“Sit beside me, stay awhile. Let me feel my life through you.”
There is something quite mystifying about the music of Jonathan Wilson. A blend of tender melodies, sentimental lyrics, soft-voiced diction, psychedelic tendencies, and earthy images that touch on the sublime; the world that Wilson creates can absorb you whole.
Though now closely connected to the California music scene, Wilson grew up in Forest City, North Carolina, where his father worked in textiles and his mother taught at a local public school. Describing Forest City as a “little town with not a lot going on,” Wilson feels that discovering the guitar and becoming immersed in music for him was inevitable. He started out forming bands and playing cover songs, and by the time he was thirteen was playing his first gigs. Those early teen years where when he decided to pursue music, saying that music then was “the only thing I was interested in.”
With wide eyes and high hopes he moved to Los Angeles aged nineteen to follow his heart and pursue those dreams. After playing around for a while he “jumped back” to the East Coast to form grunge band Muscadine with Benji Hughes in 1995, releasing The Ballad of Hope Nicholls with Sire Records in 1997. With intriguing songs such as “Southern Belle” and “Alice in Indieland,” the duo received due critical acclaim, but not so much commercial success. After him and Hughes parted ways he moved back to Topanga in 2005, and has been in Los Angeles ever since.
In recent years Jonathan’s name has become somewhat synonymous with Laurel Canyon, as his catalytic presence within the music scene there continues to receive praise for spurring a modern renaissance of sorts. When he moved to Laurel Canyon Blvd. he began hosting private jams at his place each Wednesday with Black Crowes front man Chris Robinson. The weekly sessions gained momentum as a hub for artists such as Jonathan Rice, Jenny Lewis, and Wilco, and grew in notoriety as names such as Elvis Costello, Graham Nash, David Crosby, and the Wallflowers all came through and played in Wilson’s back yard. The scene was described by Rolling Stone as an uncanny “time warp” not only for the similarities in sound and aesthetic to the heyday of Laurel Canyon in the Sixties, but for the likeness in sensibility and intention to artists of that time. The purpose of the gatherings was truly to create and connect to the music, rather than to hark back to a bygone era, and the atmosphere as a result seemed to be entirely magic and authentic.
The influences of and references to artists associated with Laurel Canyon may be clear and tangible in his work, but the honesty of his songs keep his signature unique and personal. In 2011 Jonathan released his first solo debut, the incandescent Gentle Spirit. The velvety rich tones of the album transition from delicate moments to impactful, Pink Floyd-esque journeys in fluid ripples of sentiment and sound. Full of poetic revelations and intimations, tracks such as “Desert Raven,” “Gentle Spirit,” “Valley of the Silver Moon,” and bonus “Bohemia,” are at once mesmerising and inspiring. Wilson began working on the songs of Gentle Spirit in the days of Canyonstereo, but did not officially release them until he connected with Simon Raymonde’s record label Bella Union.
It was in 2009 that he relocated to Echo Park and founded his current recording studio Fivestar Studios. As a producer for others Jonathan Wilson has somewhat of a Midas touch, having worked magic on projects with Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty), Roy Harper, Jonathan Rice, the Dawes, and Jenny O, amongst many others, and has been referred to as something of a secret weapon in the industry.
In October 2013, Jonathan released his second solo album, the grandiose and fittingly titled Fanfare. Many of the musicians that Wilson has previously worked with appear on the record, including David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Josh Tillman, and Patrick Sansome. Fanfare shares an array of qualities with Gentle Spirit, but is in many ways a more sophisticated and ambitious piece of work. The production is elevated and the album’s lovingly crafted songs build and shift through both intense and subtle emotional arcs. For Wilson, Fanfare seems to be a realisation of the epic soundscapes that lie within him as an artist.
To mark Fanfare’s release Jonathan has toured extensively with his band in North America and Europe. So, it was a true pleasure to speak to Jonathan while he was in transit in Paris at the end of his most recent European tour.
