Mark Olson - Pick me up on your way down
"If you go back and look, pretty much every one of my songs is kinda the same thing. I'm telling a moralistic, philosophical, little tiny story." --Mark Olson If you're bent on finding a breakup song on Mark Olson's new Salvation Blues, you could head straight to the last track, "My One Book Philosophy", and infer to your heart's content: "You don't need my book no more/I've become a hobo, my baby's been crying/And I don't have a home no more." It's the most immediate, which is to say the least processed, song in his catalogue. "I channeled that; I sat down at the piano and just did it," Olson says. "I made it up in about the first take and used that. I never did that before. I was always just writing traditional verse and chorus and things like that and working on it for a period of time." To be sure, loss, especially loss of innocence, warps through this collection like an aging linen strand, but salvation is its philosophical weft. Everything about Salvation Blues testifies to survival, to a conscious choice in favor of forward motion and upward focus through the inevitable muck of life. Olson emphasizes, though, that this philosophy is not a new development resulting from the recent failure of his marriage with singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. "It's on all my records," he says. "That's number 1-A; if you're gonna write anything you have a point of view. I have a point of view. I've had the same point of view for about twenty years. "If you go back and look, pretty much every one of my songs is kinda the same thing. I'm telling a moralistic, philosophical, little tiny story. It's just been going through my music for all these years. It's the same thing. It's not just this album. If you listen to all seven Creek Dipper albums, they all pretty much have that same little thing." Be that as it may, this collection of songs is the product of a unique and remarkable journey, geographically as well as musically. "I contacted some people...in Europe," Olson says. "You know, when you're playing every night you meet a couple of people in a few different towns. You kinda make friends, and I called them up and said, 'Hey, you know, we talked about seeing each other again? Here I come!'" Olson spent the next several months as a houseguest with people he'd met that way. In Wales he stayed with a couple whose work ethic motivated him out of a writing slump. "They were writers, they wrote novels," he explains. "I was inspired by them to get up in the morning and start working." The pair also opened another avenue. "They mentioned somebody they knew who could run a studio, and a lightbulb went off. I would just book a session for a day for a hundred bucks, whatever, a week from now, and I'd work on songs until then. That went on for about four or five or six months." Not only was the process working for Olson, it was portable. Over the same period, he wrote and recorded demos in Norway and Poland as well. "I would get to a place and then a week or two later I would book a session," he says. "I did two sessions in Wales, two in Oslo, a session in Minneapolis and a session in Krakow. Those were the basic demo sessions." Olson says the demo approach was a change for him. "I always just went in and kinda did a record right off," he explains, referring to his series of releases under variations of the name the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers. "I wrote pretty fast and did records...one a year for, like, seven years. I got in the mode where I would write the songs and then just do them right away. I see the benefits of both sides. This definitely works, too." The process of assembling demos also allowed the songs some breathing room. "I did put forth an extra effort on this one," he says. "I spent more time." But he hastens to add, "That's not necessarily where good songs come from, because sometimes...you can grab some moment and you can turn it into a song. But I was focused for the longest period of time that I had been, and kind of developed a few different methods of writing songs, like first doing all the lyrics and then doing the music afterward. Just little things like that." There was another, major difference. Salvation Blues is the first of Olson's recordings in which a producer has played a vital role. Olson's choice was Ben Vaughn, who brought in pedal steel virtuoso Greg Leisz, drummer Kevin Jarvis, keyboardist Zac Rae, guitarist Tony Gilkyson, former Creek Dipper percussionist Danny Frankel, and bassist David J. Carpenter and vocalist Cindy Wasserman of Los Angeles group Dead Rock West. "He put together the band, basically," Olson says. "I just went up and sang the songs." One of the songs he sang was "Poor Michael's Boat", a tune he'd co-written with Gary Louris, who joins him on harmony vocals for the track. "That's super old," Olson revealed. "That was done probably for the Hollywood Town Hall sessions." Two other Salvation Blues songs, "Look Into The Night" and "Keith", also feature Louris, who played a string of tourdates with Olson in an acoustic duo format last year. "I really like what he sings on 'Keith'," Olson says. "He actually sings below me on that, and he never did that very much, so it's kind of interesting." Of Wasserman, he says, "She does some good parts, and it's not really that it hits you in the face. I've always liked the two-voice thing. It's not any sort of chorus with a