“A Secret of the Heart on the Sleeve:” Jason Molina, 1973 – 2013


Now I’m in that rootless void of grieving the loss of someone I never really knew.

The wave of shock and grief I experienced upon hearing the news of Jason Molina’s passing was not commensurate with what I was supposed to feel after hearing about the death of a near-stranger, a performer, a rock songwriter. Instead, it’s a personal, intimate loss. Molina’s own honesty fostered that kind of connection with his listeners. The raw tenderness of his voice, the cohesive family of his images, the warm, lingering chords, and his refusal to back away from difficulty coalesce into a welcoming; a welcoming of interpretation, empathy, association, relating.

Several years ago when I started a longterm project of interviewing songwriters, Molina was the very first person I contacted. True to the form of his openness and generosity, he agreed to the interview. I am obliged to share some of the words (below in italics) that Molina so freely shared with me.


I have no interest in how I will be seen later on. I really don’t have a commitment to the entertainer side of doing this. We pack away the gear and hit the road and leave that entire situation. I don’t look back. I know that sometimes it is tears and train wrecks.

There’s a piece of paper on my desk with the name Jason Molina written on it. It’s been there since last spring, collecting dust, aging. It’s part of a list of people to write letters to. I added Molina’s after I read his note on the Magnolia Electric Co. website last May, where he publicly announced he was in hospitalized recovery and would continue to be so. He also made it clear that he still needed our support. Us being those of us who care. Cared.

The moon, the heart, the owl. All of these are ancient trails. I don’t know exactly why these have become my familiars. I think it is a whole lot of loneliness or the need to wander when in fact I need to be at home. I think of the moon as a home. The heart as a road. The owl as the bird that carries me on. I’m not trying to be abstract here. These are very dear to me and need to be in the songs. 

I listen to music for a living. I hear hundreds of songs a week, every week. For something to stand out and actually affect me on a personal level it has to be more than just good, it has to be undeniable. Molina’s music was undeniable. It cut through a blizzard of white noise and shook me into the present moment.

I walked a long rail. I couldn’t afford the ticket of course so I hoofed it. Somewhere between my Appalachian roots and hearing mountain music growing up I realized that I didn’t want to shut down or out any music. That meant listening to everything from coal miner ballads actually played by miners and listening to Hank [Williams] or as I got older…things like The Ramones or Brian Eno. All of this in the same sitting. But it was Patti Smith that made me want to really put this music out. I can still throw on “Easter” and be taken back to when I was sitting there in a trailer park in Lorain, Ohio, wondering which of the two paths I could take back then…work on an assembly line or the military. That was what my options were it seemed. At some point I got lucky and got smart.  

Molina’s music creates a spacious darkness to envelop his clarion voice delivering distilled truth after truth. I bought every record I could get my hands on and didn’t let Magnolia Electric Co. pass 200 miles from where I lived without seeing them. Fortunately for those of us who felt similarly, they toured incessantly and Molina was prolific and consistent with stunning quality.

I grew up around music or searching for music and especially live music. The backbone of some great songs truly are part of my world. I grew up right on the B&O (rail line). I’ve done nothing but move my whole life and the crossroad becomes a whole world to me. I’m not romanticizing these things. When I think about how wonderful things or darkest dread could be in any direction I conjure up these types of things and they become the spark of a song. I also grew up on Lake Erie. I mean I lived right on the shore. Looking out at the lonesome ore ships and hearing the fog horn and watching for the lighthouse during those raging storms and watching as the waterspouts would hit the shore and become tornadoes and seeing the seasons change on the water and walking out into the unknown on the ice during a blizzard…it’s all in these songs. At certain times you could find a large perfectly smooth stretch in the ice. The wind would sweep the snow away and on perfectly dark nights you could put your ear to the ice and hear the abyss and sometimes an eerie blue/green light would seem to be wandering around beneath me. As far as these images coming directly from American folk music, it isn’t really the case for me. I look around and this is my world. 

Like anyone that wanted to, I met Molina many times. He was easy to find at shows (in the crowd checking out the opener), and always approachable. I spoke with him, gave him recordings, we emailed a little. He always treated me as a familiar, with openness, even though it was scarcely possible he could have remembered me. I recently built a recording studio out in the Mojave and had been planning on inviting him to come use it whenever he felt up for the trip.

I grew up in a Southern Baptist family, my great grandmother even ran a grocery store/flop house for coal miners. She taught a Sunday school there and eventually this became a proper church running to this day. I didn’t follow that specific path but I learned a lot about living growing up that way and with that culture. If you can imagine The Waltons TV show you wouldn’t be far off the mark from a lot of what I’ve seen in real life. Juxtapose that almost WPA photo essay part of my life, and the movie Matewan, with living in a drug addict filled trailer park you get a glimpse of where I’m coming from in the music. And then there is my own personal instinctual spirituality that informs what I do. That and a lot of tragedy and depression.  

Losing an intimate stranger is a weird, irresolvable sadness. There’s no appropriate forum for it. It can be embarrassing to mourn a performer who we technically have no “real” relationship with. It’s not cool. Fuck that. If you are a fan of Molina’s music, you know it transcends the appropriate, cuts through the layers of cool and the intimacy it fosters is absolutely 100 percent real. If Molina’s songs affected you, if they filled an emptiness, gave voice to your thoughts and emotions, brought you solace, then let the rest of us know we’re not alone. Everyone I’ve talked to who encountered him came away somehow encouraged, lifted. For those of us too far away personally to attend his memorial, but too close emotionally to simply do nothing, sharing these stories might help.

I feel like a song is a secret of the heart on the sleeve. I don’t run away from truths or un-surviving loves. I also feel that a song in its simplest form is no different than a day in a season. It could be a silent and early hour or it could be nothing but despair and loss and anger, and yet it is still only an autumn day.

Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in California. He is the creator and host of The History Channeler comedy podcast and has written for This American Life, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs including the recent No Country Music. He can be found at http://www.scottpinkmountain.com/. More from this author →