Jonathan Wilson: That Space-Age Feeling
Jonathan Wilson was partway through explaining how he scored the nickname “resident hippie” when he casually dropped some pretty serious street cred: Roger Waters had recently spent time hanging out in his kitchen. “We did about 60 percent of his album at my studio, so that was a trip having Roger here,” Wilson says with a grin as he describes the genesis of his current post in Waters’ solo band. “He was trying to figure me out, like, ‘What’s this guy’s deal?’and came up with this affectionate term: ‘resident hippie.’ He calls my place the ‘hippie palace.’”
It’s a sunny winter day and Wilson is sitting in a gazebo on the multi-building California compound that currently houses his home studio, Fivestar. The compact, largely vertical, lot of land, which Wilson rents from his old friend Conor Oberst, is located near the top of a steep hill overlooking Echo Park, secluded from the nearby suburban hiss by a lush wall of trees and plants. Wilson—a tall, long-haired 43-year-old singer, guitarist and producer, who is looking very LA in a regal purple shirt, necklace and dark sunglasses—is as busy as ever. Though he’s technically in the middle of a promo cycle for his first studio album in five years, Rare Birds, he’s spent much of the week recording with longtime associates Dawes and is now getting ready to leave for Australia on the next leg of Waters’ world tour. Currently, another pal, film director Grant James, is taping a Rare Birds EPK; Wilson can’t help but make a few tweaks before the recording commences.
“I’ve just been gathering up the songs, and different bits and bobs, since 2013 during the Fanfare touring cycle, but I didn’t start on Rare Birds until the summer of 2016,” Wilson says of the five- year gap since his last proper solo release, a touch of his Southern drawl still audible. “I’m still in the studio daily. It’s great to be able to stay hands-on the whole time between albums and just to stay in the game by working on somebody else’s thing. All these projects coexist; I’ll learn from other albums I’m working on and try those ideas out on my own thing. The albums and artists I produce are guinea pigs for of my own shit.”
During the past few years, those guinea pigs have included Waters, Oberst, Lana Del Rey, Erykah Badu, Farmer Dave Scher, Roy Harper and perhaps his closest collaborator, Josh Tillman, whose Father John Misty sound Wilson has honed from the beginning.
At the same time, he’s come to personify the axis connecting three strands of Southern California music—rootsy but spacey Americana, post-jam guitar-rock and the last vestige of classic-rockers touring well beyond what many assumed was their last encore.
Rare Birds rubs up against all those authentic touchstones, but also takes a left turn toward Talk Talk-approved post-rock and the stadium-size hooks and synthesized beats that made Fleetwood Mac international icons. It’s a sound that’s recently been reclaimed by a new generation of art-rock acts who no longer consider “pop” to be a (completely) dirty word. Wilson has even coined a term to describe that signature sound: maximalist.
“I’ve come to accept that that’s the only thing that I can do,” he says. “I can’t make a simple guitar, bass-and-drum track—it just doesn’t fuckin’ happen for me. The stuff I do with Josh [Tillman] is the same way. I’m excited to add that last fuckin’ oboe and find the sonic space to make all those things coexist. There’s something about that term in opposition to the perfect little set of songs that are in their little compartments. The album is a brief, fear-based sensibility where you assume that the listener has the attention span of a gnat. It goes back to those days when I was experimenting with stacking myself, whether that’s guitar, bass, drums or big harmonies.”
After he wraps up his EPK, Wilson heads inside the beautiful, wooden enclave that houses his studio. A few rooms on the property are earmarked as his “living quarters,” but pretty much every corner doubles as storage for new and old gear. Dawes’ equipment is still set up in the main room; a completed Rubik’s cube sits on a table downstairs. Wilson thinks that the band’s drummer, Griffin Goldsmith, solved the puzzle. Though he produced Dawes’ early breakthrough albums and helped cultivate the modern Laurel Canyon sound, it’s been a while since Wilson’s worked with the group and he’s excited to have them back at his house. As always, he’s hyper- focused on crafting the perfect album for the Goldsmiths while still making sure he leaves time for his original music. It’s a delicate balancing act that Wilson pulls off well. After all, he named his 2011 crossover Gentle Spirit for a reason.
