Tribute: Late singer made deep connection
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Jason Molina never had arena-level fame as a singer-songwriter.
But the indie performer toured internationally and developed a deep connection with both a devoted set of fans and with other performers. Molina died in Indianapolis on March 16, 2013, at age 39, as a result of alcohol abuse-related organ failure.
The death hit West Virginia music blogger April Wolfe hard. “When Jason passed away last year it really affected me,” said Wolfe, 35. “And Jason’s connection with the state of West Virginia was probably really what attracted me most to him.”
While he was raised in Lorain, Ohio, both his parents were from the Beckley area and he would often visit his grandparents there while on school breaks as he was growing up. And in the last years of his life, stepping back from music while battling his alcoholism, Molina spent some time at a family farm near Beckley.
His first musical project was named “Songs: Ohia,” the second part of the name an allusion to the state where he grew up and the ohi’a lehua, a tree native to Hawaii.
An album under that name, which fans called “the black album,” features a host of songs named after West Virginia towns or landmarks: White Sulphur, Gauley Bridge, Crab Orchard and so on.
“It really connected to me as a native born-and-raised West Virginian. He actually wrote that album in his grandmother’s basement in Beckley, West Virginia,” Wolfe said.
Upon hearing of Molina’s death, Wolfe took action.
“I was a fan of his music. I wanted to do something. So I just posted something on Facebook. Another blogger in Portland [Oregon] who I am friends with emailed me back and we decided on a compilation.”
Wolfe and her friend, Chris Mateer, of Portland’s Uprooted Music Revue, contacted Rock the Cause, which a few years ago did a tribute album devoted to Vic Chestnut.
What resulted was a two-CD tribute titled “Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina,” which was released in April and is now available for both digital download and physical copy from iTunes and Amazon.
“We put together a list of artists who had worked with Jason or knew Jason,” Wolfe said.
“We had a pretty good turnout. We contacted the artists and Rock the Cause did the legal licensing and we got permission from [Molina’s] label, Secretly Canadian, and the family. That’s how it all started.”
Among the artists featured performing Molina’s songs are My Morning Jacket, Ben Lubeck (of Farewell Milwaukee), Enemy Planes, Murder by Death, Squares, Sarah Jaffe, Memorial Electric Co. and other acts — 26 artists in all.
Memorial Electric Co. is the band that grew out of Molina’s final musical collaboration, the Magnolia Electric Co., upon his death.
She never met Molina, but his music has long had a strong pull on Wolfe, who wrote the liner notes for the tribute compilation.
“People connect with Jason’s voice. I think in the liner notes I said it was mystical and mythical. It’s just something that’s hard for me to talk about because it’s so close. I think all in all his music was a bit on the darker side, but it really wasn’t depressive.
“I believe his music was that way because of the all the depression he was going through and struggling with. Jason was just a very complicated and complex person.”
But his music connected at a deep level with people, she said.
“I think first it’s the voice, and his phrasing is really not like any others, as well as his ability to bring a melody. But there are other things about Jason that I didn’t really know much about until I talked with people who knew him.
“There’s sort of like a dark quality to Jason’s music. It’s not like depressing dark — but there’s hope within the music, not necessarily the lyrics. It’s all in the melody and the phrasing.”
Part of the proceeds from sales of the album will go to the Molina estate and the group Music Cares “which helps uninsured musicians battle demons — substance abuse, depression, mental illnesses,” Wolfe said.
She has also helped to memorialize Molina’s music by having other artists perform his songs and putting video clips on her blog, commonfolkmusic.wordpress.com.
“It’s been pretty positive and enlightening,” said Wolfe of the efforts she has made on behalf of Molina’s music.
“Just to know the kind of impact that Jason had on this singer-songwriter niche — a deep and emotional and I want to say almost primal connection that people have with Jason. His ability to convey softer feelings in a song. A lot of people connected with Jason on that level as well as his ability to capture, like, geography and space and time.”
She hopes “Farewell Transmission” helps cement Molina’s legacy as a performer.
“I hope that it sheds a light on how much Jason has influenced music, has influenced current as well as up-and-coming singer-songwriters. I hope that it helps to gain new fans of his music. I hope it helps people heal who were affected by Jason’s death.
“I know that this was a project that began for myself and Chris as a way of healing after losing such an influential musician. I’m hoping that we pay due justice to Jason’s memory and his music.”
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-3017 or follow @wvville on Twitter.