We're All Supposed To Try:

Jason Molina and the Magnolia Electric Co.

by Tom Johnson


"All the great set-up hearts, all at once start to beat..."


I was a few hours in to a rather dispiriting twelve-hour overnight coach journey when I learned of Jason Molina’s untimely passing on March 16th, 2013. There was nobody else awake, nobody else to speak to about it, just the knowledge of his passing and the onward journey. As the coach rolled on regardless, and I listened to his songs, I felt even more alone and detached from the situation around me. Thrown in to the dark of the night, his words brought a sharp clarity to the murkiness outside the window; as is so often the case when listening to his unequivocally sobering music. Familiar then, but different too, from this point forward.

Upon reflection, and despite my self-centred stance, that night was an apt place for it all to play out. His music, for me at least, has always felt like the road at night; a long and often aimless stretch, shaped and led by the darkness surrounding it. An untamed beast holding the dead moon firmly in its jaws. The album I instantly turned to at the time was his stark and beautifully harrowing Didn’t It Rain LP. You wont often find those two words together – ‘harrowing’ and ‘beautiful’ – but for Jason Molina they’re a perfect summation of what he did better than most. The words and songs he paired together have always trodden a perilous path between those two opposites, flipping from one to the other like the most unstable of landscapes, never settling for just one or the other but focusing instead on the subtle symmetry they project and the sadness and desolation they can both deliver in an instant.


Released after Didn’t it Rain, and as hinted at upon its initial release, it’s Jason’s first record under the Magnolia Electric Co. name that now stands as his pièce de résistance; the greatest artistic achievement of a life lived mostly in the shadows.

A decade on from its release, and knowing what we now do, it’s difficult to imagine a lukewarm reception to such a monumental record, but it wasn’t as warmly received as we might imagine. But then important works rarely are. And this truly was an important statement both on a personal level and for those that existed and thrived in the hue that surrounded it. It was a record that smashed to pieces the persona that Molina had built. The Appalachian folk singer suddenly bursting in to life with the biggest of rock and roll albums. With Steve Albini at the helm, Molina was suddenly a front-man: Loud, brash, occasionally cocky –  he cut a somewhat different figure to his character thus far but still maintained his signature sorrow-filled heart, which sat as the burning centre-piece to all he created.

Those that listened closely enough were simply enthralled. Yes, the parameters of what – and to some extent who – Molina was had shifted, but the harrowed sense of raw sadness that so affected his listeners was still very much present and it pumped blood to every corner of Magnolia Electric Co. The songs, too, were simply magnificent. From the barn-storming ‘I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost‘ to the heart-aching loneliness of ‘Hold On, Magnolia‘ the record housed the best songs that Molina would ever write – and in ‘Farewell Transmission‘ he’d pen one of the greatest American rock songs that anyone has ever committed to tape.

In commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Magnolia Electric Co. and the release of the wonderful extended edition of the album by Secretly Canadian – the magnificent label that played such a huge role in both Molina’s life and career – GoldFlakePaint had the true honour of speaking to many of the people involved in the albums creation to ask them what it felt like to be on the inside; to hear stories of the recording process, their own reaction to the record and their memories of one of music’s most unique voices.

In 1996, Chris Swanson, alongside Ben SwansonEric Weddle, and Jonathan Cargill, became so taken with a young artist called Jason Molina that they set up a label almost solely with the intention of releasing his work. They would call the label Secretly Canadian and it would go one to become one of the biggest independent labels in the world…

Chris Swanson (Founder, Secretly Canadian): At first blush it was all about that voice. He had the high lonesome sound. He could have been one-hundred years old, or maybe seven years old. It was near impossible to tell when it was recorded. It felt ancient.

After releasing a number of records with Secretly Canadian, Molina set to work on a record that would become his magnum opus. Raw, anthemic and far bigger than anything else he’d ever done, Magnolia Electric Co. was the kind of record you couldn’t hide from, no matter what you’re feelings about it were…

Geof Comings (Drums, Songs: Ohia): I can’t remember hearing it for the first time but I remember Jason calling me and telling me that he just finished his first “rock record”, and how excited he was. He might have even called it “mustache rock”.

