Jonathan Wilson: 'Psychedelia is a state of mind' - the Rockol interview
38-year-old North Carolina born Jonathan Wilson has had a long and eventful career spent behind the scenes and in the underground of the music industry, but since his 2011 album "Gentle Spirit" he has finally been recognized as the man who revived the Laurel Canyon music scene. He is now upping the ante with "Fanfare", his much hyped new album which has already been seen by many as a masterpiece of revisited psychedelia. Rockol met him in Manchester, UK, on the eve of a gig that saw him opening for and playing on stage with legendary English singer-songwriter Roy Harper.
From the album title and its cover to the broad scope of the music within, "Fanfare" comes across as an ambitious statement. Did you have a grand scheme in mind or did it just happen to take this shape later on?
A little bit of both. Most of the songs had sort of been started in bits and pieces, some of them the band had been performing on the road. But the whole scheme of things and the sound of the album started to unfold during the recording. The opening song, for example, was composed in the studio, even if some of it had been done previously. I had been working on it for maybe three years or something but it didn't come to completion until I was sitting at the piano in the studio and we added the strings, the horns and everything else.
What about choosing that title and a reproduction of Michelangelo's "Creation" for the album sleeve?
All that stuff revealed itself through the process. Michelangelo's hands were something I played with on an app of my iPhone. I had been putting apart those hands and sending them to people and friends of mine like a text message. Like a funny sort of statement. And then it ended up signifying what the cover was going to be. The first song of the album was always going to be called "Fanfare". That was its working title. By hearing me singing that song I knew that it should be my entrance into the album. There was a time when the album didn't have a title and I didn't know how it was going to be called, and then it all sort of fell into place.
Your previous album "Gentle Spirit" had attracted a lot of attention and praise. You had started to be seen as the man reviving the whole Laurel Canyon music scene and so on... Was this helpful or instrumental in giving you the chance to do what you wanted to do? Did you feel you had a solid platform from where you could move forward?
I think it all worked in a good way. "Gentle Spirit" was kind of a homespun, home-made affair. I literally made it in my kitchen, basically. And this one is a much more professional affair with the help of engineers and assistants, mixed at Jackson Browne's place which has a tremendous mixing desk. The goal was to make an album that was extremely hi-fi.
How would you suggest that we listen to it?
In vinyl format, possibly. And with your headphones on!
Jackson Browne is a distinctive presence in a really impressive guest list, a '60s-'70 s rock royalty of sorts including Crosby & Nash and Roy Harper. Different stories and different meetings, I suppose.
Yeah, Jackson I had met him when I had my studio in Laurel Canyon, but everybody else I met them in my new space in Echo Park, Los Angeles, where all of the sessions were done. Graham and I had recorded the A side of an EP called "Pity Trials And Tomorrow's Child" that had been specially done for Record Store Day. And then I gave him a call because I had picked out different bits where I thought that those guys could shine, helping me to sing and doing stuff. Hearing Crosby and Nash sing on "Cecil Taylor" perfectly sets the scene for this. And sneaking Jackson into "Desert Trip", getting him to sing together with my friend Father John Misty on the same track was really exciting.
"Cecil Taylor" recalls the time when the famous, eccentric jazzman played at the White House. Quite a strange story.
Yeah. Somehow he got booked to perfom there, at the time when Jimmy Carter was the President. He was a very challenging performer, and so this story just intrigued me.
Some people point to David Crosby's "If I Could Only Remember My Name" and Dennis Wilson's "Pacific Ocean Blue" as sonic points of reference for "Fanfare". Do you agree?
Yes. Crosby, definitely, for some of the stylistic choices and for how that record was made with the help from his mates. Look at that album, it's all of his buddies there helping him out, Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick and so on. That was a cool thing. And as far as Dennis' stuff is concerned, I was listening to it pretty much all the time, listening to that sort of over-the-top production and those gargantuan drum sounds. It's fun in Los Angeles. You just pick up the phone and see what you can get to happen. People show up and I think Dennis was doing the same at that time.
