Through the early to mid-sixties, Brian Wilson was the most prolific songwriter in popular music. Melding Dick Dale’s surf guitar with complex doo-wop vocal harmonies, he created a unique sound intrinsically linked with the Californian dream.
Commercial success soon followed, and, incredibly, his remarkable creative capacity would see him write and produce nine Beach Boys albums between 1963 and 1965. In 1966 he delivered Pet Sounds, one of the most influential albums in rock history. While his fragile mental health and prolonged substance abuse would break his artistic momentum, Brian Wilson’s place as one of rock’s greatest living songwriters has long been assured.
This month marks the release of the vinyl version of At My Piano, a collection of classic cuts played entirely on piano sans vocals from the Beach Boys’ back catalogue. This intimate collection of 15 pared-back instrumental tracks is a beautiful, haunting journey of nostalgia.
STACK’s Paul Jones asked Brian Wilson, a man of few words these days, a few questions about the new release.
Where did the idea for an album of stripped-back songs originate? Had you been planning this for a while?
Well, Decca came to me with the idea, and I went to my friend Darian’s [Sahanaja, Wilson’s long-time friend, project assistant and backing bandmember] studio, and I just started putting the songs together.
It would’ve been a seemingly unenviable task selecting songs for the album. Can you talk about how the selections were determined?
Decca had a wish list. I had songs that I wanted, and Darian had some too. So, we just figured out what worked best.
Were many of these songs initially conceived on the piano as part of the original songwriting process?
Oh yes, these songs were all conceived on the piano. That is my process, and it has been that way forever.
Can you describe the recording process? Were the songs recorded intermittently, or in one allocated block of studio time?
They were done in different sessions. We spent a few weeks working on it. It was a process. It’s hard to describe when you are used to just doing it. You start with the basic track, then do overdubs, layering. It’s the same on the piano as it is when you do it vocally. It’s a methodical layering process that makes the harmony and melody.
Many of these songs are so familiar that they bring an entirely different perspective as straight piano pieces. Did you have a similar experience playing them solely on the piano without a band?
Well, for me, it was more strange not having vocals. I was overdubbing the original tune with harmony on the piano. I played all the parts and layered them. I started with the basic track then overdubbed the harmony and the melody.
Is there one song on the tracklist that holds personal reverence?
Probably God Only Knows. But I really do like them all.
Your extensive body of work, including the songs on this album, has soundtracked so many lives over the last 50 years. How do you reflect on your work, especially when you pull together a project like this?
Well, I just really think my work is love. That is what I think when making it. I want people to be happy and feel love.
Revisiting these songs, how has your songwriting process evolved? Or has it remained similar throughout your career?
Yes, it’s the same process; the only difference is we have different tools to use.
Is this the beginning of a potential series of At My Piano releases?
Yes, I think that would be a great idea.
At My Piano by Brian Wilson is out now on both CD and vinyl, via Decca.