Ex-Jayhawk Mark Olson focuses on making a bigger sound in a smaller way

Contributing Music WriterNovember 3, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    Mark Olson

    When: 8 p.m. Nov. 5

    Where: Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway

    Admission: $10

    Learn more: (859) 281-1116, Willieslex.com

Talking with Mark Olson is like jumping on a plane and following him around the globe. Figuratively speaking, the frequent flyer miles pile up quickly.

Phoning him for an interview requires calling a Minneapolis number. That's where he spent his youth and where the Americana band that launched his career, The Jayhawks, got its first record deal. But he answers from Joshua Tree, Calif., his home away from home for the past 17 years.

And in describing his newest musical project, talk turns to collaborations with his Norwegian wife, Ingunn Ringvold, the country where they wrote much of their newest music (Armenia) and the locale of the record company that will issue those songs (Germany).

It's enough to give you jet lag.

But with work as a Jayhawk behind him, seemingly for good despite a well-received 2011 reunion album, Mockingbird Lane ("We're defunct," he said), Olson is focused and openly enthusiastic about the songs he is creating with Ringvold, the instrumentation they have discovered to color them and their tour that stops in Lexington on Tuesday.

"It's just going to be the two of us," Olson said. "That's the challenge. We try to get as big of a sound as possible with just two people. I think that's the future of music in a lot of ways, especially for young people. I don't see how they can afford to have a full rock 'n' roll band anymore. I've been looking at this for a long time before putting it into practice."

Olson and Ringvold have clocked some serious miles in implementing that practice, as well. That's where Armenia comes in.

"We've been working basically for five or six years on building a repertoire but have had a number of visa troubles over the past few years that are now solved," Olson said. "Because of that, I had to spend time outside of Europe and Ingunn had to spend time outside of America. So for us to spend time together, we had to go into these other countries. So we contacted a charity foundation that put us in touch with a music school in Armenia, this area that was part of the 1988 earthquake. We made a contribution there, and they helped us with learning some new instruments.

"Ingunn learned how to play the qanun, which is a very difficult instrument with, like, 76 strings. We added that to our set and were able to get a record deal in Germany, of all places. It's unbelievable, I know.

"This visa trouble was ... well, that's what it was. It was trouble. But the amazing thing about it was that it landed us in a position where we spent a lot of time alone together where we played music. Now that's turning out to be in our favor because we developed all these different styles and songs. And we're going to play some of those in Lexington."

The qanun figures in roughly three or four songs in their shows. But the repertoire from which Olson will draw will cover all corners of his career, from early Jayhawks tunes to '90s music cut with the ultra- homey folk troupe the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers to more recent solo projects.

While Olson places priority on the songs he has written with Ringvold, he still draws satisfaction when an older tune resonates with an audience, as well as with himself, in a performance.

"What you're talking about there is probably the best feeling of all," he said. "You go out and play a song you may have written 20 years ago, and something just connects. Now there are songs I wrote many, many years ago that never even made it onto a record until much later in my career. But there is still that feeling. It gives you this sense of, 'Wow, I did accomplish something.'

"Some of these songs have really lasted for me. That's the main point I suppose. Songs can be good and they can last. But it takes a special song to last for years and years and years so that you still want to perform it. That speaks to something other than just the melody or the lyrics or the tempo. That means the song is feeding into something else. I liken it to floating. If you have a real nice song that you really enjoy playing, it's almost like floating when you play it. That's what we try to achieve, anyway."


IF YOU GO

Mark Olson

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 5

Where: Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway

Admission: $10

Learn more: (859) 281-1116, Willieslex.com

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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