For Jonathan Wilson, the quality of recorded music peaked in late-'70s LA. His own production career has been a quest to scale the same heights.
Since his debut album Gentle Spirit was released in 2011, California-based musician and producer Jonathan Wilson has been credited with bringing about the revival of the Laurel Canyon sound — the peaceful, easy blend of laid-back moods and warm harmonies concocted by the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell in the early '70s. In the wake of Gentle Spirit and his side role as producer of a new breed of '70s-inspired musicians, such as Dawes and Father John Misty (the recording identity of former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman), Wilson's work began to attract the attention of the original generation of artists responsible for the sound. As a result, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Jackson Browne all make appearances on his expansive, melody-soaked second album, Fanfare. Understandably, Wilson is thrilled that the voices that he loved listening to as he was growing up now feature on his own record.
"The biggest thing for me,” he says, in trying to explain his passion for the sounds of the '70s, "is the exposure of the personality that you find in those songs. Or the personality of the spirit of Californian rock & roll. The harmonies and stuff tend to have a certain kind of California sound. That wasn't something to just ignore, that's for sure. That was the sound I wanted to chase.”
Wilson first moved to Los Angeles from his native North Carolina back in 1994. "I came here to be in a band,” he says, "to chase the dream and all that good stuff.” He began to find work as a session guitarist, bassist and drummer. "That's always been my shtick,” the 38-year-old points out, "being a one-man-band.” Over the years, his credit list as a musician has grown to include work with the likes of Robbie Robertson, Elvis Costello and Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes.
At the same time, Wilson has always maintained some kind of studio setup; during a spell in New York he even had a drum room situated in a SoHo bank vault. But it was only when he returned to LA, moved to a house high in the hills above Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the late '00s and built his (now former) studio Canyonstereo that he feels he found his first real recording home, not least because it was cut off from his closest neighbours.
"It was a very rare occurrence,” he says. "That canyon is extremely concentrated. There's a house out your backyard and your side yard and there's a guy above you. But the place I had was strange in that it was totally isolated. It was a huge piece of property. A house had burned down and somebody had built a small, strange bungalow on it. It was above the main drag of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and the traffic there, while it was the bane of our existence at the studio, it actually was a buffer for all the noise. So that worked out good. Across the street was this huge mansion house owned by Rick Rubin, where the Chili Peppers did Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Lots of bands like Linkin Park would go in there and do albums. It was kind of like our only neighbour, so those guys probably didn't mind the rock & roll.”
As a home studio, Canyonstereo required virtually nothing in the way of sonic treatment. "Not with that space, because it was wooden,” Wilson says. "The ceiling and walls were wood and the floor was Spanish tile. I did build a little pseudo-control room.”
In 2009, Wilson moved his operation to Echo Park in Los Angeles, securing new residential premises and renaming his facility Fivestar Studios. The compound contains two guest houses for artists to stay in, and a large cedar-walled recording space. "The other place was extremely charming, but it wasn't what this place is,” he points out. "This is a bona fide spot. I came across town with my good buddy Conor Oberst from the band Bright Eyes. The two of us thought we could get a space and turn it into a studio that could also be a house and stuff.”
Given that he wanted a more professional setup, Wilson employed UK-born studio designer Robert Maune of Sound And Structure to give the room a light refit. "We actually spent all of our cash on these insane windows, which are laminated glass,” he says. "They're huge and they completely keep the sound out and keep the sound in.”
At first, inspired by the way that Daniel Lanois likes to record, Wilson used Fivestar Studios as one undivided space. Only when Nigel Godrich hired the studio to work on A Different Ship by New York band Here We Go Magic was the area separated into a live room and control room. "Those guys got some cool sounds here,” says Wilson. "I was coming and spying on Nigel's drum sounds. He's just a brilliant guy and I was always really into those drum sounds that he got with Beck on his album Sea Change. So once we did the control room, that's when the place started to take off as far as just the vibe of it.”
Wilson chooses to track to tape, with Gentle Spirit having been recorded on an Otari MX80, before he moved over for Fanfare to a Studer A80 previously owned by Jackson Browne. "The first song Jackson recorded on it was 'Somebody's Baby', the big hit [in 1982]. The machine sounds amazing because it's been maintained by Jackson's whole team of guys. Those guys are keeping some of the traditions and standards of studio excellence going. To watch them align or to demag the machine, you realise that that stuff is definitely turning into a lost art.”
