Jonathan Wilson: Fan Fiction

Jonathan Wilson conjures mid-’70s psych/folk with a little help from famous friends

It’s another peaceful-easy-feeling evening in Laurel Canyon. Day is finally surrendering to night, which signals the onset of shooting the waltz scenes in the video for “Dear Friend,” the leadoff single from acclaimed producer and singer/songwriter Jonathan Wilson’s latest album, Fanfare. The location of the shoot is a patch of driveway at the end of a dirt road that snakes perilously through a warren of hillside hippie hobbit holes and dead-ends in front of Wilson’s manager’s hillside house. The dancers are dressed in turn-of-the-last-century period regalia—top hats and tails, taffeta ball gowns and silk gloves—that set the twilight reeling.

When I left my hotel, it was the 21st century outside, but after a half hour wending through Laurel Canyon’s steeply perched roads, past any number of leafy homesteads that Graham Nash may well have been singing about in “Our House,” it’s beginning to feel a lot like 1969—only to arrive at the video shoot and find everyone is dressed like it’s 1869. It’s sort of like that scene in Inception where they induce a dream and, once inside, they induce another dream. Wilson is no stranger to the woozy cognitive dissonance of doing the time warp again. There is retro-hippie chic and then there’s Jonathan Wilson, who, by all sounds and appearances, seems to have emerged fully formed—bearded, bangled and bell-bottomed—from 1971 via a wormhole rendered incontinent by too many Quaaludes and Brandy Alexanders at the Troubadour.

Gentle Spirit, Wilson’s critically acclaimed 2011 solo debut, sounded like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young getting high on The Dark Side Of The Moon. The new Fanfare sets the Wayback Machine for a slightly more recent vintage—roughly 1975, by my reckoning. The Sopwith Camel cover and occasional jazz flute filigree notwithstanding, Fanfare sounds like Crosby, Stills & Nash crashing the recording sessions for Wish You Were Here, only to find out that Steely Dan has already done all the blow. Tin soldiers and Nixon have come and gone. Jimmy Carter’s in the White House and Cecil Taylor is on the lawn.

The CSN comparisons are only a slight exaggeration. Crosby and Nash lend their golden throats to Fanfare on a track called “Cecil Taylor,” which is easily the most interesting thing either have harmonized on since Déjà Vu. Various West Coast rock aristocrats who Wilson calls friends—people like Jackson Browne, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers—also turn up on the album, along with Wilco’s Pat Sansone and songwriting assists from Brit folk legend Roy Harper.

The participation of all the aforementioned star power is a direct result of each and every one being blown away by Gentle Spirit. However, the impressive pedigrees of Fanfare’s guest players—not to mention the prevailing sense of transgenerational cultural déjà vu their presence engenders—were checked at the studio door. Outside, they are, to varying degrees, legends; inside the studio, they are just friends who came by to jam.

“When I’m singing with Jackson or Crosby or Graham or something, that’s when it all really makes sense,” says Wilson, who looks like a hippie Christian Bale. “Like the differences in our age, the generational stuff, and who’s done what and when and where, that all vanishes in the song. That’s the attraction. That’s the basis of the friendship. I was talking today—I just did a tour with Bobby (Weir) from the Grateful Dead—and it’s the same exact thing. When we’re in the song, that’s what keeps it afloat: the friendship.”

Wilson is a Southern man, having grown up in Spindale, N.C.—at the base of the Piedmont Mountains, just down the road from Earl Scruggs’ house—which everyone knows is nowhere. His uncle used to play with Bill Monroe. His dad was a shit-hot bluegrass picker and—as the fruit does not fall far from the tree—a pre-teen Jonathan Wilson, something of a multi-instrumental prodigy, would sit in on drums when the drummer took ill. Back in the early ’90s, he followed the lead of a friend whose father happened to be the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly—Hills, that is. Swimming pools, movie stars. Cue the Earl Scruggs.

He formed a band called Muscadine with songwriter Benji Hughes, who looks like the second coming of Gregg Allman (“He’s an incredible songwriter,” says Wilson), recorded a pair of albums for Sire that went nowhere, and the band soon followed suit. Wilson threw himself into producing other people’s music—Glen Campbell, Will Oldham, Father John Misty, Dawes—all the while quietly piecing together a clutch of solo albums that have yet to see the light of day, and as such have become prized artifacts amongst Wilson completists. Frankie Ray, recorded in 2005, is currently going for $200 on eBay.

“I couldn’t stop cutting tracks and doing my thing,” says Wilson. “But there was definitely a period … it was a dark age. I should have been doing exactly what I’m doing currently, which is putting out albums and then getting into the world and being out there with a band and performing the material. That’s what I should have been doing. But there was some sort of gestation that was sort of just happening, you know? And those were darker times, for fucking sure. During a lot of those times, I was in people’s bands, I was playing for them, I was producing them, I was helping them, and I was fucking showing what guitar amp to buy and what blah blah blah—it goes on and on and on. But my own fucking albums couldn’t find a home.”

Wilson eventually wound up on Bella Union when Elvis Costello heard a CD-R of Gentle Spirit, fell in love with it and began championing the cause. Tom Petty was another early enabler, taking our hero on tour, as was Jackson Browne, whom Wilson met at a party in Laurel Canyon only to discover he was already a Gentle Spirit fan.

“The first time that I met Jackson, he didn’t even really understand that I did that album” says Wilson. “But somehow someone said, ‘Yeah, this is the guy who did the Gentle Spirit album,’ and he was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s in my car; my kids know all the songs.’ So, that was kind of the birthing of that. Since then, he’s turned out to be one of my best hombres, for sure. He’s the shit. I just went to his fucking dentist. He just turns me onto shit left and right. He’s the best.”

And then, as if things weren’t getting name-droppy enough, Lana Del Ray may or may not have shown up with boyfriend Barrie-James O’Neill, formerly of Kassidy. But alas, at this point, Wilson’s manager intercedes to say that we are now officially “off the record.” As such, what may or may not have happened after that remains a story for another time.

—Jonathan Valania