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Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold on 'Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun,' life in the desert, and dreams of destiny

Musical partners and spouses Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold
Musical partners and spouses Mark Olson and Ingunn RingvoldCourtesy Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold
  Play Now [33:51]

by Cecilia Johnson

December 07, 2017

Since 1985, alt-country pioneer Mark Olson has founded the Jayhawks, left the Jayhawks, started the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, set that band aside, reunited with the Jayhawks, and left the Jayhawks again. Since 2000, he's also released albums under his own name. In fact, that's what he's still up to recently, sharing appropriately golden new album Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun after recording it at home with his wife and musical parter, Ingunn Ringvold (who has changed her last name since marrying Olson, but still uses "Ringvold" professionally). This week, the duo will perform at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis on Dec. 9 and the Red Herring Lounge in Duluth, Minn. on Dec. 13.

Use the audio player above or read the following transcript to learn about the music Olson has always wanted to make, the effects of life in the desert, and the biggest adventure he's ever had. Near the end of the interview, Ringvold says hi and explains how she found U.S. folk music while living in Norway.

My name is Cecilia Johnson, and I'm speaking with Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold, who are on tour supporting their new album: Spokewoman of the Bright Sun. What town are you in right now?

Olson: Right now we're in Palo Alto, California, because we played three shows in California on this tour, and the last two were in San Francisco in a place near Santa Cruz called Felton. We stayed right between the two, and it's very nice. It's warm — the weather's unbelievably nice.

We live in the desert, so we have a hard time gauging seasons because of that. This has been a very strange year for us, because we went on tour in Australia, followed by a tour in Europe. So we went from the springtime to the fall. And then back to the desert with no season. And up here, we're back in extreme fall. It's just beautiful — all the leaves are red and gold up here right now.

You two met each other in Ingunn's home country, Norway, right?

Olson: Yuuup.

How did you decide to make a home in Joshua Tree, California?

Olson: Well, I met her when I was on tour. That was in 2006, I believe. And right from the moment we met, we were going out. We just kept going out and got married, and [we] set our sights on playing music and writing music together. Ingunn has a natural instrumental and vocal talent, and it's been a wonderful experience building things up from the very start.

We decided to live in Joshua Tree because I had lived there, in that time, for I think a little over 10 years. I was very familiar with it. As far as houses there, the properties there, and the way to live there, I really understood it. The way things are there, you can get a very inexpensive property that's run-down, and then you can fix it up. It's not really like the houses in Minnesota, with all the plumbing in the walls. The plumbing comes out of the ground and into the sink. They don't run things through the walls. So things are a little simpler there. The electricity is a little simpler, and I know how to work on the cooling systems there, because I've been there so long. They're called "swamp coolers." So I can maintain my own house and do upgrades as I go along.

My mom had owned a house in St. Louis Park [in Minnesota], on Brunswick Avenue. That's where I grew up. And I ended up going to my last couple years of high school in Santa Monica; I lived with my grandmother. So I always kind of had this moving back between Minnesota and California.

So when I got married to Ingunn, I thought, "This is where we're going to start our life." I had already made a down payment on another cabin, and I already had started fixing it up, so it didn't occur to me to just drop that ball and move to someplace new.

That reminds me: I know that the new album was recorded in your home. I wanted to ask if you guys like hanging out at home a lot. Are you homebodies, or do you just enjoy it while you don't have to be on tour?

Olson: You could consider us homebodies. I will tell you that we have been under a certain type of isolation that isn't something we really sought out.

We had a period of time where we were searching for [Ingunn's] immigration. We ended up having to travel to meet each other. And we ended up living and being alone a lot, her and I.

That influenced our music, in a lot of ways. I went out and got this [Nagra] field recorder, so that we could make pretty top-quality recordings [on our own]. So when we say we record in our home, we can pretty much record everywhere. I don't have a room that's like a ProTools studio.

I did a lot of research about the field recorder. It's like the old Beatles records. So we record two complete tracks, and we bounce them. There's no editing — it's all live. So we play the guitar and keyboard together, and then we'll sing together. We're looking for the best tracks we can do live, and we can do it anywhere.

In this case, we used strings on our album, but that was courtesy of Ingunn. She researched the fact that a Swedish company had put all the old Mellotron and Chamberlin strings — and that was from the '60s, where they would use a lot of strings. You know, Beach Boys and stuff. But they were using the Mellotron, like a tape recording of the strings. [Ingunn] put strings on all of these songs. [laughs] And it was so much fun. It was just wow!

