Nearly a decade ago, Mark Olson released an album called December's Child. A rich, homey-sounding project, it was the zenith of the singer-songsmith's work with an indie folk troupe called The Creekdippers.
December's Child was a fine record, one that seemed to finally remove Olson from the broader — and more commercially visible — music he cut with The Jayhawks, the popular Americana unit he co- founded in 1985 and left in 1995.
One of the album's highlights was Say You'll Be Mine, a song he co-wrote and co-performed with longtime Jayhawks mate Gary Louris. In other words, December's Child underscored Olson's musical identity outside of the Jayhawks, but it also planted seeds for what proved to be an inevitable reunion with the band.
Fast-forward to the present. With a critically lauded album of duets (2009's Ready for the Flood) behind them, Olson and Louris are again piloting The Jayhawks and preparing their first record of new material with the band in 16 years. But Olson isn't about to let his artistic gains as a solo artist fade while his old group takes flight again.
The Jayhawks, it seems, make up only half of his working life these days. Olson is hitting the road this winter with a couple of his Creekdipper pals to show off music from a 2010 solo album, Many Colored Kite.
Talk to Olson, 49, a veteran of numerous Lexington concert appearances at the Christ the King Oktoberfest, about balancing duties as a solo artist with the responsibilities of a band man, and he will tell you the juggling act is sweet indeed.
"It's incredible, really," said Olson, who performs Tuesday at Natasha's Bistro & Bar. "It's the culmination of a lifetime's work. I'm playing all the time now in different places, in different countries and in different configurations. It's gets to be a little exhausting from time to time, but I keep going. I mean, you write all of these songs and you just want a chance to play them in front of people. And I really have that now."
The thrust of the trio that Olson will bring to Natasha's — a unit that includes longtime Creekdippers multi-instrumentalist Mike Russell — will be the acoustic-based story-songs of Many Colored Kite, although the repertoire also will cover songs from Olson's 2007 solo debut album, The Salvation Blues, and a few Creekdippers tunes. Such music is a folk-derived deconstruction of the melodic and harmony-heavy ensemble sound favored by The Jayhawks.
"When I started out, I was listening to folky Bob Dylan stuff and artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie," Olson said. "So I've always wanted to do material like that, music that was very powerful yet was played with very simple instrumentation. I can just sit there with a guitar for these songs and sing my heart out."
Dylan might have been a powerful formative muse for Olson, but Many Colored Kite's leadoff tune, Little Bird of Freedom, features harmonies by a folk stylist from an altogether different generation: Jolie Holland
"It was probably 10 years ago that a friend told me about Jolie Holland," Olson said. "We were introduced and spent a day walking around San Francisco, playing each other what were then new songs. I just remember that being a very nice day. So when the opportunity came my way, I asked her to sing on this new record."
The quiet and altogether sunny vibe of Many Colored Kite has to share space in Olson's professional life, though, with the more electric reckonings of The Jayhawks. The band already has a high-performance profile in 2011, having devoted a two-night January engagement in Chicago to complete performances of its cornerstone albums — 1992's Hollywood Town Hall and 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass. Both records were re-released this winter with gobs of extra material. Green Grass, in particular, includes an entire disc of fascinating blueprint-style outtakes called The Mystery Demos.
But Olson sees no conflict between his solo and his band callings. It's his good fortune, he said, that such differing elements of his musical past now seem harmonious.
"They are different projects with different set lists, different instrumentation and different people. But it's all very exciting.
"These days, my life is a matter of getting up and doing the things I need to do to make sure I'm prepared to go onstage and have a good show. That's what life is. If you have a good job, you want to do it well. So I'm pretty fortunate that I have all this work, the ability to play music, and people willing to come see me perform."