Though he's put out a few fine albums (including these two) and had some hits on Christian radio, Josh Wilson may be best known for two things: His "loopy" music (more on that in a moment) and a viral video of him leading stranded travelers at the Newark Liberty International Airport in a rousing round of "Hey Jude."
As for that "loopy" part . . . Wilson is known for playing multiple instruments on the same song. That's one thing in a recording studio, when you can play them one at a time, track after track. But in a live performance, Wilson uses a "loop pedal," enabling him to record a timed segment on one instrument; tap the pedal, and that segment plays over and over. And then a segment from another instrument (or another riff from the same instrument), which plays along with the first. And then another, and so on until he builds a full song—multiple instruments, layered over each other. (To better understand it, check out this video.)
Wilson incorporates this practice into most of his live shows, by essentially digitally cloning himself. (If he could literally do that, the result might look something like this.)
For the last four years, Wilson has done a Christmas tour in which he really showcases his multi-instrumental talents. Three years ago, he did it with eight instruments. Two years ago, he bumped it up to 16. Last year, and again this year, it's up to 24. He's using more sophisticated looping technology, and he brings one bandmate along to help. Together, as Wilson explains, they "build arrangements of these Christmas songs that start very small and then grow to these big finishes. And Christmas songs—especially old carols— really lend themselves to looping."
So fans have clamored for a Christmas album, and Wilson—who wanted to record one last year—is at last obliging, with Noel, one of the better new yuletide projects this year. We talked to him about the holiday album and more.
You play 18 different instruments on the Christmas album. Do you do the looping thing in the studio, or the old traditional way of recording one track at a time?
I wanted to find some kind of hybrid between the stage and the studio, and I knew I would get better sounds if I used just purely studio gear and not my live pedal. And I wanted to be able to come back if I messed up a take to do it again. Whereas live, if there's any kind of little flub on a note or something, that's going to play for the whole song, but that's kind of the nature of a live concert. So we mostly did a track at a time for a lot of these songs. We had a drummer and a bass player, but I played everything else.
You own a lot of instruments. I can imagine your wife getting exasperated and saying, "Did you go out and buy another instrument?"
(Laughing) Well, I've been collecting those over the years. But last year, I was thinking, Man, this song needs a banjo. So I would ask, "Becca, can I get this banjo? Here's how much it is. Can we get it?" She's very supportive, but she doesn't let me go too far down in the rabbit hole. She knows I'm a gear addict, so it's actually good accountability to be married during this process. She's like, "I love your music. But I like eating and paying the bills too." Otherwise I'd be probably living on the streets . . . but with forty instruments. Yeah.
It's hard to decide what songs to put on a Christmas record, to find that balance between traditionals and original stuff. How did you decide what songs to include?
I guess I was a little bit self indulgent in the traditionals that I chose; I just chose a lot of my favorites. But I wanted to create unique versions and unique arrangements of these songs, so that if someone pops the CD in and they hear "The First Noel," a song they've heard a thousand times, I hope this arrangement is fresh. Sane with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." I think the melodies are haunting, but I tried to arrange it where, again, it's fresh. When people hear a fresh arrangement of a song, I think they listen to the words again. How many times have we sung "Silent Night," but we kind of forget the meaning of the words because it's just so traditional, so routine? We're really singing about a big event here. We're singing about when God came to earth. And so my hope is that these arrangements of the traditionals will be fresh.
Talk a bit about your original songs on the album.
"Once a Year" is about the spirit everybody has at Christmastime, and carrying that on throughout the year—not just letting it be a one-time tradition. Another, "Almost Christmas," is just a fun song about what I remember Christmas being like as a kid. "Jesus Is Alive" is basically just the gospel. It's the fact that Jesus came at Christmastime, lived a perfect life, died on a cross, and rose again. He's alive now. So the song kind of has a double meaning. Jesus was alive at Christmastime, but he's alive right now and that's why we have hope. Finally, "Christmas Changes Everything" is a song idea I had been tossing around for years. I'm fascinated by the fact that Christmas and the life and death and resurrection of Jesus literally splits history in two, and it changes everything from our calendar to the fact that we have hope because Christ is alive. And that affects how we live every day. So Christ changes today, tomorrow, every day. It changes everything about our lives.
What's the best Christmas present you ever received?
That's easy. My dad gave me a guitar, the guitar I still play to this day, and there's a pretty neat story behind it. I was in eleventh grade, and there was this Taylor guitar at the store. I went there every day to play it, but I could nowhere near afford it; it was going to take 6-8 months of saving at my job, teaching guitar lessons, to save up for it. I told the store owner, "Please don't sell this." And he said, "Well, if someone comes in and buys it I can't help it." I told my dad, "Dad, there's this beautiful guitar, and I'm going to save up and buy it." About two months later, around November, I walked into the store and it was gone, and I just was devastated. I went home and said, "Dad, somebody bought that guitar." But Christmas morning I wake up, and there it is in the living room. The store owner had told my dad that someone else was looking pretty seriously at the guitar, so my dad went in and bought it for me. It's a special guitar, and I've had it for twelve years. I've played it at every single concert, it's been with me all over the world, and it's beat to shreds. But that's absolutely the best Christmas present I've ever received.
You're a pastor's kid, and a lot of PKs go through their "rebellion years." Did you?
I never really went through those years where I went out and drank and partied. But I did have a time in college where, I wouldn't call it a rebellious phase but more of an "intellectual discovery phase," if you will. Being raised in the church and with Christian friends, I'd never really heard an opposing worldview from someone who actually believed it. I had learned about atheists and Muslims and Buddhists, but had never really had any friends of those religions until I got into college. When I started meeting people who believed differently than me but were still nice, intelligent people, I began to question what I believe.
For a number of years I had a bit of a faith crisis; I knew what I believed, but I didn't necessarily know why. So I had to go and dig back into, Okay, why do I believe this? Is there good reason to be a Christian? I concluded that there are good, sound, logical reasons to believe in Christ and the Bible. But it took me awhile to dig into that, and my dad was really helpful during the process. I had to ask these questions and, on the other side, I think I came out with a stronger faith.
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