I saw, over my years, that engineers — nothing against engineers. I love good engineers. They can handle all these incredibly delicate, expensive gear. But at the same time, with ProTools and everything, an engineer has an unbelievable amount of power in a recording session. You do a track, and they can say, "Okay, it's wonderful. I'm just going to cut this baby up." And really, I don't want that. I want it all to be in a natural flow, like a human being is in a natural flow. He's not living inside a screen. [laughs] Like, "I think today, I'm going to cut up Mark Olson. I'm going to take this curl that's sticking up funny, and I'm going to edit it out." You can't!

In an interview with Twelfth Note, you said you didn't want to tinker around with ProTools, 'cause it offered too many options, and I thought that was really interesting. Why do you think that can be dangerous?

Olson: I searched for the options by listening to old records and deciding, what do I like? I hadn't quite been able to live out my musical dream, which was: I had this great love for '60s music, and everyone in the '60s was playing a Stratocaster guitar. So I went out and got myself a Stratocaster guitar, and then I researched about how to get a warm sound.

I found out about this [tape delay effect] Echoplex, and I found this company that makes a really good reissue pedal of the Echoplex. They're called Catlinabread. I wrote them a letter, saying, "Hi, I just used your pedal on my entire record. Only one effect." And now they write me all the time! It's so cool.

It's like pen pals. But pedal pals.

Olson: Instead of 10,000 ProTools options, I've made one friend with my one pedal company.

You and Ingunn have known each other since 2006. I'm sure you have a finger on the pulse of the best and worst parts of working with your partner. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Olson: I would say the best part of it is that you have time to breathe. Specifically regarding harmonies. What happens is that we start singing the song, and over time, we change things. Change the key. And we slowly develop the harmonies. When it comes time to record, it just seems to work itself out in a real natural way.

That's a plus of working with your wife; with your partner; with your spouse. You're not getting together for only two hours three times a week.

Again, the isolation has been a plus and minus in our life. We both don't like it. We both don't like the fact that we kind of live in the Mojave Desert. We don't have a ton of friends where we live. We've been isolated since 2009 — something along those lines. But it gave us time to work on music; read books; go for walks.

It gave us time to go camping. We've gone on these crazy camping trips to the Death Valley [unintelligible]. We camp out on this empty field full of rocks, and then when we come home, it's like, "Man, is our house ever nice! That camping trip was horrible!" The only reason we would camp on this empty field, though, is because there's this county hot springs right next to it. It's called Tecopa, California. Here you are in the desert, and there's this little hot spring stream running by your tent. And then there's toads in there. Chirping in the desert!

In general, I say [working with your spouse] is a total positive. I'm all for small business. I know in Minnesota, there's thousands of small businesses there run by husbands and wives and partners. I know how hard they work, and I know the stress it can bring to their lives, too.

Going back to how you've talked about being isolated: I see a lot of questions of your lyrics. In the title track of Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun, you're kind of praying to the spokeswoman of the bright sun. That's tied to your memories of your late grandmother, right?

Olson: In a way. That song is tied to life and even the present moment, but the idea came from the fact that I had a grandmother who I lived with for a couple of years, and she had a big influence on my life. I actually had a dream where she was speaking to me in another language, and I understood it. She was talking to me about destiny and how she wanted me to do well in life. I was like, she's speaking to me from a different generation. And that's the only way I can explain it. She was giving me knowledge from a past generation. In a way, Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun is about trying to fulfill the hope your parents had for you.

Can you think of one of the wildest adventures you've ever had — something that made you grow or explore new parts of yourself?

Olson: I guess you could say the wildest adventure I've ever had was with a friend who's married and has kids in South Africa. He got in touch with me during the [Original Harmony Ridge] Creekdippers years, and he actually lived in Joshua Tree for a year. Well, Ingunn and I ended up going [to South Africa] during this period of time when we were wandering, and we ended up spending nearly six months in that part of the world. It was truly an adventure! Having a small Datsun that doesn't work all the time, trying to drive through Africa. Like, "There's a zebra! Wow! Oh, no, the car's breaking down..."

We ended up in this most amazing place. We were up in the mountains in the hop-growing region of South Africa. This farming family rented us a cabin. And he's coming in, telling us, "There's a cape cobra out on that road right now. The birds alerted me. Be careful when you're out there." You know, baboons came into his daughter's room and stole her birthday cake.

