Wilson Phillips Bring Family Gifts To New Christmas Album
In my hour-long conversation with Carnie Wilson references to the “gift” given to her by her father came up. But, the gift she refers to wasn’t easily found. Like many of the children of legendary ’60s pop innovators, Carnie, Wendy Wilson, and Chynna Phillips grew up with the mixed blessings of famous parents. Pop icons like Brian Wilson and John Phillips are once-in-a-generation kinds of talents. But, personally and professionally, in 1990,the girls sang their way out of the shadows and images of the excess and sometimes tragic lives of their parents (fathers). Growing up together, there was a certain sensibility to Carnie, Wendy, and Chynna coming together musically. After all, they were children of the melodies and harmonies found in their fathers’ music. And ultimately, it was clear, they shared the gift of the music. With their debut album, Wilson Phillips created a melodic and harmonic soundscape in the over-produced, often overwrought music of the late ’80s and early ’90s. With the help of producers Richard Perry and Glen Ballard, they recorded two platinum selling albums, three #1 hits and extended the California legacy of melody and harmony well into the next century.
It’s been 20 years since they first recorded. They are still well-remembered and regarded among fans and insiders in the music industry. So much so that when Sony Masterworks called and offered a deal for a Wilson Philips Christmas album and the chance arose to work with their much in-demand producer, Glen Ballard, they jumped. The result is a gem of an album including the appealing opening original contribution to our American Christmas cannon, “I Wish Everyday Was Christmas,” with the much-expected, sweetly layered harmonies. But it’s the closing track, “Our Prayer,” that brings the family Christmas spirit into focus. Try this: sit down between two speakers, and listen. You’ll hear how their gift for vocal harmony was handed down from father to daughter as the song melts away into your heart. It’s one minute and 30 seconds of musical bliss. This is a classic Beach Boys song that belongs on a Christmas collection and Wilson Philips have done it justice.
Artistically, the past has been good to the trio with a follow-up platinum selling 1992 release, Shadows and Light. Even though they disbanded after this album to pursue solo projects, their reunion in 2004 yielded an excellent concept album of influential past songs with California themes, including Joni Mitchell’s “California,” John Phillips’ California Dreamin’, Brian Wilson’s “In My Room”(with Brian included on vocals) and even an acoustic version of the Eagle’s/Jack Tempchin song “Already Gone” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.”
2004 also saw the release of Carnie’s A Mother’s Gift: Lullabies for My Children, which served to enrich the artistic story of father-daughter reconciliation. While there were favorite pop songs turned lullaby like “Wonderful World” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” it’s the gift of the Beach Boys influence that sings with the soul of innocence alongside the irony of loss and tragedy when she covers her two late uncle’s songs: Carl Wilson’s rarely heard, “Heaven” and Dennis Wilson’s classic “Forever” are sweetly and lovingly rendered. And, perhaps the song on this record that rings the truest is her duet with Brian on Billy Preston’s classic “You Are So Beautiful.”
So, it seems, as I’m listening to Wilson Phillips new Christmas album, there is a natural quality of grace, peace, and reconciliation that has been found through both the music and the personal stories embodied in the lives of these three unique artists. And as they raise their own young children and bring them through this Christmas season, it seems that the legacy will continue.
TR: Tell me about the new release?
Carnie Wilson: We never made a Christmas album as a group. We were thinking about doing an album of original material, but to bring Glen Ballard on board, who is really like our fourth member – and we love collaborating with him – we needed to wait a few months. I started the album at my house with my husband [Rob Bonfiglio] and Sony Masterworks offered us a record deal to do a Christmas album. It was too good to be true. We could get Glen to do a real fast recording and to get it out. My God, it’s my favorite of the Christmas music I’ve done. I couldn’t wait to get the three of us to together for it and figure out which songs to record. Glen set the pace for the tone of the record. There are some great songs on it. I had recorded the track “Warm Lovin’ Christmas Time,” already. Then, we did my father’s song, “Our Prayer,” which was really special and important. It was done really fast. Glen is the best – a magnificent producer and so tasteful.
TR: So you’re doing some Christmas shows here in California behind the album?
CW: Yes. We’re doing a lot of Christmas songs – it’s a Christmas show, but also we’ll be doing the hits and special favorite songs of ours. We’ve been doing about eight to ten shows a year for the last three years Our vocals are tighter than ever. My husband, Rob, is playing with us and producing. We have a great band. We do a lot of cover songs, the hits and personal favorites. The audience has been really receptive. It shows the songs are still alive.