“That confidence on the production side to do anything was not there in 2009,” he says, surveying his idyllic studio space and arsenal of equipment. “The biggest shift would be moving from composing songs on guitar to piano around 2013. I was lucky to get an old Steinway so that’s been my writing tool.”
Wilson recorded a few tracks himself, eventually weaving in a number of other voices, but he laid down the meat of Rare Birds with drummer Joey Waronker and The Killers’ Jake Blanton (a veteran of his early bands). The trio format grounds the album’s kaleidoscopic tendencies, allowing Wilson to shrink into a smaller, live-band sound on more “wide-screen” songs like “Over the Midnight” and to bring more personal, “dude-at-a-piano” touches to numbers like the expansive, saxophone freak-out “Me” or the purposely precious and symphonic “Sunset Blvd.”
The LP boasts some of Wilson’s recent collaborators, too, including Tillman, his Waters’ bandmates and Lucius frontwomen Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig—whose voices he calls majestic—and Del Rey, a rebellious pop-star who has floated in and out of his world.
“She listened to Gentle Spirit back in the day and started coming around,” he says of Del Ray. “It was right before she put out Ultraviolence, and we did some stuff that’s on the shelf. We rekindled our friendship about the time of Rare Birds so she was involved in the whole process and was my sounding board for different songs. She sings on ‘Living with Myself,’ which has this dark, moody, Tunnel of Love, Springsteen-y vibe that I thought was perfect for her.”
Though Wilson’s recent studio cuts have swayed toward cosmic folk-rock, Rare Birds has a fresh, pulsating, electric energy. He credits his new hi-fi sound to both his current pumped-up recording console and an early breakthrough he had while working on “Loving You” with a drum machine and an iPhone app that creates a string sound through various effects. (The final version of the track mixes in New Age crooner Laraaji’s chanting vocals.) “That juxtaposed with a piano ballad was the sound,” Wilson says. “And ‘Over the Midnight’ is that song’s sonic sister, where I use the same exact drum machine, the same cymbals. I’m obsessed with [minimalist composer] Terry Riley and there’s something about these clustery chords that are timeless—and, to me, that evoke not necessarily the past, but that space-age feeling.”
Elsewhere, Tillman shines on both “49 Hairflips” and “Miriam Montague,” where he adds in his patented Beach Boys vocal stacks and other layers of sound, while “Hi Ho the Righteous” has a honky- tonk twang. Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith is quick to note that the songs themselves are still at the center of the album. “A lot of artists that own their own studios can get carried away with what the studio can do, but he’s still motivated by what a performance or what a song can do,” he says. “All the rest, as beautiful and important as it all is, comes second. And Rare Birds is the ultimate example of that.”
Wilson spent considerable time sifting through the 25 songs he tracked while working on the LP, distilling the collection down to the tunes that were a “meaningful representation of [his] personality.” He eventually came up with a subconscious “algorithm” for the record, factoring in the numbers that he was naturally drawn to finish and mix. Since he’d recently gone through an intense breakup, the songs that rose to the top tilted toward the introspective.
“These songs are personal— there’s some failed love that’s involved and feelings that are just genuine,” he admits. “It was definitely healing, cathartic, to make the album. I tried to contain some moments where the sound just cruises, and that’s tough to do when it comes down to an album where you’re feeling this pressure to make something exciting every step of the way. It’s challenging to be able to float with patience. This album is the first time that I’ve made exactly what I was trying to make. And if it drags on for more than an hour, and seems like some sort of self- indulgent thing from a guy, then that’s OK. Someone else can just take it off the platter.”
Wilson was born in Forest City, N.C., and despite the city’s tiny population, he was surrounded by music from an early age. His father led a local combo for over three decades and his grandfather was a Baptist preacher who recruited Wilson to provide musical accompaniment at his services. “My grandma was the choir director so, since I was born, I always respected where music coexisted with the spiritual aspect of the whole thing,” he says.
