The Story Of Jonathan Wilson In 5 Albums

IT was backstage at a Bonnie “Prince” Billy show when Jonathan Wilson first encountered an “egregious” blow-in from Seattle.

“I was just like, ‘Give me a break, who is this dude?’” he recalls. “Or, ‘Who does he think he is? In my town?’”

That guy was Josh Tillman, who had just moved to LA in a “self-destructive act of myth-making” that would later give birth to his Father John Misty alter-ego. Despite the initial scepticism, Jonathan and Josh would later become “best bros”, working together on all three Father John Misty records (starting with 2012’s Fear Fun).

While Jonathan credits Father John for putting his first album, Gentle Spirit, on the radar of Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde, he was already a renowned session player and producer by the time J.Tillman rolled into town.

Operating from a small studio perched up on a hill in Laurel Canyon, Jonathan became the guy you called up when you wanted that magical ‘70s rock sound. He hosted regular jam sessions, frequented by the likes of Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, Johnathan Rice, and Elvis Costello, and even attracted the attention of some of the originators of that Laurel Canyon sound. (David Crosby, Graham Nash and Jackson Browne all appeared on his 2013 album Fanfare.)

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JONATHAN was in Australia recently playing arena-sized shows as a member of Roger Waters’ touring band, as well as a tiny gig at Sydney’s Cake Wines where he played songs off his third solo album Rare Birds. Roger turned up. People freaked out.

”I think the first track that we did that night is the first track on my new album, ‘Trafalgar Square’. The next day, after the show, at soundcheck … he was trying to apply that [drum fill] to ‘Comfortably Numb’, which was like, ‘Wow, that’s a trip.’”

On a day off in Melbourne, Jonathan ran through a brief history of his career as a session musician, and solo artist – from his work with Father John Misty and Roger Waters to Rare Birds, which features vocals from another close mate, Lana Del Rey. No biggie.

Fear Fun (2012)

Father John Misty

Where did you first meet Josh?

Josh came to town, it would’ve been around 2010. I had been doing some work with my friend Bonnie Prince Billy, and he was playing a show that night in town, and Josh had just come off doing some support dates. But that right around when he had just written these particular tracks [from Fear Fun]. There was gregarious dude in the backstage, and I was just like, “Who is that guy?”…

But people kept telling him, “You need to meet Jonathan, you need to meet Jonathan.” So, he did, and he came to my studio. Basically we just became totally best bros, just so quickly. When he sent me these demos, I was just completely blown away. I was like, “Holy shit, man. This is so good.” So, yeah. We kind of started it just the two of us, and basically like a bag of ganja. It kind of started from a fun place.

You can really hear it on a song like ‘Nancy From Now On’, especially when the song changes about midway through.

It was a cool collaboration to be able to groom the songs, and to choose all the sounds and drums. That’s me playing the world’s fastest triangle part on that song. I’ve tried to do it since then and it’s insanely painful to play for the chorus.

That album was just a celebration and a party for us … At the time, we didn’t expect it to blow up, you know? But yeah, he [Josh] called me at one point. He was like, “I think I have a name for this thing. It’s going to be Father John Misty.” I was like, “That’s good, dude. That’s actually good.”

Some of the inspo from that came from us in Los Angeles, being mildly obsessed with the Source Family and Father Yod…

What did you initially bond over?

I think we initially bonded over John Lennon meets [Harry] Nilsson, and they go on an adventure through Los Angeles of complete debauchery. I think that was the goal, you know? So it just was really fun for someone like him to come to town. I’ve been there since 2005. So I was his tour guide.

Who is Lennon and who is Nilsson in that relationship?

Jonathan: He would probably be John, I would say … That would be the deal.

A lot of people like to have an opinion about Josh, especially on social media. What do people not know about him?

I’m not sure what the perception is exactly, in that particular arena. What they may know, or may not know, is that he’s just the kindest dude, and the most generous guy to his friends, his band. For example, my album Gentle Spirit was sort of floundering around on burned CD-Rs at the time. I gave him [Josh] that album way back when we first met. He was like, “This is incredible.” He passed it to Simon [Raymonde], who runs our label [Bella Union]. So that’s how that whole thing came into the world.