How would you reply to people who say you are a 'retromaniac'?
That's something that I have to hear quite a lot, those comparisons with the past. And I understand it, particularly if you go out and listen to the Top Ten, to the music in the charts. But since I was a kid and had rock'n'roll dreams my path has not changed. I'm still interested in instruments that you play with your hands, not on tape machines. I love the context of a rock band, like a rock quintet. I also enjoy bands like Can that incorporate synthesizers but not music that is created with software. And if it goes to the point that I am deemed retro, then it's ok for me. I understand the references, guitars have become kind of a rarity now.
The instrumental break of "Lovestrong", by the way, is strongly reminiscent of the middle section of Pink Floyd's "Echoes". Was that intentional?
Not exactly, but I would definitely say that that band are a big influence and that I love that sound. So a tip of the hat to the Floyd, for me, was a good idea.
Did the acid rock style, Jerry Garcia-influenced guitar solo at the end of "Dear Friend" come from sharing the stage on many occasions with former Grateful Dead Bob Weir?
Well, spending a lot of time with Bob was definitely helpful. That sort of gave my guitar playing a breakthrough into Jerry's sounds and effects. Through the songs and jams that we did, I would definitely try to evoke that sort of spirit, and it also happens that Jerry is one of my favourites for his complete musicality and depth. Now that I have done so much with Bob I can kind of make it happen.
Is psychedelia still a meaningful term nowadays?
I think so, yes. A psychedelic trip is very closely related to the trance-like state of mind you're in when you are performing.
You seem to have broad musical interests. You mention people like Bill Fay and Milton Nascimento as personal favourites. Maybe a hint to potential, future collaborations?
That would be great! I didn't have a chance to meet Bill, but the album that he just did with some of the local guys is fantastic. As to Milton, I just would be ecstatic to see that guy perform.I love him and I'm listening to him all the time.
You have made quite an exotic choice of cover for "Fanfare" by recording The Sopwith Camel's "Fazon". How did that come about?
My friend Andy from Vetiver turned me onto that. "Fazon" is such a trippy song, I was excited by it and decided to have a try at it just for fun. One thing that I did on "Gentle Spirit" and on this album was putting in one song that's a cover. I think I will do it again, on my next album. That could be like a fun tradition to start.
You recently produced some of Roy Harper's "Man And Myth". What was it like meeting him? Were you already a fan?
Yes, absolutely. Being a fan, I have curated an album of tribute songs that will be released at some point. I've got my buddies on it, Father John Misty, The Dawes, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes and lots of other folks. I guess that he found out about it from somebody and that was why he came to my show in London. And just from that we ended up being buddies, which could not have even happened. He's such an awesome guy. Such a funny guy.
The good thing, in his record, is that you can't tell the Jonathan Wilson- produced tracks from the others. His strong personality comes through.
Yes, you know, he is ultimately the boss who took decisions about his songs and stuff. It was a collaboration, for sure. Roy was just excited to be back in the studio 'cause he hadn't been since the year 2000. He wrote the whole lyrics for one of my new songs, "New Mexico", and this is the first time that he did that for someone else.
So could this develop in a long term professional relationship between the two of you?
Yes, for sure. It would be really great.
What have you learnt by going in the studio and on stage with him?
I've had the chance to appreciate his fearlessness and his abandon. In each of his performances, it's like he's balancing the cosmos. Before he goes on stage, he sits and studies the set and talks about the intent of each song. He connects with each of them like for hours before he goes out to sing them. There's a lot to learn by just listening to him speak. He's one of the great poets, no doubt about it.
Having made a record as grand as "Fanfare" are you thinking about stretching even further? Or maybe going back to a more stripped down kind of music again?
I haven't even thought about what's going to be my next move. It probably will not be such a drastic stylistic shift, like some sort of electronic record. It can be tempting for people to do it, especially when you want to sort of buff the nails of the pop gods. But my path is something that I have been following for some time now. So I will probably stay on the trail.