TR: How has the touring and pop music changed since you first started?
CW: Well, you know it’s been 20 years. This is really a 20th anniversary reunion. It’s mind blowing. It’s a special year for us. I feel like much of the record business has gone to shit. Artists don’t sell as many records as years before. It’s been hard and sad for the record companies. But music is forever. It will never go away. There will always be a way to buy the record. It may not be on the radio, but the connection between the performer and the artists is always there. You know, with computers, it’s nice to have that accessibility. But, my head is really stuck in the ’70s when I was growing up. Right now, I could not tell you who’s on the top 20 on the pop charts. But, we still want to be in touch with what’s happening, we are still a group that is out there and wants to produce today.
TR: Do you think a new album from you provides a kind of influence to what’s out there today?
CW: I always kind of thought of us as a female Crosby, Stills and Nash. You know, we drew from those rock harmonies – the Eagles, Little River Band.
TR: How did you get started singing together?
CW: Wendy and I had been singing forever. Our Mom taught us to sing harmony on everything from Elton John to Streisand. We started innocently getting together one day to sing harmony on the floor. We taught Chynna how to sing harmony. I’d get kids together to do Eagles songs. It was like we were always meant to be singing. At times it didn’t matter how or with whom. But, when the three of us started singing together as teens, it all came together. It was magic. We then met Richard Perry and Glen Ballard who taught us how to strengthen our songwriting.
TR: Yes. You write your own material. Did that start at the same time?
CW: Yes. A song like “Hold On” became like Chynna’s outpouring of her personal struggle. Wendy’s always been poetic. But, we met Glen who really encouraged us to write The first song we wrote, “Release Me,” was just heartbreaking honesty. It was like a raw nerve. We loved the track. We did it with live instruments, some great players. It was a real collaborative effort. It really came together and the best part was putting the vocals on down. When we came together for the Christmas album, we knew it was going to be magical. Wendy and I had done “Hey Santa” and everyone really loved that album. For this one, the biggest challenge was “Our Prayer.” We had the idea, but I thought, how are going to break down these harmonies? Fortunately, my husband, Rob, is just brilliant. Of course, first we called my dad, but he was on tour. It took Rob like ten minutes. He went in and came back with a CD and said, Here ya go.’ He did all the parts, all five broken down mimicking exactly the Beach Boys’ version. We went in to the studio and, you know, he had the conductor’s stick. ?
TR: It sounds like his ear is similar to your dad’s for harmonic parts.
CW: Yes. He is so talented and he’s also a wonderful songwriter and musician. It showed a lot that Glen let him into his circle and believed in him enough to let him produce and engineer tracks on the album.
TR: So did you play “Our Prayer” for your dad?
CW: Oh my God. A few weeks ago, on a Sunday, I played him the record. I have never seen his face like that before. He was so flipped. He listened to each interval. With each section he was more flipped out. He couldn’t believe we got those parts. He said, It’s better than the Beach Boys.’ I said, “Dad, come on!’ Then, he asked me what inspired him to write the song. He said it was inspired by Bach. I’m not kidding. First I’m covering my dad and now Bach!
TR: How is your relationship with your dad.
CW: Being his daughter is incredibly complex for me. You know, it’s not the kind of father-daughter relationship you’d think a girl deserves. But, I’m so appreciative of the music he has given me. And he gave me all that he could. And that’s enough. I’m so proud of him. You know, he has this life inside his head, that’s sometimes real and sometimes not so real. He struggles constantly with his demons. But, all of his family and friends understand that music is his outlet, his love, his purpose. I’ve accepted that and I can celebrate who he is. I mean, he’s not just an artist who did a one-hit wonder. He actually changed the music of his time and I’m so proud of him. And I’m proud that I can carry on anything he’s given me. And you know he’s proud of me. He’s not the kind of man who’s open with his feelings, but he does tell me that today. We have a love now that we didn’t have for many years. He appreciates what we do. And I still feel like a young girl who comes to him when we finish music and I want his approval.
Wilson Phillips will perform in the Dreamcatcher Lounge at Viejas on Thursday, December 18, 8pm, at 5000 Willows Road in Alpine. Tickets are available at: viejas.frontgatetickets.com/