His family moved throughout North Carolina and, after studying bluegrass for a spell, he formed the grungy band Muscadine with Benji Hughes in the late-‘90s. They had some early success—signing with Sire Records and, as Wilson’s nostalgically recalls, playing Wetlands—but Muscadine’s sound eventually fell victim to the times. From there, Wilson drifted to New York—where he recorded his first, largely overlooked solo release Frankie Ray—and found his way to Los Angeles, where he set up shop on a remote piece of property in Laurel Canyon. Though he still had his sights set on a solo career, Wilson built a studio and quickly came to personify the ‘70s revival that was permeating throughout the area.
“When I first saw him and Benji, I was blown away by his playing and just general presence on a stage,” Taylor says. “As we all got to know each other better, we got a real sense of his impeccable and far-reaching tastes. If it’s good music, old or new, he’s already very aware of it. He introduced us to so many definitive records and artists that helped shape who we are. I’ve always felt Jonathan was a modern-day version of Leon Russell—a fearless, top-shelf assassin of a musician who brings out the best in those he comes into contact with while simultaneously making some of the best records of his time under his own name. It’s a rare breed.”
With the encouragement of his friend Chris Robinson, Wilson also started hosting informal jam sessions at his house that grew to include Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Jenny Lewis and members of Wilco, Maroon 5, Oasis, The Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam. The loose hangs turned into a destination, though shortly after Wilson issued his Gentle Spirit LP, some national press publically exposed the intimate jams, and he moved his studio to its current Echo Park setting. (Robinson actually first bonded with his future Black Crowes/ Chris Robinson Brotherhood/ As the Crow Flies keyboardist Adam MacDougall at one particularly deep jam.)
“I was trying to bring some Southern hospitality to the Canyon,” Wilson reminisces. “And that has definitely spilled over into my whole social sensibility. When a band is at my studio or I’m involved in a project, I consider myself a host. That was a big part of the Roger sessions: managing the vibe.”
While recording Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Wilson fortuitously attended one of the freak-folk singer’s shows at McCabe’s [Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif.], where he first crossed paths with Tillman, whom he now describes as his “musical soul mate.” Tillman had recently come down to Los Angeles from Seattle, after making his name as a member of Fleet Foxes and as a singer-songwriter in his own right; the meeting changed the course of both their careers.
“There was this gregarious dude backstage and I was thinking, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’” Wilson says. “So he came over here with some demos for Fear Fun. They were just so fucking great. He was trying to find his partner in crime, which he definitely did. The two of us are brothers and the fact that his career has just skyrocketed is such a triumph because that project is quality- based and song-based. The whole process has been fun—not some bullshit and red tape. That’s rare.”
In addition to serving as the lynchpin for a festival-friendly scene with a sharp focus on songwriting and musicianship, Wilson has also become something of a hipster liaison for a generation of storied rockers looking to connect with a new class of listeners. And while he considers everyone from David Crosby to the late Tom Petty to be part of his social circle, Wilson says Browne is his true “West Coast pops.”
“He’s the guy that I call when some heavy shit is about to go down,” Wilson says. “That being said, he’s also the guy that I call when I’m about to buy a Gibson Les Paul and I need to nerd-out about a guitar. He leads by this amazing example of his curiosity and his ability to just work non-stop. It’s inspiring.”
Robinson, who lived in LA for a number of years, was also instrumental in turning Wilson onto the music of the Grateful Dead, stoking an interest in improvisational music that left an indelible mark on Rare Birds’ groovier tendencies. Along with the Black Crowes singer, Wilson recorded a still-on-ice session with Phil Lesh for a potential TV project and, a few years later, he crossed paths with Bob Weir at a TRI Studios Garcia tribute. Weir ended up offering Wilson a spot in RatDog and, though they only ended up playing a handful of dates together due to other commitments, the experience was still a “lightbulb moment.”
