Interview: Jonathan Wilson sheds Laurel Canyon sound for expansive, cosmic vibe
Directed by Grant James

Studio maven and North Carolina-transplant Jonathan Wilson moved to California about 17 years ago and in that time his name has become synonymous with the iconic Laurel Canyon 70s sound. In part due to the jam sessions at his Laurel Canyon studio and to his previous two albums, Gentle Spirit and Fanfare. Both traded on the Southern style folk that filled the Canyon decades earlier. His sophomore even featured one of its key original proponents Graham Nash, as a guest vocalist. When folks like Conor Oberst, Josh Tillman and Karen Elson are in search of that vintage sound, they seek out Wilson.   

On Rare Birds, which was released on the Bella Union label, earlier this year, Wilson expands his sonic cues taking in krautrock, cosmic psychedelia, art rock and 80s yacht rock. He attributes some of his newfound inspiration to touring with Pink Floyd legend Roger Waters, on his recent Us+Them Tour.  Yet, Rare Birds is a step up, it is the ambitious work of a studio maverick who has spent more than a decade at the helm of other's successful records - he produced all three of Father John Misty's albums - and is comfortable in the company of legendary musicians. 

Five years since his last album, Rare Birds delivers sprawling, spacey music with a nod to the past sonically but is very much rooted in the modern. It features guest vocals from Father John Misty, Lana Del Rey, Laraaji and Lucius

About to embark on a Fall tour which kicks off tonight at The Fonda, followed by two nights at The Independent, in San Francisco, Wilson finds some time between taping the Conan O'Brien show to chat with us. He reveals his motivation for reaching beyond Canyon sonics, what he learned from being in Roger Waters' band, and overcoming heartbreak through songwriting in a studio.

AXS: You've just finished touring in Roger Waters band for his very political Us+Them Tour, what did you learn from him?

Jonathan Wilson: It will take me some time to quantify all those things, you learn lots. But I will say I definitely learnt the value in that snarly rock n’roll spirit which I have, but have never really let it go onstage that fiery part. Roger is certainly not mellow onstage – he brings the fire. When you come see my show, you’ll see we bring the fire too, things get pretty hot on stage. You learn from him that theatre of a concert. He is master of the show. It’s something he’s been doing for forever to get past that vibe of some dudes on the stage; that’s not extremely compelling. I never thought about it that way but his influence has reached my show; we’re using some incredible visuals that are now a big part of the show.

AXS: When did you start writing this album and did you have any idea what it would sound like? Your last two albums have earned you that label of  “custodian to that 70s Laurel Canyon California sound,' but Rare Birds is a departure from that – it’s more varied and expansive.

JW: The songwriting process stretched as far back as 5 years, there were even fragments as early as 2013. I was gathering them up slowly. I didn’t want to start until I felt I had the right amount of songs to choose from. As far as being a custodian of that past sound, I’ve definitely been faced with the reality of just this tiny, niche audience; and do I want to dedicate my life to faithfully recreating this past that has gone. So then I had to dig deep and figure out what would something sound like if I made it? A distillation of myself and my past. What I was listening to as a kid definitely wasn’t the Seventies stuff, it was bands like Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, just then we were listening to Joe Jackson. That journalistic tagline of the Laurel Canyon thing was great at the time, and there was truth in it but Rare Birds, it’s a different thing.

AXS: ”Over The Midnight” it’s layered and so textured, I feel like I can almost touch the sound of the song – how long did it take you to put that song together?  

JW: I wrote a great bit of this album in Joshua Tree where I set up a demo studio. It was a very different song at the time, just me strumming on the guitar. As for the title, I wanted to write a song with a mythical, nonsensical tagline – you know you hear them for the first time, two or three words strung together and you wished you had thought of that - I wanted to write a song about a fictional space like that. I was thinking about “Over The Midnight” what that would be? And where that would be? If you listen to it, it’s maybe a journey of two friends or lovers, in a car, driving through a perfect time and space. Then there’s that driving, Motorik beat, I was very influenced by German 70s bands like Can. Some of the other production cues were pre-cursored by “Loving You” – they share the same drum machine, cymbals and bass treatment. By the time that song was done it had been 12-15 months, it went through lots of shedding and some expansion in terms of the guitar solo.

AXS: It also feels like a safe space and we don’t often think of songs in those terms.

