BRIAN WILSON: God’s Messenger

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

With his wondrous songs extolling the simple joys of sun, sand, surf-and more introspective fare examining the psychic heartbreak of life-Brian Wilson is recognized as one of the most important songwriters of the last century. From the elegant simplicity of “Surfer Girl” and the elastic, pure pop bounce of “I Get Around,” to the r&b-fueled mini-pop symphony of “Good Vibrations” and the sprawling, impressionistic introspection of “Surf’s Up,” Wilson has composed some of the most beautiful, moving and melodically rich songs in popular music.









With his wondrous songs extolling the simple joys of sun, sand, surf-and more introspective fare examining the psychic heartbreak of life-Brian Wilson is recognized as one of the most important songwriters of the last century. From the elegant simplicity of “Surfer Girl” and the elastic, pure pop bounce of “I Get Around,” to the r&b-fueled mini-pop symphony of “Good Vibrations” and the sprawling, impressionistic introspection of “Surf’s Up,” Wilson has composed some of the most beautiful, moving and melodically rich songs in popular music. His new album, That Lucky Old Sun, is yet another shining example of his consummate songwriting mastery.

“Surfer Girl” is still one of your favorite songs; why does that song still stand up for you?
It was the first song I’d ever written in my whole life. I wrote that back in 1961, and it still stands up because it’s such a pretty tune. It’s one of the prettiest ones I ever wrote. I really love the bridge. I came up with the melody in my car [sings melody of verses], and then I went to the piano and finished it off. “Surfer Girl” came together in about an hour from start to finish-music and lyrics. When you write music in your head, as opposed to at a piano, it comes out a little different.

At what point did you recognize you had talent as a singer and songwriter?
When I was around 18 or 19, right around the time I wrote “Surfer Girl” and “Surfin’.” That’s when I started to realize I could be a good falsetto singer. And as a songwriter, as soon as Gary (Usher) and I wrote “409” and “In My Room,” I knew I was gonna be a good songwriter.

“In My Room” is a special song for you; where was your special room in your house?
We had a music room that used to be a garage. My dad turned it into a music room. It didn’t turn into a music room until I was about 14. We had a jukebox in there, and there was a piano and a Hammond B-3 organ in there too. Gary and I worked in that music room. He was on guitar, and I was on piano…and we wrote “409” and “In My Room.”

Were there any songs that you wrote which had a simpler demo, and once it was finished, it far exceeded your initial vision?
Yeah, that happened with “Good Vibrations.” We recorded the song at four studios over a period of six weeks. We wanted to try different sounding studios to see what would work. “Good Vibrations” evolved over time. We edited elements of the song together from all those different studios to create the finished version. It started out to be sort of a rhythm and blues track…then it turned into a real sophisticated pop record with a cello, in kind of a Phil Spector sort of style. It’s a symphony in itself. Derek Taylor, who was the Beatles and Beach Boys press agent, called it a pocket symphony. I knew it was gonna be a hit.

Does the tag of being labeled a “genius” add extra pressure when you are trying to create or record?
Because of people calling me a genius, I feel pressured to write original melodies. Trying to get a song up to the standard that’s expected of me is a tough job. Today, songs don’t come as fast for me, like they did in the ‘60s. Inspiration for songs doesn’t come as quick either, but now and then I’ll hit on something big. It’s like you’re going along on the sea shore, and you’re picking up all these shells, and all of a sudden you find a great big beautiful shell. That’s like songwriting. You just tap into a great big song and go “Whoa!”

Some say songwriting is a young man’s game; do you believe that to be true?
I think I’ll always write great songs whenever I write. I just don’t know how often I’ll write. But when I do write I’ll continue to write great songs. I work on that piano there [points to a piano in music room]. It’s a Steinway. If I get in a songwriting rut, I keep at it until I’m done. I keep working at it and working at it until I’m done with my project. I won’t stop. I keep motivated because I make myself motivated. I work each day on the piano a little bit. Sometimes I don’t try to write…but at least to play the piano each day is important…to stay in touch with my piano and play in my favorite keys.

What are some of your favorite keys to play in?
E, B, E-flat and C-sharp.

Do you have a favorite piano chord?
E-major 7th. It’s just a beautiful chord.

What song took you the longest to write?
“Good Vibrations” took about six weeks to write. “God Only Knows” took about a half hour to write. I started playing chords and knew it was going to be a good song. I knew it was special when it was done.

13 Comments

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  1. This is about the best recent Brian Wilson interview I’ve read! Thank you. You really got him to open up. Nice job.
    It’s interesting to read what he has to say about some of his lesser-known songs, especially Breakaway. I wonder why he doesn’t like his vocal on Surfs Up.

  2. Thank you, Ken, for such good questions. Brian is a national treasure, and hearing him talk about his craft is still inspiring to this day. And I agree with Brian’s assessment of “Wild Honey” being a great song. I had that on a 45, the flip side of “Barbara Ann”, as I recall.

  3. great great interview, you can tell that brian is so relaxed and composed. Loved hearing his upto date take on these fantastic songs .
    Monty Borthwick, Portsmouth, England.

  4. Wow…what an amazingly honest interview! I’ve only just discovered the song “Till I Die” and really like it a lot. It gives this aspiring songwriter something to aspire to…

  5. Thank you so much for this interview. This is the best interview of Brian Wilson I have read. Very insightful – and you asked some great questions. Thanks again.

  6. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the man? How lucky we are to have the combination of a man that sings such great falsetto and writes such fantastic music and produces such great music with his friends and brothers. What harmony! Some of his songs just stop people cold. Right in the middle of a song he’ll change key. Or he’ll take the 3rd and make it the root. Or he’ll draw everything in the song up a half note as in “God only knows.” I knew the beach boys had some great stuff still going one even during early 70’s when metal was getting its due. When you look at the stuff being done today, we listeners are being ripped off. Thank God for Brian, Carl and the boys.

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