half of that conversation.

EXAM: This is the first gig [at McCabe's] in a long tour. You have a booker, I assume?
MO: A booking agency in America and another one in Europe.

EXAM: Have you always enjoyed touring?
MO: Yeah this is what I do with my life. This is what I feel is my goal, my mission. The reason I made my new album "Many Colored Kite" is we did 300 hundred shows; Inge, the Norwegian and I ...and I worked with an Italian violin player who played on this album. And I kind of build my life around it. I play with friends in a way... It's people I care about. I kind of form my family on the road and through these travels. It's something I really enjoy to do so once I get a record done I go on the road as long as I possibly can. That's how I earn a living; that's the old troubadour ethos. And I play and make my living and I just keep on going from one record to the next

EXAM: Have you ever imagined being more traditional in a 9 to 5 job?
MO: I've been doing this for a long time so this is what I...I get energy from it. I don't think I’d get energy from that ...this is what I really enjoy.

EXAM: Do you generate much income from record sales, digital downloads, or mainly from touring?
MO: No, mainly from touring. That's how it is. When touring is good, business is good.

EXAM: How has this economy affected your gigs?
MO: I haven't noticed any of it. Of course over the past ten years, the one thing I've noticed is how much money I would get when I turned in a record. That's gone down a bit over the years.

EXAM: What is your band comprised of...is your band traveling with you.
MO: No what I do in Europe is I play with Inge. She's a Norwegian percussionist and singer. She plays the djembe. So just me and her with me on my guitar and vocals and her on the djembe and the harmonium. In America I play with Ray Woods. He lives out by me in Joshua Tree. He was in the Creekdippers. And he plays the drums and sings. I just go as a duo and that works for me on the level that I can get the songs across like they are on the album basically and I work real hard. I do it.

EXAM: Your new album "Many Colored Kite", what's the inspiration for that title?
MO: It is a song on the album and it has to do with the idea that there are possibilities in life. There are things you can do in life that are important.. There are people from all different parts of world that have different ideas of what are important to them. It's kind of speaking to that.

EXAM: Was the new album produced in California?
MO: No it was made in Portland, Oregon with an engineer that worked for Rick Rubin and many other people. We rented various studios over the course of a month. We just didn't go into one studio. We looked around for deals here and there. We'd record a few days just me and him and Inge from Norway, then we'd listen and go back and do more. That's how we made the record

EXAM: Any new direction or exploration on this record?
MO: Yes I started to use various different instruments like the djembe, the dulcimer. I kind of broke it down because in the past when I recorded it had been a little bit more drum kit, a little bit more electronic guitar, a little bit more of the traditional alternative mainstream instrumentation.. On this new album I broke it way down. It's mostly djembe, acoustic guitar, and then there's actually a string arrangement from this sought after Italian violinist that I got to know him and his family when I was in Europe

EXAM: what are the themes you're exploring in your song writing?
MO: Well I've always written about my family in Minnesota. They were farmers and school teachers, and they had philosophies that they taught me when I was a kid. They had certain ways of looking at the world. So I take those ideas and I redefine those ideas against something that has happened in my life. I put those two ideas together to have a conversation and it opens up with the first line that this the song is going to be about ...what defines the song is going to be about...and then I follow it down. As I've gone through the years, I can pretty much write a song without editing. I write the lyrics and the music over the course of three to four days and when I get done I don't need to edit it much. I pretty much have it and that comes from experience.

EXAM: Do you see yourself as the story teller in the Pete Seeger or Arlo Guthrie vane?
MO: No, I don't see myself that way. I see myself as more modern in a sense because I use collage. I use collage with instruments. I use collage with lyrics. So I see myself as a little more existential than those guys. Their themes were more about subjects, and mine are more about philosophies. because of that I'm trying to get ideas across, sometimes my songs are a little scattered and mystical, and by putting those two kinds things together, they [the songs] tend to be a little more modern, collage and existential than those type of songwriters [Seeger & Guthrie]. I've always been exploring this and trying to find a way to do this. This has been my goal and purpose to find my own way of writing and my own way of playing. I've never been a person to copy people off of other people's albums. I never really did that. Now with youtube, I see why people are getting so good so fast. A lot of the younger musicians are learning from youtube. You go on and you can learn guitar licks. You can learn the entire thing on youtube. So I started to do that in the past year, and it has raised my playing ability by learning grooves and licks from old masters on youtube.

EXAM: What about change in the music industry, do you have any concern about labels any more?
MO: No, I put records out on labels. I am able to secure a record company. I make a record than shop it. I am able to get some one to put my records out generally. The years before that I put out records in Germany. So for me, it hasn't been that big of a deal, because I've always been on this level that if I make this record myself, fund it myself, ask around to see if somebody wants to put it out, and usually I'm successful in having some one put it out. I go on my tour. I make enough money to pay my rent and move on to the next record. I've been doing that now for fifteen years. So for me, it [the music business] hasn't changed too much. I know for other people, the record industry is complete madness

EXAM
: So what and who are some of the interesting people you've met along the way that have helped to reinforce your stories and give you inspiration for writing
MO: Well aside from my family, the summer before last, Inge and I went to a guitar camp together put on by John Renbourn . He is a British folk guitarist. He pioneered "Baroque Folk." We didn't know what to expect, but we were totally blown away by the level of musicianship and him as a person. He inspired us. He's been doing it his whole life; from the early sixties, he was part of the British folk movement. We learned a lot about playing and where we wanted to go in the future with our music from him. So that was a personal experience with some one from another generation that we sought out, and found. He was really good to us, encouraged us, and tried to help us learn what he knew.

EXAM
: Part of your philosophy is being open minded to new experiences?
MO: Well I have to be because if I'm writing new songs, I have to get new ideas, and that's part of the game is going out reading books.

To be continued...........

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