The New King of Laurel Canyon?
That’s what a headline in the U.K. magazine Uncut screamed over a story declaring Jonathan Wilson the new artist of the year.
And that’s been the meme on Wilson, who will be playing at the nearly Canyon-adjacent Troubadour on Thursday. He's unquestionably tapped into the vibe of the legendary scene that happened there in the late '60s and early '70s. It’s in his music, as heard on his recent debut album Gentle Spirit, and in his increasingly vital role in a multi-generational community of similar spirits including classic-era Laurel denizens Jackson Browne and Graham Nash and such younger figures as the band Dawes.
But even His Majesty thinks this has gotten out of control.
“[Recently] on the cover of the Times of London was a big story about that,” he says, his eyes audibly rolling over the phone. “That was just too far. Gone to far.”
For one thing, Wilson, having lived in the Canyon for a little while after moving to L.A. from his native North Carolina, relocated to Echo Park in 2009.
“It would not have been completely false in 2008,” he says, stressing that being based in Laurel Canyon was not the result of any kind of “pilgrimage,” but a mere matter of having found a suitable abode via Craig’s List. “But at this point it’s not happening there. But it’s okay, man. That’s the angle and the story for someone to grab onto. It’s fine.”
And it is hard to ignore. The album is 78 minutes of floating (and sometimes stinging) guitars, laid-back (though sometimes not-so-much) vocals, all originals save for a side-trip with a nicely energized version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel,” the latter in particular fueled by Wilson’s distorted electric playing. It’s a harmonic mix that does, indeed share its spirit with CSN and/or Y, as well as Browne and others associated with that time and place. He plays it up a little in the very ‘70s cover art, as well as credits that refer to most of his “gentle case of contributing characters” as “Brother” (including Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson, though Jonathan Rice gets a “Sir” before his name), all coming out of the communal Canyon jam sessions he organized while living there.
And that extends to concert settings, such as when he was on the bill of the anti-nuke Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) festival at Shoreline Amphitheater south of San Francisco last summer, Browne and Nash helping out in his set and Wilson in turn sitting in with various artists throughout the day.
The story, perhaps, is more what he brought to Laurel Canyon (and Echo Park) than what he got there. Browne and Nash may get tabbed as his mentors, but Wilson looks back to Forest City, North Carolina, for where he got his spirit, gentle or otherwise.
“There was this guy from my hometown named Harold Alexander, who did some albums for Blue Note and Flying Dutchman,” he says. “When John Coltrane died in ’67 the had some dates booked and since this guy was his friend and had done some stuff with [drummer] Elvin Jones, he was the guy who they had play the horn in Coltrane’s honor in the band. That was my first mentor. When you know that you’re gathering things you have to share with others and stuff, it’s just part of the process. People that are not in tune to that or try to keep things for themselves or think it’s a competition not to be shared, maybe that’s all right for some. But what I like to do is share. That’s the same with Jackson, that vibe. You understand that sometimes it’s just your job to give up information and things.”
So what does he have to impart in his role, in turn, mentoring Dawes, producing the most recent album by Mia Doi Todd and working with other young -- and not-so-young -- artists, Erykah Badu, Elvis Costello and Robbie Robertson among them?
“I think it’s just, even as cheesy and vague as it sounds, it’s about the music,” he says. “And that’s just about the journey to the day you die, through albums and things you love. Nothing to do with trying to posture or plan an album or tour or arc of a career or something you think a publicist can do in advance. Those are the people that I don’t speak to in the business, the people who think that some type of angle to succeed and to being popular is needed.
“The thing I’m trying to explain is that’s what I’m all about. Not thinking that it’s a trick to be popular or trendy or hip or this or that. It’s difficult to explain it. Basically, what excites you to begin with, that’s what’s instilled.”
Sounds like he’s got it all pretty well together.
“Possibly!” he says, laughing. “Yeah, maybe if I want to stay in debt the rest of my life I’ve got it figured out. But still, that’s where I draw the line in the sand. No compromising in the studio, being able to explore.”
And what about exploring his current neighborhood’s rich cultural history? Might he become the new king of Echo Park?
“Maybe on the next album there will be some Spanish and trumpets or something,” he says. “This area now is what they’re kind of describing when they describe the canyon and things. Musicians and artists. That’s how I think of it, definitely a hotbed of that.”
Here's the video for Wilson's "Desert Raven":