Jonathan Wilson: The Gentle Spirit Returns

Richard Gehr on February 14, 2014

David Crosby apparently has a habit of tuning friends’ guitars to his personal tonal specifications, and then leaving. On one such occasion, however, he returned the retuned instrument to Los Angeles musician/producer Jonathan Wilson and said, “See if you can find a song in this.” Challenged with the unusual tuning that Croz used for his Crosby, Stills & Nash classic “Guinnevere,” Wilson repurposed it into a similarly gossamer answer song of sorts.

Like many other Wilson tunes, “Her Hair Is Growing Long” is a three-dimensional crossword puzzle of personal, musical and cultural references to a specific era. In “Her Hair,” Wilson blends a classic singer/songer come-on, to a rainbow-eyed duchess, with some heartfelt lines about the symbolism of Crosby and Graham Nash. As it happens, the pair also provide guest harmonies on Fanfare, Wilson’s third album of meticulously produced semi-acoustic cosmic folk rock. “The bloodline is thin,” croons Wilson in his whispery, late-night voice. “Am I singing with the end?”

“I am singing at the end with those guys,” Wilson tells me as we sit at a picnic table among the trees outside his live-in Fivestar recording studio in Echo Park, which he rents from Conor Oberst. What Wilson means, in all sincerity, are the final days of a lineage that extends from the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jackson Browne, Gene Clark (with special attention to his cosmic-cowboy masterpiece No Other) and their West Coast ilk, all the way east to John Lennon, Pink Floyd, the great, undersung Roy Harper and plenty of other psych-rockers (McPhee, J.K. & Co., the Apryl Fool…) lost to obscurity.

Wilson sounds genuinely sad about Furthur’s recently announced hiatus. In fact, he’d jammed with them at the Greek Theatre a couple of nights earlier. He’s part of Justin Kreutzmann’s Move Me Brightly concert film celebrating Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday. And in 2008, he recorded several tracks with Phil Lesh and Black Crowe Chris Robinson, in the Santa Monica studio once owned by The Beach Boys, for a potential reality show that never came to fruition. “I hope [Furthur] comes back soon, man,” says Wilson, who speaks with an endearing slight stammer. “It’s sad to think about it. Of course it will come to an end one day, but it’s not time yet. Come on, man, right? I’m not so obsessed with the subtleties of the show as I am with the energy of the whole experience: the fans, the crowds and what’s fucking happening at the show—when that comes to an end…”

It will, but not if Wilson can help it. The Cali-rock template established during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, with or without an improvisatory component, abides in many acts today. But no one so assiduously seeks to recapture its Ladies of the Canyon essence as Jonathan Wilson, who was born some 3,000 miles east in 1974, just as that era of perceived innocence was evolving into something harder-edged and more mercenary. With his lanky frame, shoulder- length dark hair, spare beard, beads and bracelets, Wilson reanimates those days of infinite possibility, when rockers and actors consorted hedonistically in the Hollywood Hills. Wilson recreated that scene, too, in miniature, for a while in Laurel Canyon before moving on.

I have no doubt that at least one or two astrologically inclined young women—or “chicks,” “babes” or “gals,” as the childless, single and “ready to mingle” musician anachronistically refers to them—have attempted to suss out the essence of Wilson’s dual personality. On the one hand, he’s a modern multi-instrumentalist and studio-wizard loner, who recorded his first record, 2007’s Frankie Ray, single-handedly playing guitars, keyboards and drums à la Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren’s great early solo albums and Skip Spence’s left- field classic Oar. He recorded most of Frankie Ray’s 2011 successor, Gentle Spirit, in a similar fashion and more than half of Fanfare was recorded the same way, too. He suggests that appearances by his touring group on a handful of tracks are ads as well as artistry, although he revels in collaboration both onstage and off.

