April 14, 2011…
Eliot Wilder, music critic, author, photographer and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times, is one of the music world’s best-kept secrets these days, and certainly the most prolific songwriter around. He releases albums so often that even someone like former Guided by Voices leader Robert Pollard, who is known for his prodigious output, appears downright lazy in comparison. Wilder writes and records songs, literally, as often as people change their clothes. In about three years he has released more than 50 albums and has posted them on his website for free, though you can donate any amount of money you’d like to help his cause. If you check his site daily, you are sure to find a new song posted, with whole albums appearing every few weeks or so. It can be an intimidating prospect for someone new to his music. The surprising thing, though, is that most of his output is fairly consistent and much of it quite excellent, with only the occasional misstep. His most recent album (his 53rd) is called My Old Familiar and was posted on his site just this week. Don’t be surprised if another album follows by the end of the month. The man has an insatiable desire to make music.
Eliot told me, by email last year, that he wakes up at 4:00 every morning and works on his music for six or seven hours a day, then returns to it again late at night. His 18 years at the LA Times (which he said inspired his song “18 Years”), meeting daily deadlines, is the reason that he is able to stay so focused and disciplined. He treats his songwriting the same way he did his editing job all those years, figuring “if I put so much time in, I’ll get something out.” It’s that dedication to craft that is the main reason why he has turned out an abundance of excellent songs. Most newer songwriters could certainly take a lesson from him.
Eliot, who grew up in Los Angeles during the late ’70s-early ’80s but now resides in Boston, lives frugally and says he makes his money from writing and editing, as well as odd jobs. He has contributed many reviews and articles to the Boston Phoenix, Fufkin, The Noise and Miles of Music, as well as writing and editing for a now-defunct alternative music magazine called Amplifier. In addition to all that, he has done photo assignments for various publications. His music, though, is his biggest passion. The fact that songs have been pouring out of him on a daily basis for several years is the reason he feels he has found his true calling in life, and feels guilty when he’s not working on his music for fear of missing out on a great idea.
When Eliot was younger he said he played in bands that wrote their own music. For awhile he worked with Marvin Etzioni, bass player for cowpunk legends Lone Justice, Maria McKee’s unjustly forgotten band from the mid-’80s. Former Plimsouls leader Peter Case was also a part of the local scene at that time. Eliot then drifted out of the music scene for many years but came back to it around 2001 when his father passed away. The songwriting returned to him slowly, and the songs that make up his first two albums, 2004’s The Sentimental Education of Eliot Wilder and The Bread of Dreams date from that period. Over the past three years, though, Wilder said that,
“the songs have come in a rush … and suddenly I had this feeling of being aloft. I had worked hard in various arts – photography, and writing fiction – always hoping for a breakthrough, but never quite getting there. I had no idea what that breakthrough could be, what form it might take, what it would look like. I just kept working … at something. I’ve always worked at it. And now that this has happened, I think, this must be it. So I’ve embraced it fully.”
Eliot has amassed quite a varied body of music that shows clear Beatles influences (The White Album being a favorite of his because of its stylistic diversity), psychedelia, power pop, and even some songs that betray a cowboy music vein, albeit done in an off-kilter fashion. He also displays many other influences, including early-’70s soul music and autobiographical singer-songwriter fare, Brian Wilson, ’60s cult artist and producer Curt Boettcher, Tin Pan Alley, Van Dyke Parks, orchestral music and even hip hop artist DJ Shadow, whose album Endtroducing… he wrote an excellent book on as part of the Continuum 33 1/3 series a few years back. He even does an off-the-wall cover of “Superstar,” complete with a sample of The Carpenters’ hit version of the song, located on his album Westphalia. Eliot, who sounds a little like a shakier Tom Petty at times, and also quite a bit like Warren Zevon, may not possess the strongest voice in the world but he makes up for any limitations with style and heartfelt passion.
When I asked him about his recording techniques he responded:
“My first few albums were recorded at Woolly Mammoth Sound in Waltham, Mass., with a great musician and engineer named Dave Westner. But the costs were prohibitive for me. So now I use GarageBand, and between what I can play and the samples I use, I found I could come up with a fairly credible “band” sound. It’s sort of like painting with sound, in a way … using the tools that I have and trying to push beyond their limits. More important to me are the ideas that I can put across … the albums themselves all have themes that thread through them.”
When I told him that an early favorite of mine was his Alphabet City release, Wilder replied:
“I like Alphabet City as well … it was where I felt I was starting to get a handle on what I could do. There are some songs on there like “LA” and “Home” and “Bessie’s Blues” that are very special to me … and “Daisy Chain,” which is about my daughter Astrid. “Sundowning” is about my mom … she had Alzhiemer’s and sundowning is a condition where a person kind of goes crazy in the early evening. It was tough to watch. Like all my stuff, it documents some facet of the human condition … and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do: create an encyclopedia of various behaviors, without being a judge. The people in these songs, they just are who they are, they just do what they do.
“I guess when I’m done with all of this, whenever that is, I can give the lot of it to my kid, so when I’m no longer around, she’ll have some map of who I was and what I thought about.”
Eliot said one of the coolest emails he ever received was from John Fry, owner of Ardent Studios in Memphis, where power pop legends Big Star recorded back in the early ’70s, as well as R.E.M., ZZ Top, The White Stripes, B.B. King, Led Zeppelin and dozens of other big names. After Alex Chilton, Big Star’s resident genius, passed away last year Eliot recorded a tribute to him entitled “Alex.” Somehow Fry heard the song and wrote to him telling him how much he loved the song. It was a moment of pride for Wilder.
Despite not making much money, so far, from his recordings, and not touring, there are positive signs of his fortunes changing, and they come from faraway places. He told me he’s receiving airplay on a radio station in Spain, and his recordings are growing popular in China. If he keeps turning out quality work, maybe his luck will change here in the States, as well. There are plenty of songs in his canon that clearly have the hooks to make it. Many of the songs are far superior to most of what passes for “modern rock” these days.
This country has allowed far too many great songwriters to wallow in semi-obscurity – Alex Chilton and Paul Westerberg, to name just two – without the success they so clearly deserved. Perhaps Eliot Wilder might not be up to their level just yet, but he shows many signs. Hopefully this is one talented artist who won’t slip through the cracks.
Thanks to Karen S. Langlie for the artwork above, and to Eliot Wilder for his time and patience.