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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.