Going back to Ira and George Gershwin, understandably they’re viewed as among the most extraordinary songwriters of all time. In one of the new songs on the album, “The Like in I Love You”, a song you finished from an existing Gershwin song fragment, the lyrics state “you reached into my heart and found the music of my soul, the melodies unfold for you…” For people that are a lot younger and don’t know much if anything about them, explain what makes them so special.
Brian Wilson: There’s nobody in the century that could get near as being as great as they are. It’s really hard to explain what makes them so great, they just are. It’s kind of humbling for me to talk about Gershwin because he’s like one of the prime movers in music. (George) Gershwin’s orchestrations were very innovative. His melodies blow me away. Ira was a very sensitive writer too. They were just great.
Can you give any examples of songs you wrote for The Beach Boys that carries the influence of George Gershwin?
Brian Wilson: Well, do you remember The Beach Boys song “Heroes and Villains”? It goes, (sings “…of the Heroes and Villains” and the trombone goes, (imitates trombone part). That’s Gershwin right there. To me that’s very Gershwin, it’s definitely a Gershwin influenced part that comes from “Rhapsody in Blue”, a very sweeping melody. But in terms of other songs, they inspired and influenced me but right now I can’t pick out one specific song besides “Heroes and Villains” where you can hear their influence.
Can you pick a few songs from Brian Wilson Reimages Gershwin that stand out for you?
Brian Wilson: Well, my favorite song is probably “Love is Here To Stay.” There’s a lot of love on that song. My other favorite is “You Can’t Take That Away From Me.” I also loved “I Love You, Porgy” because of its beautiful melody. I like all of them but those I especially like. Before I started work on this record I was familiar with all the songs I eventually recorded but I didn’t know to play any of them. I had to be taught by my band leader and orchestrator Paul Mertens how to play them. I didn’t know how to play them, I didn’t know the exact melodies and I didn’t know the lyrics so Paul taught me everything. He taught me it all.
Seeing a credit that reads “Gershwin-Wilson”, did you ever imagine that?
Brian Wilson: Yeah, isn’t that a mindblower? How could I have ever imagined that? Are you kidding? I was also saying to myself, me sing Gershwin” Who would like that? I don’t think it’s going to sell very much but I do think that the people who do hear it are gonna like it.
But judging by the extraordinary reviews I think you’re going to be proven wrong.
Brian Wilson: Maybe you’re right. Okay, my mind’s changed. Now that I’ve gotten some positive feedback from reviewers and the internet, I now believe that the album is gonna be a success.
The album certainly has cross-generational appeal.
Brian Wilson: That’s right. It makes me feel good to know that people of all age will like it. If you take the ‘20s generation, the ‘30s, the ‘40s, the ‘50’s, the ‘60’s and the ‘70s, of those generations the ones that challenged me the most are the ‘20s and 30s people.
Brian Wilson: Why? It’s a challenge to see if I can get them to appreciate George and Ira Gershwin’s music done by me in a different way and a different way of interpretation.
The new CD is garnering rave reviews. How much attention do you pay to reviews now and throughout your career?
Brian Wilson: I know, I’ve noticed that, wow! I’m very proud of the reviews the album’s received thus far, it’s very rewarding. I’ve never really paid that much attention to reviews, I just really appreciate the positive feedback.
What’s the measure of success for a project, do you judge its success by sales or whether you’ve satisfied yourself artistically?
Brian Wilson: First of all, if I don’t like it then my gauge is that other people won’t like it either. Like when we recorded “Good Vibrations”, the guys in the band said, “Yeah, this is great, this is gonna be a number one record!” And it turned out that it went to number one. Same with Gershwin. We had to do the record in such a way that Gershwin would have loved it if he were alive and I think we succeeded.
You’ve said that undertaking this Gershwin project was both exciting and scary, why?
Brian Wilson: First off, I loved the music and was really excited to do an album like this. But the scary part was trying to do it justice, to do justice to the greatest writer of the 20th century so I was a bit nervous about it.
When did you realize that it was gonna work?
Brian Wilson: I realized that it was gonna work pretty quickly. I felt that way as soon as we got the first song done, which I think was “Summertime”. Then I knew we were gonna be alright. Once “Summertime” was done I felt a little more relaxed and told everyone, “That’s good, now I think we can do justice to the other songs.”
You’ve spoken about “Brian-izing” the Gershwin songs, what does that mean?
