Jonathan Wilson‘s third album Rare Birds is exactly what he pictured, in every little detail, on every track. “There’s not one minute where I’m biting my finger thinking, “Oh shit, I wish that didn’t happen,” he tells WildnFree. “I feel like each track stands up on its own, with its own personal ecosystem.” The artful and melodic rock and roller is a boss creator of such musical ‘ecosystems’, landscapes and moments, and Rare Birds is filled with more gifts of them; from the mystical dreamscapes for lovers, Beatles-flavoured ditties, raw and frightening heartbreakers, to the good old dirty rock and roll.
Currently in Australia performing with the Roger Waters’ Us + Them tour, Jonathan recently performed a single sold-out Sydney show streamed live on Facebook for the unlucky suckers elsewhere. Breaking this blog’s ‘Australian-only’ rule due to ‘exceptional circumstances’, Jonathan talks to WildnFree about Rare Birds – and fully owns the mistake of not performing live in Melbourne this time around.
“I know!”, he says, addressing WildnFree‘s rebuke. ” I’ve got to be honest, when I was here last time, Melbourne was my favourite town, the most artistic town, I will definitely be back.” With that issue forgiven and forgotten, Jonathan explains the genesis of the Rare Birds album concept in the mystical Loving You, featuring new age instrumentalist Laraaji and Lana Del Ray. “That’s where it started,” he says. “I hadn’t put anything out for about three years, I was taking my time with the tracks I was composing. I got a piano, a great Steinway around that time, and I would sit at that and write a bunch of songs, but I wasn’t sure how to start, or what kind of vibe the record was going to have.”
“Out of the blue, Laraaji came to town, came to my studio and we did the track together, which set the whole tone for the album. We ended up making some sister tracks to it as well, where we used the same drum treatment, plus the zither. If you listen to the first single Over The Midnight, it’s similar to Loving You. That was the plan, they share a sonic vibe.
Over The Midnight, described as ‘a sacred place for lovers to exist’, definitely sounds transcendent. “It’s taking a wonderful trip through the streets of Los Angeles, in a vintage Porsche,” Jonathan muses. “You’re hitting all the right spots, and you’re in the place where society should be, in a peaceful place with no maniacs around the corner, and you’re talking in French, you’re in the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge, everything is perfect. Somehow the words ‘over the midnight’ came to me to describe the feeling of that place.”
Elsewhere describing Rare Birds as “a healing affair, a rejuvenation, a reconciliation, for others, and for me, I wanted to balance personal narrative with the need I feel for calming, healing music”, Jonathan hears these words spoken aloud, murmurs agreement and elaborates. “I was really digging deep this time, revealing some feelings at the piano, I was reflecting on this stage in my career, it’s in the back of my mind that I don’t have time to fuck around, ” he shares. “Every song has to be meaningful and real, to resonate across the world. So, I really had to look inside to find some of these tracks. I kinda always had a penchant for sad love songs, so they’re in there. A lot of it is completely autobiographical.”
For example, shadowy brooder Living With Myself is a palpably painful self-expose featuring the velvet backing echoes of Lana Del Ray, a friend and support throughout the record-making process. “She’s such an awesome person,” Jonathan says. “I was spending a lot of time with her while making the album, so she’d be my sounding board for certain songs and she sang on a few, one not on the album which will come out soon. She’s very musically intuitive, so I trust her pop sensibilities, they’re extraordinary.”
Good mate Father John Misty also contributes backing vocals on the solemnly dissident 49 Hairflips. “We’ll be fucking, we’ll be sucking, while the rest of them are posting their lives, ah these kids will never rock again, sign of the times,” goes the lyric. “I was trying to find the Joni Mitchell chords on the piano, and the words came to me based on what I’d been going through at the time personally,” explains Jonathan. “It started feeling like one of those rock and roll coroners of the rock and roll corpse, that feeling began to creep in.”
Coroner of the rock and roll corpse? “When someone asks, ‘Is rock and roll dead?’ it’s hard to say it’s not!” he elaborates. “It’s getting completely bulldozed by hip-hop and pop music, it’s being auto-tuned by the AI algorithms, but it doesn’t really rock. Some danger, mistakes, some god forbid humanity can really make a rock band make a rocking track, and that’s pretty rare these days.”
Recorded concurrently with his production work on Father John Misty’s latest album Pure Comedy, Rare Birds was proudly recorded and produced in an appropriately rock and roll manner. “I turned all the sessions into massive parties,” he says. “I paid the perfect guy to be a promotor, and he’d make the parties rock. We’d be inspired to record, then go and hang out with people, then come back in to work again. We invented a drink, called The Game Of Thrones, a tequila drink. So it was pretty much a party throughout, although some of the songs don’t sound like it. I did it that way because I couldn’t bear to make another thing by myself in solitude, feeling miserable.”
One of the starkest tracks on the album, Hard To Get Over, is definitely no fun and games, unfolding with blunt honesty into a heavy chaos of pain and grief, ending in distressed gasps. “It’s pretty much what I’m talking about,” Jonathan shares, not giving much away. “It’s about that experience of not being able to put something to rest in your mind.” Dusky and elegant road tripper Sunset Blvd is more forlorn and surrendered, an unshackled tribute to the legendary Hollywood road. “Singing about such an iconic place in LA, that’s big shoes to fill,” Jonathan says. “But I feel I’ve paid my dues a little now. The song’s got the loneliness I’d put myself into, it’s my version of a classic driving song.”
Fuzzy epic opening track Trafalgar Square is something else random altogether. “It’s a surreal stream of conscious, giving some nods to The Beatles, to Houdini’s secret underground tunnels near my old place in Laurel Canyon, that’s the lore, the folk story,” says Jonathan, schooling WildnFree on the local history. “Plus the 405, my friend Steve Jones from Sex Pistols who championed my song years ago when no one would play it, I give him a shout out too.”
Steve Jones clearly knew quality when he heard it, and there’s no reason why Jonathan Wilson shouldn’t be championed far more widely and loudly now as an artist. Considering his tender tribute left on the record company press release, Father John Misty would surely concur. “Jonathan’s talent – ‘mastery’ may be more apt – places him among a rarefied class of musical auteur,” he states. “You’d be hard pressed to find a comparison, or contemporary for that matter, that would do his recent work justice.”
Where is Jonathan at with all this himself? “I’m basically at the point where it’s time for me to dedicate myself to my own shit,” he says, honestly. “The production work is super fun and of course I’ll continue doing that, but I can do that into the future. Now, I’ve got the right team with the right band, and I’m excited. That just took me longer than most to assemble.”
Rare Birds is out Friday March 2 on Bella Union via [PIAS].
Journey to the sacred place where lovers exist in Over The Midnight:
Image: Andrea Nakhla