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The Gentle Spirit of Jonathan Wilson

A Southern Son Out West
By James Calemine

“Are you satisfied?
Are you occupied?
Do you have enough time
To reflect in your mind?
As your life moves on
Towards some Avalon
Just remember your beauty
Was almost undefined.”
             “Dreaming” 
             -Jonathan Wilson


Born in Spindale, North Carolina, in 1977, Jonathan Wilson ranks as one of the modern day South’s most talented musicians. He can play a plethora of instruments, but these days other musicians seek him out for his emotive six-string talents.

Wilson grew up in a strong Baptist family of musicians. His grandfather was a preacher, and his father was a band leader, which proves where Wilson’s musical inclinations originated. In 1995 he started a band called Muscadine. The band proved a force on the Charlotte music scene. Once the band broke up, Wilson moved to California, Georgia and New York City where he continued recording and writing songs.

Wilson’s solo album, Frankie Ray, ranks as a classic collection of quiet, indelible compositions. His music contains an inimitable sound that belongs to only him. On Frankie Ray, Wilson played every instrument on the record such as guitars, electric bass, acoustic bass, moog, mandolin, banjo, drums, pedal steel, lap steel, baritone uke, mellotron, theremin and percussion. Wilson emerges as a true original. A couple of years ago, The Black CrowesChris Robinson and Wilson struck up a friendship that centered on Wednesday night jam sessions at Wilson’s house. Robinson and Wilson began playing gigs together and they immediately developed a serious musical brotherhood.

These Wednesday night jam sessions in Laurel Canyon serve as the fulcrum of a blooming music scene in California that operates around the talent of southern musicians. This contemporary music scene mirrors an influence that Gram Parsons, Leon Russell, Gregg Allman, Delaney Bramlett, and Tom Petty pioneered decades before by pollinating California with seeds of southern music.

Wilson’s soulful playing found him collaborating with Robinson, Gary Louris, Vetiver, The Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, Elvis Costello, Jonathan Rice, Jenny Lewis, Susanna Hoffs, and many other talented folks. Wilson prepares to release his next solo album, Gentle Spirit, in the coming months with most of the aforementioned musicians making appearances on his new disc. Wilson also plays on Elvis Costello’s new record Momo Fuku. In June, Wilson returns to his native south for some upcoming shows, and this writer respectfully suggests readers seek out Wilson’s work…

In this Mystery And Manners interview, Wilson discusses his southern musical upbringing through the development and progression of his career up to his current plans, which make him a busy man these days. His original musical talents prove even more influential once you discover his down-to-earth-openness. I hope to see his contributions to Mystery And Manners very soon. Seek out this talented southern son’s work. You’ve not heard the last of him…

JW: Hey man! What’s happening?

Not much…we’re getting some rain here in Atlanta.

JW: Yeah? In the Hollywood hills it’s hot. It was a hot one today brother.

When’s the last time you’ve been to your old stomping grounds in North Carolina?

JW: I always go for the holiday vibe. That was probably the last time. I’m about to go back down there on June 1st.

You just got off the road, right?

JW: I was on a little tour I was doing with this band called Vetiver. They’re from North Carolina for the most part. They’re from Richmond, Chapel Hill…around there.

Talk about the band Vetiver...

JW: Vetiver is simply one of America's best bands, and some of the most vital and timeless music being made. Andy Cabic's understanding and deep knowledge of great songs and dynamic music is astounding, it does not suprise me that he cut his teeth in North Carolina, he has a way of giving himself to a song, every moment in his performance is focused, and it's an inspiration. He is one of a few friends that makes the hair on my arms stand up a few times during his shows, and on record.
It is also par for the course that he is one of the most humble sweet fellas you will ever meet, completey devoid of ego, and is an open antennae into the world of genuine communication and art, and Otto, Sanders and Brent Dunn are some of the grooviest most amazing musicians walking the planet right now, they embody the addage, "You gotta know the rules before you can break the rules". These guys have done their homework, and they know more records than anyone I know, except maybe Chris Robinson!  All of that would mean nothing, but they apply and respect all of the influences that are floating out there in the cosmos, and it's in their songs...I hope we do many more shows together and communicate all of this to the listeners that are in need of the real.....

You were born in Spindale, North Carolina in 1977, right?

JW: Yeah…

You come from a very musical family…

JW: Yeah, well…it was one of those things where I was basically coming into all the stuff you would expect like growing up Baptist in North Carolina. My grandfather was a preacher. So, I was always getting into that type of vibe. When I would go back to my house, my dad’s got a band. So when all those dudes would come up to hang out—one of the guys would be gone or couldn’t come up—so I would jump around on all the instruments.