But I think the biggest adventure of that time was on a geology tour in the Swartberg mountains. We went on this hike way up into a cave, and they showed up these ancient paintings in a cave. I've never been in a wilderness that's that pristine. The creek was running so clear, and South Africa is the place where geraniums naturally grow. We wrote some songs there, and I think we came out completely different people.

Wow. Also, I was wondering: Why did you decide to release this new album under your name, rather than a new band name or "Mark + Ingunn"?

Olson: I think because I had done Salvation Blues that way; I had done Many Colored Kite that way. I figured, I'd made that investment [in the Mark Olson name], and a history with booking agents and Glitterhouse. So it just felt like that the thing to do.

[to Ingunn]She's asking about the Mark Olson name versus the Mark Olson and Ingunn name. [Ingunn speaks up from beside Mark] What Ingunn says is that it's my songs as far as my initial thematic ideas, and the initial melodies and lyrics. I'm bringing Ingunn in to help, but there's been a feeling that I have some sort of mission in life, or destiny, and this has been a part of it, being a songwriter. So I should just put my name on it.

Yeah, even with this interview, Ingunn, you can talk if you want to. But I get the feeling that you don't necessarily want to.

Olson: No, no! Let's have Ingunn on the line now.

Ringvold: Hi.

Hi! I asked Mark about the best and worst parts of working with your partner, and maybe you could talk a little bit about that too.

Ringvold: Well, he obviously brings a lot to the table. It's been a great journey so far; you know, we have our little cabin, and it's turned into a studio most of the time. It's not really a home anymore. [laughs] We have all our gear in the living room, and it's like an open space. We spend a lot of time together, and we enjoy each other's company. Otherwise we couldn't have done this.

Hmm, that's why it's worth all the effort to immigrate. Where did you grow up in Norway? What was your hometown?

Ringvold: My hometown is called Larvik. It's the town of Thor Heyerdahl, the great explorer. The Kon-Tiki explorer. So that's one and a half hours, by car, south of Oslo. I grew up on the coast.

So that's one of the things I miss, in the desert. I miss Europe and the ocean. We were just in Holland, and I was just so shocked of how nice and clean and cute everything is. All these corners with the romantic cafes, and you can walk on the street. There's great public transportation.

In America, it seems like a lot of the nice cities are available for rich people. In Europe, the nice places are available for everyone.

Thank you for your perspective on that.

Ringvold: I don't mean to put anything down. But socialism is a different way of thinking about the world and humanity. It's a different society here than in Europe where I grew up.

I visited my cousin in Oslo — she's Norwegian. And I encountered a lot of the same thoughts and feelings.

Ringvold: When I first moved to Oslo, when I was like 20, I worked at a record store in the main street there. I was around music every day, and it was a great experience. I got exposed to so much different music. They had a classical section; they had a big jazz section. We were just listening to music all day long.

How did you get drawn into folk music?

Ringvold: When I was 15, I went to a music high school. That was an eye-opening experience for me, because we were this class of all these different people with all these different tastes. Everybody would present the music that they liked. I think at that time, I was into world music, and I liked different times of instruments.

When I went to college — I also went to music college, and my second year, I had this guy who was in the year under me. He was wearing this scarf in a kind of "country" way — and I'd already started to get really into country music. You know, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt and all those great singers. So I was like, "I have to get to know this person."

We started hanging out, and we would just sit at home and listen to music, and that's when I got the idea: Maybe I'm going to start writing music. I started out just buying a notebook and writing down lyrics. [That friend] was the guy that took me down to see Mark the night that I met him, so he's the guy that introduced us.

Really? That is so cool.

Ringvold: It's wonderful to be around people and be in their world and find out what they're interested in. I had a great time in college.

Cool. Well, we're super excited to have you back in Minnesota for the shows.

Yeah, we're excited to come back there! We have a big show with a lot of instruments, so we're very excited to sing and play.

Olson: I just want to say that if people come down to the Cedar Cultural Center, they're going to see something very unique. Ingunn is an extremely talented woman musician. She plays the Armenian qanun. She plays the djembe and the keyboards. And she sings. Everything she does is with strength. She is very good.

So I hope that they come down; I hope that they listen to our new album, Spokeswoman of the Bright Sun. We're a husband-and-wife duo. I grew up there in Minnesota. We're just trying to make music and have a life in the music world right now.

This transcript has been condensed and edited.