Mark Olson, who's been playing shows in the area the past couple days, faced a hard reality a few years ago. He'd co-founded and left behind two lauded Americana bands, the Jayhawks and the Creekdippers, and his marriage to singer/songwriter Victoria Williams (also a Creekdipper) had fallen apart. So Olson struck out on his own.
"I had always worked in a strong group dynamic," says Olson, "but, this time, I wanted to go out and try to make it on my own. I just wanted to sing my songs and play guitar."
He released Salvation Blues, his first proper solo disc in 2007, which All Music Guide called "stripped down, modern desert country music at its very best." Its follow-up, Many Colored Kite, is a folkier affair, with disarmingly direct lyrics, simple melodies, unobtrusive production, and a guest appearances by Jolie Holland and Vashti Bunyan. "I've learned over time that my voice doesn't work so well with big production," notes Olson. "So I cleared out some space and approached the songs like I was talking in someone's living room."
Olson's tour is a similarly stripped down affair, with accompaniment from a drummer and little else. "I want to be able to pick up all our gear and just go," he explains. "I want to move lightly from town to town."
To present his material in such stark settings, he honed his skills. "I've had to work really hard," says Olson. "For years, I've been singing harmonies, and when you have a lower voice like mine, you tend to develop a drone. You don't really sing out. Instead, you go for this buzz, and it's mostly about adding color to the song. It's sort of like filling in a painting. So I really worked on developing a strong voice."
He's also been working on new Jayhawks material. A few weeks ago, the original band—which hadn't really performed together since Olson split and formed the Creekdippers in the mid-1990s—did a series of shows in Minneapolis. "They were really exciting," says Olson. "We played everything and went all the way back to the beginning, to a time when we used to play our songs really fast. So it was fun to play songs like `Over My Shoulder' and `Two Hearts' and then race through `Let the Critics Wonder.'"
Jayhawks fans who've been jonesing for new material from the original band will be thrilled to know that, after his current tour, Olson is going into the studio with his old bandmates.