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JONATHAN WILSON

Jonathan Wilson

Dixie Blur

    Where do you go after making an album that the Guardian hailed as “a rich, ambitious triumph”, American Songwriter called “a strikingly original, complex and inspired work”, MOJO described as “a record you could lose yourself in for months”, and Billboard as a “most magnificent recording, one that is mandatory listening if you are in search of an immersive album rock experience in the 21st century”? It's a question Jonathan Wilson asked himself after his “maximalist” album Rare Birds was released in 2018 to glowing reviews. Not only did it earn him Album of the Year awards in Rolling Stone, France and Blitz in Portugal, it brought him his first national television appearances in the US, on Conan and CBS Saturday Morning.

    Rare Birds had been the culmination of three solo albums in seven years that the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer released to widespread acclaim. His first, 2011's Gentle Spirit, a beautiful California dream of an album, is a classic by now and won him the admiration and friendship of Graham Nash, David Crosby, Elvis Costello and Jackson Browne. His follow-up, Fanfare, was also well-received with Uncut calling it “a lavish musical epic, the work of a dedicated and stone cold studioholic.” But now Wilson was looking for something completely new.

    In 2019 he appeared on the celebratednationally-syndicated live music radio show eTown. “It was sort of bluegrass-based”, Wilson says, “and on this particular show I was playing with Steve Earle. Next thing you know, I'm talking with Steve about recording.” Earle advised Wilson that, if he had a bunch of songs written, he ought to take them to Nashville and make the record blind, since Nashville's crawling with studios and top-notch session players. “And that's how I got into the idea of going to Nashville and tapping into that sound,” says Wilson. “The sound of my home.”

    Wilson was born in a small town in North Carolina. As a child he was raised on a mix of Beatles, 60’s and 70’s rock, country, and bluegrass.His uncle played in bluegrass legend Bill Monroe's band. His father had a rock band, but he would often jam with local friends who could “moonlight on banjo and mandolin and do gospel harmonies that would knock you out. I would sit there and strum along,” says Wilson, “There’s this astute southern rhythm and musicality in western NC… Then there’s this crazy three finger banjo style that you have to be really good at it because you’re from the place where Earl Scruggs is from. One of my father’s best pals was the music director at the Caroleean gospel church where my grandfather was a preacher and on the side he could pick the shit out of a mandolin. So, I was exposed to something super-authentic that I was soaking up. In hindsight, it doesn’t get more authentic than that.”

    A musical prodigy himself, Wilson wrote his first song at three. He was also a musical polymath, playing drums, horns, woodwind, piano and guitar. He joined an R&B band at 14; left high school to study jazz with some old masters, and joined a rock band, Muscadine. He also became a noted luthier and a record producer. Among the artists he has produced albums for are Father John Misty, American band Dawes, British folk legend Roy Harper and Conor Oberst. In 2017-18 Rogers Waters asked Wilson to join him on his US+THEM tour on guitar and as musical director. Wilson also sang all the David Gilmour vocal parts. On that two-year tour, Wilson would sometimes find himself thinking about his Southern home. “Stuck out there in a hotel in Latvia, it's a long way from anything that feels like home or family. I felt I was subconsciously being led back to my roots.” In the new song '69 Corvette' he sings, I still think of Carolina sometimes. I miss the family. I miss that feeling. I miss home.

    Those feelings were still fresh in his mind during that conversation with Steve Earle. Making his next album live in the studio with a Nashville band, instead of building them alone, piece by piece in his L.A studio, seemed like a good way to go back while simultaneously moving forward. An example of that is Wilson's new take on “Korean Tea”, an old song he had done with his ‘90’s band Muscadine. “That is a song about having a shining musical gift to share with the world. My brother says that’s one of the prettiest melodies I’ve written, so I decided to bring it back into the world”. “Heaven Making Love” is a song Wilson wrote for Rare Birds but abandoned; “I tried but I could never really get it, it had that locomotive polka thing sorta so I guess it was waiting for an album like this to join!”

