Mark Olson & Gary Louris: Flood Ready

By: Dennis Cook

Louris & Olson
"The look on your face when you start to remember…"

You'd be hard pressed to find two better songwriters than Mark Olson and Gary Louris. As the central force in The Jayhawks for a decade (1985-1995), the pair created heartfelt, jangling, shimmering American rock 'n' roll that's stood the test of time. There's something of the Everly Brothers and Gram & Emmylou to their intermingling, a life-toughened intimacy that succors weary listeners and gives shuffle to dead leg days

The duo released Ready For The Flood on January 27 on New West Records, a set their fiercely devoted fan base has been waiting a long time to hear. Outside of some scrapped songs for a movie soundtrack in 2001, the duo hadn't been in the studio together since Olson's departure from The Jayhawks in 1995 to work with now-ex-wife Victoria Williams. After parting ways with Williams in 2005, Olson re-teamed with Louris for two short tours in late 2005 and early 2006 billed as "From the Jayhawks: An Evening with Mark Olson & Gary Louris, Together Again." So, with more than a decade since their last album, the obvious question is "Why now?"

"It was a series of baby steps. Some director asked us to write an Olson/Louris song for this movie, and that was the impetus. It gave a nudge to both our camps that maybe it was time, that enough time had gone by that issues that once seemed like mountains were now molehills," says Louris. "In both of our lives, we were just ready. From there, we went through our little therapy together, let some water under the bridge, and then decided to play some shows together. But we write songs together and I don't want to just play old songs, so we decided to write some new songs and record them."

New Album
"We ended up doing two tours. The first one we did with two other guys and the last one we did with just he and I in a rent-a-car. And we really enjoyed it! It was just so much fun. We'd get up onstage and sing with just the two of us, and we thought it was really cool but we didn't want to do it again until we had a new record," says Olson. "[During the recording sessions] we weren't wearing headphones, and so when we played with a drummer or organ player or bassist, we had to listen out to each other. That's where you hear your natural singing tone, guitar tone, etc. It's completely different playing with headphones. You lose some of you dynamic range. You can play soft and loud without headphones and know you're playing soft or loud. With the headphones you don't really get that feeling. The engineer was really into Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline record, and they cut without headphones, too."

"[Once we began writing together again] it was immediate for us. Mark was here for a week in Minneapolis, staying at a friend's house, and we spent five days just writing songs. So, I went over everyday and I'd start strumming something and he'd pull out the notebook," recalls Louris. "We really feed off each other, musically and lyrically, and we wrote about 14 songs in five days. And they were good! A few didn't make it, replaced by older ones, but there were no baby steps involved there! What you need to have in a songwriting team is trust. And Mark and I trust each other. We look at each other and know, 'That's a good idea. I trust what you're putting into my song and what I'm putting into your song.' And it becomes our song."

The creative combination of Louris and Olson often brings to mind, for me, the poem "A Third Body" by Robert Bly, which may posit a male-female relationship but can be readily applied to the shared act of music making.

A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, or time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or not talking.
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.
The man sees the way his fingers move;
he sees her hands close around a book she hands to him.
They obey a third body they have in common.
They have made a promise to love that body.
Age may come, parting may come, death will come.
A man and woman sit near each other;
as they breathe they feed someone we do not know,
someone we know of, whom we have never seen

"That's pretty neat! I've never thought of it that way. I try not to think of it in mystical terms. I try to think of it in really down to earth terms when we play music together. Basically, to me, our voices naturally go well together and the fact that we've sang so much together, in so many situations, over the years that we got better. We learned to an-ti-ci-pate, and that comes with time and knowledge of the other person's abilities and sound," says Olson. "When we first started to sing together on Blue Earth (1989) it sounded really good but now it's WAY better. We've been playing music for so many years and we both have a work ethic, in a way, that when we start something we have a general standard and we aren't going to work on a song that's not up to that standard. Both of our minds move in around the same place. We're both trying to meet that standard, and we try to change everything a bit so each of our songs is a little different from the others."

Mark Olson
Writing in tandem with another person is challenging but can be hugely rewarding in ways that elude the solitary creative life. If long-time Jayhawks fans have held onto the idea of a Louris/Olson reunion it's perhaps because of the special chemistry that only occurs in their music when their molecules combine. A good songwriting team is one of the few two-person relationships outside of a marriage with such an intense level of intimacy, give-and-take and sheer emotional investment.

"If it's the wrong coupling it's like a bad date, but when it's right it's like a dream," says Louris dreamily. "It's always different to do co-writing with different people. But there's nothing like the go-to relationship, the one made in heaven. While I've written with other people and its been great, Mark is kinda my guy. We fill in each other's blanks pretty well. I was going to buy a blowup doll and have it sit across from me when Mark first left [The Jayhawks], just to have something to look at and bounce things off of. But my wife probably wouldn't like the fact that I'm doing it with a blowup doll [laughs]. Hey, people do it to drive in the carpool lane, so why not a songwriting partner?"

"Speaking in generalizations, Mark's lyrics dictate the music. If he's got a longer line, then that line is going to be longer musically, too. I tend to be neater. I tend to want the stress to land on the right syllable, to have a symmetrical neatness to it. Over the years, I've learned to be less anal about that, and he can certainly write a very succinct pop song. But in general, I think I temper what could turn into meandering and he loosens me up when I could be stiff," continues Louris. "Mark should be a poet or a novelist. More than Conor Oberst or anyone [today] considered a wordsmith, Mark kind of blows me away. He's a really talented guy without really getting the accolades he deserves."

"There's certain things we balance each other on, but we're similar in that when we get something going we want to finish it. I get excited, he gets excited and we both want to get it to this place where we can record it," says Olson. "That, to me, is the best time of any musical endeavor, when you've written what you feel is a really good song for days and you record it for the first time on tape so you have it for later. "It's like, 'Wow, I pulled something out of the air!'"

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