Daniel Sullivan (Guitar, Magnolia Electric Co.): It was tough for me. Jason and I weren’t getting along and I left the recording session after completing the second day. I didn’t want to be a distraction to the session. I knew it was a great record, an important record, and I really loved some of it but for a while it was hard to listen to the record. These days I can listen to it and enjoy it on its own terms. It is anthemtic and broad in a way that his earlier records weren’t.

Jason Groth (Guitar, MEC live band): Jason gave me a CD-R copy – which I subsequently destroyed by listening to it constantly – right around the time he asked me to join the band in November of 2002. It blew me away, it was so much different than what I had been hearing him do for so many years. At the time I was a big fan ofJason as a singer and songwriter, but I hadn’t always loved the records. I loved his shows, but the records often left me cold. This one was different. It made me feel like I had never made a good record in my life, at least not one that was as solid from top to bottom. Like any good record, it felt as if it had come from another world, like it could not have been made by humans… I loved it that much.

Chris Swanson (Founder, Secretly Canadian): It had a gravitas that none of his previous records had. I was blown away by the fact that he’d given up so much of the lead vocals to other singers. That felt bold. Confident. This was his first album to transcend indie rock.

Jennie Bedford (Vocals/Mandolin, Magnolia Electric Co.): I remember getting the finished record in the mail. I played Farewell Transmission about twelve times in that first listen. It sounded so great. I was living in North Carolina at the time, out in the middle of nowhere. I blasted it out the window and sat on the porch swing and was just amazed. Obviously I had heard that song when we were recording, but it was the first time I really listened to it. The lyrics are dark, yes, but the song is exuberant.


"Jason and Albini for both their parts just let things happen, and the result was to capture lightning in a bottle."

While Jason’s writing had never been more confident, Magnolia Electric Co. owes a huge debt to the master of masters, Steve Albini, who’s production brought out the very best in both Jason and his band. It’s this combination which would make the album such a staggering success.

Jennie Bedford: Jason was writing songs that were accessible enough for others to sing and, of course, others did sing his songs on that album. Also, it was recorded pretty much live. Many of us were friends from college and had played together before in various combinations, but this was a big event, meeting at Electrical and recording these great songs.

Geof Comings: The MEC record was basically the first time that Jason made a real choice to go for a certain sound, as opposed to who could record us the cheapest. After he locked down Albini he picked his band. You can really hear the impact of Albini, and the band, on MEC by comparing the demos for the album with the finished product. Jason was an awesome songwriter. He also had a talent for finding the right band at the right time. They all nailed it.

Jason Groth: It feels special, like something you usually need to dig for in an old, dusty crate, but is, instead, just handed to you for you to admire, over and over again. It’s unpretentious, it’s classic rock, it’s a departure from folk and classic rock, though, too. It’s a very sincere work, one which invites you in, one which does not feel insular but rather very populist. It’s such an excellent record.

Daniel McAdam (Guitar/Vocals, Magnolia Electric Co.): The whole session was magic and intense. Jason and Albini for both their parts just let things happen, and the result was to capture lightning in a bottle. It was probably the most spontaneous, unfussy recording I’ve ever been part of.

Daniel Sullivan: It was perfectly recorded by Steve, which helped it communicate to a larger audience. It felt a little like he was creating characters for the songs, or at least amplifying his own personality, which was different than Didn’t It Rain. But it really works and seems to even more so as time passes.

Jason Groth: There is so much chance on this record. While it doesn’t sound like it’s all going to fall apart at any time there is a something akin to a gambler’s high, for me, when I listen to it. Those songs could not have been planned so much as invoked, especially since there was such little rehearsal going into it. It’s what makes first takes great – the surprise and excitement when it unexpectedly goes well.