    With Wilson's longtime friend Pat Sansone of Wilco producing, Wilson and the band recorded in Studio A at the Sound Emporium, the late country maverick Cowboy Jack Clement's studio. The musicians included Nashville’s premier session players including bass player Dennis Crouch, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke, and world renowned Fiddle master Mark O’Connor. “I was thinking about fiddle as being an integral part of the record, and I needed to find the best. In my mind the best of the best was Mark O'Connor. So I decided to reach out to him. I said, ‘Hey man, I'm doing a session, would you like to come down and play fiddle?’ and he's like, ‘Thank you, but I haven't done a session since 1990.’ So, he didn't say no and he didn't say yes! Over time, he eventually said, ‘Maybe, but my only stipulation is it's got to be with the band, no overdubs. That's what drove me out of the session business.’ That was a big deal to all of us. Mark truly elevates the record and he shines as the most brilliant fiddler on Earth, I thank him for his beautiful melodies on this album.”

    Working with this Nashville band gave Wilson the same kind of feeling he had as a kid, strumming along with those bluegrass bands. “There's something about this level of musicianship, they've been in so many sessions. It was fun to play some of the more stoner Canyon-ey tunes for this crack session band and watch them write up their special Nashville charts with their numbers, symbols and diamonds… they call it ‘hillbilly arithmetic’ over there…. The album was cut in only six days. “It was so fast it was a blur.” Hence the title, Dixie Blur. “And there really is a magic that occurs when musicians play together in a room and create that one consistent thing in time, something is created by the collective energy that is impossible to recreate otherwise,” says Wilson.

    “It feels like another side, you know? Sort of like a personal, unplugged, just got off the road feeling. I think it's the most down to earth and emotional both musically and lyrically that I've ever been.”


    STAFF COMMENTS

    Barry says: Jonathan Wilson has had a stellar career as a songwriter and musician, following on from his equally stellar career as a producer and session muso, and 'Dixie Blur' just goes to show exactly why he's so in demand. Gorgeous melodies, flawless songwriting and a good dose of classic rock whimsy and downbeat ballad bliss.

    TRACK LISTING

    1.  Just For Love
    2.  69 Corvette
    3.  New Home
    4.  So Alive
    5.  Heaven Making Love
    6.  O' Girl
    7.  Pirate
    8.  Enemies
    9.  Fun For The Masses
    10.  Platform
    11.  Riding The Blinds
    12.  El Camino Real
    13.  Golden Apples
    14.  Korean Tea

    Jonathan Wilson had a busy 2017, producing Father John Misty's grammy nominated Pure Comedy and touring arenas around the globe as a guitarist and vocalist for Pink Floyd legend Roger Waters (for whom he also contributed to the lauded Is This The Life We Really Want? album.) Wilson also saw widespread acclaim heaped on Karen Elson’s sophomore LP Double Roses, which he recorded with her in Los Angeles in 2016.

    But it's not looking like Wilson is going to get much of a rest in 2018 either, as he'll be continuing on with the worldwide Waters tour and is set to release his own new solo album Rare Birds in the spring. The highly anticipated long player - which features backing vocals from Lana Del Rey, Josh Tillman, fellow Roger Waters bandmates Lucius and an extraordinary musical gift from otherworldly Brian Eno collaborator Laraaji - will be released through Bella Union worldwide.

    Although much of the album is comprised lyrically of meditations on a failed relationship and its aftermath, Wilson insists that Rare Birds is not really a concept album. "It's meant more as a healing affair, a rejuvenation, a reconciliation, for others, and for me. I wanted to balance personal narrative with the need I feel for calming healing music. I think we need journeys in sound, psychedelic gossamer-winged music that includes elements consciously and purposefully to incite hope, positivity, longing, reckless abandon and regret. It's all in there."

