L.A. Rocker Jonathan Wilson Digs Up Southern Roots While Tripping With Roger Waters

Chris Willman

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When you think of Jonathan Wilson, you may think of the south… southern California, that is, since he started out being associated with the neo-Laurel Canyon scene around the turn of the last decade. But the singer-songwriter-producer spent his earliest years growing up in North Carolina, and he brings some of the sounds of that region into his music pretty much for the first time on a new album, “Dixie Blur.” He forsook his L.A. studio to head to Cowboy Jack Clement’s old headquarters, at Steve Earle’s suggestion, to work with some Nashville cats, although he took longtime collaborator Patrick Sansone, of Wilco fame, along for the ride. In making the trip, he traded psych-rock for steel guitar, although for fans it will not be an unrecognizable “Blur.”

If not as a solo artist, you may know Jonathan Wilson from either of his two other fairly distinct careers. He’s built up bona fides as a producer for artists like Father John Misty and Dawes. Meanwhile, he gets the most eyeballs, if perhaps the least name recognition, as a key band member in Roger Waters’ touring unit — as seen in the recent “Us + Them” concert film and on a new “This is Not a Drill” tour starting this fall. (That’s him assuming a lot of David Gilmour’s old Pink Floyd parts.) But for many fans, his own recordings are the thing, and there’s been no shortage of initial praise for a new album that got a four-star-review from Mojo, which said, “Wilson’s return to his Southern roots drips with feel and flavor,” calling it “his most potent release to date.”

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Variety caught up with Wilson by phone as he prepared to take off on his own tour ahead of Waters’ looming arena album — discussing whether or not being a Floyd mega-fan was a requirement for that gig, and somebody he’s most definitely a super-fan of, violin great Mark O’Connor, who makes a now-rare studio guest appearance playing throughout “Dixie Blur.”

VARIETY: How does it feel to have done something that could pretty squarely be considered “Americana”? Because, considering where you just came from on your previous album, it’s swinging in a very different direction.

WILSON:I was excited to dive in and experiment with this sound, with that genre. Because for some reason, I previously had a negative connotation in my mind with the word “Americana.” When that genre started getting talked about, or at least the first time that I became aware of that as a sound or a thing, I was like, “Oh my God, that sounds gross. Like, what is that? Some newfangled version of the f—ing “Harry Smith Folk Anthology” sung by some British dudes on the Grammys or something? I felt like that was kind of what it was peddled as. So I wanted to explore it and figure out what could I do within that genre that could be tasteful. And then for me, considering where I grew up and my family — I mean, my grandmother’s brother played with f—ing Bill Monroe, so it’s not a stretch for me to dabble with the fiddle and with the banjo. So rather than a scholastic “let’s do an American roots study,” it’s really where I’m from, so it’s not a stretch. Some of the stuff I’ve done in the past, like the British-psych-acid-buzz thing, that’s exotic. This kind of sound for me is just a natural thing.

How did it develop, in a chicken-or-the-egg sense? Did the songwriting dictate the stylist approach being a bit more back to roots, or did the approach come first and then the songs needed to fit that?

I would say that the approach was the first thing that I came up with, and then I shaped all the songs and the other ideas and sounds based on that. I was kind of… not floundering, but I wasn’t really sure what I was going to be up to for the follow-up to “Rare Birds,” which was a huge, long, expansive thing. And my studio was in storage. So I was trying to figure out, what am I going to do? Next thing you know, I’m talking to Steve Earle, who casually mentions, “Man, you should go to Nashville.”

Was Steve Earle someone you were hanging out with?

That was just in passing, because we were both the guests on this NPR show, and we collaborated on that show — it’s sort of a Garrison Keillor kind of show called “eTown” that is taped out in Boulder.  He’s just an awesome guy to talk to, so him saying “Maybe you should go to Nashville” was what put the thing in my head. It just so happened that the house band on that show is a bluegrass band, so it also was putting bluegrass in my mind at a certain time. I hadn’t really think about it as being an option. But maybe the next day or so, I thought about it again and started to imagine what the crack session band would sound like and what that kind of band can do, and what I as a producer I could do to shape it.

Did you feel like you wanted to make a pendulum swing? Because you started out as one of the main producer-artists behind what people called at the time the new Lauren Canyon sound. And then you got away from that with “Rare Birds” (his 2018 release). I was looking up the reviews on that one, and of course people were talking about harpsichords and psychedelic synth leads and art-rock and ‘80s pop influences — lots of things that aren’t really here this time. Now you’re back to something a little simpler, but geographically displaced from Laurel Canyon, obviously.

I would never want to make something just simply to antagonize (people who liked a previous album)…. Mainly, this time, I wanted to experiment with the power of a performance and a band and what a band can do when all the minds are thinking in time — and the better the band, the better the things that can happen. This was a f—ing incredible band. I’ve been a part of this on projects, but (as a producer), not for my own stuff. It’s the power of these magical things that can suddenly happen that you can’t necessarily build up in a studio as a singular person. That was what I was banking on: Maybe that can happen, and if it doesn’t happen, it’s okay, because I could take the tapes back home and fix them, and I could put (my own) drums and bass on.  I do have that as the insurance backup — if s— goes wrong, I can actually physically fix it. But this time, it went well past that. Suddenly it was a band that was conversing and thinking. Exactly the thing that was my fantasy was the thing I was hearing. When you listen to the song “69 Corvette,” that first song that we did with (Mark) O’Connor on the fiddle, just to hear that band and the way that it breathes, that’s something that cannot be done track by track.

