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    Jason Molina, 39; wrote stark, bleak songs of Midwest

    Jason Molina led the alternative rock bands Songs: Ohia and Ma gnolia Electric Co.
    Jason Molina led the alternative rock bands Songs: Ohia and Ma gnolia Electric Co.

    NEW YORK — Jason Molina — an influential singer-songwriter whose relentlessly sad lyrics and clear and urgent tenor defined the two alternative bands he led, the lo-fi Songs: Ohia and the only slightly more energetic Magnolia Electric Co. — died March 16 at his home in Indianapolis. He was 39.

    His death was announced by his record label, Secretly Canadian. No cause was given, but his brother, Aaron, said he had had health problems related to alcoholism.

    Before such banjo bands as Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers rode a folk-rock revival to mainstream success, Mr. Molina was constructing spare songs about 19th-century heartbreak and the despair of blue-collar workers, about loneliness and bad weather and scarred landscapes in a fading Midwest.


    “I don’t really have any, you know, far-reaching vision, and never have outside of just the songs themselves,’’ he said in ‘‘Recording Josephine,’’ a 2009 documentary about the making of a Magnolia Electric Co. album.

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    Mr. Molina made his first widely released recordings after he was signed by Secretly Canadian, based in Bloomington, Ind., in 1996. He was the first artist the label signed, and he went on to tour, write, and record almost constantly until 2009. Songs: Ohia, which consisted of Mr. Molina and a changing array of musicians, evolved into the more stable Magnolia Electric Co. in 2003. In total, Mr. Molina released more than a dozen albums and several EPs.

    In 2011, his band’s website said he had not been touring because he had been undergoing rehabilitation treatment. Noting that he had no health insurance, the site asked supporters to help pay his medical expenses.

    Mr. Molina’s songs, however bleak, were meticulously executed. Even critics who needled him for wallowing in gloom — four of the seven songs on his 2002 album ‘‘Didn’t It Rain’’ had the word blue in the title — might go on to declare a song spellbinding.

    In ‘‘Almost Was Good Enough,’’ from 2003, he sang: ‘‘Did you really believe that everyone makes it out?/Almost no one makes it out.’’


    Chris Swanson, a founder of Secretly Canadian, said that although Mr. Molina did not reach a mainstream audience, he toured extensively enough and sold enough records, perhaps 20,000 to 25,000 a year, to make a living. His followers included better-known performers such as the Avett Brothers, who shortly after his death posted a tribute video in which they performed his 2005 song ‘‘Hammer Down.’’

    ‘‘He never needed to make a breakthrough record,’’ Swanson said. ‘‘He could indulge his muse without having to think about commercial reality.’’

    Jason Andrew Molina was born in Oberlin, Ohio. He grew up in nearby Lorain, in a single-wide mobile home on Lake Erie that had no reliable television but offered excellent fishing. He learned to play guitar before he was 10.