Jonathan Wilson – “To reinvent would be a crime…”

The musical polymath tells Felix Rowe about recording his new album in Nashville, producing Father John Misty on acid and stepping into the shoes of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour…

Jonathan Wilson Dixie Blur

What took you to Nashville to record Dixie Blur with a live band, rather than working alone in your own studio as usual?

“I was looking for something different. I played a show with Steve Earle, he gave me a nudge and said, ‘Maybe you should go down to Nashville’. Later, I called my old buddy Patrick Sansone, of Wilco, who’s like the king of that town, he knew all the players and studios. “Coming after Rare Birds, which was nine months of agony, to do a live band thing is a huge contrast. It was all so fast that suddenly I was trying to scramble for songs. ‘What can we try? The band sounds fucking great!’ Those dudes, they get in super early, do two songs and then go to lunch, come back and do two more and they’re done by five o’clock. It’s a crazy thing, but the fact that session culture exists is just amazing.”

Mark O’Connor plays a mean fiddle. Did he take some coaxing to get in to the studio?
“He’s the best of the best. I contacted him and kept on just trying to prod him, like, ‘Oh man, this would be so perfect’. I think he was like, ‘Who is this fucking guy?’”

Has the live approach changed your outlook for producing future solo albums?
“For my own stuff, I was always like… no-one knows exactly the formula I’m trying to do, so rather than try to explain to someone for day after day, I’ll just be, ‘Hand me the drumsticks, you know, or the bass’. That’s the way you have to do it as a kid in a small town. I’m really looking forward to diving back into my deeper personal solo style, but this was a really good chance to express things that I dig and the sound of my childhood.”

You’ve hosted jam sessions in Laurel Canyon, featuring everyone from Jakob Dylan to Benmont Tench. How important is the area’s rich musical heritage?
“I came to California when I was 19 and I fell in love with it immediately. I came back in 2005 and went straight to Laurel Canyon. I didn’t really know about the past: the Zappa house, where Crosby came for the first time to meet Nash, all that. I just started a jam because that was what we did in Carolina.

“Folks in bands could come back, play for fun. At the time, I was doing a lot of stuff with my buddy Chris from The Black Crowes. That expanded into other bands and projects. From there, I went across town to Echo Park and started a bigger studio, and that’s when we started to kick off with all the Father John stuff and Dawes and just tons and tons of shit.”

What was it like recording and then touring with Roger Waters as the musical director of his Us + Them tour?
“That was awesome. As a kid, I always considered Pink Floyd to be the coolest band. It just so happened that my guitar playing is vaguely similar to the Gilmour thing – that’s just him being an influence. Then, suddenly, I’m in the studio with Roger Waters doing a solo on a song called Broken Bones and it just went from there. He definitely calls the shots, but it’s wild and surreal to have him in your kitchen every day.”

Were you conscious of emulating Gilmour’s style on stage?
“First time I sang those songs, Roger said, ‘Don’t try and sound like Dave. Be yourself’. I mean, you can’t help yourself but to phrase certain things like him because the guy’s so great – to actually try to reinvent it would clearly be a crime.”

What’s your favourite record you’ve produced so far?
“Recently, I was listening back to Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy and I feel like we reached the fruition there – something we were going for, for three albums, and we finally got there. That had to do with the sonics, the songs and the process. And the fact that people would trust us to be in those studios with those kind of budgets on LSD.”

What’s next?
“Last year, I moved across town to Topanga Canyon, where I’m building a studio, a huge transformation of a house from the 1920s. I’m looking forward to getting that going.”

Does vinyl matter?
“Oh yeah. There’s just something in that tactile, fuzzy, warm thing that just sounds so good. I’m excited that it’s on the rise. It’s harder to get into the queue to get your album pressed.”

What’s your most treasured record?
“I have a few that are a first pressing, tough to find. There’s one, Red Hash by Gary Higgins, that was a 1971 private pressing. It’s like dark, spiritual folk – it’s fucking ace!”