Released on March 4th 2003, Magnolia Electric Co. affected so much because of the pure, shining brilliance of the songs themselves. From the most delicate touches to the moments of epic grandeur, Jason Molina had never sounded bigger, bolder or better. From the quiet desperation of the quieter moments, to the most rousing tracks he’d ever commit to tape, it was a record that had something for everyone.  

Jennie Bedford: When Jason first sent me the demo I liked ‘Hold On, Magnolia‘ the best. I also really liked ‘Whip Poor Will‘, but since it didn’t end up on the original album I forgot all about it. I forgot that he and I had recorded that acoustic version that is on the reissue. It was fun to hear it again, after all these years.

Daniel McAdam: ‘John Henry‘ and ‘Almost Was Good Enough‘ will always be close to my heart because I play the guitar on those tracks. I had come to the session to play violin but Jason said “Dan, grab a guitar and play it” so I went downstairs and found Steve’s Rapeman guitar and plugged it in. I had heard ‘John Henry‘ once and ‘Almost…‘ never at all. Steve rolled the tape and I pulled my parts out of my ass. Both were first takes.

Chris Swanson: ‘Hold On Magnolia‘ has been my go-to Molina track over the past year. It’s got the longing, the sadness, the penitence that are hallmarks of Jason’s best material, but it also has a clarity that elevates it above the pack for me. His voice is given so much room in that pedal steel pocket. It’s really something, to hear him sing so nakedly with such import.

Jason Groth: ‘Farewell Transmission‘ is my favorite. It’s so audacious that it starts the record, it feels like a performative piece of music (you hear the narrator move across shifting landscapes in his words but also feel the music shift landscapes), it sounds amazing, it’s exciting, it’s sad, and it sets the tone for the rest of the record. That is, it’s done in reverse – it’s a giant, champagne jam at the beginning and it literally turns to just a beat and a voice later, as if Jason is saying goodbye to Songs: Ohia forever because it’s time to shout it from the mountain.

Geof Comings: ‘I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost‘ is a great track. Balls to the wall – and when it kicks in you HAVE to crank the volume up as high as you can. Also, ‘The Big Game Is Every Night‘ (with the band) is amazing. The song is basically one riff for ten minutes, but the lyrics keep you focused on the song despite the repetition.

Daniel Sullivan: I was pretty disappointed ‘The Big Game Is Every Night‘ wasn’t on the original release, I’m really glad it is on this reissue. Tracking that song was great. It was a big band with everyone doing their part to make that massive, gothic groove, and I love the imagery the lyrics conjure.

Daniel McAdam: I also love ‘The Big Game Is Every Night‘. I felt that its omission from the original album was criminal, and I’m glad that has been corrected in the reissue. That song has Jason’s best lyrics.

"He wanted the album to be a huge, live event, the way records used to be made back in the day."

As adorned and adored as it is now, MEC was an ambitious and brave move in the career of Jason Molina, and an undoubted risk; turning his back somewhat on the quiet, harrowed folk character he had become known for. With that in mind, how did he feel about the finished product?

Chris Swanson: He was incredibly proud of the album. He set out to make something special and put great pains into putting the team together. He was very happy to be working with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio and loved that he was able to record the album in three days and mix it in less than that.

Jason Groth: He was thrilled it turned out as well as it did. I think he was also afraid of it – he thought it was great, and that he now had to live up to it. We didn’t play any of the big, recognizable songs for a long time after it was released (we did before it was released), and when we did I think he was afraid to screw them up. I do now and always have worried that Jason felt that he had peaked at this point. Not because he had – I think we made plenty of great music and his songs never ceased to be great – but because it had all happened so easily and surprisingly so.

Jennie Bedford: Whenever Jason would send me a demo, there would be a scrawled note with it, or maybe an email, no more than two sentences. This one (MEC) had to do with do-wop and back-up singers, something like that. I took that to mean that he wanted the album to be a huge, live event, the way records used to be made back in the day. I mean, the songs were one thing and the idea that he would throw out there for the album was another thing.

