“What if I can’t handle it?”
That’s the question Austin musician, Jack Wilson asked himself while weaving through the gentle strings and harmonies, lulling melodies, and contemplative lyrics brewing with restrained emotion on his upcoming album, Spare Key. There he turned pain and loss into a source of beauty and comfort. And he discovered the answers, where he learned most of his lessons: on the road.
"So many miles that we’ve put between us.”
Like many working musicians, Wilson took on the life of a musical vagabond, moving to Seattle, back to Austin, back to Seattle, and back to Austin again. “I've lived in tents, on porches, and in a school bus. I've traveled by planes, trains, automobiles and by bicycle...all in the name of music.”
Wilson grew up in Austin, Texas surrounded with music. Early on it was the rock ’n’ roll off his parent’s turntable—The Band, Dr. John, and Professor Longhair, until his music rapport grew as he grew. His pop education came thanks to older kids on his block, where he accumulated cassettes of Ten and Core and Blue and Pinkerton as they were released. “My parents LITERALLY called it the Devil’s music,” he says. As he became more aware of the history of Austin music, he started watching Austin City Limits, listening to the songwriters that had called Austin home since the 70s. That kind of paced, deliberate songwriting opened avenues to Nick Drake and Elliott Smith.
“I played my first real show at Steamboat in Austin. It had moved from its original 6th Street location and was doomed to fail, but they gave me a midnight slot on a Monday. I was 19. I saw Elliott Smith there a couple weeks later, a couple months before his death.”
After a brush with the law in Texas, Wilson moved to Seattle and started to concentrate on a band. “I really liked the Crazy Horse sound coming from a lot of the Seattle bands, like Maldives.” The Moondoggies, The Maldives, and Sera Cahoone all had a hand in molding him when he was young and new on the scene.
Alex Kostelnik, owner of 20/20 Cycle, recorded his first album, America’s National Entertainment, under the name Jack Wilson and the Wife Stealers, which included the first studio recorded Shenandoah Davis track. When he returned to Seattle in 2009, he made another record with Kostelnik; a collection of songs written from the handlebars of Wilson’s bicycle riding from Austin to Charleston, South Carolina. With this recording Wilson added a new line up of Seattleites, while featuring several Austin connections he’d been fostering. That record, just called, Jack Wilson, was well received by media and KEXP. In 2012, Fluff and Gravy Records re-released it on their new label out of Portland, Oregon. The photograph of his face on the cover won them all a little infamy when VICE reviewed the record saying, “nice fucking face, Portland”.
Wilson moved back to Austin in late 2011, cultivating a sound that is closer to his soul than the Neil Young-esque rock that he was going for in Seattle. “It’s funny that being in Seattle, almost brought more of my Texan-ness to the fore. Being home in Austin, I’m drawn further back in my subconscious for inspiration.” The new songs that have become the Firebrand EP (an unreleased 4 track recording) and Spare Key have more to do with Elliott Smith than Townes Van Zandt.
They began recording Spare Key in May of 2012 at Fluff and Gravy Studios. Wilson, who also plays rhythm guitar on the record, flew up his friend, multi-instrumentalist Michael McLeod (Good Field, Dana Falconberry, composer for Richard Linklater films) to play lead guitar and bass, Shenandoah Davis (vocals, keys), and her husband, Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger, Death Cab for Cutie) who sang on “Master Plan” and “I Can’t Remember”. Mike Coykendall (M. Ward, Blitzen Trapper, Sallie Ford) mixed the record, helping to craft the raw material into a source of beauty and depth.
“What if I can’t handle it?”
The question hit him head on in early summer of 2012 after dealing with a tragedy that occurred at The Café Racer in Seattle where he’d played several times and been given a place to stay by many of the musicians who played there as well. In the midst of Wilson making his new album in the Pacific Northwest, a mentally disturbed man shot and killed four people in the café, including fellow musicians from God’s Favorite Beefcake, folks who had given him a place to stay while there the summer before.
“I can’t tell which voice inside is real…You’ll feel better. Yeah, I know just how it feels.”
As he grappled with the tragedy, Wilson continued to tour alone or with just him and his dog, Finn. “I am the driver. I’ve clocked well over 200,000 miles in the past five years. I don’t need sleep. What I’m trying to say is that I abuse myself on the road.” He traveled 15,000 miles last summer alone, lost 30 pounds and his mind for about two months. “I couldn’t move back into my house in Austin when I got home and had to live in a little cabin in the Barrio Pescado in San Marcos, Texas for a while. I read some books and swam in the river. Slept.”
“Blues are happy music. I somehow found this voice, maybe in the religion pounded into my head from an early age, in the completely broken man. Nothing meant something if it came from the man with the only one thing left to lose. I drank really hard, and took a lot of whatever was around for most of the last ten years, and really fueled this desperate character. Spare Key is possibly the last will and testament of that version of me.”
“I do think my subject matter will change. I put down the bottle a year ago, and got a family, and that voice has been (quite remarkably) silent. So silent, that it’s been interesting to listen to voices that are rising up to take its place.”
“I guess I learned that I can handle it, but was left with a better question, ‘how do I want to handle it?’ That is more complicated and I am still figuring it out. But I feel better now than I have in longer than I can remember. I've let go of the dream and feel great about it.”