Adding a dollop of Finnish Wigwam to his Southern musical family heritage.
There is no better example of a musical polymath than Jonathan Wilson. He is a successful solo artist, an in-demand record producer for artists like Father John Misty, Margo Price, Billy Strings, and the UK’s Roy Harper, a guitar for hire for artists like Roger Waters, and if that wasn’t enough, he is also credited with revitalising the Laurel Canyon music scene through his base there. He has a new album ‘Eat The Worm’ and while it still features Wilson’s songwriting craft, he has let his imagination roam in his studio as far as the soundscape of the tracks goes. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Jonathan Wilson at his studio in Laurel Canyon over Zoom to talk about his varied career and his new album. He explains that ‘Eat The Worm’ is the first time he hasn’t taken into consideration how his music would be received, and how the music of Jim Pembroke and his Finnish band Wigwam were a major influence on the soundscape of the record. He explains how influential his father, who had a local rock & roll band, was to his career and he shares his long-held love of jazz and baroque pop. He goes on to explain that to be a successful producer he believes you need to follow your gut instincts, though he does admit to keeping some of the best sounds for his own music. Finally, he lets slip that in the studio he is usually the drummer.
How are you and where are you?
I’m fine Man, and it is nice now over here in California, but it was a wild one and unexpected.
Who is Jonathan Wilson, touring musician with Roger Waters, producer of various roots acts and other artists, and solo artist?
I guess it’s a bit like a mystery man.
That too. That’s great, like a hyperactive mystery man.
What do you get out of each part of your overall career?
They have a term for it now, ADHD, and as a kid, I was like that too. I would jump from the guitar to the drums and back to the piano, back to the keyboard, and back to the guitar, and then try and sing. I would also open the amplifier to see what was inside, and all that kind of stuff and it just grew into all these other things, Man.
How much did your North Carolina upbringing influence your music?
For sure, in a lot of ways. I’m definitely proud of the musical South, where I’m from, and where my family is from, and it was in the family, in the bloodline to sing and play, to play the fiddle, play the banjo and guitar and stuff like that.
Why is retro one of the more exciting things happening in music at the moment?
I try to keep my ear close to the ground as far as what is going down, and I think there is a natural reaction to the Auto-Tuned loop-based pop culture musically, so I think it is perfectly natural that there is a growing rising movement of folks who play instruments and sing, and all that kind of stuff. On the production side, I get to observe that through the things that come through my studio. I get to see the trends and who’s doing what blah, blah, blah, and so it is very exciting as far as old-school style albums and songwriting, instrumental prowess and stuff like that. It does seem that it is on the rise.
Did you have any clear objectives for your new album ‘Eat The Worm’?
This one is a bit of a concept album in respect of I was bound and determined to do something a bit weird, a bit esoteric, and that was a bit off the kilter. I was inspired by the guy Jim Pembroke who was in this band in the ‘70s who were actually based out of Helsinki even though this guy is British, and they were called Wigwam. He passed away during the pandemic and somebody sent me a video of him and I was like, who is this guy he is incredible, and it was him sitting at a piano with his band. It was like solo John Lennon vibes, and I was why haven’t I heard of this guy. So I did a deep dive on him just for fun, and I came across this album he made in ’72 called ‘Warm Rumours’, and the way he set it up he just shoots himself in the foot as far as any commercial success goes and he talks in these weird little voices between songs, and he tries to portray the album as if it was a talent show. It is so weird, but it is so good. So, I was inspired, this is the kind of stuff that I love, I love to listen to Captain Beefheart and people like Frank Zappa, and I was like, this is what I want to make. So that was the impetus for the project.
How do you think people will respond to it when they hear it?
I’ll tell you, I will be really honest with you and it’s not that I don’t care but this is the first time I didn’t consider that as part of the process. If I wander too far from the Californian canyon guy or whatever, people are not going to understand, but this time it was just balls to the wall.
You mentioned Zappa and Beefheart who were one-offs, and their music also referenced classical and jazz influences. Is that where you are looking at the moment?
Yeah, for sure, that’s a good point. I went to see Herbie Hancock recently do his tribute to Wayne Shorter, so we got to see Herbie, Jack DeJohnette, Ron Carter, and all kinds of jazz greats, and this album is kind of a reminder for me to come back to my love of jazz I had as a teenager. So, there is definitely that one there, and as far as the classical side, there is that baroque sound that I love with the baroque pop of the ‘60s and ‘70s, so there is a bit of that on there too with the strings you would hear on The Walker Brothers and stuff like that. So, yeah, those two things, jazz and orchestral pop are super big.
How do you approach songwriting and arranging?
This one was a different process to some because there are not a lot of songs with just me sitting at the piano or with a guitar with a notepad, then boom there’s a song. These are more like studio experimentations where some would stick and some wouldn’t stick, I’ve got a whole studio here that I can use as my instrument as it were. So, yeah, some of these started on the drums, some on the piano and stuff, and the second track, ‘Bonamossa’ started with a jaw-harp, so it’s all over the map as far as the particular process. There are some that have, not my trademark so much, but my consistent song style, which is usually like a six-minute song that has a long outro and it’s got some turns and twists that are not conventional.