Daniel McAdam: I remember that Jason was consciously trying to push himself in terms of structure and composition. His earlier material was mostly four chords repeating with the vocal leading, and these songs pushed beyond that. It was a step outside of his comfort zone.

Daniel McAdam: When it came out a number of us listened to the LP at Jeff’s apartment. Though we had heard mixes and remembered the session, we were all blown away by the finished piece.

Jason Groth: Neil Young says “It’s easy to get buried in the past/when you try to make a good thing last” and I think Jason did do that. I think him changing the name of the band to the name of the record was both a nod to the folks who made the record what it was, but also a clinging to something that made such a difference to him. But he loved it.

Ten years on from its release, The Magnolia Electric Co. LP is held in even higher regard than ever before. The tenth anniversary edition was hailed across the board – both for the original cut and the additional extras that poured new light upon the bones of the album and the sketches that went on to form it. How do those who helped make it what it is feel about the album now they have hindsight on their side?

Chris Swanson: It’s only gotten better with time, which is not something I necessarily feel about his entire body of work. This album in particular has the timeless tones and themes and performances that help it only improve with time.

Jennie Bedford: It has held up well over time. I have never gotten tired of it. I listened to it a lot after Jason died and it was as powerful as ever.

Jason Groth: As the years go by the record grows on me – I see how well-constructed it is, both programatically and within the songs themselves. I got to play every one of these songs, save for “Peoria Lunchbox Blues,” with Jason from 2002-2009. They changed each tour, either the key or the lyrics, but when we got to them on the setlist I, on stage, felt like a fan, anticipating great things every time I got to be a part of it. I love this record. I’ve always pointed to it at the merchandise table and said “if I had to pick any, I’d pick this, even though I’m not on it.” I love Josephine – our last studio album – too. I feel that they are good point/counterpoint records. I’m so happy this record got a great reissue treatment – these songs will live forever.

Daniel McAdam: It was obvious to everyone that it was Jason’s masterpiece. I remember when the “Half I’m gonna use to pay this band…” line in ‘John Henry‘ came, we all laughed because we knew that would never happen. But we were also very conscious of what it meant to be part of something as timeless and important as that record.

Chris Swanson: The repertoire is just so strong. But the team that Jason put together to interpret the repertoire is also crucial to the durability of the album. They not only performed incredibly well, but there’s a vacuum of ego in the recordings. It was a very selfless group that made Magnolia.

Geof Comings: The Magnolia Electric Co. album and the Black Record are still my favorite albums from start to finish. They are both timeless in very different ways. It really sounds like a musical rebirth, and there is so much audible energy and excitement.

Jennie Bedford: I feel incredibly lucky that I was part of that project. Of course, I hear small things in my own performances that I wish I had done better, that would have done Jason’s work more justice. But overall, it was done the way he wanted. I have happy memories of the whole thing. It was incredibly fun. A big sprawling event, a big deal. I knew most of the other players from college so personally, for me, it was a joy to make that album. I love that so many other people have connected with it.

Geof Comings: Between 1996 and 1999 I was the only constant member of Songs: Ohia, and I stopped playing with Jason so I could finish college, and also because after The Lioness I felt that Jason’s songs were getting too monochromatic. When Ghost Tropic came out I was convinced that I had made a very good decision to move on with my life. I went to see Jason play a show in Cleveland right after he recorded Didn’t it Rain and we were talking in his van and he put the MEC tape in for me to hear. It blew me away. I didn’t feel so wise anymore.

While Jason Molina, the musician, touched many people with his artistic creations, it should always be remembered that he also left behind a family and many people who considered him a friend. Those that worked alongside him shared many experiences of Jason Molina, the man, and each has a personal memory of the moments they shared with him.

Jason Groth: He was my new friend, and we were like brothers, he being my older one. My first show with Jason was in December of 2002, and we were playing at a venue where Robbie Fulks was also playing. Jason and I were watching Robbie, who is an excellent guitar player, and he looked at me and said “You’re that good, you know.” Jason could be a pain, a sarcastic jerk, and a very difficult person to be around due to many issues, but his optimism and enthusiasm at the time – and even until he died (however dulled by alcohol and depression) – was so inspiring that I still hear it in everything we ever did together.