In approaching the making of Fanfare, Wilson wanted to create a wide-screen sound that recalled the more ambitious productions of the pre-digital age. "I was really inspired and intrigued by the late '70s and I'm into the '80s too, for sure. But for me this record was about the height of analogue, when it was getting kinda out of control and people were sync'ing machines and trying to push the medium. It doesn't really apply to my album, I suppose, but sometimes when I'm listening to the radio and some '80s hits, I think about the fact that it was done on tape. I mean there's certain huge pop songs, whether it's like Madonna or someone, where it's just funny to think that that's on tape because it sounds so digital.”
In his first step to creating the enormous sounds that characterise much of Fanfare, Wilson decided to make full use of the sizeable dimensions of his drum room at Fivestar. "I always use the [Neumann] U87 for overheads and this time around I also used a pair of Beyer 260 [ribbon mics], along with a pair of Coles 4038s, then just your standard SM57s and stuff and an old [AKG] D12 on the kick. I was super-inspired by what could be done by pushing the drum sounds. The drum room is so tall that I can compress the Coles and stuff and get a huge snare sound.”
Wilson's favourite mic is his long-body Neumann U47 valve mic. "It sounds freaking fantastic,” he says. "But to be honest, the most versatile mic that I keep going back to for lots and lots of stuff is a [Neumann] U67. The great thing about a 67 to me is that it captures the personality of the singer and it doesn't add anything. It's just a sort of vehicle for the singer. But then I'm a big fan, to be honest, of the [Shure] SM57. I use that constantly. Also, the SM7, I'm a big fan of those. I'm for sure part of that school where I tend to enjoy the simpler shit. It's satisfying to plug in a 57 or something simple and just get the job done.”
In terms of outboard, Wilson favours the Urei 1176 and 1178 for compression, along with other bits of kit built or customised by Fivestar's engineer Bryce Gonzales. "He was building those Abbey Road-style Lisson Grove [R124] compressors as a job on the side. We've built maybe six or eight tube limiters and some of them are EMI-inspired. But also I'm a huge fan of the RCA BA6A compressors. So we've actually done some custom things like building an Altec front end with a BA6A output stage. Things like that that we're constantly experimenting with. I'm extremely lucky to have Bryce. He's my secret, the key to my thing here. He's as hungry for this as I am.”
Wilson's approach to effects is equally old-school. "I got a plate cheap. It's not an EMT, it was a copy that they did back around those days called an Ecoplate II. It's just a standard size huge plate but it sounds fantastic. There's something about that plate. When I go to other studios that have EMTs which are supposed to be the best, they just don't sound as great to me as the one that I have. Then I use a lot of tape slap with my old Tascam half-inch. The most important thing is that it has varispeed. Then we have an old tube Echoplex [EP2] which sounds great. Then a few analogue delays and stuff. But most of the effects are fairly simple.”
One example of Wilson keeping his effect use simple and getting a great result is the acoustic track 'Cecil Taylor' on Fanfare, where he blends his voice with the unmistakable harmonies of David Crosby and Graham Nash. "I stacked up maybe seven tracks of myself, Crosby and Nash,” he explains. "Then we took those 21 voices and bounced them to a single track and then put it through a guitar pedal phaser. And y'know, the result is this magical thing that we could have never done with digital.”
Wilson isn't afraid of painstaking work and comping to create the perfect lead vocal. "I'm pretty shameless with all that,” he says. "Most of the vocals are on my U67. It's just so natural to me. But there's some tunes where I use an old RCA 77. The tune 'Cecil Taylor', for example, that's a doubled vocal doing the exact same thing, hard-panned, and one side is a [Shure] 51, which has got that extended sort of gossamer top end, and the other side in contrast is the RCA 77. Then the opening song, 'Fanfare', that small tight bandwidth on the voice is a strange old [Electro-Voice] 635A, kinda like a sportscaster's mic. It's just a little omni broadcast mic without any bottom end, and sometimes that can be great for vocals. In that song, the effect that gives it that sort of spacey sound is the [Cooper] Time Cube. Then there's a couple of songs where I am using the SM7 because that tends to have a nice sort of intimacy.”
