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Escape Velocity

Laurel Jam: An Interview With Jonathan Wilson
John Freeman , May 21st, 2014 05:46

Ahead of his Village Underground show, American singer-songwriter and producer Jonathan Wilson talks to John Freeman about the creation of "a degree of excellence" on his latest album Fanfare while updating the legacy of his beloved Laurel Canyon

Laurel Canyon nestles in the Hollywood Hills, north of Los Angeles. Once a settlement of the local Tongva tribe, the Canyon area is best known as an epicentre of the 1960s counterculture. Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and Joni Mitchell all lived in Laurel Canyon, with the latter's third album Ladies Of The Canyon paying homage to the infamous LA 'burb.

Jonathan Wilson lives on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The singer-songwriter and renowned producer appears hell bent on recreating the spirit of the Canyon's halcyon days. His second solo album Fanfare, released late last year, was an ambitious and luxurious set of songs that mixed blues, folk and pop. Wilson elegantly forged a lineage between the old Canyon brigade and a new set of enlightened musicians - Fanfare included guest appearances by Graham Nash, David Crosby and Jackson Browne, as well as a Fleet Fox (Josh Tilman), Wilco's Patrick Sansome and two members of folk-rockers Dawes. Predictably, the musicianship on Fanfare was breathtaking.

When the Quietus speaks to Wilson, he reveals that - in contrast to the relentless drizzle slamming against the window here - he's looking at a beautiful desert vista in Joshua Tree, 150 miles east of Laurel Canyon, where he's "currently taking a kind of sabbatical".  

"Yeah, for sure," Wilson states, when asked whether it's important to nurture an inter-generational relationship between musicians. "In my opinion, a sharing of experience is something that is passed down in some of the more advanced art forms. There is no problem with respecting [older musicians] or mentoring [younger musicians] in other forms of music - it's only in fucking indie rock where the guys try to sweep their influences under the carpet. Currently, music of the now takes so much from the 80s and 90s, and there still seems to be a stigma about being honest about the music you love. That is something I am passionate about – dispelling that particular notion."

Wilson has been true to his word. Fanfare, which places a grand Steinway piano at the centre of a number of tracks, balances a reverent nod to the past with a bang-in-the-moment production typical of Wilson's highly successful Echo Park recording studio.

The publicity blurb for Fanfare reveals the Steinway as the "beating heart" of the record - why so much emphasis on the piano? "Maybe the first thought was to do something different," Wilson reveals in his rich drawl. "The previous album [Gentle Spirit] was pretty much based on the guitar, so I had the thought to compose at the piano to be able to expand on some of my ideas. But, at the same time, I wasn't quite prepared to go for a full-on piano solo sound, like a Plastic Ono Band singer-songwriter thing. I guess I was envisioning mixing it up with the band-based vibe.

"So I thought about getting a Steinway and we called around looking for pianos that were for sale. We found one and it became the centrepiece of the whole album – just because the piano was so big in the studio and took up the centre of the space. It then became a challenge to find a bass that could hold up the bottom end as the piano was so strong. We needed a special bass to compete. We got one from a guy who makes them for The Grateful Dead – it was specially made from carbon fibre and had pretty acute intonation. These instruments began to shape the album; I was trying to achieve a certain amount of, maybe not perfection, but some degree of excellence that was informed by the instruments."

Fanfare was the follow up to the psychedelic folk of 2011's Gentle Spirit debut. Wilson's music career, however, began in the mid-90s with grunge rock combo Muscadine, while his Fivestar Studio in Echo Park has accelerated his reputation as a producer – Father John Misty, Roy Harper, Dawes and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy have all worked with Wilson – while he has also featured as a musician on songs by artists as diverse as Jenny Lewis, Elvis Costello and Erykah Badu.

Wilson was born in the tiny hamlet of Forest City, North Carolina. Brought up on a diet of The Beatles and "a ton of Eagles," Wilson also reveals his parents' love of Jackson Browne. Browne contributed guitar on Fanfare - what do his parents think of their music hero playing on their son's album? "They think it is cool," comes his understated response.