The imagery contained in the video for “Love to Love” is so beautiful. Has your relationship with Los Angeles changed from when you first moved there at nineteen? Or do you still see the city through the eyes of an ingénue?
Some images in that video I was definitely after so that I could express some of my earliest sensations, just of the excitement and stuff. I’d moved to the big city in that hope to make it. When I first came and moved out to Malibu there was some romanticism; it was some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery that I had ever seen. So those sorts of sentiments are contained in that song. I guess the biggest change is that inevitably you start to take those things for granted. I see them every day. But it [Los Angeles] does still hold that spark that you don’t know what could happen there.
In your songs you create such vivid images and stories. Do you feel that you see those nuances in your day-to-day life? Or is there a distinction between the heightened beauty within your songs and everyday life?
Well I hope that I can continue to see those things, in a song or otherwise. But in day-to-day life, I think that in the sub-conscious you unravel things that you see along the way. There are times that we all stop in a breath of awe, just in a moment at things we’ve seen. Los Angeles contains many natural wonders, things specific to California.
For sure. So how did you connect with the guys in your current band?
They are all dudes who I had observed and sort of stole from other bands. Each guy was a completely curated choice.
I feel like there is a real richness to your sound. Would you attribute that to the accumulation of talent that you work with? Or is it more the sound that you’re drawn to?
I think it’s both of those things. The realisation of what was contained on demos or the early albums is building on that original sound.
There is a balance of softness and intensity in the way your music flows from tender moments to the more climactic. How intentional has it been to strike that?
Well I think that it’s necessary to show the gamut. It’s important to stall and stay in that softer space, but then that needs to be juxtaposed with the crashing crescendo and all of that. That to me is just mimicking our existence.
I feel that for sure. Would you say that you write mostly from personal experiences or more using your imagination?
It’s not solely autobiographical or day-in-the-life, but there’s a few [songs that are]. Most of them are dealing with fantastical imagery and things that are artistic to my heart and I enjoy; whimsical or beautiful imagery. So that probably would be a commonality. One of my pet peeves when I listen to songs is trite lyrics, jotting down that same lexicon we’ve all heard ten thousand times. So that’s something I’m trying to avoid.
Your lyrics are quite poetic. Do you write poetry at all?
I did in my younger days. I would alternate that with actual songs and short stories and things like that. But these days it all goes into the song category.
Sure. Personally I find it easy to lose myself in your music. When you are making music do you ever feel as though you get lost in the creation side of it?
Yeah, for sure. I attribute it a lot of times to like a Zen practice. Times when you are performing a tune or some sort of track in the studio, and where the monotonous turns into a meditation, like with a drum track or percussion or something that is extremely repetitive. So that and then just getting lost in the production and the musical journey.
When would you say that you are happiest or most in your element?
Maybe these days I’m feeling most energetic or charged performing. I guess there is a culmination of all this other training, doing all these other things, and what it was all coming to.
Has working with musicians such as Graham Nash and Roy Harper changed how you hear their music? Does it speak to you differently now that there is a personal connection there?
Yeah, it definitely does. For people that I’ve met and become friendly with in the business, that are performers or artists, there is a heightened interest first of all and then there’s this DNA based connection if the person turns out to become your pal or something. But there still is a bit of wonderment, like if you talk about those two guys for example, you go back and listen to them and it’s just magical. There’s still some disbelief that the person is your buddy. Then comes the bigger thing that they came into your existence for a purpose, to teach you.
I think that’s a beautiful way to look at it. If you could sit it on the recording session from any record in history, which would it be?
I think I would have to go with Love Supreme. If I could sit in the corner being the tea-boy or something for A Love Supreme, that would be the one.
Good choice. I understand that the recording set-ups for Gentle Spirit and Fanfare were quite different. Do you have a personal preference for a more intimate situation or the grander, larger scale?
I like both, and I think there is a purpose for both. For Gentle Spirit I was literally cutting those in my kitchen, giving that homespun vibe which I think for that album was perfect. Whereas Fanfare I think you may lose a bit of that intimacy in favour of the bigger sound stage and a grander scale. So with that in mind there’s a purpose to both. Maybe the next time I’ll go to a more extreme personal record.