What’s your favourite song on that record?

I really love ‘[This Is] Sally Hatchet’. I wish we would’ve used no reverb on the mix, and it would have had that really, really dry thing … It’s got my really, really stabby guitars that were fun to do, and sort of like this Beatles-y bass. We rented this giant harpsichord for that song, which was fun. Yeah, that’s a great one, but they’re all great.

Fanfare (2013)

Jonathan Wilson

How do you remember those sessions now?

That was a very different process, because that was the last time that I will make an album in deep, deep solitude by myself; agonising about all the sounds, and all of the overdubs and stuff like that. That was me seeing how big I could get the drum sounds, and the string arrangements. At the time I was listening to a lot of Dennis Wilson, and shit like that. So I was really, really trying to expand. Like the last days of 1977, 1979; the last days of “discrete analog studios”.

Some of that was with my band at the time. Some of that album was me trying to get out of some of the older songs that the band had been performing. There was a lot of collaboration with rock’n’roll’s past on that album. For instance, singing with [David] Crosby and [Graham] Nash. Jackson Brown is on that album and members of Tom Petty’s band [The Heartbreakers]. So that was the vibe.

How did you rope in such big names?

[They were] friends of friends, and people I’d done stuff with in the past.

Hearing those harmonies from David Crosby and Graham Nash live – what is that like?

It was crazy, because they didn’t actually sing at the same time. They came down for different sessions. But when you stacked them up, it was like, “Oh wow, that’s the sound.” So it was Crosby, Nash and me. [Laughs] Which was a trip, but fun…

We actually got Crosby to scat sing, which was really cool. He’s a bit of a jazzer. But he came down and it was big fun. I paid $1000 to bring him down in a car service. He was like, “The only way I’m coming is in a car, and it has to be a black car, like a town car.” … And he lives 100 miles away, so he came down in a town car. When I saw the bill for the town car I was like, “Holy Christ.” But that was a small price to pay.

How do you meet someone like Roger Waters and end up on one of his records?

That all went down because my good friend [Radiohead producer] Nigel Godrich gave me a call, and he likes to work at my studio, because of the desk that I have. But he called me, and he had gotten the call to work with Roger. It was something that might turn into something, there was no guarantee. So, they called me on the second day and said, “We need someone to play the guitar.” … I came down, and it was cool because the stuff that I played that first day, that’s on the album still. Those are the exact things I played, and I got to shred a bit on that first song. I think that was a good vibe. So that was the start of our friendship.

But it was really funny because they said that they needed someone to play piano too, and Nigel goes, “Jonathan plays piano.” I’m like, “Woah, woah, woah. I can play piano in the studio, but I’m not a piano player. It’s not what I’m known for.”

So they chucked me on the piano for a really, really hard song that had lots of lots of transpositions and stuff. I’m just going, “Holy shit, can I fake this guy out to really thinking I’m a piano player?” I sort of did, but that was fun…

Do you dip in and out of moments with Roger where you’re like, “Oh my god, it’s Roger Waters?”

The thing I find with lots of folks that I’ve been fortunate to work with – luminaries and stuff like that – the one thing I always find is that we’re cut from exactly the same cloth. He’s just a bass player, guitar player, singer-songwriter. So we definitely share that. But yeah, there were definitely times when he was there in my kitchen when I’m like, “Holy shit! I can’t believe this guy is in my kitchen.”

There was some times when he would pick up the guitar, and he’s not shy about some of the old stuff .. I’d say, “Hey, what about that song ‘San Tropez’, man?” Or something like that. And he’d go, “Oh yeah”, and he’d just start playing. You’re just like, “Oh my god.” So cool.

Did you grow up listening to Pink Floyd?

Definitely not like a fanboy, but definitely a fan. If you listen to my stuff, even from way back, there’s definitely some Floydian things in there, with all the found sounds, and some of the guitar playing.

