On a recent visit to New Zealand, former Jayhawks frontman Mark Olson and harpist Ingunn Ringvold stopped by to play a couple of tunes and have a chat to Nick Bollinger.
Mark Olson may never be as famous again as he was when he was fronting The Jayhawks, but in his current capacity as itinerant troubadour he seems happier than he’s ever been.
At Wellington airport, the Minneapolis-born musician stood out. In his headband, denim work shirt and hand-woven woolen jerkin, it might have been Woodstock, 1969, not Wellington, 2017.
At the information counter he explained he was late for his plane, maybe by an hour. The attendant took a long look at him, considered his neo-hippie attire, and replied drolly, “I think it might be longer than that.”
Last time Olson was here, eight years ago, it was with Gary Louris with whom he had founded the pioneering alt-country band The Jayhawks in the mid-80s.
The pair had reunited for the first time since Olson left the group in 1995 to spend more time with his then-wife, the singer and songwriter Victoria Williams.
Though Olson made one more record with The Jayhawks in 2011 (Mockingbird Time), he and Louris split again, amid much acrimony, the following year. By this time Olson was also divorced from Williams.
On his latest visit to New Zealand Olson was accompanied by his new wife, Norwegian musician Ingunn Ringviold, who features prominently on his newest album Spokeswoman Of The Bright Sun.
At Auckland venue The Wine Cellar they came across a bit like an American-Scandanavian version of 60s Scottish hippie duo The Incredible String Band, Olson alternating between guitar and hand drum, Ringvold plucking a 77-stringed Armenian harp, the pair singing in harmony.
Just a handful of people, mostly local musicians, had come to hear their eccentric yet gently mesmerising songs, many of which reflect the couple’s recent travels and travails.
“We had five-year immigration problems so we had to move around a lot,” explains Olson. “If you plan ahead you can get good airfare. We would figure out a place to stay that wasn’t expensive. We ended up getting married in South Africa.”
Filled with names of people – Dear Elizabeth, Mary Frances Strong - and plants – geranium, myrtle trees, wild plum – the songs give a strong sense of place.
“A lot of the names of people are characters and the names of nature are the things we saw around us. But we were isolated. This is the theme, if you can hear it, if you can see it, if you can smell it on this record.
"Ingunn and I went through a period of extreme isolation because we’re from two cultures and because of the modern day system of immigration it was very difficult for us to negotiate that and we ended up in places where we didn’t have any family.”
These days he writes songs in a different way from when he was with The Jayhawks, he says.
“I think I definitely approach them in a more orchestral way and with Ingunn we work on our keys more. It’s a deeper songwriting for me.
"In those days it would be chord progressions, some lyrics, work up some harmonies and then the basic rock outfit with the solo in there. And this is… we don’t really know where it’s going to go for us because we’re looking for the depth in the acoustic instrument.
"We’re changing tunings, we’re changing keys, there’s definitely more bridges, there’s more interesting instrumental parts. Because to my ears I’ve had enough electric guitar solos, I can’t hear ‘em anymore, I’m sorry, I need to hear something that’s more musical, orchestral.”
On the album, Ringvold uses a Swedish-built Mellotron to create lush string parts. She explains: “When I was composing the string arrangements it was like harmony singing in a way. That’s how I approached it.”
Olson is particularly proud of the way the strings sit high in the mix, which was overseen by John Schreiner, a studio veteran who worked on some of the records Olson likes from the 60s, including those of The Monkees.
Though they currently make their home in the desert town of Joshua Tree, California, Olson and Ringvold spend much of their time on the road.
They have been touring as a duo throughout Europe and were returning to America for gigs following their antipodean stint.
It is a far more low-key enterprise than when Olson was with The Jayhawks travelling on tour buses and living high on record company advances. Olson says he doesn’t miss it.
“To me it was a disassociated experience. The minute it had got up to a certain level all control was taken away, and that was really weird.
"I wasn’t really prepared for that, I didn’t understand it at the time, I was too young. And I wasn’t from a background that really could comprehend that.
"I had come from a small business background, my father owned his own business and everyone else were school teachers or farmers.
"The big white collar business world of America I wasn’t prepared for, and they are cut-throat, there’s nothing else to say. You can see who our president is now and the way they play. I mean, he’s a casino owner! We all know how they make money.
"So when I recovered my balance, and it took a while, I started to do music the way I wanted to do it, and that was in more of a folk/recording myself situation. Because where they take away the control from you is in how much money they seem to need to spend to make these records and promote these records.
"But I found a way to make records on my own and to work with independent record companies throughout the world.
“So on some level we are able to compete with these people. Now if they get a chance to they will squash us, there’s nothing pretty about it.
"But we have a big tour planned in America now, we’ll see how it goes. But it is a competition n the ground to get your music out there. It’s such a strange world and I don’t really know anything more about it now than when I first came into it and had my hat handed to me.
“All I’ve ever known is how to write songs, how to play music, and how to try to have a good relationship with the people I play music with.”