Jonathan Wilson: Moving Ever Brightly
The phrase “good things come to people who wait” certainly holds true for Jonathan Wilson. After his critically acclaimed but commercially overlooked Sire records rock band Muscadine parted ways, Wilson spent nearly a decade living in different regions of the country and playing music anyway he could. He worked as a producer, spent time as a studio sideman and even hosted freeform Laurel Canyon jam sessions at his home that drew in members of Wilco, The Black Crowes, The Jayhawks, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Van Morrison, The Cars, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Miller Band and Pearl Jam, among others. All the while, Wilson never gave up on his original material and continued to record between projects. Finally, in 2011 he released his official full-length solo album Gentle Spirit, which offered a mix of quiet folk, psychedelic Americana and hipster-approved indie emotions.
Wilson supported the album with an extended tour that mixed headlining club dates with tours alongside friends like Wilco, Dawes and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. During those epic live shows, he also showed off his jamband worthy live band, who are able to swiftly transition from gentle moments to sprawling 10-plus minute songs in a matter of minutes. At the same time, several of the group’s Wilson has mentored and produced over the years—including Dawes, Father John Misty and Vetiver—have turned into national acts on their own, increasing Wilson’s reputation as a producer. (He is rumored to be working on White Denim’s new album as well).
The guitarist and singer scored an entirely new fan base this past August as well when he participated in the Move Me Brightly Jerry Garcia tribute at TRI Studios. Wilson and TRI co-owner Bob Weir hit it off immediately and have collaborated together numerous times during the past six months. Their wide range of projects have included collaborations with Furthur, the Weir-Jackie Greene duo and Weir’s solo TRI broadcasts. This winter they will also mount a joint West Coast tour and also share guitar duties in the new RatDog Quintet.
In late January, Wilson spoke with Relix and Jambands.com about his long, strange journey, his new friendship with Bob Weir and what to expect on his new studio album.
Let’s start by talking about your Holiday Jamboree which took place at Los Angeles’ Troubadour in December. How did that show’s concept come together? Was it based on your regular jam sessions?
It was kind of a result of lots of jams that I would have at my house in the Canyon— and in the studio—but those jams have dwindled [recently]. We had always been in talks with the Troubadour, which is definitely one of the top spots that I like to play [at] in LA.
We wanted it to be a holiday event, so basically we just decided to join up with some buddies and people that we had been talking about doing stuff with—like Tom Petty’s camp. On our tour together, I had been talking to [Heartbreakers’] guitarist [Mike] Campbell, just about collaborating. We decided to [combine forces] and do this holiday benefit together. Part of it was to benefit his organization and things like that. He has an animal rescue organization that was founded by his wife [Marcie Campbell]. It was definitely a good chance to get people together. That was my goal—to get Campbell together with Bob Weir, and to get Bob together with Jackson Browne because those guys had never hooked up. Things like that, man.
Are you still hosting your jams occasionally at home?
Not as much because my schedule has been mostly production and touring, recently. Most of the jams have turned over to [Heartbreakers’ keyboardist] Benmont [Tench’s] house, so that’s kind of where everyone goes. The jam that we had at the Troubadour was insane. It was a treat for everybody. It definitely was big fun.
You have built a solid friendship with the Heartbreakers in recent years. Last year, you toured Europe with Tom Petty and members of the Heartbreakers have popped up on some of the albums you have recently produced. Is it right to assume that friendship started with your jams?
I guess the first thing was through Benmont. Benmont used to come up to my jams. I started to call him to play on albums that I was producing, and I got him to play on Dawes’ album and stuff like that. We became buddies. When it came to them, they were looking for support, so that was when I first heard about it, but those types of decisions definitely come down from Tom. The way I understand it, Tom had just heard my stuff and he was into it, so that was the beginning. We’ve been good homies since then.
That summer tour was the best. It was just awesome to be out there with those guys and share the stage. Two nights at the [Royal] Albert Hall, that was a dream come true. We’d jam in their dressing room and stuff like that. Their whole organization is the best. For a band like ours, it’s a special thing to be involved in and to soak up the good vibes. Of course they were fucking awesome! It’s definitely something that you’ll never forget.
Did you meet Jackson Browne through a similar circle? He was part of your jams for a while too, wasn’t he?
Yeah, and the thing about Jackson that was cool was that he had gotten into all of my stuff before it was even out. So when I actually hooked up with him for the first time, he already knew the tunes, which was a treat.
Yeah, that’s awesome.
Since then, Jackson Browne has become one of my best buddies. He’s just the most amazing guy. He’s just completely special and giving, the way he gives his time to folks; he’s constantly trying to help out, so that’s why he’s the shit—behind the gated pad and being a rock star. He’s one of the guys on the street. He’s constantly trying to find other bands and support things. Friday, Saturday and Sunday I will go with Jackson to be his special guest on some shows in Seattle and Portland, so that will be fun.