“Gentle Spirit” is not simply the name of the debut solo album by songwriter/musician/producer, Jonathan Wilson, it represents the ethos of the artist himself. Warm, supple melodies etched in layers of stringed instruments and willowy organ motifs accompany his earnest, North Carolinian drawl as he tells tales of humane values lost and found.
Wilson’s music is steeped equally in the woodsy contours of his Blue Ridge experiences and the atmospheric guitar reveries of Neil Young and Quicksilver Messenger Service. In fact, “Gentle Spirit,” an expansive double vinyl set, is remarkably evocative of that golden late ‘60s, early ‘70s period when rural and urban sensibilities colluded in producing some of rock’s most imperishable recordings.
Wilson, a native of Forest City, North Carolina, has been quietly earning a reputation as a musical jack-of-all-trades. He is adept behind the recording console, possesses a luthier’s knowledge of all things strummed, and maintains the innate ability to conceptualize an instrument essential to providing the right color to a track in need of a defining detail. Whether working with promising new recording artists like the band Dawes, contemporary artists, such as Erykah Badu and Elvis Costello, or Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, Jackson Browne, and Robbie Robertson, Wilson, a tall, slim, long-haired presence, provides direction and support as tasty and soulful as anyone in the business today.
It should then come as no surprise that Wilson, so resolutely committed to “old school” musical values, began recording “Gentle Spirit” in Los Angeles’s fabled Laurel Canyon. As a longtime student of “Canyon culture,” his ideas echo many of an earlier generation as the album embraces a unique blend of folk, country, rock and roll and pop elements, which enduringly create a sense of time and place.
While writing and recording “Gentle Spirit”, “I was consciously trying to hit, ‘dreary day in the canyon,’ that was the original concept,” admits Wilson. “That was what it was supposed to be. I feel like I achieved that. But, you have to remember the album took a long time, the tracking was done a while ago, and there’s a distance there that I guess was supposed to happen. And it’s not hot off the tape machine. Things transpired. That, to me, is a good thing because there is a perspective on display. I can be detached; and whether this characteristic does this or that, it doesn’t affect me to the greater good of the album.”
“I loved living and recording in Laurel Canyon,” he reflects. “I wasn’t trying to find a sound of yore or duplicate any guitar sounds ala Buffalo Springfield or Crazy Horse. But what ends up happening is that the vocal harmony on the album does have a certain type of a tonality and that indeed is the sound of the canyon.”
Wilson was crafting the album between tours, album producer jobs and the never-ending jam sessions that constituted canyon life. “I was never in conflict or had a self-imposed time table around this album,” offers Jonathan. “Maybe just in the last bit, and only because of scheduling considerations. Time went by and things were cool and I never felt anything was on a back burner because it was all sort of my process.
“For me, I didn’t find I was best served to go into the studio with a batch of songs I’d just done in the last 30 or 60 days and put them down over 6 days. I was better served by having the material unfold over time,” Wilson reinforces.
“The only theme on the album has to do with some of the words of the title track, about the desensitizing that we are exposed to on a daily basis, of all the explosions and car bombs and people in despair,” he underscores. “And these things that come at you so fast that you don’t have time to really concentrate on them and give them the reverence and respect they deserve. The album talks about taking some time to, you know, give humanity some kind of reverence-laden soundtrack.
“I play a lot of different instruments on my own recordings. For “Gentle Spirit,” I used a Hofner bass. I played a 1969 Gibson ES 345 a lot, especially when I wanted the guitar tone to cut. It’s the same guitar used by Freddie King. It has a very aggressive kind of bite.“
“I drafted in some friends throughout the recording that allowed me to concentrate on the guitar and vocals. I assembled a band with guys like Otto Hauser for basic tracking that created a certain energy that I couldn’t have produced on my own. I also brought in specific people for certain songs,” Wilson explains. “Gary Louris, the singer from The Jayhawks, singer Andy Cabic and drummer Otto Hauser, of the band Vetiver, and pedal steel player Josh Grange all played on the record. Adam McDougal, a good friend of mine who plays Hammond organ with the Black Crowes, drummer Brian Geltner, legendary bassist Gerald Johnson, keyboardist Barry Goldberg and Gary Mallaber, former drummer with the Steve Miller Band and Van Morrison, were all involved, too.”
“The title track ‘Gentle Spirit’ is the first tune on the album. I was searching for some sort of positive theme somewhere out there in the abyss and for it to enter the ears and maybe the heart of someone listening. And it’s just a positive energy to start out the album, a sonic welcome.
Wilson also included one of his oldest compositions, “Valley of the Silver Moon.” “It’s a tune about the modern music world not understanding what I have to offer as an artist and the struggle this created.”
The influence of North Carolina resonates throughout the album. “Can We Really Party Today?” is a song that talks about the Carolinas and the South. And on “The Ballad of the Pines,” on which I did some harmonies with Chris Robinson, who is a Georgia boy, I was talking about the majestic pines of the South. As this song, and the others too, unfolded, I found comfort in being able to hear the South despite being out here in California, ‘cause when you’re there, you’re so immersed you don’t realize the effect.”
“Gentle Spirit” features all original Wilson compositions with the exception of his “psyched out” rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel.” “It spoke to me,” relates Wilson. “He’s talking about a kind of weightlessness, and the need for patience which is what I’m all about and ‘Gentle Spirit’ is all about.”
After leaving Laurel Canyon, Wilson relocated to the Echo Park section of L.A., home to a lively mix of Latin Americans, Bohemians and expressive youth. It is in his new recording studio, Five Star Studio, where Wilson finished tracking and mixing “Gentle Spirit.
“Gentle Spirit” was produced by Wilson. “I recorded everything to analog tape which I’ve always done; it’s not something I’m trying to do as a boutique kind of hip thing. Analog simply captures things better and it takes the edges off. It creates a beauty much like film. I have a console that was built in 1972 and used to belong to Shelter Records. That’s a big part of the sound for the album.”
Given the popular culture’s preoccupation with all things digital, “Gentle Spirit” draws a line in the proverbial sand; the album was conceived for vinyl. “I would say vinyl is the only real tangible format that contains meaningful value and the only one you can sell to me that retains any value. And to me, that’s on both sides of the table, the consumer and the artist. Even as a record collector I’ve always been vinyl driven. With vinyl, this is when the record sounds the best and when it comes alive. To me, this project and the album represent many things tangible and even more things intangible, those that can only be felt.”