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Stephen Wilson Jr. Releases Soul-Baring Debut Double Album, ‘søn of dad’ (Interview)

Stephen Wilson Jr. is a vital part of the movement of change in country music, stunning listeners with his genuine lyricism, authentic sound, and raw vulnerability within songwriting. We got the chance to sit down with Stephen and discuss his debut double album, søn of dad, as well as his “jack of all trades” background as a boxer, scientist, stepfather, songwriter, inspiration records, Willie Nelson, guitars, and more. Wilson Jr.’s new LP takes us on a sonic journey through his life, ideals, and stories, leaving us only wanting more of his sterling, bona fide art. You can listen to the LP here: 

Stephen is a renowned Nashville songwriter, and has had cuts with standout country artists (Brothers Osborne and Caitlyn Smith, Old Dominion, Tim McGraw), and this album truly shows us why. Stephen has been seen recently on tour with The Academy of Country Music’s 2023 New Female Artist Winner, Hailey Whitters, and will be opening for a sold-out Ryman show with Larry Fleet on September 22nd, 2023. 

In March of 2023, he signed to Big Loud Records, and released his debut EP bon aqua. The seven-song collection compiles 6 previously released songs and the brand new single “American Gothic” (feat. Hailey Whitters). Wilson joined Whitters on road as direct support for her Raised Tour and is scheduled to support The Lone Bellow this spring.

GC: I want to talk about the title.  Your debut album title is a big deal. Of course, it’s gonna be monumental for you. What made you choose this specific title?

SW: Well, with søn of dad there’s it’s kind of a two-part answer. I open every show and my father died like four years ago and Stephen Wilson, Junior – Junior’s an optional suffix, you know, as the son of a boxer. My father passed away four years ago. I’m Stephen Wilson, Jr. So if you watch Roy Jones, Jr. or Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and they’re all carrying their dad’s legacy, usually their fathers were there …usually their corner men too. Not selected, and that’s always been the case. That was my case too. My dad was like my trainer and corner man. So yeah, there’s that backstory. I am my father’s son. “Son” and “Dad” are just another way of saying that. It’s anonymous to that. And I love the 1-to-1 basic nature of the word symmetry. søn of dad is just so very on point and there’s really nothing to argue about…that’s one thing I like about it is the non-opinion. I spent my whole life kind of arguing with it. So this album is a bit of a concession to that, you know, and giving into it. I go over a lot of this in this song called Father, Son on the record. And then there’s a much lighter second part of that answer, which is that I’m a big fan of the show Seinfeld. There’s an episode where there’s a serial killer in New York and they’re trying to name them and one of Kramer’s names that he came up with for the killer was “Son of Dad.” I just thought that was like one of the funniest jokes I’d ever heard. Written in that context, I thought it was just brilliant and brilliantly delivered. I felt like søn of dad was far more on the nose to actually say what I wanted to say versus saying Father, Son, and it’s synonymous. The syntax of the world having a little sprinkling of humor in it for just my own sake. Yeah, even though there’s a lot of serious content on this record. You might argue with that, but I love comedy. It’s one of my favorite formats, so I just try to infuse it at any cost. 

GC: I love how you say that. Speaking on that kind of theme, I really love “Grief is Only Love. Your response there is just discussing this outpouring of our love and our memories for a person that we’ve lost. There’s sadness and love there. You said it’s the most human thing we have and we grieve on a level that is unmatched, which is totally true. I just wanted to know more about the songwriting process behind this track.

SW: Yeah, I mean this song is very special to me…no surprise there.  I was writing with a guy named Jeffrey Steele who’s experienced grief on a level that I don’t feel like anybody could understand. He lost his 13 year-old son, Alex, in a terrible ATV accident and you know, you just never come back from that. It was maybe two years after my dad had died, so emotionally I was a little closer to the event, I guess. I was sitting on the porch. We usually start writing in the evening or late afternoon. I was waiting for him to get there so he could let me in. As I was sitting there, I thought, “grief is only love that has got no place to go.” I started playing that chorus right there on his porch. Nobody was around. I call it a song visitation. You know, and I just kind of got visited by it and started singing it because, you know, I’m still a recovering microbiologist, and I try to figure out everything at the biochemical, even subatomic level. And so grief was like a calculus problem. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I just couldn’t understand it. When my dad died, there was so much unfairness the way it went down and it was just something…I thought I had it. So that song was kind of me cracking the code at that moment. It was very healing.

I played it for him and he was like, “I guess we’re going to write that today.” And you know, he broke down. We’ve talked a lot about the loss of his son and the loss of my father. And he’s been a real confidant in that whole emotional process because he’s kind of got a PhD in it at this point…he’s gone through it on a level that I just can’t imagine. We just took off with it. He just started talking about his boy and it was really brutal. I’m not gonna lie. Like, it’s hard to go through, you know? And to see him kind of hold it together through it all? We’ve relived our traumas in front of each other. The song kind of wrote itself, just because we stayed in the moment and probably wrote the song in about an hour and a half. It was really quick.

GC: That is such a beautiful, beautiful answer. I really appreciate it.  Yeah. And talking about the microbiology, science, chemistry side of things, you really are a jack of all trades. You’ve been through a lot of different paths in your life. How do you think this has helped you navigate this career in country music?