In one of the new songs, you talk about growing up in an environment where there was not much art around. Conceivably, that might be a reason for rebelling against not just where you grew up, but certain sounds you associate with that. And then, maybe, later in life you find a certain acceptance…

Totally. I mean, that’s sort of textbook: that you’re from something that you’re trying to get away from, and then you look back on it and go, “Holy shit” — like, that high quality, amazing f—ing bluegrass was right there, kind of under my nose. And I turned my back on it and started playing that that devil music. It’s definitely true.

People talk about you as a studio wizard. Did you have to talk yourself out of that in any way to give in to the power of having the band instead of doing it so much yourself?

Yeah, kind of. I’ve been the control freak in the control room who has to micromanage every little thing every second. And I did that still here, as far as bringing a pile of gear that I knew could represent the sonics that I’m into. I brought the cymbals and the snare and the microphones for certain things. There are certain cymbal frequencies and stuff that I kind of have to have as part of my sound. We actually ran the whole entire song through a tape flap. So there’s sonic trickery that was done in the mixing. But for the most part, the performances, that was the band on a certain afternoon. This was such a fun experience, just to more be the singer-songwriter in the booth and concentrate on the songs from that perspective. That’s a pleasure.

Getting Mark O’Connor was a real coup for you. Apparently, when you called to ask him to do it, he was incredulous to think anyone still thinks he’s a session cat?

That’s exactly right. That was just me not being necessarily keen to his current (situation). (The idea) came to me one night in Topanga Canyon when I was sitting there with the songs and with the guitar and I was like, “I think the album needs fiddle.” But the fiddle is super, super tricky, and it can be so great and then next minute it can be so just f—ing wrong. But I was thinking, “Who’s the best in the world? Well, that would be Mark O’Connor.” I cross-referenced it from something like the “Trio” album that he did with Emmylou and Dolly and Linda; I guess that was in my mind about just the finest f—ing fiddle work. Or maybe it was the work that he did with George Jones that I was just, “Holy s—, this is as good as it gets.” So I contacted him, and he was just like, “Wow, sorry, man, I haven’t done that kind of thing in a really long time — as a matter of fact, since 1990.” And I was like, “Yeeeeeeah… but…?” [Laughs.] I said, “There’s some special songs that need you, man.” And so I think eventually he was just like, “Who in the hell is this guy that’s obsessed with my f—in’ fiddle playing?” Then finally he said, “Yeah, man, it sounds fun.” So he came into town, and it caused a stir, man. The whole town (Nashville) was like, “Oh my God, Mark O’Connor’s back.” Because that guy was maybe themost celebrated session player during his brief session days where he did 680 albums or something. He was a huge smash in that town until he just said, “F— this,” and he split. … The guy is an American treasure, for sure.

Looking at the comments under a YouTube video for “69 Corvette,” someone wrote, “I can hear a little Roger in there.” When a lot of people think Roger Waters, they think “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” or something. But with some of the Pink Floyd material, including songs you do on tour like “Us and Them,” maybe you don’t have to stretch to find a similar vibe between what he does sometimes and what you do some of the time.

That is actually true. And that predates these songs. Things I’ve done in the past kind of had this lackadaisical, Floyd-y, floaty quality. And that probably comes from being a fan of that band. Not a super-fan, where I was one of people who listened to “Dark Side” five times in a row each time that I dropped acid. That was not me. But I did sort of take them from afar (and find the similarities) as kind of like, “Oh, this is sort of like that halftime groove that they do, that slow f—ing groovy thing.” “Us and Them” is a great example. So that was something that I was definitely influenced by. So then to come together with him just makes sense in some kind of weird way. It was a weird thing that happened. And then as far as “69 Corvette” or something sounding like a Roger song, I mean, I don’t know. [Laughs.] That may be just because people have seen my name with him. But I mean, sure, yeah. It’s not too far off.

Since you’ve talked about not having been a Pink Floyd “super-fan,” did that matter to Roger when he hired you? Or maybe he doesn’t even ask.

No, quite the opposite with him. He’s just like, “Man, sing these songs like yourself. Don’t try to sound like someone else. Don’t try to sound like the record.” Which is great advice. And then, suddenly, that band … well, the core of the band, me and the drums and bass, those are all some of my best friends that I’ve been friends with since 2004. So for us to gel and to sound like Pink Floyd on a song is not too hard for us. And for him, I think it’s a great thing, because he’s got a band, and this is not a rag-tag collection of session guys from all over the world. These are guys who have been a core band on all these L.A. albums and stuff, you know? So that was a cool happenstance there. That all came through our good friend Nigel Godrich. He was the one who brought us in, and then we turned into the thing.

Do you have time to get your own tour in before going out with Waters?

Yeah, my tour goes about a month, and I play the west coast and east coast, and then I go over to Amsterdam and do 10 or 12 shows over there. Then I come back here and finish my studio in Topanga Canyon, and then we start his whole thing in June and that’ll run till October.

As a producer, with artists like Dawes and Father John Misty, you really helped establish the early, seminal records for these people. Maybe it just happens this way, but is there something you really enjoy about being there kind of at the beginning, where you’re establishing somebody’s signature sound that they’re probably going to ride on, to some extent, for the rest of their career?

To be able to help out and to be a part of it at that point, that’s the best. I think about both of those things super fondly. In the case of Dawes, at the time that we did the first album, I think that the drummer was 17, so those guys were super young. The first batch of those early Dawes songs are just incredible, so to have those songs and to just be like, “Yeah, man, let’s just kind of do it sort of like my style” — not really signature tones, but tones that I have used and that I’ve curated since I was a teenager — to be able to have the trust and faith of those artists, that’s kind of the dream, right?

 

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