In harmony

Couples reach irreconcilable differences, band members discover creative differences, but husband-and-wife roots-rockers Mark Olson and Victoria Williams seem to know how to avoid the potentially ruffled feathers that come when two people who live together also work together.

Olson was a founding member of the Jayhawks, whose Americana sound and graceful harmonies had just enough pop polish to get airplay. The wistful "Blue," off 1995's "Tomorrow the Green Grass," was a sweet lily in the middle of the cluttered FM landscape. Still, Olson left the band shortly after that album's release. Since then he has completed four albums with the rustic-sounding Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers (himself, Williams and Mike Russell). The first three CDs were self-released; the most recent, "My Own Jo Ellen," was on the Hightone label.

Williams has lent her fluttery voice to various folk-tinged projects for nearly two decades, including a 1992 stint as an opening act for Neil Young. During that tour she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which led to the all-star album "Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams." That project saw the likes of Pearl Jam, Lou Reed and Soul Asylum covering her songs. Her latest, "Water to Drink" (Atlantic), mixes some bossa nova threads into her gingham fabric.

Talking from the couple's home in rural California, where they have fruit trees, burros and a recording studio, Olson offers observations on songwriting and the industry.

Orlando Weekly: Working together creatively as a couple, does that create a comfort zone, or is there still some of the pressure to impress?

Mark Olson: Boy, the way I think about all that is that we have certain goals, and those include touring and making records basically, and that we help each other out with those goals. If she's doing a record I'll do some cooking, I'll get up there and play when I can, whenever she needs me. When I'm making a record, I love the way she plays her instruments. She plays banjo and guitar and sings, so I'll have her do that. I think it's more of a supportive role rather one of trying to impress each other. There's just so much stuff that has to be done as far as the tours and the making of the record, in strictly what you would call a logistical sense. The whole thing about us is that once we get up on stage, once we're recording, then it's just pure joy. It's the other stuff that we flat-out have to work hard at.

The new Creek Dippers album includes several slice-of-life portraits. Is that something new you've worked on?

I think that I've gotten better at defining a simple story. I've always tried to use words in a somewhat poetic way, but I think that when I first started out, it was too vague. Now I think I've gotten better at keeping some of the ways I like to put words together, but also relaying a story or a feeling about some incident.

How does that skill get honed?

I think it's gotten honed more by stripping away -- as a person, you've got to strip away the junk. Now I'm getting closer to being able to see things and write about them. "My Own Jo Ellen," that's a song about my grandmother, and I have strong feelings about her, but how do you write a song about that? So you have to couch it in certain words and not be overly sentimental. The only way to learn how to do that is to try to do it.

Is part of learning how to do that learning to deal with the music industry and being sure about your place in it?

Yes. The basic thing with this record was we just made the record, then we took it and you could call it "shopped" it to a couple people, and Hightone said they wanted to put it out as is. As far as the music business goes, the basic thing I've learned is you get a booking agent you work well with and you start booking tours. You just make music the way you want to, then you find someone to put it out, and if no one will put it out you put it out yourself and work your mailing list. You don't have to listen to carrot-and-stick talk. After you're in your early 20s, that's not worth it anymore.

Did you have a sense of what was involved when you began releasing your own material?

No, I had no sense at all. I just went ahead and did it. And we still do it -- sending out orders, keeping a mailing list. We have our little website. We send out cards to people on our mailing list in the areas we're going to tour. We do all those grass-roots things. I can't see anything other than stupidity on my part for not doing that from day one with the Jayhawks. That was just a total lack of any understanding. That was a sign of a person who wanted someone to come along and make things work for them, and you've got to make things work for yourself.

The record was fully done before you started trying to get label interest?

Oh, yeah. We made the record and mixed it in one week. And you can hear that. If you listen to our record then put on some major release, you'll hear the difference. On the major-label releases they go over and over stuff.

Is this how you imagine the process going from here on out?

I've discovered it works for me, so why mess with it now? But I'm not really thinking about that. I would like people to get to know this record. It's an uphill struggle for someone like me, because I'm really out of sight, so to speak. There's no real radio play, I'm not on MTV, so I've got to go out and play a bunch. I'd like to build a following on this record. Then I'll worry about the next one.


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