SW: I mean, I think all of them have helped me, even the landscaping jobs, waiting tables, bartending…I’ve always been able to kind of glean some kind of tool from it, and you just never know when you’re gonna need that tool. You know, boxing is kind of one of my first things I remember getting into. My dad was a fighter, so me and my brother grew up boxing at a very young age. Having that stage set and that kind of pressure cooker level was so high that, you know, that alone set a bar for what I can handle because I was such a shy, nervous kid. Going into rings like, I don’t know if you’ve ever fought a human being, but if you’ve ever fought a human being in front of a bunch of people, it’s like a whole other experience.

GC: I can’t say I have, but I’m sure it’s a hell of an experience.

SW: Yeah, it’s very humbling but also very rewarding and you know, so I I just kind of got lucky that I was born into a family like that because I don’t think my dad really knew what to do with me, so the boxing was huge as far as when I first started performing, I’d have stage fright, you know? I kind of joked that like my first stage was a boxing ring, not really a stage at all. That’s kind of where I learned to perform. Especially when I got into the singing realm, which is still rather new to me. I’ve always been more of a side guy, side player or songwriter. So that’s been huge for just getting through big shows like the Royal Albert Hall this year. I was super nervous. It’s a very overwhelming venue, but it’s such a beautiful experience. I really gotta give boxing credit for that being such a fun show for me because by the time I got on the stage I was fine. I actually apply a lot of science to my songwriting kind of joke as a song scientist, like that’s kind of how I approach it. There’s a lot of creativity in the sciences and there’s a lot of analysis and creativity in songwriting. So I don’t think there’s really an exclusivity to the two worlds.

GC: Yeah! My next question kind of feeds into that. I wonder if your experience as a researcher has helped you blend genres and make them more sonically your own since you do a lot of cross-genre work.

SW: The research I do  is mainly for lyrical ideas. Everything starts with the idea for me. I consider myself a country songwriter. People could argue like what country is; I’m not going to get into that, but I know for a fact that I write country songs like…I’ll go down swinging with that. That’s how I approach it. I played in indie bands for years. I learned how to play guitar from Soundgarden. I learned really how to play guitar from more rock ‘n’ roll guitar players and classical guitar players like Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia. I played in a lot of jazz bands. I was mainly an instrumentalist during that time. I was writing songs on the side. That genre bending I think has come from me just playing in so many bands and so many different styles and music and being able to play with other people.  Like you know, for the most part that’s what I’ve done. And being a side player for such a long time, I think was one of the best things for me. It gives you just this whole other perspective that front men just never have, you know, they usually are kind of born in the spotlight and they stay there. They don’t ever come out of it to see what the other side looks like, you know?

GC:Is there a specific guitar that you use predominantly on this record?

SW: They’re both old 70’s Takamines. They’re all older than me and they’re just well-aged guitars that have a great sound. I’ve beat the daylights out of them, to be honest. I’ve just played them so much. They’re just part of my backbone at this point. I actually have three now, but I didn’t use this third one on the record. Same guitar essentially, but just made by a different builder in a different year. Yeah, Those are my babies. I’m gonna play those forever until they, I don’t know, hopefully they don’t ever stop. But yeah, they both have holes in them and they’re pretty beat up.

GC: Sounds about right. Back to søn of dad, are there 3 albums you could reference that inspired this album for you?

SW: I’d have to say Trouble Will Find Me by The National. Super Unknown by Soundgarden, and then I’d have to probably go with John Mellencamp, American Fool. That’s a record I grew up on.

GC: Great records! Has your own fatherhood inspired this album in any way?

SW: It’s a little bit more of a multidimensional answer because I’m a stepfather. I’ve been raising a boy since he was seven years old when his mom and I got married. It’s been really great. His dad is very much in his life and so he’s got two dads. I really learned how to be a stepfather from my father who was not only a great father, but also a very good stepfather.  I watched how he approached it. I’m sure he didn’t do everything right, but I thought he did a really great job.  I have a song on the record called “Henry” and it goes into the dynamics of being a stepfather and figuring out how to go about it. I wrote it not just with Henry as the inspiration but for all the others too. Stepmothers and fathers take up that torch to love this child that isn’t theirs. 

GC: So my last question is just how excited are you to play the Ryman with Larry Fleet?

SW: Oh yeah, it’s been a dream of mine to play the Ryman since I saw Willie Nelson play there ages ago. That was kind of when I got bit by the Willie Nelson bug and just became forever obsessed…

GC: Yeah, I saw him at First Bank in Franklin and it was fantastic.

SW: It’s amazing. Yeah, I just saw him recently too, in Oregon, like a month ago. Sounded great. It was quiet. It was like pretty much when I was in college and I was a seat filler at this show. He played there because it was televised and I just kind of got this free seat not knowing what I was getting myself into because I grew up listening to Willie, but I never watched him play in person. I’ve never really seen too many people play with such abandon in their voice and how he would project sound out. That all went down at the Ryman and so that place is pretty sacred to me. I’m beyond excited. It’s kind of what playing the Grand Ole Opry was this year, or the Royal Albert Hall. It just kind of is this resonating frequency, this vibration, and in the best way possible. So I’m very excited because I can just feel it there and that place has such a, I don’t know, there’s something going on in there, I don’t know what.

Keep up with Stephen Wilson Jr. at his website and social media for more information.

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