“I definitely wanted to paint the picture of what the band does live with some tunes,” he says. “The album and show are two separate things, and they should be. It gives you two different things to enjoy. With Gentle Spirit, people would always be shocked to see the band. They expected to see some guy hunched over his acoustic guitar, and then, there’d be this mighty band. They’d go, ‘Whoa! I had no idea!’ I heard that all the time.” Even The Ballad of Hope Nicholls, Wilson’s wonderfully quirky yet nearly forgotten 1997 debut (and finale) with Muscadine—his shoulda-been-a-big-deal indie-improv band with eccentric friend, lyricist and singer Benji Hughes—“was made the same way I do now, with me on almost all the instruments as the producer. I let the band sort of take credit. When people listened, they thought it was the band,” but it was actually its perfectionist producer playing nearly everything himself.

If Gentle Spirit’s title reflects that album’s soft, numinous pleasures, then Fanfare announces a more ambitious and less tame proposition. The cover image riffs off of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel depiction of God and Adam’s nearly touching fingers, only these appear to have drifted apart. “I used to text friends the actual picture, where the hands are close together, as a way of saying that we’re together on this thought.” If all was not quite so copacetic, however, “I sent them this picture, which means it’s not going well—in a joking way.” Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, whose Fear Fun Wilson produced, considers the image “Existentialism 101” and encouraged its cover use. Wilson also hopes it jumps out at you from the other side of the record store. If it doesn’t, then the inner sleeve depicting a shadowy Wilson conjuring up a magical scene with a trio of bare breasted women certainly will.

And while we didn’t discuss the connection, Wilson has to appreciate how Fanfare’s cover echoes the Sistine image on another classic album connecting musical generations: Fathers And Sons, the 1969 double vinyl collaboration of Muddy Waters, then 56, and younger white acolytes including Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. Likewise, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, and Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell all make tasteful guest appearances on Fanfare, a title that promises its audience both something great and new and comfortably familiar all at once.

“Fanfare” the song opens the album with lush Brian Wilson (no relation) harmonies and melodramatic piano. Like many of Wilson’s songs, it unwinds in multiple parts—a seven-minute suite by any other name. In this one, a girl appears out of swirling strings (arranged by Wilco’s Patrick Sansone) and Wilson pitches woo, singing, “I just cannot believe you’ve come back again.” Who is she? “Actually,” he says, “Frankie Ray is all about this one particular girl I was obsessed with. And I hadn’t seen her in years when I saw her at the coffee shop near here when I was in the middle of composing that song. So I’ve put her in a song once again.”

Did they get back together? “No, no, no. She’s a stranger. I don’t know her. I’ve seen her around.” She’s his muse, then. “Yes, exactly. And I don’t want to know her, actually.”

“Lovestrong,” the second to last song on Fanfare, is likewise about “the Frankie Ray chick” and includes a most elegant couplet concerning “the fanfare when you are born, the ballad when you are released” and a gorgeous Pink Floyd-esque jam with his band and Benmont Tench. “It goes on and on,” Wilson admits, as do “Future Vision,” his groovy Traffic-esque cover of Sopwith Camel’s “Fazon,” and the album’s psychedelic centerpiece, “Cecil Taylor.”

To peg Wilson as a mere nostalgia monger is simply to miss the boat. He’s more of a neo-classicist who is always experimenting. (And, hey, they don’t call it “classic rock” for nothing.) “He definitely was affected by the music from that period of time,” says David Crosby of Wilson’s Laurel Canyon leanings. “But I think his own sense of adventure takes him well past anything that he heard. He’s breaking trail now.”

Wilson’s primary musical influence, he maintains, is his father, who’s been jamming ‘60s cover tunes with the same band of drinking/toking buddies—The Idle Movement—since Jonathan was a kid. His father also has a bluegrass offshoot called The Broad River Boys. “As a kid, I thought every dad had a band,” says Jonathan.

The day before I visit Fivestar Studios, Jonathan Wilson’s band is playing under the unseasonably hot early- October sun on the Santa Monica Pier as part of Way Over Yonder, a two-day Newport Folk Festival production featuring headliners Neko Case and landlord Conor Oberst. The setting suggests yet one more non-related Wilson: Dennis, whose Pacific Ocean Blue from 1977 is an additional JW touchstone. Wilson and company play a cover of Bob Welch’s pre-Fleetwood Mac weepy “Angel” before inviting another tight Wilson crony, Jackson Browne, onstage for “Moses Pain,” whose extended outro of “keep on writin’” owes plenty to the JB playbook.