Central to the creation of Fanfare, what Wilson calls the "heart” of the record, is his Steinway concert piano. "It's a big dog,” he laughs. "But yeah, that was the centrepiece of the whole thing. We ended up doing a lot of live tracking with my band, and the piano was in the space and sometimes we would get Benmont [Tench] from the Heartbreakers to come and be the piano player. That gets challenging, of course, isolating everything and trying to keep the drums out of the other mics. But for the piano I borrowed a beautiful pair of old [Telefunken ELAM] 251s from Jackson, because he has seven.”
Helping to cut down on spill is the fact that Wilson generally prefers to DI the bass. "I've got an old Guyatone bass,” he explains, "a large hollow-body. Sometimes I'll use that through an Ampeg B15, but often we'll just scrap the amp and go with the DI, because in a denser mix it can hold its own.”
Guitar-wise, Wilson mostly sticks with his 1965 Fender Princeton amp, in combination with a variety of guitars. "That, to me, is the ultimate studio guitar amp,” he says. "It can kind of do it all. Then we have a lot of guitars here, 35 or so, everything from a '59 Stratocaster to a '57 Les Paul. These days, what's sitting in front of the guitar amp most of the time is an SM7. When Flood came here to work on the new Warpaint record, he took the screens off the mics. He wants to keep the top end open. So now the screens are gone off of all our SM7s and 58s [laughs].”
In terms of keyboards, Wilson loves the creaky, wobbly sound of his Mellotron M400. "That's a bit out-of-sorts and stuff, which gives it some character. And I've got the new one, the digital one [the M4000D], which is fantastic. I've got to say, they knocked it out the park on that one.”
The final overdubs on Fanfare, for some of the more ambitious-sounding tracks, were orchestral parts comprising strings and horns, the former scored and recorded by Patrick Sansone of Wilco, while the latter were handled by Nate Walcott from Bright Eyes. "Pat does all the strings on the Wilco albums, which I love, so I got him to do mine. He did it in Chicago at this place called Chicago Recording Company. It's the last place still open there where big strings can be done. Some of it was double-tracked and triple-tracked, so the bits that sound like a big 60-piece are actually a smaller grouping.”
Come the mixing stage of Fanfare, Jonathan Wilson was lucky enough to be allowed access to Jackson Browne's private Groove Masters studio facility in Santa Monica, with its Neve 8078 desk. At this point, the Studer master tapes were transferred to Pro Tools HD. "It was all spread out on the 8078 which has automation,” Wilson says, "so that's the way that most of the album was done. But there are three or four songs that were completely analogue 'til the end. The brilliant thing about using Flying Faders is being able to get back to ground zero. The other thing they do there is they keep extensive notes and complete recall for all the outboard on the songs. Which was great, because with some of the songs, we went back and mixed them a second or third time.”
For some of the songs on Fanfare, particularly the tight-sounding live-band rocker 'Love To Love', Wilson found that the Neve didn't suit the sound he was after. "The Neve is open, and it was almost too open for that song. What we ended up doing was taking that back and putting it on the MCI, which has this sort of urgent mid-range. It sounds just fucking great and a little more visceral. Then the third tune on the album, 'Her Hair Is Growing Long', that was done analogue all the way on the MCI to get that sort of thick, soupy bottom end.”
The toughest track to mix on Fanfare turned out to be the multi-layered ballad 'Future Vision', which recalls the epic production of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson's classic 1977 solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue. "We went back to it three times. It's a big song. What we're doing, too, is we're trying to ride the line of the compression. On this album there are big compressed drums and it's like trying to ride the line with the cymbals. The drums may sound great when they're compressed, but then when you smack a cymbal, it's just not good at all, and it's a sort of swishy-swashy frequency eater.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the impressive results he's managing to achieve on his own records, Jonathan Wilson is finding himself much in demand as a producer. He recently oversaw the first album by Roy Harper in 13 years, Man & Myth, and is currently putting the finishing touches to the next Father John Misty record: 2012's Fear Fun displayed a diverse range of musical styles, from rattling '60s Dylan-ish rockers to smooth '70s FM soul, and was unlike anything previously credited to the former Fleet Foxes drummer, who in the past had released a series of low-key acoustic albums as J. Tillman.
