Courtesy Bloomington Music Expo
It’s hard to deny the local music legacy of singer-songwriter Jason Molina.
Although born in Oberlin, Ohio, Molina became a fixture of Indiana’s musical landscape through the late ’90s and into the 2000s, thanks in large part to his relationship with Bloomington-based record label Secretly Canadian. Long before reaching international success, Secretly Canadian put its faith in the humble musician. As a matter of fact, several of Secretly’s earliest releases belong to Molina, who was making music under the moniker of Songs: Ohia at the time.
“Jason lived in Bloomington off and on from the late-’90s through his death in 2013, and he possessed one of the truly great voices to ever grace our town,” says Ben Swanson, co-founder and COO of what’s now known as Secretly Group. “He didn’t trade in false nostalgia. Instead, his songs were meditations on the dignity of work, the grace of love, demons we all wrestle with, and a universal lonesomeness. With his singular, haunted tenor and personal language of symbols and totems, he uniquely captured the potential—both the met and the always-just-beyond-reach—of the Midwest unlike any other.“
Since his unfortunate passing in 2013, Molina’s former bandmates have occasionally paid tribute to the singer-songwriter’s lasting legacy, performing various selections from his dense catalog of material. On Saturday, February 8, the latest of these tributes will take place at the second annual Bloomington Music Expo, where former band members, collaborators, and Bloomington musicians will perform a set as Songs: Molina—Memorial Electric Co.
In addition to this special tribute performance, those attending the Bloomington Music Expo can also expect other live music performances from indie-rock musician Amy O, Glitter Brains, Lara Lynn & The Kid, Shai Marie, and live DJs. More than 50 exhibitors will be on hand, including various vinyl vendors, record labels, several music-art makers and different music-related organizations.
A longtime bandmate of Molina’s, guitarist Jason Groth remembers the first time he met the mythical man at a Bloomington guitar shop.
“I knew who he was because I was a college radio DJ, and I loved the early Songs: Ohia stuff,” Groth says. “But I didn’t really know it was him [when we first met] because you wouldn’t expect him to be the kind of guy that made that music. He was just a goofball and really talkative.”
Groth was eventually recruited by Molina to join his band, playing guitar in Songs: Ohia (which eventually became Magnolia Electric Co.) from 2002 until the band stopped touring.
“I just think he was dealing with artistic genius all the time, and also the demons with which he struggled kept his brain running constantly,” Groth says. “So being in a band with him was like being on your toes all the time. Songs would change. His stories about stuff would change. The way he felt about set lists would change. For the most part, though, I wouldn’t have kept doing it if I didn’t love how good it was when it was good.”
When reflecting back on the legacy of Molina, Groth believes the singer-songwriter just had his own way of conveying messages.
“It felt like he knew something that I didn’t, but he wasn’t hiding it from me,” Groth says. “He was just hinting at it, and letting me try to figure it out on my own.”
Groth, along with other former members of Magnolia Electric Co., will be performing as part of Saturday’s homage to Molina. Unlike previous tributes, the band will be joined by highly touted Texas singer-songwriter Will Johnson, who collaborated on a 2009 album with Molina aptly titled Molina & Johnson. For the first time ever, songs from Molina & Johnson will be performed live at the Expo, marking a special occasion for both Johnson and Molina’s former bandmates.
Like Groth, Johnson remembers the very first time he met Molina on an Austin street corner in the mid- 2000s. After exchanging messages, the two eventually decided to make an album together, recording over a limited amount of days in Argyle, Texas.
“I think we only had 9 or 10 days to work together, so it wound up being an exhilarating, workshop-style record,” Johnson says. “I thought maybe I’d write a few songs going in, just to kind of prepare for it. But we found out that first night that we really enjoyed writing in the moment and really documenting from the front of our heads.”
As someone deeply committed to his own craft, Johnson found Molina as a kindred spirit of sorts.
“His work ethic was tireless,” Johnson says. “He treated each day with honor and respect. I think he felt really fortunate to make his living as a songwriter, and he truly honored it.”
Much like Johnson, Molina’s former bandmates look forward to playing the Johnson & Molina songs live for the first time. As with all other tribute shows they’ve done in his honor, the band just wants to pay their proper respects to the great Jason Molina.
“We were a band with him for a long time,” says Groth of the tribute band’s core members. “So we take this stuff pretty seriously, and we just want to make it as respectful as possible. It feels really flattering that people want to hear it, and we only do it sparingly because we don’t want to ever disrespect what it was that we had.”
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