[MUSIC: Interview] Jonathan Wilson
Talking to Jonathan Wilson over the phone with some 12 000 kilometres between us doesn’t feel half as disconnecting as it sounds. Wilson has a way of making you feel like you’re hanging out in his lounge room in Los Angeles, hugging a handmade pottery mug steaming with herbal tea. No man is ego-less, but he comes about as close to it as it gets. Soon, Wilson and his humility will cross the sweeping Pacific Ocean that stretches our phone line for his first Australian tour, and he is “really, really stoked” about it. Riding on the heels of the success of his 2011 release Gentle Spirit, Wilson says “it’s been a big year – one that has far surpassed anything anyone could have imagined.” After a long, at times frustrating gestation period, he finally sensed that the planets were aligned for the album’s release, and since then it’s been a rocket ship of a ride. “It’s a true blessing, to be honest. I’m really, really happy because it was difficult to get the album heard in the right way, and I knew the whole time that I could not put it out with the wrong people. It had to be the right vibe.”
Gentle Spirit is overflowing with the right vibes. Like slow-burning incense, it sparks and simmers, as smoky guitar rhythms swirl and loop through the air, swayed by a voice that ignites all your senses, leaving the room subtly fragranced with sandalwood. It’s almost relieving to know that someone like Wilson exists: a true earth child connected to both nature and man through his undeniable gift for and affinity with music. On the majestic track ‘Desert Raven’, Wilson dispenses wisdom like an ancient medicine man, as he sings “The raven who flies through the desert sky is wiser than you or me”, and soars above the cavernous sands of time.
His role, then, in what has been dubbed ‘The Laurel Canyon Revival Scene’ seems fitting. Hosting jam sessions at his house in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon – historic hippie base and old stomping grounds of such rock royalty as Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison – musicians flocked to partake in these collaborative celebrations of improvisation and grade-A shredding; guests included members of The Black Crowes, Steve Miller Band, Wilco, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst. The now infamous jam sessions seem inescapable in any write-up about Wilson, but asked if he’s tired of this marriage he resolves, “I’m not sick of it. I try to shed the truth about it, though. There was a scene there – but that scene was at my house.
“The Canyon became this journalistic sort of fantasyland,” he continues. “I kind of let it fly when people imagined it like that, and the fact that now it has turned into such a big deal is a trip.” The truth does little to dilute Wilson’s contribution to the magic fairy juice reportedly trickling down LA’s hills, though; it just means that the scene he was reviving didn’t spread past his dreamcatcher-donned front door. Media hype aside, Wilson reminisces fondly: “It was a time and place and it was great that it happened. It happened very innocently, and mainly to have a good time. And that’s what we had.”
The good times have extended far beyond Laurel Canyon in the last 18 months, seeing Wilson collaborate with the likes of Bob Weir and Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, and Jackson Browne. Wilson and his band have also toured extensively – a year on the road that climaxed with a European jaunt with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. “How was that tour?” Wilson repeats, “Fucking amazing!” he bursts, before steadying himself a little. “It was like Christmas every day. Playing massive sports arenas and stadiums, and Tom is such a cool guy. It was just a lot of fun.” As of touring itself, Wilson is a fan. “Not in some weird ego way, but I do love the sensation of singing the songs.”
When Wilson isn’t touring, he’s producing. From his East Los Angeles-based Fivestar Studios, he has produced for the likes of Father John Misty, Dawes, and presently, folk legend Roy Harper (or “Mr Harper,” as he reverently corrects me). Recording with analogue equipment, Wilson manages to capture all the nostalgia of the sun-soaked ‘60s without needing any of the LSD. When I dub him a jack of all trades, he deflects the compliment by redirecting the praise: “I’m also doing an album with a tremendous band called White Denim, one of the hottest bands there is,” he says. “I’ve got a new album coming too, around May – just in time for all the festivals and stuff.”
As for Wilson’s Australian expectations? “I would like for loads and loads of people to come to our show. That would be really nice, because to be honest we’re coming because we felt like it was really important to show up there for this album, with the goal being to come back again to build a base there. And the whole reason why is because the United States couldn’t give a fuck.” A travesty for America – and a triumph for the rest of us.
What: Gentle Spirit is out now through Popfrenzy
With: Charles Buddy Daaboul
Where: The Standard
When: Saturday September 15