    And, for this one, music critics will need to retire the comparisons to heritage rockers and Laurel Canyon troubadours as they’re hardly useful anymore. Wilson's new sound takes a synthetic/acoustic, best-of-both-worlds analog/digital hybrid approach to achieve the complexity, sonic density and glossy hi-fi coating of Rare Birds. Heard for the first time on a Jonathan Wilson album are the sounds of synthesizers and drum machines.


    STAFF COMMENTS

    Andy says: Jonathan has eschewed the obvious Laurel Canyon trappings this time out, and the result is his best record yet. Still blissed-out, otherworldly, multi-layered and lonnnnng, but the sound is beautifully streamlined with even synths and drum machines gliding by. A headphone masterpiece.

    Jonathan Wilson

    Fanfare

      With 2011’s critically-lauded ‘Gentle Spirit’, audiences worldwide were introduced to the prodigious talents of singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer and unrivalled guitar hero Jonathan Wilson.

      The eagerly-awaited follow-up, ‘Fanfare’, is an even more ambitious production that instantly conjures thoughts of Dennis Wilson’s ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’.

      STAFF COMMENTS

      Andy says: Even better than his last one, Jonathan brings early to mid seventies West Coast vibes right back to life, this time adding Denis Wilson and Pink Floyd flavours to his heady, cosmic broth. Incredible.

      Jonathan Wilson

      Gentle Spirit

        'Gentle Spirit' is not simply the name of the debut solo album by songwriter / musician / producer Jonathan Wilson, it represents the ethos of the artist himself. Warm, supple melodies etched in layers of stringed instruments and willowy organ motifs accompany his earnest, North Carolinian drawl as he tells tales of humane values lost and found.

        Wilson’s music is steeped equally in the woodsy contours of his Blue Ridge experiences and the atmospheric guitar reveries of Neil Young and Quicksilver Messenger Service. In fact, 'Gentle Spirit' is remarkably evocative of that golden late ‘60s, early ‘70s period when rural and urban sensibilities colluded in producing some of rock’s most imperishable recordings.

        Wilson, a native of Forest City, North Carolina, has been quietly earning a reputation as a musical jack-of-all-trades. He is adept behind the recording console, possesses a luthier’s knowledge of all things strummed, and maintains the innate ability to conceptualize an instrument essential to providing the right colour to a track in need of a defining detail. Whether working with promising new acts like the band Dawes, celebrated contemporary artists such as Erykah Badu and Elvis Costello, or Rock and Roll Hall of Famers such as Jackson Browne and Robbie Robertson, Wilson provides direction and support as tasty and soulful as anyone in the business today.

        It should then come as no surprise that Wilson, so resolutely committed to “old school” musical values, began recording 'Gentle Spirit' in Los Angeles’s fabled Laurel Canyon. As a long-time student of “Canyon culture,” his ideas echo many of an earlier generation as the album embraces a unique blend of folk, country, rock and roll and pop elements, which enduringly create a sense of time and place. After leaving Laurel Canyon, Wilson relocated to the Echo Park section of L.A, home to his new recording studio, to finish tracking and mixing 'Gentle Spirit'. “I recorded everything to analog tape which I’ve always done; it’s not something I’m trying to do as a boutique kind of hip thing. Analog simply captures things better and it takes the edges off. It creates a beauty much like film.” The album was mixed by Wilson and Thom Monahan, who has worked with many artists, including Vashti Bunyan, Devendra Banhart and Vetiver.

        TRACK LISTING

        1. Gentle Spirit
        2. Can We Really Party Today?
        3. Desert Raven
        4. Canyon In The Rain
        5. Natural Rhapsody
        6. Ballad Of The Pines
        7. The Way I Feel
        8. Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler
        9. Woe Is Me
        10. Waters Down
        11. Rolling Universe
        12. Magic Everywhere
        13. Valley Of The Silver Moon


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