“I learned a lot tricks from Bobby, how he projects his vocals and stuff,” says Wilson, who has since proven his improv chops onstage with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. “Playing with those guys gave me the confidence to solo and just [informed] my melodic sensibilities. Moving to song is extremely powerful. That’s something that you see with such great triumph with the Grateful Dead. I would think about that a lot when I would go to Furthur shows— how the crowd was grooving. There is a subconscious goal to make a crowd move. That’s just something you don’t see in ‘indie’ bands and those crowds.”
A few years ago, Wilson received a call from his good friend Nigel Godrich— perhaps best known as Radiohead’s longtime producer—asking if he wanted to come to Ocean Way Recording and play guitar on what would become Roger Waters’ first solo rock sessions in years, Is This the Life We Really Want?
“On their second day working on the album, Roger and Nigel decided they needed some guitar and I got the call and was like, ‘Yes, that sounds fun,’” Wilson says with a laugh. “The weird thing is I’m not a [David] Gilmour scholar, but I’ve sensed similar sensibilities in our lyrical guitar soloing, both consciously and not through the years. There was this predestined feeling when I fit in with Roger; the song we did that day is untouched on the album.”
Wilson not only ended up bringing the Pink Floyd co-founder over to his home studio, but he’s also spent over a year touring arenas around the world with Waters’ solo band, serving as his guitar counterpart. The gig had a direct impact on his solo work, too: Wilson now has a vocal coach and considers his playing more consistent across the board. And Waters hasn’t been scared to give him some honest feedback either.
“He’s taught me to cherish and to honor your rock-and-roll sensibility and not to let that fly off,” Wilson says. “I was sitting at the piano with him, playing this song ‘Me,’ and I was concerned that the chord sequence was too long and meandering. His response was, ‘No, double it.’ He likes the fact that it’s scary or uncomfortable.”
Wilson also tweaked his live show leading up to Rare Birds, adding in song-specific visual projections inspired by his time with Waters. His current live band is something of an all-star outfit as well, featuring Jenny Lewis drummer Josh Adams, Norah Jones guitarist Jason Roberts, Waters keyboardist Drew Erickson and Circles Around the Sun/Grateful Shred bassist Dan Horne, who is near the center of a new West Coast scene fueled by a revived interest in the Grateful Dead. Their aim is to capture the treadmill energy of Wilson’s new LP, squeezing more songs into their set, expanding their sound for bigger venues and leaving room for some choice jamming.
The guitarist is proud of his rock lineage yet, especially with Rare Birds, he’s determined to prove his wide-spanning interests. “I haven’t listened to classic-rock or popular folk-rock in quite some time,” he says, without losing the reverence for those styles in his voice. “Those were my earlier days, when we were all discovering The Byrds for the first time. Now, the bands that I keep coming back to on iTunes are Talk Talk and Arthur Russell. I just started from a basic thing, building into my static trance and something you can dance to.”
He’s also acutely aware that by helping shift the indie world’s focus back toward Los Angeles, he’s partly responsible for the city’s current musical gold rush.
“I feel like the entire fucking East Coast is here now,” he says. “The whole town has expanded east. This is the town where you can actually fucking have a band and you can spread out and rehearse. It’s exploding with venues and stuff, which is great because there was definitely a dark period.”
Wilson’s current “master plan” is to move out of LA to Joshua Tree and build a new studio—somewhere he can escape to write and record with some much needed “space and silence”—and come back with a batch of new songs at the end of 2019. He points to the drum-machine-driven Rare Birds tune “Miriam Montague,” where he notes that “the bridge stands still,” and the ‘80s-approved, Peter Gabriel-like trip out “Hard to Get Over” as examples of how he’s been able to use the studio to push himself past his own sonic expectations.
“There’s a moment in that song where it cuts to just the organ and time stands still,” he says with a grin, still clearly enjoying the fact that he has his own sonic laboratory. “I’m just trying to find these clusters and explore. One of my greatest gifts, musically, is that I have no clue what the fuck I’m doing. I’m just completely and genuinely exploring.”
This article originally appears in the June 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.