Maybe the best way to experience Jason Molina's music is from the driver's seat of a car headed out of town. As the songwriting force behind Magnolia Electric Co., Molina crafts urgent, minor-key country rock and sparse gothic ballads whose heartbeat is the pavement passing beneath your tires. Even his lyrics are road-ready, a mix of images from horizons always out of reach and rear-view memories forever trailing behind.
Few songwriters probe old relationship wounds with as much frankness as Molina, and for him the open road isn't an escape route -- it's the opportunity to examine the past from different perspectives. This is a grand tradition in North American music, from Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen and Crazy Horse -- the latter a common reference point for Magnolia Electric Co.'s sturdier rockers.
"I'm always working things out in this music," Molina has said. "But the images and music come from a different place every time."
There's restlessness in Molina's career to match that music. Over the past decade, he's released nearly 20 albums and EPs under a variety of guises -- most notably Songs:Ohia, and as Magnolia Electric Co. since 2003 -- and logged hundreds of thousands of touring miles playing gigs renowned for their intensity.
Fading Trails' title offers an obvious signpost to the itinerant nature of Molina's music, including how and where this record was made. The disc's nine songs were culled from four different recording sessions, most of which will be released in a projected six albums over the next year. The Bloomington, Indiana independent label Secretly Canadian has been Molina's home for the past decade, and to commemorate the anniversary they asked him to put together a milestone compilation from his voluminous catalog of singles, rarities, outtakes and demos. But Molina had another idea.
"I almost shit my pants at the prospect," he says, laughing. "Instead of obliging this terrifying project, I just decided to write and record as much music as I could and see what came of that. It seemed like a good trade, and the label was definitely happy. Hopefully, it'll be another 10 years before they ever ask me to do something like that again."
So over the course of a year, Molina traveled from Indiana and Chicago to Memphis and Richmond, VA, squeezing in hit-and-run recording sessions between Magnolia tours. He left the four sessions in the hands of the label to distribute as they saw fit. His solo record, the vinyl-only release Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go, came out in August. The other releases will be Nashville Moon (recorded with Steve Albini), The Sun Studio Sessions, The Black Ram (with David Lowery) and Shohola.
In effect, Fading Trails is a sampler from four of those sessions. Molina was initially worried about mixing the songs together because he feels that one of his records' trademarks is how they document "a session from start to finish." But his fears were unfounded. The two or three songs taken from each session -- including solo demos (from Shohola), full-band Magnolia (Nashville and Sun) and non-Magnolia band members (Black Ram) -- blend together seamlessly while retaining their author's character.
For The Sun Studios Sessions, a friend of the band in Memphis booked Magnolia some time at the legendary studio as repayment for playing a birthday bash, and just before the start of a tour Molina took the band in to cut some tracks. They didn't have much prepared, but Molina is known for the unfiltered and immediate nature of his recordings. Between takes at Sun, he was writing songs in the alley behind the studio.
"To play in that room, which is utterly unmolested from the time they originally cut all those famous records there, was a fantastic experience," he says. "There aren't many things that I can say if I go to my grave I'll be happy that I did that way, but this is one thing I'll take with me."
Molina and Lowery struck up a friendship when Magnolia offered to loan their equipment after Camper Van Beethoven's gear was stolen. The two met up again last fall at Lowery's studio in Richmond for The Black Ram sessions, creating songs more textured with sonic gauze and reverb than anything in Molina's previous catalog. His mother suffered a stroke during the recording, adding even more emotional heft to Molina's songs.
Shortly after her stroke, Molina told the Chicago Reader, "I know I'm very fortunate in that I'm able to deal with really difficult situations by making music."