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“I’m pretty good with organization and feng shui and stuff,” Jonathan Wilson tells me. “When I walk into a space I can tell if it’s fucked up, and what should go where. I just, for whatever reason, have this fucking psychosis that compels me to present myself with a very complex musical problem — which is all these tracks, and all these fucking frequencies stacked on top of each other — and then figuring out where they all fit.”
Wilson, a sought-after record producer and musician who is perhaps best-known for collaborating with Father John Misty and Roger Waters, is explaining the process for making his own incredibly dense and wildly exploratory albums, including the new Rare Birds, a psych-folk fantasia infused with ’80s pop production and mystical world-music accents. His sentences, like his songs, tend to be overstuffed and unwieldy. But they always seem to end with some grand flourish.
“It’s the same thing I do with Josh,” Wilson adds, referring to his production work on the most recent Father John Misty album, 2017’s Pure Comedy. “We do these multi-tiered, heavily layered songs, and then that’s not enough, so we’ll fucking overdub a Mariachi band on top of that.”
I reached Wilson last month during a brief break between tours — he had just flown home to LA after an Australian tour with Waters, for whom he plays guitar and essentially acts as a proxy for Waters’ ex-Pink Floyd bandmate, David Gilmour, brilliantly replicating his famous solos in songs like “Comfortably Numb” and “Time.” After a brief six-day rest, Wilson was due to head back on the road in support of Rare Birds, his first album in five years.
If Wilson’s music sounds confusing on paper, actually hearing the spacey sprawl of Rare Birds tracks like “Loving You” and “Over The Midnight” will definitely seem like way too much upon first listen. But Wilson truly is a master of building records out of seemingly ill-fitting sounds, applying loose, jazz-like songs structures to discursive ’70s folk-pop melodies that are buffed to a new-wave sheen. (Wilson has listed synthpop producer Trevor Horn as a touchstone for Rare Birds.)
The restless wanderlust of Wilson’s music suits his background, which includes a southern upbringing in North Carolina highlighted by a stint in the ’90s indie-rock band Muscadine, where Wilson was paired with Benji Hughes, another modern cult figure among “eccentric yet tuneful singer-songwriter” enthusiasts. After that, Wilson worked as a successful luthier, building guitars for members of Aerosmith and Maroon 5. Eventually, he wound up in southern California and became a fixture of the Laurel Canyon music community, hosting groovy jam sessions attended by everyone from Elvis Costello to Jenny Lewis to Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. He also made his name as a producer by working with roots-minded indie artists like Conor Oberst and Dawes.
In 2011, Wilson released his first solo record, Gentle Spirit, a 79-minute epic descended from spooky Southern California rock classics like David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name and Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue. While Gentle Spirit was largely ignored by the public and much of the music press, it gradually became a matter of near-obsessive concern for a small but dedicated following, which included famous admirers like Crosby, Graham Nash, and Jackson Browne, as well as more contemporary stars like Lana Del Rey, who guests on Rare Birds. Wilson’s 2013’s LP, Fanfare, was even more expansive, piling layers of guitars, keyboards, and percussion on cosmic songs that contemplate the ocean waves with acidhead insight.
Wilson started work on Rare Birds in 2016, and continued tinkering for more than a year while producing Pure Comedy and contributing to Waters’ 2017 album, Is This The Life We Really Want? He deliberately tried to ditch the overt SoCal references in his music, in order to avoid being pigeon-holed as some kind of hippie throwback. “The whole fucking Canyon thing, it just gets to be a bit much,” he says with exasperation.
No matter how many rock legends or obscure albums his music might evoke, Wilson makes albums that are utterly unique, particularly now. While most artists are content to serve up hors d’oeuvres that go down easy on streaming platforms, Wilson specializes in multi-course banquets that demand to be thoroughly explored over many listens.
“I’m trying to push things,” he says. “You can’t really push them in songwriting, playing the old fucking cowboy chords again. You’re not gonna be Townes Van Zandt, it’s just not possible. So I’m trying to push it in some other ways.”
I’m excited to talk to you about Rare Birds, but first: I didn’t realize you were Roger Waters’ band until I saw you playing with him on tour last summer. Of course, now I know that you also played on Waters’ most recent solo album. How did you meet him?
