Jonathan Wilson is one of the most ambitious, introspective, and complex artists of our time. While speaking to him recently, he expressed how and why he tapped into a more ‘emo’ side of himself by creating a song, a story, and a theme that touches on his roots. His history with music goes as far back as pre-school, having written his first song at the age of three.
Now a stellar multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, producer, musical director, and studio musician, it is clear that Wilson knew his path in life from the start. We couldn’t be happier that he chose to stick with his passion, even throughout the ups and downs of the industry, because if he didn’t, we wouldn’t have been graced by the Americana-style indie rock beauty that is his latest release, Dixie Blur.
I spent a lot of the day listening to your first album Frankie Ray and I think it’s really interesting sonically, but you’re not the same artist now as you were back then.
All kinds of stuff
happened. That was a long time ago. I went down in this basement in SoHo and made like an album just for myself. That’s such a funny album, because I had sort of fallen in love at first sight with someone—at least, I thought I did. And I was like, ‘I’m just gonna write a whole thing about that,’ and that was what that was. Then I sort of got signed to put it out with some people, but like several years later, and I didn’t have a good feeling about it, so I sort of backed out and it just kind of sat around. I pressed up like a thousand copies of that record, you know, just by myself. Then people started sending me eBay links with some of those thousand records selling for fucking 200 bucks and stuff! Just for the compact disc! So I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ Somewhere out there that album has some fans, even today, but really so much has changed since then. Even just getting into the business for real and growing a fanbase and stuff like that.
For sure, and what was that process like of really finding your footing in the music industry? Your sound is very much your own and I can see you really wanting creative and artistic control of your work.
Well, the process of dealing with that is very grueling. It’s a lot of ups and downs and a lot of emotional swings where you get built up and you think that something really great is going to happen. Then you talk to some people and you meet some people that promise you that maybe something cool is going to happen and then it just fizzles. It’s a culmination of that process… of you getting built up and excited about something but then it just doesn’t happen. That is what it is like, though, so you begin to somehow figure out how to work through that process when it’s tough, and times are fucked up still, but you still manage to produce hopefully some quality stuff.
Absolutely, and you could even use that time and those battles with the industry to even influence your sound and where you want to go.
Yes! You can use it and can combat that with your work. You can make something that’s so fucking good that nobody can say it’s not.
You’ve definitely done that with a Dixie Blur, I have to say. I think it’s absolutely phenomenal. What about Dixie Blur is maybe different from your earlier albums?
Well this one is very different, and the biggest difference is that this was all done with a band at the same time playing live. We went down to Nashville and I used a crazy, amazing session band–very Nashville style. That’s very, very different, because most of my stuff in the past, I did it just totally on my own, for the most part. That would definitely be the biggest difference. This one has had all of the group interaction.
Did you go into the album knowing you wanted to have that setup and that live feeling?
Oh, yeah. That was what we had previously figured out. I had kicked around a couple of different concepts, but this was the concept that I settled on. I called my good buddy Patrick Sansone from the band Wilco—who are good friends of mine and I have worked with for a super-long time—and he lives there, so he was my spirit guide about what to do once we got to Nashville—where to cut, what studio, who to hire for drums, who to hire for pedal steel, and his curation was perfect.
I know that you’ve done fantastic production work for the likes of Father John Misty and Dawes. What is it like to create and produce music for yourself rather than other artists?
To be honest, it’s really not that much different—other than the fact that I’m the singer. You know, I’m trying to get to that same goal even if it’s with someone else. I’m just trying to have this complete picture that is as pleasing sonically as it can be. I’m sort of fucking hyper-focused on the whole thing, you know? I find that I’m trying to achieve the same sort of goal regardless.
Going back to Dixie Blur, what was your thought process going into this new record of yours and how did you write the story arc that I find encapsulates it?
Well, I began to sit at my house in Topanga Canyon with the guitar just thinking about what this band was going to be like, because the time was booked. I was just sort of imagining what it would be. I had some songs that were finished and some that weren’t, so I sort of went through everything that I had half-done and half-finished; this concept is here, and that concept is there. I went through all my fucking archives of songs and stuff that I’ve made to make it sort of spin into this album…. I started to work with what I had, and that’s the reason that it’s really the way it is. Even the title, you know, I’m from the South and I’m from that spot and that vibe, so writing about that, sort of like the blur of where I’m from, and the blur of my fucking childhood down there. I think it’s definitely my most emo release.
