BRIAN WILSON: God’s Messenger

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Do you writer better songs happy or depressed?
I write songs when I’m happy better. When I’m depressed I can’t write a song. I feel a little better after I play the piano for a while.

Do you believe the songs that come quickest, where you don’t know where they come from, are the best ones?
The ones that aren’t the hardest, right, they’re the best… “You’re So Good to Me” was written in 20 minutes. I knew it was special. The songs that come the fastest are the ones I like the most. “California Girls” took about an hour and a half. The record was made with a good introduction. It’s just a special 12-string guitar sound. I wrote the opening of the song on piano. “Love And Mercy” took about two…three hours to write. I had a little mini bottle of wine, I drank it down and got a little buzz, and I wrote it. [Sings “love and mercy/that’s what you need tonight.”] It sure has a lot of feeling in it. I knew it was a special song because it had just the right chords, the right melody and the right lyrics. It all went together. It’s the song I close the show with. I think it’s a very special love song, and it’s very nice to play.

Is it better to finish a song off in one sitting?
Not necessarily. What’s most important is the very first part of a song, which has to start off with a bang, and then you develop it. With that very first part of a song, you have to be really careful with it because that’s what people will first be listening to…and they’re gonna wanna hear an inspired melody. You need to hit them with something they like-that they think it’s cool. It’s becoming harder to come up with songs.

Why?
I’ve written so many songs that it’s very hard to come up with anything new. Sometimes I’ll think it needs a different approach, and I’ll try a new melody. Music comes a lot easier than lyrics. Music is the best part. I get an inspiration and run to the piano and work out ideas. The good songs come very quickly.

From a chord perspective, who did you glean the greatest influence?
Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector and Chuck Berry-those are the three people who really inspired me. Bacharach inspired my approach with chords, Motown inspired the bass notes and Phil Spector inspired the harmony and echo on the drums. He taught me a lot about how to make use of instruments. I knew about guitars and pianos and organs and bass and drums, and he taught me to blend things together so you could have leakage. Chuck Berry inspired the rhythm and the lyrical thoughts.

Where did your unique approach to using a different bass note against a chord, which you employ on songs like “Caroline No” and “Surf’s Up” come from?
That came from listening to Burt Bacharach. On songs like “Walk On By” and “This Guy’s in Love with You” he inspired me [chordwise] and taught me how to use different bass notes against chords to come up with a different color of sound. He inspired me to go in that direction. He was into going from a minor 7th to another minor 7th.

How do you manage to balance craftsmanship with pure inspiration?
The two work together. When you’re inspired, you write a lot better than when you’re not inspired. Music is beautiful. Whenever you play music, you feel better. And whenever you write a song, you feel ten times better when you’re done writing it. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was one of my most inspired songs. “Ding Dang” (from The Beach Boys Love You) is another inspired one. I wrote that with Roger McGuinn. Other inspired ones were “The Warmth Of The Sun,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “I Get Around” and “God Only Knows.” All those songs came very naturally and very fast.

Select a few songs that you wish you had written.
I wish I had written “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” It was such a great record; nobody could believe it. I think what makes that song is the background track, the chord pattern, the melody, the lyrics and The Righteous Brothers’ voices. I liked Bill Medley better than Bobby Hatfield. His voice had a good sound to it. I did a version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” with The Beach Boys, but we never released it. I did it all by myself. I did the track, the piano…all the instruments and voices all by myself. Also, “Here I Am” by Burt Bacharach…Dionne Warwick did it. It’s got a great melody and harmonies. I also wish I had written “Be My Baby.” I like Phil Spector’s music. I like the background track and the melody of “Be My Baby” and Ronnie’s voice very much. Ronnie did a version of “Don’t Worry Baby.” I think she did a great job. It was a very warm and loving lead. The Ronettes were my favorites of Phil’s because of Ronnie’s voice.

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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