Jonathan Wilson: Rare Birds

Rebecca Varidel
6th Feb 2018

Ahead of the launch of his third solo album Rare Birds, we caught up with Jonathan Wilson on his recent whirlwind visit to Sydney.

What are some of the components that make up your solo work? Is there a spiritual aspect?

Oh, for sure. Yeah. Like especially now, trying to provide something in some of the songs that can carry a positive vibe, and a bit of healing, you know, in some pretty fucked up times. So I try to provide that in some of the songs, those moments, as well as for myself.

What do you mean by, for yourself? Do you find there is healing for yourself in your music?

Yeah. Healing. Some of the song writing is cathartic processes of you know, exhalting my deepest feelings and vulnerabilities. It's very healing, therapeutic, soothing for myself. And then there are moments in the album, where I take the time to let things kind of, you know, if they kind of, time to vibe out. And float away. Trying to bring that sort of feeling.

Do they float in as well? Like look at Laraaji and like tell us a little bit about how that happened. 'Loving You' is amazing. I had to go to the bank and I had my headphones on, and I played the video like all the way to the bank, all the way through the bank, all the way back. All morning I've been listening to it. The chanting overlay is just


...yeah. And while unique and authentic you, it's really very contemporary that mix as well.

Yeah. Well that's good. Well that's the first song that started the process, and I set aside time to make an album which is quite challenging with my schedule of like you know the productions come in... And so I wasn't sure of how I was going to start the album and then he came into town. And he came by my studio, and we did a few days there. And we started out just with some experiments, then at one point, I guess the second day, I told him "I've got a song". It was just a ditty, a little sketch on the piano at that point. So I put down that drum beat you hear, just as a little guide, and I played piano. And I decided to come together. Then he did his stuff right there in the control room. He did a few tracks. And a few takes. And the chants. And he played his zither and iPad and stuff.

And it just came together. Exactly what you hear. And that was the first song I did. And it sort of set the tone, like for the album.

Basically, it set the stage with his blessing.

So the chanting is a blessing?

Yes. For sure. For sure. It's a blessing, and a gift.

Maybe more on that later. I've got so many questions I don't even know where to start. Or to fit them all in.

So from 'Gentle Spirit' 'til now (let's stick to your solo work for a while), what's the shift been? Like there's a bit more political statements starting to come in sometimes, or..

Well that was 'Gentle Spirit' too like the song 'Gentle Spirit". But... I'm sort of of a mind, where I don't really want to dabble too extensively like with politics in my songs. I think one of the goals, one of the places for me, for this sound, is to escape that, so that's why I'm trying to provide like an escape.

Well I got the escape, but I also got the commentary on the state of the world, so maybe that's a better way


to say it.

A bit of that. Yeah. There is a bit of that for sure.

Really looking forward to the rest of the album, but really can't spend time without talking about the massive amount of collaboration. Do you see that as separate, or just all part. When you talk about having to fit your solo work inside your work through your own studio, and all the other collaborations. How does that fit? How does that feel? Is it separate? Or is it all just one big Jonathan's music?

Oh. One big suit. You know. One big stew. And those people... That's just my practice for my own tracks. So these people are my guinea pigs.

(Laughs.) Do they know that?

They will now. But I'm yeah just practising for my own albums. I'm trying to get better you know, at each thing. At drum sounds. The other sounds. Guitar sounds. All the details. And so rather than getting to go in the studio every 36 months like most folks, I'm there like fucking every day. So it gives me an edge on the sonics and I think it's safe to say the album sounds good.

It sounds amazing.

How does analog work for you in your solo work, and in your production and recording?

Yeah. Well, that's used as the basis of the way that we capture the sound, so basically all the drums and the base, and the lovely guitars and vocals, are down to tape. Like an old tape machine from 1977. So it's like using a camera, so we capture on film, then we transfer it. So we capture it on the tape then we transfer it into pro-tools where I expand everything.

Is that reel-to-reel when you're saying tape?

Yeup. Yeup. Yeah. Reel-to-reel tape is how it starts. But then it's sort of like a digital mixture, then we transfer it into the computer, and we add, and then we go back to tape in the final stages, through a big giant desk that I bought. It's a huge giant desk that made the Cat Stevens album, the Jethro Tulls, stuff like that. So it's a bit of a hybrid, and that's the same system that I use for all of Father John's stuff, my own shit, the Roger's [Roger Waters] stuff... blah blah blah.

Yeah. Is that reel-to-reel and the way that you produce common?

No, it's not very common. It's a pain in the arse. It's very expensive. The machineries breaks down and no one can fix it. It's not the '70s. So it takes a massive amount of crazy, or just fucking dedication, or somethin' but it does something magical to the, you know, to the sound and I'm in the business of sound so that's why I go to the trouble to do it.

Yeah. No, although I don't understand the mechanics of it, I could see, I could see, I could feel, I could hear, there was something different. And I thought that's where it came from?