How did you decide when you’d finished adding to the soundscape?
That’s a tough one. You can try some things that you don’t screw with and you try and save them as they are to the bitter end, but the mixing process on this one was a bitch. These are big songs, there are tons of tracks and tons of strings with horns, and overdubs that you have to deal with, stuff you have to balance. So that process was intense until finally around the 6th January or so, I had to go back on tour and I was like, this is it, this is done. I had to go back and tweak a couple of things after the fact, things that you miss, and then I got back the masters of the album and I was like, wow, this is it, this is finally done.
Are you going to tour ‘Eat The Worm’?
Yeah, I will be playing some shows once I get back from the Roger Waters tour in December, I will be able to play some shows in 2024.
How do you plan to recreate ‘Eat The Work’ songs live?
What I’ll probably look for are a few special engagement-type things where I can have some strings and horns. It will probably be a quintet or so, augmented by some strings and horns, and we could maybe do a show in California, and I could come there and do a show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Something like that would be fun.
You mentioned touring with Roger Waters and his incredible catalogue. Have you learnt anything from that experience?
From him, you can learn how to really hone in on a vision, if you have one idea you can skin it, and that’s what he does, he has amazing concentration and he just keeps perfecting. That is definitely something that has rubbed off
How do you decide on which artists and projects to produce?
Most people come to me, and basically, it is not that complicated for me on that side of things, I just hear their stuff, and if it is a stranger I’ll check them out on Spotify or whatnot, or some demos or something. If I don’t dig it, I can’t do it, it is that simple. That is something I’ve been able to stick to. I’ve never done a project where I’ve thought this is really horrible, it is something I’ve seen the potential in or where I’ve thought I can give this artist the best sounding thing they’ve ever done.
When you produce other artists do you use the same criteria you use when you produce yourself?
In some ways, but I do save all the special sounds for myself, the real special snare drums, the real special cymbals, and little special stuff like that that I like to have in my back pocket. To have any success with production stuff you really have to follow your gut instincts, and that would be the same for me as for someone else.
What are your views on the emerging modern technology in the music business?
I don’t have a fear that AI is going to take over the business and songwriting, I tried to write a song with ChatGBT one time just to see what it would spit out and it was horrible, it wasn’t good. Will they be able to produce run-of-the-mill pop songs that you hear at the shopping mall, yes, I’m pretty sure they already do. I mean, those songs sound like they were made by a computer already. I think it will strengthen the organic sub-culture.
At the moment you are identified with the West Coast sound. Do you see yourself as part of that continuum from the Capitol Studio of the ‘50s, the ‘60s Wrecking Crew, and the ‘70s singer-songwriters and country rock?
Definitely man, definitely. At the studio, we have a crew that can definitely operate as a team, and we’ve done loads of albums operating mainly like a trio, myself and my good buddy Drew and my good friend Jake who plays in a band called The Killers. The three of us are similar to Hal Blaine and Carole Kaye, blah, blah, blah, in so far as we can move as a group and we’ve been on fifteen albums, maybe, as a trio. That is really fun when you’ve got that sense of a band of brothers who can show up and be chameleons. A lot of people think of me as a singer and a guitar player, but in the studio, I’m usually the drummer. That’s kind of a behind-the-scenes fun fact.
Who are your biggest influences as an artist?
It would have been being exposed to it with my dad. I grew up with a father who was in a high school band that they started and they kept it up. They would play gigs and parties and all that stuff, and I saw it from the time I was born. As I sprouted up as a kid I was just more and more excited to try it and it started with the guitar in the house and it just grew and grew. It was definitely my dad, and it was kind of like a British Invasion type band. It was a group of kids who saw The Ed Sullivan Show and were like, let’s start a band.
You mentioned the Queen Elizabeth Hall, are there any other plans to visit the UK?
Nothing firm yet, but I would love to do something like that in 2024. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share what is exciting you now?
I’m co-producing an album with Shooter Jennings, and what I was listening to right now, yesterday and the day before when he was in my car and I was trying to turn him onto Bob Frank Brown. I got turned onto this stuff about a week ago, and it is just crazy DIY instruments that were made by this guy, and he tracked this really cool weird album in 1982 here in California. It said something in his bio that he is a true California original. It is this crazy hippie folkie with Elvis-like crooning, with a break in his voice like a yodel. He is an expert at that and he plays this weird homemade stuff like a dulcimer kind of thing, and he has this giant wooden kind of thing like a giant marimba in there. He is just like this weird amalgamation of sounds. He also has these weird synthesisers in there, but it is just a wild way up on the mountain top kind of sound that this guy has.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I just want to say thank you to you guys for all the love and support you’ve given me, and I’ve just heard the new song is up on BBC 6 Music and all that good stuff which is all kind of exciting. So thanks again and I’ll be over soon. I’m flying into London on 25th September to play two nights at The London Palladium, not with my stuff but we are doing the ‘Dark Side Of The Moon Redux’ shows. I’ve never been there, so it will be exciting.
Jonathan Wilson’s ‘Eat The Worm’ is out now on BMG.