Spotlight: Jonathan Wilson
Photo by Lauren Ward
Jonathan Wilson’s recording career was almost over at the end of the ‘90s. Muscadine, the improv-friendly rock band that he co-founded with Benji Hughes in 1995, parted ways as their Sire contract expired. The North Carolina native—who originally moved to Los Angeles from his sleepy town with dreams of playing drums in a band—drifted through the California countryside, back to the Southeast and even to New York for a spell. Eventually, he settled in Los Angeles’ iconic Laurel Canyon neighborhood, the relaxed musical community that nurtured Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, and Crosby Stills and Nash in late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
“I went from a 15,000-person town to Beverley Hills and that was a big change,” says Wilson of his initial move to California. “It wasn’t until I went to live in Malibu that I became enamored with the coast, the geography and the vibe out here. That was the beginning of the love affair.”
A natural musician with a gentle ethos that matches the hospitality of his Southern roots with the relaxed, hippie-vibe of Laurel Canyon’s heyday, Wilson quickly immersed himself in his new community. Shortly after moving to the area in 2005, he started hosting loose, all-night jam sessions at his modest home every Wednesday; word quickly spread throughout the community and became a rite of passage for young musicians and living legends alike.
“The goal was to get together weekly and jam without rehearsing,” says Wilson, whose father hosted weekly pickin’ parties in North Carolina. “None of them were taped—that would have changed the attitude. The original core group was [founding Pearl Jam drummer] Dave Abbruzzese, Chris Robinson and Adam MacDougall, who at that time, wasn’t in the Crowes—his relationship with Chris developed from the jam.”
Wilson began offering his services as a session musician and producer. In a few short years, he’s worked with everyone from rising indie-folkies like Dawes, Vetiver and Fleet Foxes’ J. Tillman to established stars like Elvis Costello, Jenny Lewis, Erykah Badu, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bert Jansch, Jonathan Richman and the Wilco side project Autumn Defense. Wilson even popped into the studio to record an unreleased album with Robinson, Phil Lesh and drummer Steve DiStanislao. “We did eight songs but it got canned,” Wilson admits. “50 percent were Phil’s songs and 50 percent were Chris’ tunes.”
As Dawes and other members of his peer group attracted national attention, Wilson unexpectedly found himself at the center of a new crop of indie-approved, classic-rock inspired, folk and Americana bands. Everyone from Robbie Robertson to Jackson Browne to members of Oasis, Maroon 5 and Wilco made a point to attend his jam sessions and a Los Angeles Times article even gave him credit for reviving the long dormant Laurel Canyon community.
All the while, Wilson never stopped working on his own material. In 2007, he completed Frankie Ray and played every instrument on the album. Though he never officially released it, people circulated CD-Rs and the recording signaled a new direction for Wilson’s solo work.
“My sound definitely developed out here—a lot of songs are about Joshua Tree and Big Sur,” the guitarist says of his current folk-leaning material, which captures the timeless spirit of Laurel Canyon’s history and neighboring landscapes. “If I would have stayed in North Carolina, I probably would have bought a Papa John’s.”
Between recording sessions with other bands, Wilson started work on the reflective Gentle Spirit which was released last year. Though he recorded a good chunk of the album by himself, Wilson also recruited Robinson, Gary Louris, Barry Goldberg, Gary Mallaber and members of Vetiver for the project.
Like much of his production work, Wilson recorded Gentle Spirit on vintage analog equipment at his Five Star Studio, which he moved from Laurel Canyon to LA’s Echo Park neighborhood in 2011. As if to stake claim to roots, he also snuck a psych-rock reworking of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel” onto the record. This time, people took notice and Bella Union released it in the fall of 2011.
“The majority of the tunes were all composed at the same time for this album—it wasn’t a hodgepodge,” he says. “I wasn’t a producer who decided to make an album.”
Though Wilson admits that he didn’t know much about the Grateful Dead before working with Lesh, Gentle Spirit laces his tight, close harmonies with the loose jams akin to Neil Young & Crazy Horse and ‘70s-era Dead.
“Jamming is an important part of the show,” Wilson says. “For people familiar with jambands, it’s not a stretch but when we do a show in Belgium, it’s a different experience for them.”
Despite his busy schedule, Wilson continues to work with other artists, too: He’s currently producing an all-star tribute to Roy Harper as well as J. Tillman’s next project. “I’ve turned down projects that could have made me a lot of money,” Wilson says of his production work. “For me, the studio and the stage come from the same spot—it’s never a job.”
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
- Relix Live Fridays: Trey Anastasio at The Fox
- Grace Potter & The Nocturnals "The Lion The Beast The Beat" (Official Video)
- The Allman Brothers Band Before Gregg?
- The M & Ms: Medeski, Mali, Mercurio, Moore at (Le) Poisson Rouge (A Gallery)
- Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger "The Pequod"
- Trey Anastasio with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center
- More Visions of the Hangout Music Festival 2013 (A Gallery)
- A Blowout for the So So Glos
- Interlocken Festival to Feature Neil Young, Furthur, String Cheese Incident, Black Crowes, Zac Brown and More
- Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers "Friend of The Devil" at the Beacon
- The Salvation of Page McConnell (Relix Revisited)
- Interlocken Adds Widespread Panic and John Fogerty, Furthur to Play Workingman’s Dead
- Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa "If Heartaches Were Nickels"
- The Final Ingredient in Dogfish Head’s Grateful Dead Tribute Ale Is…
- Stone Gossard Readies His Moonlander
- Trey Anastasio Band at The Hangout (Video Stream)
- Doctor’s Orders: So what should we call the Super Ball IX Newspaper?
- John Kadlecik Posts Statement on Bob Weir’s Collapse
- "I Wanne Be In moe.": The Latest Volunteers
- Bob Weir Escorted Off Stage During Furthur Show
- Vote for Your Favorite "I Wanne Be In moe." Contestant
- Furthur Cancels BottleRock Show as Bob Weir Is Out Of Commision
- Doctor’s Orders: What’s Your Favorite Furthur Song? (Win Copy of Relix Signed by Phil and Bobby)
- On The Verge Poll