His new album, The Salvation Blues, marks both his first truly solo project and his first step back toward who he is: one of the vocal and lyrical laureates of American music. His voice still has a twangy quiver of innocence and his sound still ripples with Northern soul and lucent folk-rock. On The Salvation Blues, packaged like a New Directions First Edition complete with dust jacket, he writes about the crimes and confusions of his recent past, "the death trips" and "the medicines that will make you ill," and catches glimpses of mercy along the way. From his home in Joshua Tree, California, he shed some light on that passage back to a life worth living.
B-Sides: The new CD has some of the most beautiful packaging I've ever seen.
Mark Olson: I've always focused on lyrics, so I tried to bring that out in a book form. When I first started in music, I set out making actual records and going to record stores, and part of the deal was always looking at the albums. Now with CDs it's all so tiny; it's not the same. There's some humor in it too, the whole Jean Paul Sartre thing. It's supposed to feel like a travelogue. I've read books like that and they always interest me, that another place, another time feel.
You composed the record over two years, here and abroad.
Most of it was done in England and in Norway. In both places I was able to meet an engineer and go about writing and demo-ing songs. Twice in England, twice in Norway and in Poland and back in Minnesota. I'd worked with Gary [Louris] and Victoria [Williams] in the past, and they were very strong musical partners, but I'd never really gotten out on my own.
That was a pretty rootless period for you.
Oh yeah. I didn't really have a place to live, so that facilitated it. My basic point of operation was my aunt's house in Colorado. She's only five years older than me. She was my confidant. She was pushing me to go back to school, but I do this better than anything else, so I started writing and writing. Luckily [producer] Ben Vaughn was interested right away, so I had a purpose. I kept writing, sending the songs to him, and I had 22 songs at the end of it. We picked the best ones.
Over time, did that rootlessness turn into a different kind of roots?
I enjoyed quite a bit of it. It was like touring. People might not remember, but Victoria and I toured a lot in Europe over about a five-year period. I was very used to traveling. It gave me time to focus on what was on my mind. You can do that anywhere, with just your guitar and a Radio Shack tape deck. It's a light occupation. I just kept at it and kept at it.
Prior to writing for this album, you went through a spell where you weren't writing.
It goes that way. You need a purpose. With the [Original Harmony Ridge] Creek Dippers we had a goal: making a record, doing a tour. And when that ended it took me a while to get back on my feet.
What was it like giving up your home in Joshua Tree?
That wasn't a nice experience for myself or Victoria. It was really hurtful for her. If I had to take it back I wouldn't have done what I did. But it happened. Now I live right down the block and we're involved in each other's lives on a daily basis. That doesn't make it any better, but it's something.
Some of the songs were co-written with Victoria.
Yeah. During this time, we even toured together, twice, and I helped her put a demo together recently. When it initially happened, we weren't involved in each other's lives, and we'd been involved in every minute of every day for ten years. It was kind of shocking.
Was it hard to sing those songs without her?
I wouldn't say specifically her, but I'd grown accustomed to doing things in a certain way. We made a mistake with the Creek Dippers, we never went out and got a producer and made a well-produced record. We should have done that at some point. We always did it in a field recording way.
This will sound terribly pretentious, but do you know the poet Rainer Maria Rilke?
His idea of going deep into your greatest fears and pains and finding a key to something else, to joy even.
Thinking over the past few years, I didn't know what would happen, how I would make a living, where I would live. I feel a little more mature now, I guess. I realize what I had and how immature I was to take it for granted. I don't know about joy, but I have a better appreciation for the fact that I had some really nice stuff in my life, and I let it go. And by my own hand. I don't think I'll make that mistake again.
There's a line in your song "Sandy Denny" [about the late British singer]: "The things we dislike in others we find in ourselves."
Yeah, that was my aunt and I talking. She works with nuns and they go through this thing sometimes in their forties, and because of their lifestyles, they have to face something. There's a dark and light side to people. I sometimes have a reaction to people, where I really don't like them. But the reality is they're exhibiting things that I'm like.
On this album you seem to be looking for some forgiveness. How do you know when you've been forgiven?
I don't know. I don't know. For me, it's simple common sense. I have to work hard every day, just keep working and make my way back.