Singer-songwriter Jeremy Wilson still creates from the heart
Singer-songwriter tucked away on the second floor of an industrial building on Portland’s inner east side Jeremy Wilson‘s recording studio is filled with the rockin’ sounds of his new band, featuring Paul Brainard on slide guitar, Matthew P. Rotchford on double bass and Sam Densmore on drums. The group are rehearsing for an upcoming show, their first in a long time after COVID-19 restrictions began to be eased. Wilson and his bandmates have longed to reconnect with each other and with a live audience.
“The process together means a lot to me and I’m just looking forward to playing again,” said Wilson. “There is nothing quite like singing a song live and being in front of an audience and sharing the energy of the music.”
Avant-garde 90’s Northwest sound
Wilson’s professional music career began in the late ’80s and into the ’90s with his acclaimed Northwest band, the Dharma Bums. During his high school years at Silverton, he and high school friends Eric Lovre, Jim Talstra, and John Moen discovered that they had strong creative bonds and a passion for creating original music.
“Three singers in one band,” Wilson recalls, “was like the magic soup that became the Dharma Bums.”
The Dharma Bums began playing shows in Portland and throughout the Willamette Valley, quickly gaining popularity for their unique vocal style and upbeat, energetic performances. The young group was then signed to the famous independent record label Frontier Records. Soon they were booked at the legendary CBGB club in New York City and touring internationally. But exhausted by a grueling touring schedule and personality conflicts that developed along the way, the Dharma Bums disbanded in the early ’90s.
Undaunted and inspired by the success of his Northwestern peers, Wilson formed his next band, Pilot, this time signing to a major label, Elektra Records.
“I looked at Nirvana, I looked at Sound Garden, I looked at our contemporaries and such, and they had made that transition and maintained their integrity. And I thought … if I want to continue this art life, I have to do the same.”
But the music industry’s roller coaster had more twists and turns ahead of it. As Pilot’s album, which took two years in the making, was about to be released, Jeremy explains, “Time Warner buys Turner Entertainment and fires 30,000 people, which Elektra lost. And sure enough, the record is going into a vault.” After producing a follow-up album on his own, When The Day Is Broken, Pilot got another chance and signed with Mercury Records, where they produced their next album, Strangers Waltz.
“A month after the album’s release, Seagram’s buys Polygram, Polygram is Mercury Records’ parent company. They’re all firing,” Wilson laments, his disappointment still fresh. “I called the label and said I just want out, and they let me go. We did our last tour and very amicably we parted ways. I was just exhausted and devastated. I lived in Seattle and just wanted to come home.”
Reinventing and embracing independence
Towards the end of the ’90s, Wilson returned to his Oregon roots and decided that he really wanted to build an independent recording studio and create a sustainable environment that would allow him to live and create on his own terms. In the early 2000s, he did just that.
“I came back and built this studio down here on the water in Portland within a couple of years. And I started bringing in projects,” Wilson recalls, “and started my own label, Mastan Music. And lo and behold, what is happening to me? I end up passing out, waking up in an ambulance and my life has fundamentally changed again. It turned out I had to have a congenital heart defect called Wolff Parkinson White.”
Heal a broken heart
After a lifelong commitment to being a self-sufficient musician, the limits of his own body caught up with Wilson. In the precarious position of being self-employed and uninsured, he began a round of four heart surgeries.
“If that [music] community heard that I had no insurance and just came out of heart surgery and that I might lose my business, all these people came out of nowhere to my rescue, they put on a show at Doug Fir to help me get rid of the proceeds .”
In this hour of crisis, Wilson realized that there was a great need within the music community for medical support.
“It wasn’t a huge leap to realize that this isn’t just the case for me, this is an experience many others are having and I just couldn’t help but start a conversation with other community members about how we are.” address this issue,” Wilson said. “Everybody who’s an artist or a musician is sort of in the same boat, so can we put an organization together that’s going to look at that and start fixing those issues? And that was the creation of the Jeremy Wilson Foundation, that desire to be a safety net for musicians.”
the Jeremy Wilson Foundation runs a program called the JWF Musician Health and Services Program.
“It offers help in two ways. One in navigation services from a social worker who helps musicians navigate the entire health care world.” Wilson described. “And the second part is financial grants to provide living support and/or health care during a medical emergency, crisis or recovery.”
Now in its 12th year, the foundation has awarded nearly $1 million in grants and services to local musicians.
Tested by a global pandemic
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, the Foundation was in a unique position to help the music community at a time when it has been dramatically impacted on multiple fronts, including the abrupt closure of all live venues and event cancellations, as well as the effects of the virus itself.
“We were the only organization that was dedicated to musicians and had the flexibility and experience to respond to the immediate needs of the pandemic here,” Wilson said. “In the last year and a half we’ve helped about several hundred people, you know, more than the entire last 10 years… I’m grateful for the community support that has made it possible for this to be an organization that’s in the Was able to be here during this pandemic.”
For the past decade, Wilson’s time has been divided between the Foundation’s work and his pursuits as a musician, but he would never change that.
“I can’t stress enough how honored I feel to speak and work with someone who’s going through something… for letting me into their life, you know, and letting me feel a little bit of what what he is we feel and we can share and we can talk it’s profound. It’s bigger than any rock ‘n’ roll success ever could be.”
As Wilson and his new band prepare to return to the live stage, he takes stock of where life has taken him. “I’m now starting to find some breathing room to really go all out with the new creative push and I’m kind of excited to be in my fifties. I feel like my voice has never been better in many ways. I love to sing and in my 50s for some reason singing is even more rewarding.”