Brian Wilson: Right, we “Brian-ized” and “Beach-inized” the songs on the record. We wanted to honor the Gershwin songs but also I wanted to be able to put my own stamp on it too. We tried to make this an album that people would enjoy and come to appreciate what wonderful songwriters George and Ira Gershwin were. But like I said it was important to add a little bit of me to the record too, putting my own stamp on it.
Your lead vocal work on the new CD is garnering raves as well. Did you work harder on the vocals on this album than in recent memory?
Brian Wilson: You’re right, I did work hard on the vocals. But one of the reasons was I didn’t know the songs by heart. I had to be taught each song separately by Paul Mertens. He really guided me through it and taught me the melodies. Another reason I pout in more time is it’s such a special project for me and I wanted to make it great.
How many hours would it take to get a great lead vocal?
Brian Wilson: I would say anywhere from two hours to a whole day, 12 hours. A lot of work was put into the vocals. “I Love You, Porgy” was probably the most difficult song to do vocally because I was singing from a female perspective and I was a bit self-conscious about it. But I didn’t really let it bother me and I think it turned out well in the end.
How about in the ’60s, how long would it take for you to nail a vocal?
Brian Wilson: Back in the ‘60s…it would take me about an hour and half to two hours to get a real good vocal. I didn’t just go in and sing once or twice and then it was done. I’d work and work at it until I felt satisfied.
What’s your greatest vocal performance with The Beach Boys and as a solo artist?
Brian Wilson: “Don’t Worry, Baby” for the Beach Boys. I think I sang it sweetly enough that you could feel the love in my voice. And as a solo artist I’d have to say “I Love You, Porgy.” The challenge for me on that song was to try and make myself feel what that girl was feeling when she was talking to Porgy. She was telling Porgy this guy wants to drive her mad and handle her in his hot hands. I tried to sing it in a way that people could appreciate.
Learning how to play piano and organ, did your parents give you any pointers?
Brian Wilson: My dad taught me how to play the boogie woogie but that’s about it. I play boogie woogie in C. Growing up I really wanted to learn how to play boogie woogie my Freddie Slack. He was the most famous boogie woogie artist in the early ‘50s. (Author’s note, in 1942, the Freddie Slack Orchestra scored their biggest hit with the number one, “Cow Cow Boogie”). I thought I’d never be able to play like him but through a lot of practice I was able to play the boogie woogie like Freddie Slack. Learning how to play that rhythm was really important. Then along came Chuck Berry who taught me how to play a boogie left hand against a rock and roll melody. So by that time I was off and running. I was totally educated and I came up with an original Beach Boys kind of music. Other than that I’m basically a self taught musician. I learned a lot from listening to records by The Four Freshmen. I collected all their albums and learned all of their arrangements. They gave me an education in harmony. I taught itself with my piano and my hi-fi set. I’d play a little bit of the music and figure out the chords and just keep working on it until I learned how to do it like them. After school I’d come home every day and spend a couple hours every single day learning The Four Freshmen harmonies. I don’t know what I would have ever done without them. They taught me so much. And by the time The Beach Boys were formed I had a whole grip on harmony and I’ve used that throughout my career. To this day my favorite chord is a major seventh chord (sings “I love you, Porgy”), there’s a major seventh chord in that and it’s beautiful and my favorite piano key is E.
From a chordal perspective, who did you glean the greatest influence?
Brian Wilson: 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, 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?
Brian Wilson: That came from listening to Burt Bacharach. On songs like “Walk On By” and “This Guy’s in Love with You” he inspired me chordally 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 seventh to another minor seventh.
Was “Surfer Girl” really the first song you written, nothing came before it?
Brian Wilson: No kidding, it’s true, “Surfer Girl” was really the first one I wrote. I got really lucky with that one. The day I wrote “Surfer Girl I was in my car and heard a record on the radio by a guy named Dore Alpert called “Tell it to the Birds.” (Author’s note: This 1962 single on Dot Records was in actuality Herb Alpert who also sang lead vocals). Once that song was over I started humming a melody to myself (hums melody of “Surfer Girl”). Then I drove home and quickly went to the piano and finished off the melody where I wrote the bridge and the introduction and the fade. So part of it was written in my head and part of it was written on the piano. It took me a while but I got it. I knew that was a special one when it was done. It’s still one of my favorites. I wasn’t one of those kinds of writers who’d just bang out song after song. I never wrote songs when I was not inspired.
How much of songwriting for you is tapping into the muse, unconscious and how much is using your knowledge of song construction?
