Q&A: Jonathan Wilson on Serious Songwriting and Wearing Multiple Hats
The producer for acts like Father John Misty and Conor Oberst discusses his new album.
Jonathan Wilson took his time releasing his latest solo album, Rare Birds—it had been a little over four years since his last record, to be exact.
Part of this gap was due to a busy schedule: At his Echo Park-based home studio, Fivestar Studios, Wilson co-produced Father John Misty's Pure Comedy and recorded with Roger Waters, with whom he's toured. But the multi-instrumentalist also wanted to make sure Rare Birds, his third proper studio album, came out perfectly.
Mission accomplished. The meticulous Rare Birds conveys an eclectic musical vision that transcends eras and styles; songs encompass harmony-rich '70s folk (the title track); Peter Gabriel-caliber smolder (the solemn "49 Hairflips"); ornate, psychedelic prog rock ("Trafalgar Square"); and glacial synth-pop ("Over the Midnight").
Reached at home, the laid-back Wilson was slightly jetlagged—he had just returned from Australia—but in a cheerful mood as he discussed Rare Birds, juggling his production and writing work, and being the "resident hippie" on Waters' tour.
Spotify for Artists: As you were making your own record, was there anything in particular that you wanted to home in on, or anything really different you wanted to do?
Jonathan Wilson: Yeah, there definitely was. To put this in as non-dystopian [a way] as possible, I don't have a lot of chances left to just put out cute, singer/songwriter-y, folky, mellow shit for everybody to go get stoned to in the desert. That's not really a sustainable business model. So this time I needed to write the perfect songs that had the possibility to resonate in a big way with more people. That's what I was trying to do—and figure out how maybe that could be done without it being something that was untrue. The first track we put out, "Over The Midnight," was done purposefully to be blasted in your car.
How has all of the other production and writing work that you've done influenced your songwriting?
It probably influences me less than some would think, because if I'm totally honest, when I actually sit down to write my own stuff, I'm doing what I've done since I was a teenager.
During the time I was doing the Roger [Waters] shit, I was struck by how he can sit at the piano and just play the most dead simple [parts]. I did make an attempt to write [that] down as a study. I was like, "I'm going to try to write a song that's in that style—that's just so simple, that's got his vibe." And that's something I've not done yet, but it’s a possibility.
You recorded this album over a long period of time. Is having so much time daunting for you, or is that the way you prefer to work? Some artists need a deadline or they would never get anything done.
Yeah. [Laughs.] A deadline can help—but at the same time, it was more important for me to put out the perfect thing. This is the first time that I've come to the end of an album of my own and been like... for me, it's perfect, as far as the things that I was trying to pull off. There's not a song where I'm like, "Oh, no, that was not cool. I wish I wouldn't have done that. I wish I would have trimmed the bridge off that one; and that one, I don't really like the guitar sound. Oh, God... ." You know what I mean? That's all completely normal. This is the first time that I've felt like, "It's got all the right shit."
When I started it, I was like, "This is gonna fucking take a while." And that's okay. But at the same time, I do need to shorten the gap between this one and the next one. Part of the gap in between was being tugged in all these [directions]—"Let's produce that," or "Can you produce this?" And that's been great, but at the same time it's not really my goal to exclusively be the Wizard of Oz for someone else.
You're being tugged in so many directions, but they're really amazing opportunities. Is it difficult for you to strike a balance?
It can be. It's hard to say “no,” that's for sure. Especially when I love the whole process. I love the studio. I've been in it since I was a kid, and I love it. I love being in it every day, and I love to know everything about it.
It gives me an advantage in that some people only get to go into the studio once every 36 months, and they're in there for three weeks, and they don't really know what all the shit does and all the knobs [do]. Which is fine—there's something really great about that. Someone like Dylan comes to mind, who fucking hates the studio. Which is great, because he's just pure fucking inspiration.
That being said, I was always the one who was crazy enough to have all the gear, and I would haul it around and fix it, and do all that.
When you are actually touring, is it a big adjustment for you to get out of studio mode and into touring mode?
Not so much. It's something that I've done quite a bit too, so I can pop into that mode. And on the Roger Waters tour, I bring a portable version [of my studio].
I read that he called you the "obligatory hippie" on his tour.
[Laughs.] Yeah. And now I'm known as the "resident hippie," which is really funny. So I'm like, "Yeah man, cool, that's fine." I mean, I joked back to him about it, because he's kind of a hippie too. He tries to pretend that he's not. I made some shirts that say ["Resident Hippie"], and those are for sale on the tour.
— Annie Zaleski