Mark Olson and and Ingunn Ringvold: Renewed path of Americana Spirit
story by Amy Kenna
photo by Nemanja Djordjevic
Bellinghamsters might be waiting for the sun this November, but the sound of summer is coming to the Green Frog via beloved Americana fixture and founding member of The Jayhawks, Mark Olson. Olson will be performing with his musical and life partner, Norwegian singer and multi-instrumentalist Ingunn Ringvold, with fresh material from their 2017 album Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun (Glitterhouse Records).
Recorded in their Joshua Tree home this summer, the record is a soothing blend of country-folk and psychedelic pop. The tracks feature exotic strings such as the Armenian qanun and dulcimer, as well as the Mellatron, a 1960s-era tape keyboard, on every song.
Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun is desert-rooted, haunting at times and whimsical at others, addressing the canyons and cliffs of love, trial and loss with ethereal grace.
For Olson, writing is a meditative process that begins under a Siberian Elm in his yard, under which he sets a chair, two dulcimers and a Guild Valencia model guitar. Lyrics then begin to flow during a thoughtful stroll.
“I just walk off into the desert, down a road, over stones, into a canyon and I think about things,” Olson said. “Mostly nice things because life has a lot of harshness and disease of the mind, spirit, and soul attached to the modern days. I am searching for atmosphere, melody and the first line to a song. I am writing away from instruments.”
Once Olson gets the lyrics, he returns to the tree and begins to find melodies.
“It helps to get somewhat emotional and dramatic in your soul, and then return to your spot with enthusiasm and happiness. All these ingredients help to create songs,” Olson said. “I don’t like to go over chord progressions or write from some kind of personal downer place.”
All the tracks on the 10-track, 35-minute album are unedited full performances.
“I don’t like machine-perfected music,” Olson said. “If we have a good track and make a mistake, oh well; we just toss it and do another take. I am glad I discovered my own path and way of recording,”
Recording during the sweltering Mojave summer involved turning off swamp coolers during 100 to 115-degree days, and consuming copious amounts of lemony iced tea.
“That is the time to get under a cold water hose if you can find one and cool down!” Olson said.
From the soaring “Time of Love,” to the intimate radio single “Dear Elisabeth,” the album takes the listener on a mystic, sun-drenched journey rooted in beautiful harmony of voice and unique rhythm.
While writing, Olson soaked up influences such as Richie Havens’ Mixed Bag, the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, The Incredible String Band, Love, Lal Waterson and Ethiopian singer Gigi. Percussion was performed by neighbor Danny Frankel, who has “developed his own language” on the beat communiqué (a type of tambourine Esperanto). Lewis Keller laid down the bass.
Olson attributes his love for country and folk to his grandmother, with whom he lived as a late teen and young adult. “I discovered folk music at her apartment really with old records and guitars,” Olson said. “She was very lively and had a spiritual outlook, so I took that as a house of life and really colored my thoughts with things I learned in the past. It’s where you come from, you know?”
Olson was raised in Minnesota by farmers and schoolteachers, and discovered a love of music at age 12. He formed The Jayhawks in 1985 with singer and guitarist Gary Louris, bassist Marc Perlman and drummer Thad Spencer. The alt-country pioneers saw critical success with their 1992 single, “Waiting for the Sun,” and their radio hit “Blue” in 1995. Olson left the band in 1995 to look after his wife at the time, Victoria Williams, after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
While the Jayhawks went on to record three more albums, Olson collaborated with Williams and Mike “Razz” Russell to found the Americana group The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers in 1997. The band released seven albums, mostly home-recorded in Joshua Tree and distributed by mail order. Olson once more collaborated with Gary Louris on the track, “Say You’ll be Mine” off the album December’s Child in 2002. The Jayhawks briefly reunited in 2011 to record the album Mockingbird Time and tour in support. Olson’s creative partnership with Ringvold began in 2006, and the duo released the critically acclaimed Americana record Goodbye Lizelle in 2014. The album was captured on a field recorder as the pair journeyed to South Africa, Armenia, Norway and the Czech Republic. The same well-traveled field recorder was used on Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun.
While in South Africa, Olson discovered lyrical ideas while playing word games at the oldest library in the country, in the small town of Prince Albert. These lyrics eventually found their way into the upbeat track, “Seminole Valley Tea Sipper Society.”
Ringvold plays the piano, harmonium, guitar, dulcimer and djembe. She learned mastery of the ancient, melodramatic qanun while visiting Armenia under a teacher named Araqs.
“I love the sound of the qanun,” Ringvold said. “It’s mysterious but also very grounding at the same time. It can drone and it can soar. It brings a lot to our live shows.”
“Ingunn has a great ear for string arrangements and it came out melodic and moody with lots of originality,” Olson said.
This year saw Olson and Ringvold touring across Australia and Europe before returning to the United States. The duo stays busy with international tours every year.
“With our touring and recording, we really work 10 to 12 hours a day and are always trying to keep up with various things,” Olson said. “It is a small family business and we really enjoy all the interlocking pieces. We are booked up through April so I think we will see where all of this takes us, and I am thinking to a good place!”
Catch Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold at the Green Frog Acoustic Tavern on Saturday, Nov. 25 at 9 p.m. For more information, see markolsonmusic.com.