Yeah, it's coming from the mixture of like the analog and tons of signal change with real components, real magnets, real transformers. The tape is made from iron, so these are actually things contained on the earth, where if you just hop into the computer exclusively, it kind of sounds that way. It sounds a bit cold.

Yeah. Yeah. There was definitely a complexity in the sound, like a timbre or a fibre.

Out of all the collaborations, we couldn't possibly go through them, but I'm really interested in Roy Harper and tribute and you playing at his 70th birthday and tribute albums when he's still alive. How's that? From LA to Baroque English folk? It seems a big journey, but obviously there's a closeness with you guys, hah?

Yeah there is. And it just started as an intuitive friendship where I just sort of knew I really love this guy. And I didn't know him, and I put together some friends to record his tracks. He found out about it. I feel like he's so grossly not appreciated on the planet earth. And he took a shine to somebody that would do that. So he came to my show in London, and I played that night with my secret guest was Jackson Browne. So he was pretty stoked about that show, and he asked me to play at the birthday show. And then he was like you know I wrote Stormcock in California. He was like, I really want to come back to California. And I was like come to my studio and make an album. So he did. And I think he lived in my studio for like six months. So it was really really cool. And then we did this series of concerts. Like around and out. He and I and a string orchestra. And then through the process we became like the best pals.

Does that come from him living at the studio, and not just making music? He is the only one who's lived at the studio? Is there more that comes from that?

Yeup he's the only one that I gave a bedroom to.

(Laughs.) Yeah OK. When I do that it doesn't always end prettily. So... (Laughs.)

Maybe the music helps.

And the fact that we're both from the same sex.

...I don't even know where to go with everybody else that you know. And how do you end up... Over generations. Over genres. It's like this beautiful...



What music to me should be. A lot of that comes back, I think, from my jazz days. I was a big jazz fanatic. And a lot of respect that younger jazz guys give to like the older cats, you know what I mean.


You would be for a young jazz drummer, you would love nothing more than to appear, you know to appear on an album with someone like Sonny Rollins or someone like that. And that gains you giant respect in the community. Like little ghetto, like indie rock is not really like that. It can be perceived as why are you playing with people like your dad's age, man you know whatever, but I don't really care about that. I care about the bigger picture.

I do like to cross-pollinate musical generations. It's fun for me. It's sort of like a punk rock thing to do in this ridiculously boring indie rock environ.

Yeah, wouldn't it be nice if we didn't even see age, and just saw spirit. Wouldn't that be cool?

Wouldn't that be nice. That's what Laraaji, when people watch his video, they're going to be seeing some of that.

I'm always interested with writers, with words and instrumentally, for each of them how that comes. Everyone seems to have a different flow... Do you play with sound first? Does it channel through your music?

Yeah. Usually, I'll sit with the guitar or the piano, and I'll play something first. Some sort of melody. Or chords. Then I'll hum along with that. Then I will try to channel some words. Or I'll wait for the antenna, so to speak, or something to come in, and I have to be completely by myself, in solitude. And so that usually comes late at night when things are quiet, and you can hear yourself think, and all that. And then a lot of times the phonetic sound will try to reveal itself, you know, as a word. You have to go with that because it's all you have.

Just one word as a start?

Yeah. Just words. Like some phrase will start to form. And I'm like where did that come from. It came from wherever the song came from. And then I'll, a lot of times, there's some stream of consciousness that's in there too. I like to keep it surreal. So it's really difficult to describe it...

Basically I don't want to be another privileged white guy telling you about my feelings. That's not what I'm interested in. I'm trying to find something deeper than that...

The need for solitude. I lived with a musician for 13 years, and you'd be like you know in a restaurant, and you know all of a sudden he'd be starting to write things on napkins and whatever...

There is some of that too. I keep a giant, I keep like a note in my phone of all the little turns of phrase, I think of, of the things that come to mind. I can use that you know as a guide, if I need a verse, if I need an idea, a title...

Those moments are the only moments that you genuinely are inspired. When you sit down with a blank piece of paper and a guitar is the worst time to write a song.

Is it like guitar block. Like writers' block. I get that.

I might just finish with the collaborations you have on your new album. Can you explain how everyone else came into this work?

Yeah, well it's pretty much the biggest ones would be Laraaji who I love, and Father John my best friend and my brother he sings on a few, and then Lana Del Ray who's one of my best friends and was a big part of the process, 'cause she was my sounding board that I would give songs to, and demos to, and she's very very smart about her song intuition, so I began to trust her for things like that. Then there's some smaller bits and bobs with some friends of mine. But the most important thing is probably the trio, the band with two of my best friends playing drums and base, and that drummer will be playing with me [at Cake Wines] tonight.

Rare Birds by Jonathan Wilson is out March 2nd, 2018
on Bella Union via [PIAS]

Pre-order now >>