“Serving the song” — always easier said than done. And the thought process and second-guessing only intesifies when it’s your first full-length album, and you are considering lots of material, and when stylistic continuity is a concern.
These issues and more were running through singer/songwriter Jack Wilson‘s mind as he set out to make his self-titled debut, now available from Fluff & Gravy Records. With the help of producer and Seattle music scene veteran Alex Kostelnik, the Austin, Texas-based Wilson got on the right track, ultimately following Kostelnik’s advice to “let the songs do the talking.”
Medleyville.us: How many songs — originals and covers — were in the running for your self-titled debut album? Did you record more songs than you ultimately used, and if so, what will become of them?
Jack Wilson: “When producer Alex Kostelnik and I sat down to plan out the record, we looked at my entire catalog to date. We were listening to songs that I wrote in high school, in my early 20s — the whole bit. We chose about 15 songs and a couple covers. When it was all said and done, we chose ‘Clean,’ a Jonathan Byrd tune, as the cover on the record. A solo piano version of ‘Tears of Rage’ and all the redux versions from the catalog were pushed to the wayside to make room for songs like ‘Fell Inside,’ which was written the night before it was recorded. Who knows what or when we’ll reuse those cuts — maybe on the boxed set.”
Prior to recording the album, you prepared for months and wrestled with the idea of making a concept record and pondered the constraints of alt.country, rock and folk. Who was part of your prerecording planning and discussions? And did any one person in particular play a major role in your decision to avoid those trappings and strict classifications and ultimately serve each song the best way possible?
Wilson: “Alex Kostelnik was a very loud voice in those preproduction meetings. We had been friends for a long time, and he had taken a much more passive role when recording a previous project of mine, a project that ultimately didn’t congeal like I’d hoped. So when we started this project, I offered some creative control to him. Alex has been in the Seattle/Olympia music scene since the late ’80s. He has a very particular and informed opinion on what hooks people in and knows how to get a true and raw performance out of an artist. He could really push my buttons, get me pissed and yelling at him in the box, but at the end of the day, got me to sing and play my best.
“He really held firm to the idea that each song needed to determine its own production. Even when I would come in with some hard-on for … some Kathleen Edwards vocal treatment, he really, really encouraged patience, and for me to let the songs do the talking.”
Talk about the inspiration behind “Paying for Misery (Thanks to You)” and its impact on your life and music career.
Wilson: ” ‘Paying for Misery’ holds a special place in my body of work. I had already gone from the lap of privilege to homelessness and back again, working 50-hour weeks, living in my van, then an old apartment building in Seattle. No matter how much money I was making, something never felt right. And as trainhoppers and musicians would pass through my life, sleeping on my floor, playing me songs, I knew the working world was never going to fulfill me. When I started pushing out onto the road, I started to find some of that peace I was looking for, night after night, mile after mile. I’ve never felt more comfortable than on a stage, or behind the wheel of the car. I just wanted to thank them, ya know?
“When I got to Austin and played that for some of the touring guys down there, it was the first one they really latched onto. They appreciated that I had noticed — that I’d seen their sacrifice.”
You reportedly used a whopping 19 electric guitars on “The Cure,” but the end result isn’t a Def Leppard-sounding monstrosity. First of all, why so many guitars? And what were the recording, tracking and mixing challenges involved with this song?
Wilson: “OK, so 19 might be an overstatement — hah. When we started tracking electric guitars, we filled the entire studio floor with amps. Kostelnik actually went around Seattle borrowing amps for that week. We stacked them up like a music shop display and turned them up to breaking levels, so loud that I had to run a line into the control room and record in there. We wanted to make a thick roux for this song to swim in — not a mess, like you said, some power ballad — but something full and warm. So we took several of those takes and layered them. The mixing process — especially once you start talking about pedal steel, Rhodes, horns — took weeks. I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It holds the darkness until it can’t, then breaks wide open to let some daylight in, just long enough to let you feel it on your face, before dragging you back down.”
Finish this sentence: During this year’s SXSW, I will …
Wilson: “… be stuck in traffic longer than I’m performing?”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Jack Wilson at SXSW 2012 (schedule subject to change):
* 9 p.m. March 15 — The White Horse, 500 Comal St. (official SXSW showcase)
* March 16: East Avenue Lounge, 90 N. I-35
Photo courtesy of Fluff & Gravy Records