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Jonathan Wilson: The Gentle Spirit Returns

by Richard Gehr on February 14, 2014

David Crosby apparently has a habit of tuning friends’ guitars to his personal tonal specifications, and then leaving. On one such occasion, however, he returned the retuned instrument to Los Angeles musician/producer Jonathan Wilson and said, “See if you can find a song in this.” Challenged with the unusual tuning that Croz used for his Crosby, Stills & Nash classic “Guinnevere,” Wilson repurposed it into a similarly gossamer answer song of sorts.

Like many other Wilson tunes, “Her Hair Is Growing Long” is a three-dimensional crossword puzzle of personal, musical and cultural references to a specific era. In “Her Hair,” Wilson blends a classic singer/songer come-on, to a rainbow-eyed duchess, with some heartfelt lines about the symbolism of Crosby and Graham Nash. As it happens, the pair also provide guest harmonies on Fanfare, Wilson’s third album of meticulously produced semi-acoustic cosmic folk rock. “The bloodline is thin,” croons Wilson in his whispery, late-night voice. “Am I singing with the end?”

“I am singing at the end with those guys,” Wilson tells me as we sit at a picnic table among the trees outside his live-in Fivestar recording studio in Echo Park, which he rents from Conor Oberst. What Wilson means, in all sincerity, are the final days of a lineage that extends from the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jackson Browne, Gene Clark (with special attention to his cosmic-cowboy masterpiece No Other) and their West Coast ilk, all the way east to John Lennon, Pink Floyd, the great, undersung Roy Harper and plenty of other psych-rockers (McPhee, J.K. & Co., the Apryl Fool...) lost to obscurity.

Wilson sounds genuinely sad about Furthur’s recently announced hiatus. In fact, he’d jammed with them at the Greek Theatre a couple of nights earlier. He’s part of Justin Kreutzmann’s Move Me Brightly concert film celebrating Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday. And in 2008, he recorded several tracks with Phil Lesh and Black Crowe Chris Robinson, in the Santa Monica studio once owned by The Beach Boys, for a potential reality show that never came to fruition. “I hope [Furthur] comes back soon, man,” says Wilson, who speaks with an endearing slight stammer. “It’s sad to think about it. Of course it will come to an end one day, but it’s not time yet. Come on, man, right? I’m not so obsessed with the subtleties of the show as I am with the energy of the whole experience: the fans, the crowds and what’s fucking happening at the show—when that comes to an end...”

It will, but not if Wilson can help it. The Cali-rock template established during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, with or without an improvisatory component, abides in many acts today. But no one so assiduously seeks to recapture its Ladies of the Canyon essence as Jonathan Wilson, who was born some 3,000 miles east in 1974, just as that era of perceived innocence was evolving into something harder-edged and more mercenary. With his lanky frame, shoulder- length dark hair, spare beard, beads and bracelets, Wilson reanimates those days of infinite possibility, when rockers and actors consorted hedonistically in the Hollywood Hills. Wilson recreated that scene, too, in miniature, for a while in Laurel Canyon before moving on.

I have no doubt that at least one or two astrologically inclined young women—or “chicks,” “babes” or “gals,” as the childless, single and “ready to mingle” musician anachronistically refers to them—have attempted to suss out the essence of Wilson’s dual personality. On the one hand, he’s a modern multi-instrumentalist and studio-wizard loner, who recorded his first record, 2007’s Frankie Ray, single-handedly playing guitars, keyboards and drums à la Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren’s great early solo albums and Skip Spence’s left- field classic Oar. He recorded most of Frankie Ray’s 2011 successor, Gentle Spirit, in a similar fashion and more than half of Fanfare was recorded the same way, too. He suggests that appearances by his touring group on a handful of tracks are ads as well as artistry, although he revels in collaboration both onstage and off.

“I definitely wanted to paint the picture of what the band does live with some tunes,” he says. “The album and show are two separate things, and they should be. It gives you two different things to enjoy. With Gentle Spirit, people would always be shocked to see the band. They expected to see some guy hunched over his acoustic guitar, and then, there’d be this mighty band. They’d go, ‘Whoa! I had no idea!’ I heard that all the time.” Even The Ballad of Hope Nicholls, Wilson’s wonderfully quirky yet nearly forgotten 1997 debut (and finale) with Muscadine—his shoulda-been-a-big-deal indie-improv band with eccentric friend, lyricist and singer Benji Hughes—“was made the same way I do now, with me on almost all the instruments as the producer. I let the band sort of take credit. When people listened, they thought it was the band,” but it was actually its perfectionist producer playing nearly everything himself.

If Gentle Spirit’s title reflects that album’s soft, numinous pleasures, then Fanfare announces a more ambitious and less tame proposition. The cover image riffs off of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel depiction of God and Adam’s nearly touching fingers, only these appear to have drifted apart. “I used to text friends the actual picture, where the hands are close together, as a way of saying that we’re together on this thought.” If all was not quite so copacetic, however, “I sent them this picture, which means it’s not going well—in a joking way.” Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, whose Fear Fun Wilson produced, considers the image “Existentialism 101” and encouraged its cover use. Wilson also hopes it jumps out at you from the other side of the record store. If it doesn’t, then the inner sleeve depicting a shadowy Wilson conjuring up a magical scene with a trio of bare breasted women certainly will.

And while we didn’t discuss the connection, Wilson has to appreciate how Fanfare’s cover echoes the Sistine image on another classic album connecting musical generations: Fathers And Sons, the 1969 double vinyl collaboration of Muddy Waters, then 56, and younger white acolytes including Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. Likewise, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, and Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell all make tasteful guest appearances on Fanfare, a title that promises its audience both something great and new and comfortably familiar all at once.

“Fanfare” the song opens the album with lush Brian Wilson (no relation) harmonies and melodramatic piano. Like many of Wilson’s songs, it unwinds in multiple parts—a seven-minute suite by any other name. In this one, a girl appears out of swirling strings (arranged by Wilco’s Patrick Sansone) and Wilson pitches woo, singing, “I just cannot believe you’ve come back again.” Who is she? “Actually,” he says, “Frankie Ray is all about this one particular girl I was obsessed with. And I hadn’t seen her in years when I saw her at the coffee shop near here when I was in the middle of composing that song. So I’ve put her in a song once again.”

Did they get back together? “No, no, no. She’s a stranger. I don’t know her. I’ve seen her around.” She’s his muse, then. “Yes, exactly. And I don’t want to know her, actually.”

“Lovestrong,” the second to last song on Fanfare, is likewise about “the Frankie Ray chick” and includes a most elegant couplet concerning “the fanfare when you are born, the ballad when you are released” and a gorgeous Pink Floyd-esque jam with his band and Benmont Tench. “It goes on and on,” Wilson admits, as do “Future Vision,” his groovy Traffic-esque cover of Sopwith Camel’s “Fazon,” and the album’s psychedelic centerpiece, “Cecil Taylor.”

To peg Wilson as a mere nostalgia monger is simply to miss the boat. He’s more of a neo-classicist who is always experimenting. (And, hey, they don’t call it “classic rock” for nothing.) “He definitely was affected by the music from that period of time,” says David Crosby of Wilson’s Laurel Canyon leanings. “But I think his own sense of adventure takes him well past anything that he heard. He’s breaking trail now.”

Wilson’s primary musical influence, he maintains, is his father, who’s been jamming ‘60s cover tunes with the same band of drinking/toking buddies—The Idle Movement—since Jonathan was a kid. His father also has a bluegrass offshoot called The Broad River Boys. “As a kid, I thought every dad had a band,” says Jonathan.

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