bunch of people singing, it's just the two voices. It's me with either Cindy or Gary." Wasserman's subtlety tells its own story on "Clifton Bridge", inspired during Olson's travels. A girl figures into the song, but less as a principal character than as a catalyst for Hamlet-like musing. The Clifton, a suspension bridge opened in 1864, is the symbol of the English town of Bristol. It spans the drama of the Avon Gorge on the river of the same name. The song turns on an inevitable decision point in any life, any relationship: "Which way will it be? Up or down?" Olson offers "Clifton Bridge" as an example of his writing process. "It's pretty much how I go about this thing," he says. "It's what happened to me on that day. Pretty much at the end of the day, I wrote the song out on a napkin. But I was writing songs at the time. "I had been invited to someone's house in Bristol and it was kinda crazy there...and then I met someone and she took me to this bridge. It's an old bridge and it's steep and there's a sign about calling the Salvation Army if you're feeling weird or whatever...and then we went into a pub nearby. Pretty much every word is about that. "I remember popping up that morning, you know, 'Daylight comes...' and 'We walked across the Clifton Bridge' [the opening lines of the lyric]. And then we get to the decision part -- that would be between two people forming lives together -- and some ways there can be circumstances that can drive people to destructive behavior, destructive actions. "But the other side of that story is then thinking about how we live our lives, whether we live our lives in a way that leads to life or leads to death, basically. There are a lot of different things you can do in that, and philosophies that lead to life and philosophies that lead to death. And so that's what led to that song. "It's not some song about whether you're going to jump off a bridge or not. That's not what it's about. It's about other things. And then I get into that personal story of my childhood and stuff like that with people you've met in your childhood that know all about you. Those are some deep feelings you have." This is all good to know, because, given that Olson's father committed suicide, it would be easy to read much more into "Clifton Bridge". His father does figure into "Keith", a song Olson says came directly from a dream. "I just woke up from a dream and that was basically there. I actually found this 'coin in the dirt.' I was taking somebody to my father's bar, and I stood him under a willow tree to have a talk with him in this dream, and I wrote it down." Like a dream, "Keith" is intense and inscrutable. Sisters seem to offer comfort in times of sorrow, uncles just go back to work, and in the end, bewilderingly, "You will only shoot the songbirds/The little ones have only friends." In Norway, Olson's sense of loss, particularly loss of innocence, was compounded by world affairs. He was riding on a train in July 7, 2005, when suddenly it was stopped. Olson and the other riders eventually learned that Norwegian authorities had stopped the train as a precautionary measure after getting news of the suicide bombings on the London subway which killed more than 50 commuters. "I was touring that day with a group that did Fairport Convention-type material," Olson recalls. "We were going to a festival, and they were singing at the festival, too. So they stopped the train and we got off and we were standing there and we started talking about Sandy Denny [the vocalist on many of Fairport Convention's best-known songs, who died in 1978 of injuries from a fall]. "I knew about Fairport Convention; I knew about Sandy Denny. 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes' -- what a great song! And did you see her when she was young? What a beauty! She had freckles, and there are pictures of her in a schoolgirl's uniform, and I kinda thought, well, that's a picture of innocence. After that day, having to think about getting blown up on a train, it's not a very innocent thing. It's a very cruel and horrible vision, and people had just died about it. "So I thought at that time that I was gonna write a song about innocence, and about her innocence, because there's always been [a sense that] Sandy Denny never made her great record. She always had all this promise, and what it is like for a person with all this promise and not possibly achieve it? What could've been the things that held her back?" The result was a song titled, simply, "Sandy Denny". Which way will it be? Up or down? Perhaps you might as well ask yin or yang. Most days nobody gets blown up on trains; and for a time, Sandy Denny could be seen as innocence personified. The choice is yours about which you want to focus on, and that choice becomes the philosophy that guides your life. On the album's title track, Olson makes the point that "There's such joy and sweet moments/To be found in this world/We know they'll come to an end/Just how makes our hearts hurt/Salvation blues/And these blues will help us all." Olson chooses "up." "I think it's a good record and I'm ready to work. I have a really good little band now -- a violin player and a harmony singer and me -- and hopefully everything goes well. It's the first time I've stepped out. "This is kinda like my chance." ND contributing editor Linda Ray knows how the desert can shape a person's spirit, and that occasionally it's good to get as far away as possible.