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Interview with Jim Wilson, April 2004
Interview with Jim Wilson, image 1
Pianist Jim Wilson’s first big break came courtesy of his outstanding freshman effort Northern Seascape. Written largely in 1997, the album was not formally released until 1999 on Angel Records. Layered in mystical uilleann pipes, Irish flutes and mandolins accompanied by soothing yet evocative melodies, Wilson’s sound was unique yet familiar. It did not hurt to have marquee names like Davey Johnstone (Elton John’s guitarist) and Dave Koz assisting him. It was a great start for his career.

Wilson avoided the sophomore slump by presenting his listeners with the strong Cape of Good Hope. Yet it had a difficult time surpassing the magnificence of his debut album. Under pressure attempting to find a label to promote and distribute his astonishing music, it appeared that he was struggling to maintain the momentum of Northern Seascape.

Wilson released the tribute album Playing Favorites and the seasonal affair appropriately entitled My First Christmas With You, and though impressive they were missing the “wow” factor that Northern Seascape had encapsulated. The question that remained was whether his outstanding debut was to become an impossible benchmark to replicate?

The year 2004 would begin to change everything when Wilson released Sanctuary, which did surpass the creative effort of Northern Seascape. Unfortunately, the distribution issue continued until the following year when the musician was successful in signing with Artemis Nashville and Sanctuary was repackaged and re-entitled A Place In My Heart. Since then, Wilson appears to be finally getting some of the attention that he richly deserves. With ACCU Internet Radio placing Wilson in heavy rotation, A Place In My Heart was also awarded top honors by New Age Reporter.

Recently, I had the pleasure of a Q&A session via email in order to find out a little more about the man behind the artist.

MD: Congratulations on your recent accolades and achievements but lets backtrack a little. When and why did you begin to play the piano?

Wilson: I get asked that not infrequently and people always assume that I started playing when I was young. My parents did get me to take a piano lesson or two when I was a kid, but I doth protest so much that they finally let me blow it off. When I was 7, though, a friend of my mom's gave me a guitar and he kind of changed my life. I started working up James Taylor songs, then began composing my own tunes too. It wasn't until I was 19 that my stepfather bought me this funky, old upright that I started in earnest. I started transferring my James Taylor-style finger picking riffs to piano and that would ultimately become a cornerstone of my piano style.

MD: While your style is uniquely your own who heavily influenced your piano playing?

Wilson: Well, there was the James Taylor thing, but I think it was Keith Jarrett who first really blew me away as a pianist. I still stand in awe of what he brings to the table. I've listened to the Koln concert CD quite literally hundreds upon hundreds of times. The encore piece still brings me to my knees. Absolutely exquisite. ... I love the harmonic sensibilities and voicings of Dave Grusin, David Foster and Bruce Hornsby. Also, there's this new guy who's not bad either... Elton something.

MD: Northern Seascape included a multitude of famous names and well-known studio musicians. How did you make such a high level connection with so many musicians?

Wilson: I was very fortunate to have run in some good circles prior to making my first record. Ages ago, I helped develop a midi-adapter for acoustic piano and for years, I was the solitary guy on the planet you could get it from. It was a pretty amazing time and I had the opportunity to work with just about every hero I ever had including Elton, Paul McCartney and Phil Collins. Dave Koz I'd gotten to know through my buddy Claude Gaudette.

MD: Your debut album was outstanding and featured the lesser known Eric Rigler on the flute and pipes who appeared on the smash hit soundtrack Titanic released in 1997. Was this an intentional move?

Wilson: Not at all. I just fell in love with the instruments he played and the expression he brings to them. Eric is an amazing musician and a truly gifted musician.

MD: For me the greatest attraction was your borrowed style of slipping off from one key to another much like producer/musician David Foster. Would it be fair to say that he has been a heavy influence on your musical style?

Wilson: Definitely. I love his voicings in particular. And yeah, come to think of it, I guess he does modulate a lot, huh? I love where a good, well-placed modulation can take a song. A great tool for when the song needs a left turn.

MD: Your first record was recorded on Angel Records that focuses on Classical Music. How did you get connected up with them?

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Wilson: I got really lucky I have to say. I sent my first record to a load of record labels that I'd found in the A&R Directory. I sent them out unsolicited, which is of course, rule number 1 of what NOT to do. To my amazement, 7 of the 20 or so labels I sent out my CD to responded with offers. Four of those put contracts on the table. I ended up going with Angel. Great label and we got the record to number 21 on the Billboard New Age chart, got lots of airplay and national TV interviews.

MD: Though you avoided the sophomore slump by recording the solid Cape Of Good Hope, it still stood in the shadow of the magnificent Northern Seascape. But much like your debut the quality of the recording levels continued to be outstanding. Where did you learn the production and technical aspect of recording?

Wilson: Thanks for the kind words about Northern Seascape. (By the way, some folks felt that Cape overshadowed Northern, but it only makes me appreciate the diversity of opinions out there. I'll always take the compliment regardless!) ... As far as where I learned production techniques, etc., I guess it came from years and year of listening to records and taking them apart. I've heard it said that "a writer is a reader moved to emulation." By the same token, any producer has been listening with appreciation the aspects of what goes into making a great record. Most of it I just learned as I went. I always try to start with a solid piano performance, then ideas for what the track needs will come from that. I place a huge importance on melody, so I frequently will emphasize the melody by doubling it with guitar, mandolin, Irish flute, sax, etc. Typically, I'll start hearing parts that I think will compliment the tune. Invariably, I'll record WAY more than I need and have to get ruthless in the mixing process and thin things out. Sometimes it's difficult to do because it will be a great sounding part but the song is better served in its simpler form. Also, I constantly have to discipline myself and leave room for the arrangement to build. There might be a fantastic sounding string line or something that works in all the choruses, but I have to force myself to not put it in the first chorus so that the song has somewhere to go.

