“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.”
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.”