Shortly before Jonathan’s set, someone emerges from backstage who I momentarily mistake for Graham Nash. He turns out to be Jonathan’s father, Al, whom I meet the next day when he and Becky Wilson show up at their son’s place just as our tête-à-tête is winding down. When I ask what Jonathan was like as a kid, his parents regale me with stories about his very early passion for music. They admit to tormenting Jonathan for the amusement of friends and family by playing “I’m Not Lisa,” a truly sad song by Jessi Colter that would invariably make their infant cry. They also have a recording of Jonathan, at age three or four, banging out Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” on his first acoustic guitar, stopping abruptly and declaring, “I must be Ace Frehley!”

Jonathan Wilson was born in the small North Carolina town of Spindale, but he calls Thomasville, where his family moved around 1980, his hometown. His mother was the daughter of a Baptist minister and a public school teacher; his father worked in the textile industry—at least until his job was outsourced during the ‘90s. Jonathan attended school until 10th grade, when he dropped out to play music full-time. “I got into it super early,” he says, “because my dad was fully supportive with the backline, the gear. He’d take me to pawn shops to buy speakers and PA systems.” His first real guitar, though, was nothing more than a “crappy” Squier Stratocaster. “And that was it,” he says. “The rest of it was up to me. Of course, I used to commandeer all my dad’s shit, which I still do. He’d take me to vintage guitar shows and I got deeply into gear.”

At 13, Jonathan was already playing guitar and singing in a gigging bar band. His first group was The Model Citizens, followed by The Curb Tones, who were influenced by Jeff Healey, Robert Cray and other ‘80s bluesmen. His exposure to Southern rock was late but inevitable. “My dad was like, ‘Gary Rossington’s the shit, that’s the guy you need to listen to.’ My little band used to do Skynyrd, and we did it well. That’s when I developed some of those Southern sentiments on guitar.”

In 1994, Wilson moved to LA for the first time with buddy Benji Hughes and another friend, who’d found a manager with a place in Beverly Hills where they could live. The idea was to start a band, but Wilson “was a jazz freak, Benji was a poet, and this other guy wanted to be Rage Against the Machine Part Two.” After their non-plan fizzled, Wilson got his first producing job with singer/ songwriter Clayton Cages, moved to Malibu and fell in love with Southern California.

Back in Charlotte, N.C. the following year, Wilson formed Muscadine with Hughes and moved into StudioEast, built by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and where James Brown hammered out “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Wilson cut his production teeth recording karaoke tracks and lived above the tracking room. He characterizes Muscadine as “a protest against fly-by-night Pitchfork-ian bands I’ve never liked.” Seymour Stein signed them to Sire Records by in 1996 and paid them $280,000 for an album they’d cut for $13,000. “I was 21 and on top of the world,” Wilson recalls. “I was pulling out $500 at the cash machine every day, because that was the maximum at the time, and blowing cash on gear and food and chicks and strip clubs and cars.” He also invested $60,000 in recording equipment. Unfortunately, Sire cut Muscadine loose in 1999, when The Ballad of Hope Nicholls failed to take off. And when Wilson informed the studio’s owner that he wanted to move his gear, he was told that the equipment was staying right there as “back rent.” He’d been robbed.

Devastated, Wilson opened a studio in Georgia with a friend who’d struck it rich in the construction business. He moved back to LA and lived more or less communally among some 50 shanties, shacks and other code-flaunting structures at the bottom of Topanga Canyon near Malibu. In 2001, however, the California Department of Parks and Recreation bought out the owners in order to expand Topanga State Park, and Wilson’s landlord took the money. “That was the last hippie spot in this whole town,” he says, “and that definitely won’t ever fuckin’ happen again.” Disgusted, Wilson split for the East Coast with his girlfriend.

