Jonathan Wilson Throws Out His Signature Laurel Canyon Sound

Jonathan Wilson (Credit: Andrea Nakhla)

“They want to fetishize me. They think of you as this little slice of California in some little cabin up in the canyon. Meanwhile you’re just playing your acoustic songs while the cabin is 6,500 dollars a month and you’re in debt, and you can’t even afford to be in the valley,” says singer-songwriter and record producer Jonathan Wilson.

Born in North Carolina, Wilson started his musical journey in Los Angeles in 2005 when he made the move out west permanently. He made his living making solo records and producing records for Jenny Lewis, Black Crowes, the Jayhawks, Elvis Costello, Dawes, and Roger Waters. He’s most famous for his unique throwback 70’s production — dubbed the “Laurel Canyon” sound — that can be heard in the first two Father John Misty’s records; Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear.

Wilson felt the press was trying to categorize his music him into a niche. “There was a sound coming out of Laurel Canyon, man. It was the two of us,” says Wilson, referring to his friend and collaborator Joshua Tillman. “If I were to make an album just strumming another acoustic guitar with my tales of being a privileged white male, that would be the most boring thing I could do.”

Although his work as a producer is bigger than his solo work, to Wilson, producing gives him an excuse to be in the studio all the time which he uses to grow as an artist. “Those people who I produce, whether they know it or not, they’re my guinea pigs to experiment, so the joke is on them,” laughs Wilson. With Rare Birds, out March 3rd, you can hear a lush, experimental sound featuring synthesizers and drum machines — a departure from the 70’s throwback sound that made him famous.   

Last year, Wilson appeared on Roger Waters’ newest record Is This the Life We Really Want as a guitarist and keyboard player and became Waters guitarist on the current Us + Them tour. “He’s a fucking cool dude,” Wilson says excitedly. “It doesn’t matter what decade he’s from. They don’t make dudes like him, that’s why I’m there.”

During the making of Is This the Life We Really Want, Wilson would also work on his own solo record Rare Birds working concurrently between the two. “Waters was in the studio at the same time I was trying to record. He was involved in the sense that some of the guitar sounds I did for him were set up in my own songs,” Wilson says. He even bounced some song ideas off Waters. “I asked him about a song being to long, he told me to double it.”

The songs for Rare Birds began to take shape after a long tour from his previous 2013 release, Fanfare. Wilson collaborated with local cohorts Joshua Tillman, otherwise known as Father John Misty, and Lana Del Rey. “Josh [Tillman] is basically one of my best friends, so he was constantly stopping by the studio, seeing what I was up to. He was excited about the sound and change. I sort of twisted his arm to contribute to certain songs,” says Wilson. “In the case of Miss Del Rey, she’s also one of my best friends. She was my soundboard and has a great sensibility about those things,” says Wilson.

“People like me are never gonna sell albums like Pink Floyd — even Josh [Tillman] — it’s not possible to get to the point where we are playing a giant stadium,” says Wilson. He points out that the lack of competition in the pre-internet music market and Pink Floyd’s amazing songwriting that helped them reach a huge audience. Now because of a saturated market, standing out is harder than ever. To Wilson, a song like “Us vs Them” will never be big now. “It’s hard to reinvent something that is Coca Cola,” says Wilson about Pink Floyd.

“To be that massive, just the way the algorithm works, the music has to be pretty shitty. Ed Sheeran is the worst shit I’ve heard in my life. Not to go off on some dude, but that’s who gets to play the stadiums.”

I like to stare at my computer. Occasionally I type words to pass the time. Those words are usually about music.

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