As singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson premieres his video for “Pirate” on April 23 (off his latest album, Dixie Blur, which was released on March 6), he admits that he had very ambitious plans in mind when he set out to create this song.
“I wanted to write a song about Anne Bonny, the badass female pirate I had read about, and include a verse about guns becoming obsolete,” Wilson says. “I wanted to sing about a rock and roll pirate, no not [Johnny] Depp or Keef [Keith Richards], but the feeling of a band plundering through Europe on tour. I wanted to write about the time my parents took me to the Charleston, South Carolina Battery Harbor when I was about 13 [years old]…”
Given such a wide-ranging wish list, many musicians might try to throw in a little of everything they have in their repertoire. Instead, Wilson shows restraint, choosing to make the song spare and hushed at the start – which makes his lyrics detailing piratical debauchery all the more memorable. A measured ballad for much of the track, Wilson increases the intensity as he gradually builds up the acoustic-based instrumentation until the song swells into an epic finale before settling back down into a quiet end.
It is this finesse and willingness to take an unexpected approach that have given the songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist such a stellar reputation since his acclaimed 2011 solo album, Gentle Spirit. He has released four solo albums, including Dixie Blur, which he recorded in Nashville (though the North Carolina native has long called Los Angeles home). He has also produced several other artists, including Father John Misty, Conor Oberst, and Dawes. His work has led the likes of Graham Nash, David Crosby, Elvis Costello and Jackson Browne to call him a peer and a friend.
But Wilson is quick to give credit to others who’ve helped him, as he does with a particularly memorable contribution on “Pirate”: “This fiddle solo by the master Mr. Mark O’Connor kills me every single time,” Wilson says of that the ballad’s most powerful moment. “It does raise the hair on people’s arms, and I’ve seen it with more than one arm.”
Wilson also gives credit for “Pirate” having a fitting visual representation. “The video is by the brilliantly amazing Kevin Andrews @Andrewknives, who you may remember from Trafalgar Square, he hangs out there (or hung out there in ’19)… Anyway, he’s knocked it out again with these trippy ass maritime dreamscapes.”
Looking back at his plans for “Pirate,” Wilson is content with how it all turned out. “I wanted a lot during this, and I did all of it. I lined them up and knocked them down,” he says. He is referring to his goals for this latest single specifically, but his assessment surely captures his success across his entire impressive career.