After messing around in bands in his early teens, Wilson made the move 2,500 miles west to Los Angeles. "It was a trip," he recalls of that first experience of Lalaland. "I came from a small town straight to Beverley Hills. It was a huge awakening. One of the things I used to do was attend a jam session right across the street, which was held each Tuesday. It was at one of those jams that I had an opportunity to flirt with Kim Basinger. So, I was a teenager and totally sold on Los Angeles."

A brief spell in New York with Muscadine was followed by Wilson relocating back to California and a house in Laurel Canyon, also known as 'Handshake Canyon' due to the area's time-honoured reliance on a handshake to seal any deal. Muscadine were a duo – Wilson formed the band with big-hearted troubadour Benji Hughes. I mention that Hughes was the first musician I ever interviewed, and that during our twenty minute chat he managed to down an impressive four pre-show double whiskies. "That sounds about right," laughs Wilson.

Muscadine's sound was a lot harder than anything Wilson is more typically associated with. "It was just two kids discovering stuff for the first time," Jonathan recalls. "And then the whole music business side of it all – contracts and signings and showcases and all the bullshit – crumbled the band."

After returning to Laurel Canyon, Wilson, along with Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, set about reviving the jam sessions of yore. Held each Wednesday, the sessions quickly became a hub of creativity that would be see luminaries such as Elvis Costello, Crosby and Nash play alongside the likes of Jenny Lewis, Wilco and Jonathan Rice. "I used to live in a bungalow on the top of hill which was fully stocked with equipment so we could turn them into these jams," Wilson reveals. "We'd have guys from The Black Crowes and it was a good excuse for us to jam and play all the time. It would turn into a party scene – when there was a band in town, they'd come over for an after show. It was exciting, and it felt like a blast from the past."

These sessions helped form numerous musical alliances for Wilson, resulting in the merry throng of guests on Fanfare. Had he always wanted the album to include so many notable musicians? "No, at the beginning we were talking about it not having many guests," he says. "The issue is that if it turns into a guest-fest, that's all you see in the press. But, as the tunes presented themselves, I realised certain parts would be perfect for Jackson [Browne] or Josh [Tilman] or David Crosby or Graham Nash, and to be able to curate moments for them was a blast."

The relationships run deep. Wilson has produced a number of albums for his Canyon-based friends and, in doing so, has built an impressive reputation for his studio complex in Echo Park. "I like to passively convince people to do exactly what I say," Wilson states of his approach as a producer. It's one that seems to work – his production credits read likes a 'who's who' of the Laurel Canyon revival of the past five years. "Echo Park is a huge space and I have gathered a certain amount of expertise to be able to create a type of space that is inspirational for musicians. Also, it's not a standard 'corporate' studio - there is a kitchen in the centre of the space so there is always food cooking on the stove. The studio has grown my career and has become a real hotbed of activity."

Following a discussion of twenty years of a career as a musician in a little over twenty minutes, thoughts turn to the future. While Jonathan previously mentioned he was on "sabbatical" it transpires that he took "five guitars and a mini studio" to his Joshua Tree retreat." I've been writing songs and envisioning the future," he says of his time in the desert.

Wilson also mentions he's been "thinking about the fact I've been able to play with Jeff Lynne on a couple of occasions." My eight-year-old self had a deep affinity for the mighty ELO, so I'm pretty stoked at the idea of a Lynne-Wilson collaboration. So is Wilson himself. "I have asked him to come out to the house, which he has agreed to do. I've been thinking about maybe trying to get him to produce some of my songs. I've been kicking around the concept and been writing stuff with that in mind. I also want to do more with Mike Campbell [of The Heartbreakers], who is a good pal. Basically, those are the things I've been thinking about."

As the interview ends, the rain-lashed rooftops outside my window contrast with a mental picture of Jonathan Wilson gazing out into the desert wilderness, cooking up plans to make merry music with the greats of the past – and with the creative continuum of Laurel Canyon seemingly safe in his hands.

The album Fanfare is out now via Bella Union. Jonathan Wilson plays London's Village Underground on 3rd June

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