In Manhattan, where he lived until 2005, Wilson taught himself (mostly by scouring the Internet) how to build remarkably faithful reproductions of pre-aged vintage guitars in the couple’s small, cheap Sullivan Street apartment. “I got really into it,” he says. “It was the right time and I was the only guy doing aged guitars the right way.” Greenwich Village Custom Guitars (GVCG) took off immediately, with speculators doubling their money by flipping his creations. In addition, Wilson was gigging with a bluegrass band, recording Frankie Ray and feeding his long-standing equipment jones. “It was funding a lot of very expensive studio gear, guitars and amps I really wanted. I would build a guitar that looked old, save up some cash and buy guitars that were old.”

At the end of many days, Wilson had discovered that he was one loopy luthier from all the lacquer fumes. “I gotta get back out to the air and sunshine,” he thought. So he crammed all of his studio gear and instruments into a van and headed back to LA with his latest girlfriend, “a true hippie.” A pot bust along the way cost him $3,600 in legal fees, and a desert van breakdown made the trek a fairly bad trip.

A chance meeting while apartment-hunting pointed Wilson to the modest Laurel Canyon bungalow—constructed on a burned-down estate—that now looms so large in his legend. Paying six months rent in advance, Wilson found a spacious environment to produce albums such as Dawes’ debut, North Hills, record what would become Gentle Spirit and host the increasingly popular Wednesday night jam sessions that earned him the reputation as the perfect LA scenester-host.

“It was a way to play without being in the business or on the road,” Wilson says of those jams. When The Black Crowes were on hiatus, the then-recently divorced Chris Robinson became a key member of the house band. “Chris and I sort of became Lennon and Nilsson,” Wilson says, “running around town and getting in trouble.” Wilson deliberately never recorded the sessions, which only had one real rule: The music never stops. Other regulars included Elvis Costello bassist Davey Faragher and Patrick Sansone. Older musicians, such as organist Barry Goldberg, Benmont Tench and the great session drummer Gary Mallaber often joined them. “There’d be a great mixture of older guys and younger people—and a lot of babes. I think that got a lot of these guys back every week,” he adds. Although Wilson says he only had to “get North Carolina on some fools” a couple of times, his all-night bacchanals got “way too big” following a gushing Los Angeles Times feature.

The following year, Wilson moved into the studio he calls home today and it’s been “gangbusters” ever since. “This house has turned out to be a perfect musical wonderland,” he says while giving me the grand tour. Hundreds of dead bees half-fill a lighting fixture on his front porch, not unlike an “art installation,” Wilson muses. With a control room upstairs from the main tracking area, Wilson has characterized his domain as “a tiny version of Abbey Road’s Studio Two.” The basement (“This is where we rave, man”) serves as the rehearsal and jam space, his bedroom (“my den of iniquity”) is lined with vintage guitars and a hot tub (“probably the most important part of the studio”) gurgles outside.

At Fivestar, which boasts Leon Russell’s longtime analog recording console, Wilson produced Dawes’ Nothing Is Wrong, Josh Tillman’s Father John Misty debut, Fear Fun, and countless tracks by Will Oldham, Roy Harper, Glen Campbell, Chris Robinson and many others. As a producer, he often finds himself shocked by his clients’ timidity. “They get the most conservative they’ve ever been in their life when they come into the studio,” he complains. “You play a rambunctious solo that’s 10 percent of George’s guitar tone in ‘Taxman,’ a tiny little bold guitar sound, and people go, ‘Oh, God, no!’“

Will Oldham introduced Wilson to Tillman, and the two became besties even before tracking what the producer considers to have been a perfect session, and Fear Fun is Wilson’s favorite non-Wilson production to date. “Josh is zany and fucking hysterical,” he says. “He was so hungry for the Hollywood experience, the whole fuckin’ kit and caboodle, and I became his tour guide. I was like, ‘This is how we do this: We go to the Chateau [Marmont], we go to the [Hollywood Forever] Cemetery and then we take chicks to the Beverly Hills Hotel.’ We were definitely partners in crime.”

Lana Del Rey has recently been recording at Fivestar. And while she likely won’t be added to Wilson’s lengthening list of muso besties, you can’t help but hope they cobble together a hit or two, if only to keep the hive alive.