I actually felt that nostalgia and personal undertone from start to finish, especially with the song “69 Corvette.” That one feels specifically like it is quite autobiographical. What is the story behind that song in particular?
Yeah, I just did a really, really long tour where I was basically on tour for two years with a few breaks…. It was incredibly intense. I was on tour so much that I just kept finding myself somewhere so far from home and that one time I was in some fucking hotel room in like, Poland or something, and that song just started to happen. It was like ‘I’m in some other fucking hotel room. It’s nowhere near my family or where I’m from. Not even close to my home or my house. I don’t even know where I’m at.’ You know what I mean? So that sort of began to inform my process. I began to look back and it just paints a story of this ‘69 Corvette that my dad had that was orange. He used to drive it often, but he was a bit of a drinker, so he would drive around maybe sometimes with a six pack of beer in between his legs and just kind of cruise around in this fucking Corvette [laughs]. And so one day he sort of spun it off the road, because he was driving it in the snow. He totaled it off the road and that was the last time I saw it. I just sort of began to think about that and sort of chronicle some of that stuff and those feelings.
Do you think you’ve ever written a song like that close to the heart before? Or is this just truly a product of being far away and feeling these feelings and designed to put it to paper and part a song?
That’s interesting. I mean, I know that I’ve approached a song similarly, but I don’t know if I’ve ever done one as much of a straight line as this one.
With Dixie Blur, how excited are you about its release and do have any feelings or assumptions about what fans of yours are going to think about it?
Yeah, I’m really excited for this thing to come out. I’m really excited to perform some of these songs with the band. That is going to be fun! We have a Nashville band, so that’s going to be great. I just did a week of press, actually, and I was in Paris and I was kind of starting to catch a vibe from even the journalists and stuff, but some of them were fans, and I could tell that—this is not a big stretch—that the record takes folk back to more of the sound I was doing back in 2011 on an album called Gentle Spirit. And that’s more of like an acoustic piece… not the whole thing, but sections of it are more sort like this type of vibe, more finger-picking and softer and personal. I think that this one is like that. As far as the copious amounts of like pedal steel and fiddle and stuff…. That I am very curious to see what folks think about the healthy dose of what will be looked at as a more [of a] country vibe.
It for sure has a classic roots sound to it, but I think it’s not overdone, and I think you did it well with very beautiful strings rather than anything heavy or in-your-face.
Oh cool. Yes, that was the idea. It’s not to be too over the top. It sounds like me and what I’ve always done, but with just more pedal steel stuff.
So I have to admit that I, as well as my editor Dan Alleva, are dying to know how you linked up with Roger Waters. We are just so stoked for you. How did that come about?
It started with a good friend of mine by the name of Nigel Godrich. He’s a wonderful producer. He’s notably produced for years a band called Radiohead. He’s a good friend of mine and he got the call to let him go into the studio with Roger. They had gone in and needed someone on the guitar. He thought of me! So he called me to come down as soon as possible and I went down on the second day. They didn’t know what they were going to do, if it was going to be good, and what it was going to be at that point. [But] things went well, though, and I played some solos on the guitar that first day and things were good. I got to kind of shred that first day and so that was cool. And then I got called back… and called back…. again, again, again. We eventually moved the whole project to my studio! So now he’s there at my house. I’m enraptured. Then we started to use all my stuff, all my gadgets, on the album: my piano, my drums, my cymbals, all kinds of stuff. Over time it just shaped into this thing, you know? So I had talked to the managers and all, but the business part of it sort of turned into more of a friendship. The next time his managers and staff showed up, and they started to say, ‘What if you were in the band?’ And I had honestly never even thought about that, because I thought it was just a session! I thought I was just going to be the guitar player and then I was going to go on to something else, some other project, but they’re like, ‘No, no, no, we think that maybe you guys should be in the band. That way we can take [to the stage] all these brand new songs that you guys have been doing.’ Then before you know it, I’m on the stage and that was it. And so when it came to me singing and doing all the David Gilmore parts and stuff, I had to actually sing for him and show him what I could do besides playing guitar. Prove my worth. Then suddenly we did like 156 shows and it’s just been fantastic.