Spending six months with Roger, what’s something that you kind of learned about him, or maybe something that people misunderstand?

Yeah. Well, I think one thing that I learned from his, is just to really to hold on tight to your rock’n’roll sensibilities, and that feeling, you know? He’s got a lot of that, he’s got that snarl and stuff. So that’s cool. I think the thing people don’t know about him that’s so huge is that he was the first guy to put a projector in a venue and project something on a screen. That was in 1965, or something. Prior to that it was just basically a band on a stage.

During The Wall [tour] they carried around extraordinary kit. These giant 35mm projectors with the whole show, that was on time code and stuff like that. Which was way back when. I think that’s something we take for granted now – even as part of a concert experience. It’s a big huge screen with stuff behind a band. But that guy was the first to do that, which was just cool.

Pure Comedy (2017)

Father John Misty

How different was your approach to working on that record, compared to the other two [Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear]?

That was the one where we had things had finally come to fruition, where we could suddenly do the things we had only dreamed about doing … [It] was the first time that we sort of had carte blanche to use the finest of everything, the finest microphones. I mean, if we wanted a giant string section, we could do that. If we wanted woodwinds and stuff, we could do that…

But the approach to that album was kind of totally different, in that the songs were practiced and they were performed by the band. So it was sort of a bold thing to do for Josh, to basically perform them all live. To try to capture the magic in that performance, which was different. I mean, in the past we basically stacked on track after track and that was the style.

I saw a couple of your Instagram stories that went out around that time and it looked like you were having a lot of fun.

This has been widely publicised by this point that there was LSD was involved. Which was cool, because the goal there was to give performances a little bit of extra sparkle and stuff, which is definitely there.

So like microdosing?

Yeah, yeah. It’s sort of like an extra sort of catharsis that was involved.

What’s it like performing and producing a record on LSD?

I wasn’t necessarily as involved because I was trying to keep the technical side together, but it was cool. It definitely was a bold manoeuvre, which was fun. But basically my job was to capture it all, and to record it, and to make the decisions about the tonal palates, and stuff like that. So for those jobs, I chose to stay mostly straight, and mostly sober.

Do you have a favourite anecdote from that recording session?

Our friend Keefus [Ciancia] plays on the album, and he’s been with us since the beginning. He’s our keyboard wizard that comes in and does his thing. But one thing that he did, is he just incessantly vaped this disgusting cappuccino vape juice in the control room the whole time. So now if I walk by a vape shop, or something, it just reminds of those days. But yeah, just big huge cappuccino vape clouds. That was memorable.

What’s your favourite song on that record?

‘Two Wildly Different Perspectives’, because that was the final song we did. Josh and I both sat down on grand pianos, and put down the beginning of that song. Then we took it back to my studio, and sort of added all the bits and bobs.

Rare Birds (2018)

Jonathan Wilson

This is the first one I’ve done since 2013. It took a long time mainly to get it perfect. But then, my schedule’s been pretty mental as well. It’s 13 tracks, 78 minutes. I think it’s the best thing that I’ve done to this point…

What was it like having Lana Del Rey on the record, she’s a good friend of yours?

Lana Del Rey was a huge part of the process, because during that time she was sort of like my sounding board for the different songs, and which songs to choose, and which way they should go and stuff. So I really dig her intuition about these types of things. Then she showed up on some songs.

And Josh [Tillman] makes a couple of cameos as well?

Yeah, Josh shows up on two songs, or three songs. He does his sort of Father John vocal chorus on a song that’s called ‘49 Hair Flips’. Then, he sings as well on this track called ‘Miriam Montague’, which is cool.

Is there a theme to the record?

Not necessarily a theme. It’s just sort of like, “What’s left to say?” What could you possibly say right now in this day and age? Especially where I live, and being a privileged white dude. What could I ever say in a song that would be meaningful to someone other than myself? So that’s the goal. I think those feelings, I hope are contained, so that the album can hopefully transcend the genre-specific indie ghetto.

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