Fanfare has been frequently described as a bigger and more ambitious album than Gentle Spirit, but in what ways do you feel that the two are similar?
Definitely there are some songs that could be interchanged between them both. Stylistically I’m not planning on abandoning the sound that I always had in favour of some new fixation. So both the albums, and most likely any I do, will contain some of the same sentiment and instrumentation. One of the ways that they’re similar too is that I’m using the same guitars and same organ and things like that, so there’s the same tonal base. But definitely Fanfare is much more of a professional affair.
What would you say prompted you to push in that direction with Fanfare?
I think it was just a life fascination with frequencies, constantly trying to get the best drum sounds on the planet and things like that. Also being influenced by the albums that I have been obsessed with and searching for the spiel that was in. I purposefully referenced Pacific Ocean Blue; some of those songs have the biggest drum sounds and things like that. I was fascinated with the grandiosity.
On both albums there seems to be a motif of woman’s laughter in the background. Was that deliberate or a coincidence?
Yeah, the opening track [of Fanfare]. I guess to me that may be one of the world’s most beautiful sounds. Soothing, and for sure that may be more musical than the songs of the album. I actually wrote that down. I keep a journal about the album, just jotting down different ideas, and it came to me to open the album with that laughter. So it was just something that I was inspired to do.
You also have a tradition to do a cover song per album. Do you have any in mind for the future?
You know that’s a tough one because there are millions of songs that I like, but it has to fit like a puzzle piece. It has to fit the vibration and it needs to have a purpose that can be in a way larger than one of my own songs, because it’s taking up the bandwidth and time. So in the case of “Fazon” the first time I heard that song I was just like “what is this man?” It represents this cosmic sentiment you know, perhaps better than I could ever do, so I had to. But I think that maybe the next one would be a traditional song. That could be cool.
I love your cover of Bob Welch’s “Angel.” The first time I saw you play was in Paris in July at Cafe de la Danse, and after hearing you cover “Angel” I went and discovered a lot of Bob Welch’s music.
Oh that’s cool. That would definitely be a song to record because we sort of developed that into a bit of a journey.
You definitely do. Are you able to talk about what you have next for Jonathan Wilson or any upcoming projects?
Right before I came on this tour I’ve been working with Lana Del Rey on some tracks. She’s amazing; I love her and the whole thing. I’ve been doing songs with her and I’m just about to complete the second Father John Misty, that’s just about to be done. I’ve also been doing an album with my pal Connor Oberst, from Bright Eyes. I’ve been doing his solo stuff. But the biggest thing that will be on the table is just a lot of touring for this album. As the tours get bigger I’ll be able to approximate more of the sound of Fanfare. Because at this point it just can’t be done.
You mean bigger venues?
And a bigger van. A bigger band. That’s the goal.
I’m curious; do you have a favourite film Jonathan?
I do. There’s a few that I go back to, but one of them is Little Big Man. It’s Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway – babe of the century – and it’s directed by Arthur Penn.
Have you ever scored film? Is it something you would be interested in?
It is for sure. There have been a few ‘almosts’ for that. Things that were about to happen but did not pan out, but I’d be extremely interested.
I think you would be suited to it. Lastly, one thing that strikes me about your music is that you sing of women with a lot of admiration and respect. With this in mind I listened to your music more and I think you do sing of the world more broadly with a lot of respect. Do you have any thoughts on how people present their emotions and experiences in music?
Hhm. Well, I think it’s a process of distillation, trying to distill your chaos. The only way that it can translate is if you distil it down to truth. There are so many songs and albums, but there’s something about the ones where the people are resonating with people and there’s some sort of truth in there. Whether it’s the truth of an imbecile or a poet, there’s usually something that’s visceral and unique about the songs that tend to rise above. I guess it’s just being conscious that the purpose of a song is to convey some sort of truth of emotion.
This interview was hosted by The Line of Best Fit here.