I received an email at 10:54 a.m. yesterday that succinctly read: “Jason Molina is dead. I’m gutted.”
His organs failed. He died in his Indianapolis home. He was 39, and his alcoholism finally got the better of him. The death of the prolific songwriter, who was behind countless Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co. and solo albums, is simply devastating. There’s no other way of putting it.
Molina was a songwriter’s songwriter, something that’s evident by everyone from Glen Hansard to Jim James; to The National; outwardly mourning his loss over the past 24 hours. He never received the attention he deserved despite the gravity fans gave his work.
As for me, I’m crushed on multiple levels.
Long before his death, Molina captivated me. As someone who was raised around the bottle, the lonesome valleys carved by alcoholic artists have long captured my interest. Ever since he canceled his tour with his songwriting brother-in-arms Will Johnson in 2009, I’ve explored the depths of his music more than any other artist’s over that period.
His last proper album, Molina and Johnson, was my formal introduction to his catalog. I’ll never forget the moment I first felt the stifling melancholic weight of “All Falls Together.” Magnolia Electric Co.’s Sojourner, a brilliant box set compiling the band’s work, served as a true gateway into his world. But ultimately, Songs: Ohia’s The Magnolia Electric Co. sealed my fate as someone enthralled by his compositions.
Molina’s conjured imagery came in the form of ghosts, the moon and other plain-yet-elegant forms. Although he painted scenes many times with an unguarded candor, he perhaps did it best on “Farewell Transmission,” the breathtaking opener of his impeccable 2003 record. Halfway through the more than seven-minute opus, he admits:
The real truth about it is we’re all supposed to try.
There ain’t no end to the sands I’ve been trying to cross.?The real truth about it is my kind of life’s no better off if I’ve got the maps or if I’m lost.
The real truth about it is there ain’t no end to the desert I’ll cross.
I’ve really known that all along.?Mama here comes midnight ?with the dead moon in its jaws?Must be the big star about to fall.
In 2011, Molina’s longtime label Secretly Canadian informed the world he had checked in and out of rehab facilities across the globe over the course of a two-year period. He had no insurance. Bills amassed as he was raising goats and chickens on a West Virginian farm with his family. He was trying to get back to making music, but he needed help.
Soon after, Molina fell out of sight and out of mind for most people. Not me. I continued to consume his music during some of my most trying years battling depression and anxiety. His voice belted as I wallowed in my own pain. His music rarely came up roses, but it didn’t drown in its sadness. Molina reaffirmed that even if everything wasn’t going to be fine, there was beauty in exploring in the long dark blues that he painted in his songs.
As he remained silent in his attempted recovery, I slowly began to find my voice as a writer. I knew all along that I would want to write about him, his music and his struggle. Those themes became the topic of other articles I wrote—it was only a matter of time. Last December, I reached out to Jason.
We exchanged emails just after the New Year. He said he was doing fine. “[I’m] mentally not ready to do much other than watch John Wayne movies,” he said. “Writing is slow but improved.”
JMo wasn’t ready to talk about his experiences, but encouraged me to keep pestering him for an interview. He said he would eventually come around. It was obvious he meant it.
In late February, I saw the man who informed me of Molina’s death yesterday. It was Henry Owings. If you’ve read anything about the songwriter’s passing, you’ve seen his Chunklet story quoted;. They were close friends. Molina played at his wedding.
Owings and I chatted briefly that night at a packed Unknown Mortal Orchestra show. I thanked him for sharing Molina’s email with me few months beforehand. He mused about his friend for a second. We agreed to chat in greater detail about Molina at a later date.
Then he said the following words that I won’t ever forget: “I hope someone tells his story before he dies.” Now it’s too late.
On March 15, the day before Molina died, I ran into his publicist Lucy Robinson in Austin. We had both watched the The Besnard Lakes play a short set at The Ginger Man during SXSW. As we left the gastropub, we briefly chatted about nothing. Neither of us knew that the songwriting force, who had impacted both our lives in different ways, was laying on his deathbed.
Three days later, she confirmed the heartbreaking news with me, before going on to release a fitting statement that aptly referred to Jason as the cornerstone of the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans label group—which in many ways has become a bastion of what Molina represented as a songwriter.
“Jason never gave up,” she told me in a separate email. “He made music until the last day of his life. He was in bad shape, but it was his body that gave out.”
It’s a silver lining to know that JMo made music until the day he died. But that doesn’t stop his death from hurting like hell. I think a lot of people, myself included, now are left wondering what comes after the blues. He’s an artist whose music has helped me through my fair share of issues, and it’s a scary thought to not have him around anymore.