Brian Wilson’s eyes have turned misty. For the past 20 minutes, Wilson, 72, has been listening to The Four Freshmen, the vocal group whose lush harmonies mesmerized him at age 14, and also inspired his work only a few years later, as the eldest of three brothers to form The Beach Boys — the seminal 1960s rock band that has sold more than 22.5 million albums and scored 54 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, more than any other American act. The Freshmen’s wildly romantic “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” proves too much, and he asks that it be turned off. “I am too connected to that song,” he says, pain in his voice. “There’s too much sentiment, too much history.”
On this crisp, late-winter afternoon, Wilson is sitting in a conference room in Los Angeles’ Capitol Tower, built the same year — 1956 — that he discovered the Freshmen. As a conversationalist, he’s disarmingly direct and sincere. He requests another classic cut from the group, “It’s a Blue World.”
“This is the essential song,” he explains, “the one that set the mood, the one that says, ‘While the world is blue, blue is the most beautiful color.’ Sometimes I imagine that the color of music is blue.”
Brian Wilson is, in his way, a bluesman. He suffered physical abuse as a child from his father, battled severe mental illness and later endured a divorce from his first wife, Marilyn, with whom he had two daughters (Carnie, 46, and Wendy, 45, who became two-thirds of the early-’90s pop trio Wilson Phillips. For much of the ’80s, he was ruthlessly exploited by a Svengali-style shrink, Dr. Eugene Landy, who doubled as his manager. (In 2012, The Beach Boys reunited for more than 70 dates, marking the first time Wilson toured with the full band since 1965.) In Love & Mercy, a biopic coming to theaters on June 5, Wilson will be played by Paul Dano and John Cusack (as the younger and older Brian, respectively), and Paul Giamatti will take on Landy. Before that, on April 7, Wilson will release a lush, vital new album, No Pier Pressure, featuring guest appearances by artists including Kacey Musgraves, Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward and Nate Ruess of Fun. Although Wilson has been on the mend for decades, his album is deeply informed by a sense of loss. Here he discusses today’s music business, his plans for a celebration of Chuck Berry and how he is proud that he has “weathered not just one storm, but a lifetime of storms.”
Your fans may be surprised by the cover of No Pier Pressure. We’re at the beach, but there’s no sunshine, no surfers, no people whatsoever. Is this your way of rejecting pressure to replicate the lighthearted music associated with your early success?
I love that interpretation. The title came from my daughter, but I soon saw it had more meaning than a simple pun. When I was told that this is my 11th solo studio album, I realized I had some serious things to say. Well, maybe “serious” is the wrong word. Maybe a better word is “healing.”
In Love & Mercy, much of the action centers on your bouts with -depression. How did you react to the film?
I thought it dwelled too long in the darkness. Overall I liked the movie, especially those scenes when I was creating in the studio. I’m endorsing it, but, to be honest, I thought it was heavier than it needed to be. On the other hand, I didn’t get involved with the script. That was left to my wife [Melinda Ledbetter, whom he married in 1995]. My attitude is that the life of a public figure is up for interpretation. I can’t — and don’t want to –– control how people see me.
Couldn’t that same criticism about emotional heaviness be levied at your new record?
Not at all. This record is about love and understanding. It opens with a prayer, “This Beautiful Day,” and closes with a prayer, “The Last Song.” I start out by praying that this beautiful day, with sunshine melodies and heavenly harmonies, lasts forever. The final tune prays that if we hold on tight, it will all be all right — all the anxieties eased, all the fears erased. It ends in hope.
Are you singing to your brothers Carl and Dennis, both of whom have passed on? To your dad? Your mom? Your former bandmates?
I’m singing to everyone. I’m also singing — and this may surprise you — with a subliminal sense of sexual tension. I think that frustration, that pent-up passion, can be felt in a lot of my songs. Critics haven’t pointed that out but, then again, critics often don’t hear what the artist hears.
When you listen to the album, do you find yourself drifting back to distant memories?
At times, yes, but more often, no. I am alive in 2015, and that feels great. I am proud that I have survived. Damn proud. Proud that I have weathered not just one storm, but a lifetime of storms. Proud that I have stuck with my music and musical convictions. And proud — really proud — to have proven stronger than many imagined me to be.
How do you find the music business today?
I’m frankly confused by the business and the different forms it has taken. I rarely listen to the radio, and when I do, I tend to go to the oldies stations. But that’s OK. It goes back to everything I said about sentimentality and nostalgia. I embrace those things.
Do you see loss as a major theme in your work?
Loss for sure, but also gain. There’s sadness in my work. But I’ve also gained a feeling of sentimentality. I feel that I’ve earned that emotion. It’s beautiful to look back, and when you do — and if you’re honest — you face the truth. Beautiful memories mingle with moments of pain. People lost. Relationships shattered. But then relationships renewed. Long nights of darkness followed by a new day.
Frightening voices — auditory hallucinations — have plagued you for much of your life. Is your need to harmonize a way to quiet those voices?
If you’re asking whether music is an escape, of course it is. We escape from what makes us feel bad by creating sounds that soothe our souls and make us feel good. In one of my new songs, “One Kind of Love,” I wrote, “Driftwood floating on the sea/Searching for the me, and all that I have known to be … thank God you noticed me and brought back harmony to this lonely song.” The “you” isn’t any one person. It’s my fans. My harmonies — all my diverse voices — are my way of including their voices. It’s a mystical connection between me and my fans.
What about the future? What’s next?
More reflection on the past. I’d like to put together a celebration of the music of Chuck Berry, an album that would reconnect me to the roots of those rock rhythms that were the foundation of The Beach Boys. Our “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was built upon the groove and melody of Chuck’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” It was Chuck, together with the harmonies I learned from the Freshmen, that helped form our sound. I want to go back and play “Johnny B. Goode.” As a writer, I’ve had a few influences, and Chuck is primary. As a producer, he also informed my sense of how a record should feel. There were only two other producers I studied closely. The first was Phil Spector, who taught me how to make tracks and craft what some might call “baroque” backgrounds. The second was Bob Crewe, famous for his work with Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, who showed me how to utilize horns to sharpen and sculpt an overall sound.
A poignant scene in Love & Mercy portrays you meeting Melinda, your future wife, and you’re unable to express your feelings. Instead, you write three words on a card: “Lonely, scared, frightened.” If you were handed a card today, what words would express your present state of mind?
“Thank you, God, for another day.”
This story originally appeared in the April 11 issue of Billboard.