An uncanny time warp
Ask anyone in America where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you California. Ask anyone in California where the craziest people live and they’ll say Los Angeles. Ask anyone in Los Angeles where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you Hollywood. Ask anyone in Hollywood where the craziest people live and they’ll say Laurel Canyon. And ask anyone in Laurel Canyon where the craziest people live and they’ll say Lookout Mountain. So I bought a house on Lookout Mountain.” — Joni Mitchell
Somewhen in the late 60s
I read it all started with Frank Zappa moving into a house at Lookout Mountain in the late 60s. But anyways, tracing the sound and serene magic of that crazy Canyon neighborhood in Los Angeles, California, you definitively have to go back to the hippie days. Once inhabited by the local Tongva People, the area along Laurel Canyon Boulevard is well known for its scene spirit of collaboration and of course as an epicenter of the 60s counterculture. People with “Aquarian hunger for belonging and hope” ( — Steve Hochman for Variety) went there looking for community, freedom, and peace.
In my mind I see tranquil nag-champa-scented backyard gardens, the steep green covered hills with winding tracks, Aztec pattern-rugs on the walls, lots of drugs and free spirits, off from Hollywood recording studios, managers, and billboard charts. They formed bands and invited each other to their houses for all-night living room sessions to create and connect to the music.
To give you an impression of the broad music scene these days in the Canyon: Jim Morrison lived in Rothdell Trail for a while and wrote Love Street for the love of his life, Pamela Courson. David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash put their voices for the first time together to this unmistakable melodic unity. John Mayall made a whole album about his time there called Blues from Laurel Canyon. Furthermore, there were lots of other famous bands and musicians under the residents of Laurel Canyon from the mid-60s to early-70s, such as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Carol King, The Mamas, and the Papas, Neil Young, Roger McGuinn, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty, Barry Goldberg, Fleetwood Mac, and many more.
More than three decades later
Beyond mystification, at the end of the 2000s session musician, Jonathan Wilson decided to move to Laurel Canyon looking for a community that would bring the old spirits back to life. He achieved two important things in the following years.
Firstly, together with Chris Robinson, he started to host his ‘Wednesday Night Picks’, private jam sessions at his house, inspired by his own father’s weekly sessions back in his childhood days in North Carolina. These ‘Picks’ attracted guys like Andy Cabic, Pat Sansone and John Stirratt of Wilco, Gerald Johnson, Johnathan Rice, Gary Louris and Mark Olson of The Jayhawks, David Rawlings, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Jakob Dylan, and other notable artists who have played professionally with and/or in The Electric Flag, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Van Morrison, The Cars, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Miller Band, The Mars Volta, and Pearl Jam and and and.
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 neighbor, so those guys probably didn’t mind the rock & roll.” — Jonathan Wilson
Secondly, he made himself a sought-after producer by founding his own recording studio Canyonstereo (now Fivestar Studios) which he relocated to Echo Park in 2009. As he has always emphasized that his musical influences root deep into the sound of the 1970s, his influences, however, especially shaped his work as a producer. Wilson’s Fivestar studios with his analog-based mixing process represent what he calls the “next-generation hi-fi.” Bands and musicians Wilson had been working with and producing in the last years are e.g. Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty, Roger Waters, Conor Oberst, Dawes, Bonnie Prince Billy, Jenny O., Erykah Badu, Vetiver, Roy Harper, and so forth.
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.” — Tom Doyle for Sound On Sound. In this article you can dive deeper into Wilson’s vintage studio gear and the work on his second studio album Fanfare.
If you’re keen, there is lots of great material about Laurel Canyon. Besides Andrew Slaters brand new documentary ‘Echo in the Canyon’ you might like the following two books — Harvey Kubernik ‘Canyon of Dreams’ and Michael Walker ‘Laurel Canyon: The inside story of Rock’n’Roll legendary neighborhood’
In the end, it is about the music!
Besides a handpicked Spotify playlist below, The Laurel Canyon Sessions with artists from then and now, I highly recommend the following KEXP session, which provides a great impression of the jamming skills of Wilson and the dudes he is playing with. Enjoy!