You were the utility guy…

JW: Yeah, totally. All the time. I didn’t even think about it. You just thought that was what you did. Now when I look back and I was playing with those guys and I realized how good they were. You’re from down there—you understand the vibe of how some of those guys can really pick. It really wasn’t until I spread out or moved out West and up to NYC, and started seeing all these Yankee vibrations and the West Coasters that I started seeing a lot of young people that really didn’t understand any of the old school shit.

You play all sorts of instruments very well…

JW: Yeah, somewhat. That’s not my main thing. Most of the time--these days people sort of get me involved with something for my lead guitar stuff. That’s sort of turned out to be my thing…which is cool.

You formed the band Muscadine with your old buddy Benji Hughes.

JW: That’s right

Did you gig around North Carolina a good bit? How did things develop?

JW: Well, the band started there. We did lots of shows in Charlotte, which was our hometown. Somehow we got involved with…well, one of the guys there that wrote for the paper there was one of our biggest fans. He also wrote for Billboard so he put us in there all the time. That got some shit happening with our gigs. It was a good band. Then we got our own self-produced thing, and we did it for $13,000 and we turned around and sold that for $280,000, which was cool at the time. Those were back in the days when bands would get big deals and shit. That was a huge deal. It was one of those deals that you hear about. We got into than when we were just youngsters. Being there in that town we were like the only band with that type of thing happening. Of course, we thought we were hot shit (laughs). It kinda turned out to be a good thing that band. We only did one thing for them, and then we put it out a little six song thing. It was good that the band didn’t turn into a one-hit band. Then it would be—nowadays—‘Oh, you’re the guy from Third Eye Blind’ or something, which would kind of be a drag. We did that, and we sort of broke that up in 1999.

Then you moved to California…

JW: Yeah, I came out here and I moved to Topanga and lived in the last real hippie shit there—which is gone now. That was some awesome shit. We’re talking like 2000-2003, something like that. Then they kicked everybody out. There were 55 homes down in this little enclave—there were sculptures, painters—Moms, Dads, kids--everybody’s down there. But basically somebody passed by it and said ‘They gotta go.' People built their own fucking houses—just tons of shit down there that was just cool. Once that occurred I kinda got soured on the vibe. Then I moved down your way and went in business with this dude in Alpharetta (suburb of Atlanta). That was fun. But he got mixed up with the wrong thing down there and he got murdered, which was pretty fucked up. And that was the end of that. Then I moved to New York City. That was where I started my solo stuff.

I love Frankie Ray. That’s been one of my favorites for over a year.

JW: Ah, man. Thank you.

I heard about you through Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. So, I sought out your record. You play every instrument on Frankie Ray

JW: Yeah, that was sort of a concept thing that I had fallen for this stranger. It was a girl I’d seen and thought she was the most spectacular thing I have ever seen. I talked to her two times. I rushed home and cut two tracks. I’d written the first song. If you listen to the whole CD, there’s a Beatles song that’s like the last thing on there.


Past “Masters In China”, past the reprise right?

JW: Yeah, it’s past that—it’s a bit of a hidden track. I had done those first two songs and I wasn’t even thinking about it. I just did those two songs. I wasn’t thinking about turning it into a whole fucking album. So then, six months later I was out at this place and there she was. I walked up to her (laughs) and she was like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ I was like ‘I’ve got something for you’. She told me her parents were splitting up and she told me this stuff super fast, and that her dad was thinking about her mom. That’s why I’d done that song. So I was telling her that, and she didn’t understand, she was like ‘Okay dude.’ So, that was it. Then I was fucked up. I went and wrote tons of songs. There were about ten other songs that didn’t even end up on there.

That was just done at a time where I could just spend thousands of hours on a project. That’s what it is. I think there’s only a certain amount of times especially when families get involved…kids and stuff…so that was done at the right time. That album ended up being I can say there’s not one thing on there I wish something was this way or that way…

Frankie Ray got your name out there. You’re a good enough player to sit in with all kinds of folks, but you played gigs behind Frankie Ray

JW: Yeah, some. I signed up with some people called Koch. Basically, at the time it seemed like the right thing to do because they were going to sign me and give me my own imprint so I could sign 15 bands during the whole thing which would have been from 2006-2009 or something like that. So, at the time nobody was beating down my door. I was like ‘Yeah, this seems kind of cool.’ So, I signed up with them and it turned out to be that they did what typically people sometimes do with bands was they kept putting it back. They’ve got all this shit about to happen so they say we’ll put this out in the spring of 2009, or whatever…

Then the artist is so far past the timepiece in which he’s written in, it’s so far gone he’s not as enthusiastic about it.

