Mark Olson - Many Colored Kite
Out July 27, 2010
The sun-soaked political reggae of Bob Marley certainly isn’t the most obvious parallel to make when discussing the music of folk troubadour Mark Olson, but while discussing the song “Kingsnake” from his upcoming solo album, Many Colored Kite, Olson makes a compelling argument:
“I really like Bob Marley’s lyrical attitude—the way he forcefully delivers his lyrics means everything to him. When I first heard him, I must have been nineteen or something; it was all very mysterious to me, and I didn’t get it then. But as time’s gone by, I realize that he’s very direct. He has a point of view and a philosophy, and though my point of view and my philosophy are different, I try to be direct like that.”
This philosophical directness has been a constant in a career that’s spanned a quarter century. As a founding member and principal singer/songwriter of The Jayhawks, Olson spent a decade at the front of the alt-country movement, until leaving the band—and the familiar environs of Minneapolis—in 1995, for the California desert.
While The Jayhawks were experimenting with pop and rock influences and earning mainstream appeal, Olson wanted to strip back down to the essentials. He formed The Creekdippers with then-wife Victoria Williams and violinist Mike Russell, paring his brand of timeless folk down to a desert roots ramble.
After a decade with The Creekdippers, Olson left the desert for the train cars of Europe, creating what would become his 2007 solo debut, The Salvation Blues, a poetic rumination on redemption that earned him comparisons to the likes of Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan.
During that journey, he reconnected with former Jayhawks partner Gary Louris and in 2009 they released their first album together in fourteen years, Ready For The Flood.
Many Colored Kite is both a culmination of everything that came before it, and an exploration of uncharted waters. Recorded over a month’s time in Portland with producer/engineer Beau Raymond (Chris Robinson, Devendra Banhart), the album finds Olson embracing a decidedly brighter path towards the future, exploring themes of freedom and struggle, isolation and belonging, spirituality and love.
He translates that idea of Bob Marley’s lyrical directness into a beautiful simplicity of expression, creating “little moral stories,” as he calls them. Album opener “Little Bird Of Freedom,” which features folk-jazz chanteuse Jolie Holland, is an acknowledgement of both personal and universal struggle, which the title track, written at a park in Oslo, Norway, takes a step further. “To me, a ‘many colored kite’ is the idea that instead of having a restrictive world, let’s have an inclusive one, where it’s good for people to have different ideas, different faiths, different languages.”
Olson also turns inward. There’s “Your Life Beside Us,” about “a spiritual longing for good in one’s life,” and the lush, string-laden “Beehive,” calling upon his love of metaphor to describe the evolution of religion into a destructive, rather than healing force. Most surprising is “Morning Dove,” a “miracle song” inspired by a flock of doves that appeared right as he finished building his home. It marks the first time in his entire career that Olson performs completely solo and acoustic. “I’ve always been in bands or groups; I’ve always liked playing off of other people,” he says. “But this song seemed so direct and personal, that I just went for it.”
A message of positivity weaves through Many Colored Kite, offering up a nearly radiant version of Olson that not only hearkens back to his Creekdippers days, but also looks forward to the future of folk. There’s the sweetly melodic “No Time To Live Without Her,” inspired by the simple love songs of the ‘60s, featuring ethereal harmonies from influential British folksinger Vashti Bunyan. “Bluebell Song,” inspired by flowers dotted along miles of Texas highway, recounts the experience of sharing those slices of Americana with his two international bandmates, Norwegian singer and multi-instrumentalist Ingunn Ringvold and Italian violinist Michele Gazich.
The experience of being on the road with people close to him is what ultimately shapes the narrative of the album. In this case, thousands of miles spent in vans, trains, and planes for The Salvation Blues led to the creation of Many Colored Kite. “It was more than a band—Ingunn was my girlfriend and Michele was this guy whose company I really enjoyed—and the way to keep that going was to write a new album together.”
So you have the Laurel Canyon vibe of “Wind And Rain,” borne from a lonely drive through rural Nebraska and the urge to pull over and stage an impromptu performance on a small-town bandstand. There’s “More Hours,” a sweet retelling of a conversation between Olson and Ringvold on a desert road. And the freak folk echoes of “Scholastica,” about meeting a nun of the same name in New Mexico.
Ultimately, Many Colored Kite is a statement album. It’s Mark Olson acknowledging the past, but making a conscious decision to lift up and continue his journey forward. “Let’s face it—I worked hard on this record. I put everything I had into this one. I tried to play my best, sing my best, and write my best. I want this to look towards the future, and I hope our story goes on.”