Brian Wilson: I used to tell people that you write from your subconscious. Songs are written but not really consciously. There’s a process that goes on called the creative process. I don’t think there’s anybody that can really describe that actual process. All I know is after I wrote a song I always say to myself, “How the hell did I write that?” (laughs) Then I think, Oh well. I guess I just did.” That still happens today. I never knew I could do all those Gershwin songs until I did ‘em.
John Lennon spoke about his productivity in the early 60’s, seemingly having this ability to create songs at will. Was there a similar stage in your writing career where it was effortless in terms of your ability to churn our songs and hits?
Brian Wilson: Yeah. What I would do is if I heard Chuck Berry on the radio, I’d listen to it and go, “Now, wait a minute, what did he play there?” and I’d analyze what he played. And I took it from there and write a song called “Surfin’ Safari.” So I’d be inspired by someone like Chuck Berry and do my own slant on it.
Your chord changes are often really beautiful and sophisticated. What Beach Boys and solo songs feature your best chord progressions?
Brian Wilson: Well, “Don’t Worry, Baby,” The Little Girl I Once Knew,” “Good Vibrations”, and “God Only Knows.” Those feature my best chord progressions.
“This Whole World” from Sunflower is an extraordinary song that goes through a breathtaking cycle of changes and keys.
Brian Wilson: (Sings “I’m thinking’ bout this whole world…) That was Carl. Yeah, that was real good one. I remember “This Whole World” took a couple of days to record. It took a lot of hard work to get that one but I’m real happy with it. That was an inspired song and the guys in my band really love it too.
How do you break out of a songwriting slump? What’s the longest time that’s passed where you didn’t write a song?
Brian Wilson: Well recently except for the Gershwin thing it’s been about four years that I’ve been in a slump. You can’t force yourself to get out a slump. The only thing you can do is if you don’t’ feel it, you don’t go to the piano. You shouldn’t try and force yourself to try and write a song. You have to feel it in your own heart and then you write the song. I want to feel inspired, like when I wrote the songs on That Lucky Old Sun album. At that time I was inspired to the hilt. I was very inspired on that album and wrote 18 songs in one month.
How do you keep the songwriting channels open and pure?
Brian Wilson: Well, first off, I don’t smoke and I don’t take drugs. I try and keep it pure by sitting there and playing my Yamaha synthesizer keyboard. I have a favorite setting called “Full Grand.” It’s a mellow sound; it’s like a thousand pianos mixed together. It’s a very special sound that inspires music and melody for me.
Billy Joel has spoken about how some songs grow up it become lawyers and doctors and others turns out to be bums, can you give an example of a song that means more to you today than when you first wrote it?
Brian Wilson: Well I didn’t think much of “I Get Around” until God, maybe eight, nine, ten, eleven years ago when we started to tour and played it. Then for some reason I started really liking the song a lot more. I’m not sure why but I didn’t originally like it that much. I never really cared for it back then but now I listen to it a little more carefully and really like it. It stands up.
When did you first realize your life’s ambition was to be a songwriter?
Brian Wilson: I guess that hit me when I was eighteen or nineteen when I wrote “Surfer Girl.” That’s when I realized I wanted to be a songwriter and do this for the rest of my life. When I wrote that song I knew it was good and I was on to something; it made me feel like I was gonna be a good songwriter someday. See, my dad taught me how to play the boogie woogie and my dad’s friend, Dean Brownell, taught me how to write music out for orchestras. He taught me how to write out music notation, how to write out melodies and chords. That made me think symphonically when writing and recording. It gave me a lot of confidence to know that I could do that. I wasn’t afraid to experiment and make good arrangements.
The manner in which you’d have two instruments playing the same part like organ and guitar gave your music a beautiful texture.
Brian Wilson: That’s right. I already knew in my head before we recorded what those combinations of instruments was gonna sound like. I cannot hear sound in my head but I can hear an arrangement in my head. Like when I wrote the introduction to “California Girls” I could tell right then that it was gonna be a special introduction. It has a classical feel. Not one classical writer or rock and roll writer inspired me to come up with that. I was just feeling good one day and I wrote it.
Does the tag of being labeled a “genius” add extra pressure when you are trying to create or record?
Brian Wilson: 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 Sixties. Inspiration for songs don’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 “Woah!”
Share an example of a song that took a long time to write.
Brian Wilson: “Caroline No” is one. That took about a week for me and Tony (Asher) to write, which quite a long time. There was no Caroline.
What was the inspiration behind that one?
Brian Wilson: Marijuana.