JW: Exactly. That’s the worse thing that can happen to someone. I’ve experienced it. To make your stuff and for it not to be able to come out right on time…Then you start thinking should I get into some other shit or should I just hang out with this sound or what should I do. That was kind of rough man. Finally, they put me off so long—like 15 months or something, that I said, ‘No, this is a bad idea.’ It came out on ITtunes, but that’s about it.

Let’s see, this copy I have of Frankie Ray is on Pretty And Black…

JW: Is that the one with all the artwork?

Yeah, lyrics, the pictures…one of two crows in a tree…picture of the studio…

JW: Yeah, good. That’s one that I did. Oh yeah. Ah, I see (Chris) Robinson is calling in now…it’s okay…I’ll call him back.

Well, speaking of crows in trees, serendipity and Chris Robinson…you guys formed a strong musical bond. How did you meet up with him?

JW: Well, he basically came to town…I guess we met on his birthday—December 20, 2006, and he was playing a show. So we did a show out at this old roadhouse that’s in Joshua Tree. Somebody told him you should give this guy a call. He gave me a call and we practiced down the street from here in this fucking awesome spot. I went down there and we got into some songs and it was on from then on. Both of us…like the way we do harmonies and stuff that was our bond. We didn’t even have to say anything. We turned into homies right off the bat. He’s such an awesome guy. Since I’ve been friends with him I’ve just been turned onto stuff. That’s been really fun. Then we started doing these things at my house.

I remember a Happy Trail gig…

JW: Yeah, that was a birthday gig too. That was our birthdays in 2007. Our birthdays are basically the same time. His is December 20. My birthday is December 30. He’s a one of a kind guy. It’s funny, ten times I’ve walked down the street or gone in a bank and somebody thinks I’m him. It’s not really because we look alike. We do to an extent, but I think it’s more of the things we’re interested in.

Chris played a big role in Gary Louris’ record y’all played on, Vagabonds.

JW: Oh yeah. Chris is the one who put the band together for that. It turned out to be a really fun thing. Chris did a second thing with Gary and Marc (Olson)…

…Of the Jayhawks…

JW: That album…for me…that’s the one. I didn’t play on it—that was just those guys. It’s so fucking good. I think it comes out sometime in the fall.

That Laurel Canyon scene, to me, seems like the second coming of southern musicians moving out west…pollinating California with a southern seed…Gram Parsons and Leon Russell moved to California…you and Chris represent the second generation of southerners to move out west

JW: …Totally…

…Even Adam MacDougall (Black Crowes new keyboardist) played on the Louris’ record…he’s also part of that Canyon scene…

JW: Adam’s insane. That dude is actually the one of us who is a prodigy. That’s definitely the vibe. The house that I got here…I bought Leon Russell’s mixing board that’s here. Those are our dudes. They understand. We understand.

In California country, you even began playing with The Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh.

JW: Yeah, man. That was fun. The thing about Phil—lots, not lots, but people get to go out when Phil’s on the road. He always has people helping him, but being in the studio—that’s some other shit.

Real music mafia…

JW: (laughs) Yeah. Some people think about it like, ‘Oh, that’s just some other thing I did. He was cool…but he’s not so cool now…just the way people think…

Sometimes even the most music loving people have really shallow perspectives…

JW: That’s right. There’s something about Phil in the way that occurred at the right time that was such an inspiration. Just to see the way he came into the studio just fucking all business man. He turned up his amp to about fucking nine, and just went boom! That’s why he’s Phil. That was fun…

Talk about working with Elvis Costello.

JW: Basically I’m playing and singing on his latest record which came out on April 22. He took us down to do the big opening for the album, which was in Memphis. So we got up with him there—things went so well that he said why don’t y’all hop on the bus? So we went and played the next night with him at the Ryman. That was amazing. We played about six songs with the band. I just talked with him this afternoon and he’s going to be in town and he’s doing a big show here on May the 25th. That should be an awesome show. Elvis is the same type of deal. He’s just an inspiration. He’s the same way—he’s balls out man. He sings his fucking ass off onstage.

You play a lot with Jonathan Rice. How’d you meet him?

JW: Well, I met him here in L.A. through his girlfriend who is in that band Rilo Kiley.
It was the same type of deal—they called me and I came in and played with all them in the studio. It turned into some other stuff too.

Tell me about your new album you just recorded.

JW: I’m talking to some labels now. There’s been some I thought where it was going to happen, but it didn’t—that’s okay. I want to do it with these people Vanguard because they’ve done tons of awesome shit. That may happen, but the album is called Gentle Spirit with 16 tracks.

Who plays on it?

JW: It’s got most of everybody…Chris Robinson, Adam MacDougall, Gary Louris—he sings a little bit—and some old school guys like Barry Goldberg.