JW: Yeah that’s cool. We sing it each night and there’s that melodious finish. When we sing ‘no killers, no guns,” it has a positive, anthemic vibe to it.

AXS: It's very comforting in these crazy times. “There’s A Light” has a similar vibe. I know it has drawn comparisons to the War On Drugs but your vocals are far more audible, and we get to hear all that positivity you sing about.

JW: That song was written expressly for that purpose. I wrote it late in the process, at a piano, thinking of all the songs that we had so far, and knew I needed something with a tempo like that. It needed that upbeat vibe and that can sometimes be hard to do. And I specifically wanted to write a song containing pure positivity from start to finish. In my mind, that song has nothing to do with any current band or anything like that, it’s a nod to George (Harrison) from the Beatles. If you listen to the melodies and some of the inflections you might hear it.

AXS: Another Beatles-inspired track is "Miriam Montague," very Eleanor Rigby-esque. It also has shades of Robin Hitchcock and all these London references which speaks to this broadening from just that West Coast sound. Did you write this while you were on tour with Roger Waters, or were you already dabbling into these sonic waters before?

JW: It was previous to that tour – that song started before, as a joke in the van with the band. We had played a solo tour in Union Chapel in London and the night before we had seen my friend Miriam Montague perform. She’s a stripper, in Soho, and a very colorful character. She’s been a friend for years. It’s my fantastical take on her life in London.

AXS: "49 Hairflips" is such a tender song lyrically – and holds the best lines – “We'll be f*cking, we'll be sucking / While the rest of them are posting their lives / Ah, these kids' will never rock again / Sign of the times.” It perfectly encapsulates this moment we’re in but what exactly is “49 Hairflips?” Is this an inside joke? 

JW: (laughs) It was a text message from an ex-girlfriend. I was going through the turmoil of a breakup, and I asked her ‘what are you doing right now?’ and she said ’49 Hairflips on Dayquil.’ She was on a modeling job.

AXS: Another track with a heartfelt, intimate line is “Loving You.” You sing “Write another verse of  you, to keep the melody inside, so deep inside.”

JW: Part of this process, which can be therapeutic is getting these songs out there, and singing them every night on tour. There’s little bits of different people I’ve been involved with - references to girlfriends in many of my songs – each time you sing it, you can think of them, it helps you get through it but also immortalizes the moment. You have the power to do that but maybe the other person is not a singer and can’t  do that. (laughs)

AXS: Lucky you.

JW: That particular song was written at the height of infatuation.

AXS: Lyrically, the album is structured like the narrative arc of a film: Starts with the beginnings of an attraction, then goes to a breakup, and someone wrestling with that. By "Living With Myself" - which is a gorgeous track that features Lana de Rey - it's like you're in recovery. Then there’s a relapse with “Hard To Get Over.” Was all that somewhat intentional?

JW: Not per se. It wasn’t a breakup concept. We recorded 23 songs and there was lots of substitutes. The narrative started to reveal itself. There’s definitely some heartfelt bummers, but you’ll find it’s not exclusively that. But I did purposely put myself out there on this one. I have never really done that in the past.

AXS: I’ve heard you describe your studio as a place you love to go back and ground yourself in. What does being in a studio means to you and how do you strike a balance between producing for others and locking yourself in a studio to do your own material?

JW: For me, the studio is a place I go to figure out a song, to experiment, and songs can turn from one thing to the next, and they can completely transform. So rarely do I sit down with a guitar and a f*cking notebook, and be like this is my song. Especially these days, I can use the studio as it’s own instrument, from using it as often as I have. I can use it to compose. And as far as how it pertains to producing for others, it’s really great for me that I get to constantly be there, to figure out these things on someone else’s dime, basically. (laughs) You know usually bands get to go into the studio and stay for 3 weeks every few years to record an album, I get to be there all the time.

AXS: Are you still holding those famous jam sessions?

JW: No. But I am looking to relocate to Topanga Canyon and perhaps I can start it up again.

Jonathan Wilson Tour
Sept. 20 - Los Angeles, CA - Fonda Theatre (Tickets)
Sept. 21 - San Francisco, CA - The Independent
Sept. 22 - San Francisco, CA - The Independent
Sept. 24 - Portland, OR - Mississippi Studios                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Sept. 26 - Seattle, WA - The Tractor Tavern