MD: Playing Favorites played tribute to some of your favorite songwriters with three tracks featuring Elton John. How did you go about picking the selections for this album?

Wilson: I have a deep love of music that dates all the way back to when I was a kid, so a record of my favorite songs would have to be a 50-CD Box Set! Elton's "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" was a bit of an esoteric choice, but that song has always slayed me, as did “Candle in the Wind”. Basically, all those songs on that record have had special meaning to me. I hope I brought something new to the table with my interpretations.

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MD: This less embellished album was followed up by your seasonal affair My First Christmas With You. The Christmas album took the bold approach of mixing traditional carols with original compositions. Was this the initial idea?

Wilson: I did throw a couple of originals on there. I really wanted to see if I could add something of value to the vast lexicon of Christmas music out there. I had a melody and a title for the title cut and John Bettis (legendary lyricist who wrote many of the Carpenter's hits) nailed the lyric. His lyric just engages all the senses and are like a little mental movie when you hear them.

MD: Though the recordings Playing Favorites and My First Christmas With You include some original compositions was there to some degree a need to buy some more time while you re-energized?

Wilson: Never thought of it that way, but maybe you're right. Each record of originals I record I always have this stupid assumption that I'll never write another song again. Then when I least expect it, I'll be reading the newspaper or something and become aware of a new melody that's been formulating in my head for the last 10 minutes. I'll go to the piano and start fleshing it out and the process begins again.

MD: That said, it appears the rest benefited you as in my opinion 2004 saw the release of Sanctuary later to be re-entitled A Place In My Heart which is your best recording to date. Which would you say is your favorite “child” and why?

Wilson: Man, you want me to play Sophie's Choice and shoot one of my children! Haha... I guess each of the records have different aspects that I'm really proud of. I'm proud that they all seem to seem to stand the test of time and new listeners discover the first CDs as if they were just released. I enjoy playing songs off the most recent record lots -- “Morning on Cannery Row” and “California” are spirited and fun to play, I really like the Native American vibe and melody of “Hunter's Moon” and it has some fun 4ths riffs in it that I like getting my fingers around. I feel like “Eagle's Flight” (and Chris Botti's incredible contribution on trumpet) will definitely hold up over time. Hope that answers you query!

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MD: Despite the high quality product you ran into a label/distribution issue again. How did you avoid losing hope?

Wilson: I just kept trying to focus on the things I had control over, versus those things I didn't. I just tried to keep focusing on the fantastic responses that I'd get from the people who were buying it at gigs / via my website (jimwilson.net) and that this music deserved to be heard by the people it would serve.

MD: What advice would you give to other artists facing similar barriers?

Wilson: QUIT WHILE YOU CAN!! Sell women's shoes in Pacoima if you have to, but get out before it's too late!! Haha... Man, I don't know. It kind of comes back to the old saying, if you can walk away from it, do. Facing the increasing challenges of making a living in the music biz isn't something I'd encourage anyone to do. On the other hand, if you could never see yourself doing anything else, you're willing to devote your life to your music and you have music that is of genuine service to people / brings something new to the party -- never let anyone or anything dissuade you from your mission.

MD: Is the lack of label support and promotion indicative of the current recording industry?

Wilson: Sadly, I must say I think it is. Illegal downloading of music, among many other things, is shrinking the pool of potential record buyers. I still feel that music's role in any society is invaluable and will always find a way to find the people it will serve.

MD: Is there much touring in your future?

Wilson: More and more, I'm happy to say. I started off the year with lots of great concerts -- the best of which was performing one of the very first concerts in the brand new $30 million dollar Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts in the Texas panhandle. It was a sold-out concert with 1,230 people and it was taped for a public television special (called Jim Wilson & Friends: A Place In My Heart). I recently flew back from Texas for the premiere of it on the local PBS affiliate. It's going to be uplinked to all the other PBS affiliates later this year. We'll post all the details on my site when they become available. It was shot in "SD1" (a type of high-def format) and looks just stunning --it's so rich and colorful. When I perform, I incorporate my "performance videos" (images coordinated with the music on a huge screen behind us.) We used a 25' tall screen for this concert and the images look just incredible in this format. ... I had some great players with me -- I flew out Eric Rigler (Irish Flutist) and Bella Musica (String Ensemble) to join me. It was a magical evening and we had 3 full house standing ovations. I'm so proud of it and can't wait for folks to see it. The DVD will be available on my site soon as well.

MD: What does the immediate future hold for Jim Wilson musically and personally?

Wilson: I have my next 3 CDs planned out. I'm working on a record of standards right now. After that, I'll do another record of original instrumentals, then ... a vocal record! As far as the "personal" part of that question, I'm planning a little trip later this year, spending some time in the Olympia Rainforest in Oregon, then taking the ferry to hang with friends of mine in Vancouver. Can't wait! After that, I plan on winning the lottery and buying an island in the South Pacific. I'll send you an invite! :o)
Michael Debbage
April 2004