The story behind the artwork for Songs: Ohia's The Magnolia Electric Co.

In learning about Jason Molina's life over the past two years, dozens of people told me incredible stories about Jason and his impact on their lives. One of my favorites that didn't fit into "Jason Molina's long dark blues" came from William Schaff, a Providence visual artist who's illustrated album covers for the likes of Okkervil River, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Brown Bird. Among his earliest works was the cover of Songs: Ohia's The Magnolia Electric Co. Here's the fascinating story behind how it was created.

It was sometime around 1999. I was working at Kinko’s. I couldn’t go to Jason’s show, but asked a friend to give him a book. Months later, I got an email from Jason who said it’d be fun if we trade art sometime. I was floored. I wrote him back saying sure, “I love sending stuff in the mail.” That led to the initial mail art correspondence we had where he would draw something on the road, mail it my way, and I’d draw something back. We kept upping the ante when we mailed art. 

Years later, I was at a show he was playing in Boston. He mentioned he wanted to see himself drawn as one of the bird skull creatures I do. That night, I drew a picture of him playing guitar, but with this crow’s skull head. I wrote: “If you really liked this, you should record a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s 'Tower Song.' I don’t care if it’s on a boom box or in a studio.” He recorded not only that one, but also “I’ll Be There in the Morning” and some others on the tape. He said: “If you really liked my Townes songs, maybe you’d consider doing the cover for my next record. Here are some of the songs on it.” They were songs that would later appear on Magnolia Electric Co. Jason, without me even having to say how I work, just said, “You know what, all I was thinking about when I did this album were owls, pyramids, and magnolias. You go from there.”

Owls, pyramids, and magnolias.
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