It was through my friend Nigel Godrich, who produced his album. He started to do some tracks with Roger, and nobody was positive it was gonna turn out to be anything. This is the first time he had tried to get an album done in a quarter of a century, so I’m sure there was a lot of stops and starts. They called me on the second day, and they’re like, ‘We need somebody on guitar.’ And I came down, and things went well, just off the bat. It kept expanding into more tracks and more stuff. Eventually, we all came to my studio, which was where we did about 70 percent of the record. And then that sort of developed into a friendship.
Your first two albums were sometimes compared to Pink Floyd, and I detect some Floydian textures on Rare Birds. Was that band a formative influence for you?
Yeah, it definitely was. But at the same time, I was never specifically a Floydian fanboy or something. But I was always a huge fan of Gilmour, and then I discovered The Final Cut as a teenager, and that was a big one for me. When I got to be pals with Roger, I would ask him to play songs from that album, which he would do. I was like, ‘Holy fucking shit, this is so amazing.’ [Waters] was always just like a cut above. He’s sort of in a way comparable to John Lennon, just this exclusive air space.
You’ve described Rare Birds as “maximalist,” which is interesting given that Gentle Spirit and Fanfare are such expansive records. Do you really feel like Rare Birds has even more going on musically than your other work?
Maybe. I said that as a combative [reaction] to what you’re always gonna see in the reviews: It’s too dense, it’s too long, it’s too lush, too this and that. And the perfect album fits on one vinyl, and it’s 36 minutes long, and it’s written by the Sex Pistols, and dah, dah, dah, fucking dah, dah.
It’s just not what I do, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s a disease or something, but it ends up just being my thing.
I love how layered your albums are. I’m curious how you go about composing music, because while you’re technically classified as a singer-songwriter, you seem more concerned with sounds than songs. Is there an element of improvisation to your work?
There’s definitely some space for that for sure. On this album, something that is different from the ones in the past is that I got a piano. So I would sit there at this really nice Steinway, and the songs would start like that. And then I would fill in the phonetic sounds that turn into words. But most of the time, it starts at the piano, and then I take tons and tons of time to explore each thing and what it could be and what it might turn into. Maybe I’ll preserve a section for jamming — a common thread you’ll find is a lot of really long outros, which I’ve been doing since I was a teenager.
You’ve talked about playing jazz as a teen. How has that influenced your subsequent work?
I ran away from home when I was a teenager. I think I just turned 16, and it caused a huge fucking uproar in my family. I came back eventually, but at that point I had dropped out of school. And so they were like, ‘What are you gonna do? You’ve gotta do something.’ I happened to find a jazz program in North Carolina, so I got my fucking GED, and then went to jazz school for jazz drums. I got deeply involved in that, and I got gigs with these older jazz bands. I was a bit of a little jazz prodigy dude.
Jazz was like my punk. At the time I was deep into jazz was the time that Pearl Jam was on top of the world, and shit like that. I couldn’t stand all that sh*t. I thought jazz was this elitist thing that none of my pals understood. None of them knew jack shit about fucking Sonny Rollins. That still is a huge part of my thing. I practice jazz drums all the time.
Can you tell me about the song “Loving You”? How did that come together? That’s such a fascinating amalgam of different sounds.
That’s the one that started the whole process. That was with my friend Laraaji, who I’m a huge fan of. These days it’s like he’s full-on hipster royalty, this guy, because of all the cool shit that he’s done through the years, with Brian Eno and the rest. He came into town and came to my studio, and I played him this little thing that I had on the piano. I put down just a little drum machine beat to guide us through it, and that’s the beat that you hear. And he started to do his thing, which was all the chanting and then he played his cosmic zither, then he did all these things on his fucking iPad, all this shit.
We basically struck up that sound on the first day, and we didn’t change it. Each time I tried to put something on that song, it kind of fucked it up. So that was what you hear, that first day. It was more important to preserve the spirit of that day. That became a formula and a theme that I applied to several songs. The same bass, synthesizer, the same thing on the drum set, the same cymbals and stuff like that.
You have such an “anything goes” style of record-making. Do you ever feel restrained when you’re producing other people?
People get conservative when they go to the studio. If you think about that famous Del Shannon song, “Runaway” — if you think about that solo, that crazy fucking organ synthesizer solo that’s so strident and loud and crazy, that would never pass in this day and age. People would’ve gone, ‘Oh no, god no, no, no, no. That’s way too overpowering. It’s way too loud.’ I try to lead by example with my own shit. This is how it is when I have fucking carte blanche, this is the sound.
Rare Birds is out now via Bella Union. Get it here.