Daniel Sullivan: A year or two prior to recording I did a week tour in Ireland opening for him, Glen Hansard and Josh Ritter (I released two records as Nad Navillus on Jagjaguwar around the same time). A lot of great things occurred that week – musically and otherwise – that I will never forget. I wouldn’t have been there if Jason hadn’t asked Glen to add me to the bill. His support meant a lot to me and gave me a great deal of confidence.

Jennie Bedford: I like to remember the way he played guitar when we were recording something quiet. He had this lovely, rhythmic way he played with his fingers. He expressed strong emotion in the way he played. I always liked hearing his guitar playing while we were recording something quiet. He would noodle around a little before the take, happy, relaxed. Then we would do one or two takes and that was it.

Daniel McAdam: I knew Jason long before I played music with him and so I remember him foremost as a friend who also happened to be a musician. I loved talking about music with him. He was a fan of all sorts of music. We went together to go see Link Wray play in Chicago, sometime shortly before the Magnolia session and of course we both revered Link as a God. Jason brought the pickguard from one of his guitars and got Link to sign it. That was a fun night; also bittersweet, because it was evident that this would be Link’s last time around.

Geof Comings: Other than Jason’s mistreatment of sound crews around the world, most of my memories of Jason are of him making me, and everyone else around, laugh. Most interviews with Jason make reference to how surprisingly nice and lighthearted he was. For his friends, that is really the only Jason that we knew. He also really did try and take care of the people around him. He wasn’t always good at that, but he was trying hard.

"He wrote great songs and told great stories of pain and darkness but I am not sure I believe that was essentially who he was. "

Jason Molina departed this world on March 16th, 2013 but he leaves behind a catalogue of music that remains unflinchingly real and utterly unique. Raw, draining, but endlessly provoking, he truly was one-of-a-kind – a feat which is never easy when it’s simply one man, a guitar and a voice. From his harrowing way with words, to the pensive and wounded voice that sat at the very heart of every track he wrote, he’s remembered as one of the finest songwriters to grace this world.

Gone, but not forever…

Jennie Bedford: People who were close to him know that despite the dark lyrics, he was not a morose, moody person. Maybe toward the end, but I did not see that side of him, ever. He was an energetic guy. He had an optimistic vibe and was hilariously funny. Great songwriters write from the heart and Jason’s lyrics came from his heart – but I don’t think his lyrics can be interpreted literally. He wrote great songs and told great stories of pain and darkness but I am not sure I believe that was essentially who he was. It is not the person I knew, anyway.

Geof Comings: I’d like him to be remembered as a fantastic songwriter, completely dedicated to his craft. Writing honest songs about his life on Earth the way he saw it.

Daniel Sullivan: He was a real artist. When I worked with him he was very driven, focused, and completely hilarious. His music transcends trends in music and I’m sure it will continue to find a new audience.

Jennie Bedford: He was a great friend and a real champion of others, despite being so focused and prolific. In the years I saw him the most, he cheerfully went to work playing music. He used to talk about approaching his life as if he were a skilled tradesman. He worked so hard and left behind so many great songs.

Jason Groth: I’ll remember him as an incredible songwriter and singer who worked hard to let the beautiful music he was hearing be a part of our world, and as a generous soul with many friends who was kind enough to let people like me be part of the creation of that music.


"I will try. And know, whatever I try,

I will be gone but not forever..."

- Jason Molina


The Magnolia Electric Co. 10th Anniversary Edition is out now.

Buy it here, via Secretly Canadian.


GoldFlakePaint would like to sincerely thank all of the contributors for their time and efforts.


Lyrics courtesy of Jason Molina

Words and photography by Tom Johnson

Additional design by Ben Shaw

Website Design by Atomic Smash, Bristol