That’s a link between the past and the future…He’s played with Bob Dylan…Duane Allman…Eddie Hinton

JW: He’s played with everybody. He lives down the street from here. Through the things I’ve been doing here on Wednesday nights has been totally off the hook, and that just begins to spread. We’ve been doing it about 2 times every six weeks. For a while there was one every week at the house here. We’ve had tons of folks here. That’s what really opened things up here in town.

I plan on writing an article about southern music infiltrating the California music scene. You’re really the nucleus of that scene now.  

JW: Yeah…

Discuss your approach to songwriting and sonic qualities you employ...

JW: The songwriting process to me is usually akin to painting, or visualizing to fruition, and nothing is more gratifying than starting with something and seeing it through the recording process and mixing, every step is shaping the final tune. So I leave parts of a song purposely unfinished to insure an element of chance in the process. Most all of my songs start on an acoustic guitar or piano, I have yet to be able to compose or record riff based tunes, or studio wizardry that cannot be stripped down and played on my porch.

I pull many sonic ideas and guitar sounds and moods from Psych bands I love, The Apryl Fool, JK and Co., Mcphee, the list goes on, but I still find myself writing a song first, and composing interludes and free sections later, while recording. My songwriting influences are vast, but lately JJ Cale, John Prine, Gary Higgins, Andy Cabic, Skip Spence,  Canned Heat, and of course Lennon and Neil Young, these songwriters do it for me.
 
Lennon and Neil Young always have since I was a boy, and as much as one would like to pick and choose who truly influences you by citing esoteric rare elite musicians, I feel who you are influenced by and who you want to be influenced by are usually 2 different entities. Some people are intrinsically influenced by the likes of the Pet Shop Boys, whether they like it or not. I have the advantage (or Curse) of being able to lay down all of the instruments myself in the studio, which while it is hard work to pre-plan parts and sections that a band would organically do and each man would split the load, it does offer great satisfaction when you see a song reach fruition, alone, with your vision being comitted to tape one building block at a time, it's a grand process, and fulfilling, although the technical aspects and setups, engineering stuff is getting to be a drag the older I get.  I'm on the hunt for the perfect engineer who I can be one hundred percent creative around, but then again just having a presence in the room changes the level of concentration that I can achieve in solitude, so I may be stuck with myself forever.
 
Frankie Ray was done alone, however Gentle Spirit is the first recording I've done with a band helping and many guest musicians, and that was a joy also. As long as I can have plenty of alone time to place parts , experiment and sonically comb, I'm cool.
All of this is leading up to a live record we make in two days days I guess!

Your site, The Songs of Jonathan Wilson contains some of your photos...

JW: Oh yeah... Nothing’s been done on that thing for a long ass time. You know what I’ve been thinking about doing? I’ve got so many b-sides I’ve done in all these other studios. I’m thinking about putting some songs up on there just so everyone can have it.

Some of the other songs mixed with the Frankie Ray songs on your MySpace page are great…

JW: Yeah, that’s some different stuff. I think there’s some current material on there—one song is on the upcoming disc.

I’d like to get you to contribute to Mystery And Manners…put up some of your photos and have you write something. I put up an article Chris Robinson wrote 15 years ago…Jim Dickinson recently contributed…

JW: Yeah, that would be cool. I’ll tell Chris I was on the phone with you today, and you’re the dude. You know, I read your Mudcrutch thing and I was just at their gig the other night. That was a good show.

I love Mike Campbell’s guitar playing. If you get a chance check out my friend Lance Ledbetter’s company Dust To Digital here in Atlanta. I sent you that link. They have a beautiful collection called Goodbye, Babylon. One of the six CDs of classic old recordings is a CD of just old country preachers giving sermons…


JW: Oh, wow…

I’ll get you a copy…

JW: Man, that would be great…

It’s a fine cedar box packed with raw cotton. It comes with a beautiful book describing each artist, recording and lyrics. Each page contains a biblical passage…

JW: Who are they again?

It’s called Dust To Digital. It’s all rare 78rpm recordings…very obscure and intense. Some of those sermons are downright un-nerving. It will make you feel like you should go to church…or perhaps hearing it is the next best thing. Also, check out Music Maker…it’s a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting poor blues musicians. They’re out of North Carolina too…

JW: Far out. I want you to send me your address so when I get the album done—I’ll send you a copy. You know, I really like Jim Lauderdale…

His new record Honey Songs is great. So, let’s do this again before too long. I’ll be in touch when I get this interview worked up…keep you in the rotation…

JW: James just give me a call anytime…this all sounds cool…

Thanks for taking the time to talk. I’ll be in touch…

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