"That was a thing where we were just like, 'Wow',” says Wilson. "We met through my buddy Bonnie Prince Billy. Josh had composed most of the tunes and they were just awesome. The first thing I got to hear were demos done in GarageBand that were just completely virgin. But the key on that album was that we were exploring. We had the balls to try to stuff and the confidence to keep those tracks.
"That's one thing that drives me mad, is that people get their most conservative in the fucking studio. You tap into their iPod and it's filled with bold choices, and then you put them in the studio, and they can't fucking do it. They freeze up and they start to second-guess themselves and the track and all the overdubs because there they are right in their face, y'know. And they're like, 'Oh God only knows, you shouldn't put that guitar solo in there.' And it's like, 'Well, a lot of the stuff that you love has a big old nasty guitar solo, and as time goes by you're so happy that the choices were made and kept.'”
Wilson's collaboration with Roy Harper, meanwhile, found its roots in a tribute album that the former is currently overseeing. What You Need Is What You Have: The Songs Of Roy Harper is set to feature contributions from the likes of Chris Robinson and Bonnie Prince Billy. The English folk/rock singer found out about the project, checked out Gentle Spirit and decided he wanted to make a record with Wilson. "When he did Stormcock in 1971,” Wilson says, "he came to Cali and that was where he got inspired to do what is regarded as his opus. So he got the idea to come back to California and soak that up again. He came and stayed here in the studio and he's an extremely special man.”
As a producer, Wilson thinks his approach is partly sonic, but partly putting an artist at ease so that they can experiment fully. "One of the things is all of my sounds and tones that I've kind of collected,” he says. "There are definitely many instances where I'll have a sound or a technique that I've explored that I can find. It's kinda like a cook that has some spices and tricks in the kitchen, y'know. That's a nice thing, to have a sonic palette of colours and signature things that you do. That being said, I'm a big proponent of trying to make sure that the singer's personality is paramount. That to me trumps the gear and the music. People definitely keep coming back because I guess I try to promote the vibe at the studio — keeping it focused, but having a good time.”
In terms of future projects, while he enjoys being on tour and performing live, Wilson's plan is to spend more time holed up at Fivestar, working on his own material and with other artists. He hopes to work with Erykah Badu on some less R&B-focused, more guitar-based material, and is currently planning to make a record with Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst. "At this point, the production side is busy, as far as there's a lot of enquiries and some of them are certainly flattering,” he says. "But I have to pick the time when to do that. That was the goal, to get off the road and come back into the studio. Being in the studio is what makes me happy.”
Jonathan Wilson's Canyonstereo and Fivestar studios have both been centred around his most prized possession: an MCI JH-416 console, built in 1972 and formerly owned by Shelter Records, home to such diverse artists as JJ Cale, Leon Russell and the Gap Band. "It's the earliest of all the MCIs,” Wilson says. "It didn't need a whole lot of maintenance. I got it from a friend of a friend in town, and I had been searching for that type of console for quite some time. They're extremely hard to find, 'cause they only did a few of those first early ones, and then they figured out that their parts cost was way too high.”
Wilson says that he has compared his MCI to other, far more expensive desks he's used in other studios, and decided that he still prefers the sound he gets from his board. "Even when you pass audio through the board, without the EQs engaged, it just sounds great,” he enthuses. "It has soul and heart, and it's robust too. The EQ is almost like a comedy. You can boost the mid-band, but you can't cut the mids, and the high and low are fixed.
"The other thing is, like with a lot of boards from those times, the top is always 10k. Of course, being a fan of many, many albums from the early '70s, I figured out that with a lot of the drum sounds, the engineer was just jacking up the top end. I was a lot more scared to do that back in the past, but these days I'm definitely not shy with things like that.”
Wilson admits that he is pretty much a devoutly analogue guy. "The biggest thing for me, as simple as it is and as dumbed-down a concept as it seems, is I just like the way it sounds,” he says. "That being said, also, the simplicity of the workflow is great. Thinking about the Beatles and stuff, if those guys hadn't had severe limitations, then it wouldn't have happened. Part of their sound was definitely in the bounce-downs and the generational compromise and the stuff that you didn't expect.
"Sometimes the problem with a digital workstation is that you know what to expect. You kinda know that you're gonna insert EchoBoy on your guitar track and you're gonna have your compressor and your six-band EQ on this and that. You know exactly what's about to happen. Whereas, when you're exploring in the analogue domain, that's when interesting shit just happens.”