Tucked away on the second floor of an industrial building on Portland’s inner east side, singer-songwriter Jeremy Wilson’s recording studio is filled with the rocking sounds of his new band featuring Paul Brainard on slide guitar, Matthew P. Rotchford on the upright bass, and Sam Densmore on drums. The group is rehearsing for an upcoming show, the first in a long time now that COVID-19 restrictions have begun to ease. Wilson and his bandmates have been longing to reconnect with each other and with a live audience.

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“The collaborative process means a lot to me, and I’m just excited to be playing again.” Wilson said. “There is nothing like singing a song live and being in front of an audience and sharing the energy of music.”

Vanguard of the ‘90s Northwest sound

Wilson’s professional music career took off in the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s with his celebrated Northwest band, the Dharma Bums. While in high school in Silverton, he and fellow high school friends, Eric Lovre, Jim Talstra and John Moen, discovered they had a strong creative bond and passion for creating original music.

“Three singers in one band,” Wilson recalls, “was kind of the magic soup that became the Dharma Bums.”

A black and white photo of a man with long hair and a guitar.

Jeremy Wilson was part of the Pacific Northwest's 1990s burgeoning music scene.

Jeremy Wilson, courtesy

The Dharma Bums began playing shows in Portland and throughout the Willamette Valley, quickly gaining popularity for their unique vocal style and positive, energetic, performances. The young group was then signed by famed independent record label Frontier Records. Soon they were getting booked at New York City’s legendary CBGB club, and touring internationally. But worn down by a grueling tour schedule and personality clashes that developed on the road, the Dharma Bums broke up in the early ‘90s.

Undaunted and inspired by the success of his Northwest peers, Wilson went on to form his next band, Pilot, this time signing to a major label, Elektra Records.

“I looked at Nirvana, I looked at Sound Garden, I looked at our contemporaries and stuff and they had made this transition and had kept their integrity in place. And I thought… if I’m going to sustain this life of art, I got to do the same thing.”

But the rollercoaster of the music industry had more twists and turns ahead. As Pilot’s album, two years in the making, was about to be released, Wilson explains, “Time Warner buys Turner Entertainment and fires 30,000 people, which Elektra was under. And in fact, the record gets put in a vault.” After independently producing a follow-up album, When The Day is Broken, Pilot got another shot at the big time, signing with Mercury Records where they produced their next album, Strangers Waltz.

“One month after the release of the album, Seagram’s buys Polygram, Polygram is the umbrella company of Mercury Records. They fire everybody,” Wilson laments, his disappointment still seeming fresh. “I made a phone call to the label and said, I just want out, and they let me go. We did our last tour and very amicably, we broke up. I was just exhausted and I was crushed. I was living in Seattle and I just wanted to come home.”

Reinvention and embracing independence

Reconnecting with his Oregon roots as the ‘90s came to a close, Wilson decided that what he really wanted was to build an independent recording studio and create a sustainable environment that would allow him to live and create on his own terms. In the early 2000s he did just that.

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“I came back and I built that studio within a couple years, down on the waterfront here in Portland. And I started bringing in projects,” Wilson remembers,“ launching my own label, Mastan Music. And lo and behold what happens to me? I end up passing out, waking up in an ambulance and my life has changed basically again. It turns out that I had to have a congenital heart condition called Wolff Parkinson White.”

Mending a broken heart

After a lifelong commitment to being a self-sustaining musician, the limits of one’s own body caught up with Wilson. He found himself in the precarious position of being self-employed and uninsured, beginning what would become a round of four heart surgeries.

“When the [music] community heard that I was uninsured and I had just come out of a heart surgery and that I was potentially going to lose my business, out of nowhere, all these people came to my rescue, they threw a show at the Doug Fir to help me out with the proceeds.”

It was in this hour of crisis that Wilson recognized there was a deep need for medical support within the music community.

“It was not a big jump to realize this is not unique to me, this is an experience that many others are having and I just couldn’t help myself, but to start a conversation with other community members about how can we address this issue,” Wilson said. “Everybody that’s an artist or a musician is sort of in the same boat, so can we put together an organization that addresses that and starts to chip away at those issues? And that was the formation of the Jeremy Wilson Foundation, that desire to be a safety net for musicians.”

After being diagnosed with a congenital heart condition in 2010, Jeremy Wilson created the Jeremy Wilson Foundation, a nonprofit built to support the healthcare needs of working musicians.

After being diagnosed with a congenital heart condition in 2010, Jeremy Wilson created the Jeremy Wilson Foundation, a nonprofit built to support the healthcare needs of working musicians.

Courtesy, Jeremy Wilson

The Jeremy Wilson Foundation runs a program called the J. W. F. Musician Health and Services program.

“It offers help in two major ways. One in navigational services from a social worker to help musicians navigate the whole health world.” Wilson described. “And then the second part is financial grants to help with living assistance and or health care bills during a medical emergency, or crisis, or recovery.”

Now in its 12th year, the foundation has given out close to a million dollars in grants and services to regional musicians.

Put to the test by a global pandemic

When the pandemic hit in early 2020 the foundation was uniquely positioned to help the music community at a time when it was dramatically impacted on several fronts, including the abrupt closure of all live venues and cancellation of events along with repercussions of the virus itself.

“We were the only organization dedicated to musicians that was nimble enough and with enough experience to react to the immediate needs of the pandemic here,” Wilson said. “This last year and a half, we’ve helped, like, several hundred people, you know, more than in the whole last 10 years… I’m glad for the community support that enabled this to be an organization that was able to be here during this pandemic.”

Over the past decade, Wilson’s time has been divided between the work of the foundation and his aspirations as a musician, but it’s something that he would never change.

“I can’t stress enough how honored I feel when I get to talk to, or work with somebody that’s going through something… that they let me into their lives, you know, and that they let me feel a little bit of what they’re feeling and we can share and we can talk, it’s profound. It’s greater than any rock and roll success could ever be.”

As Wilson and his new band get ready to step back out onto the live stage, he takes stock in where life has brought him. “I’m starting to find a little bit of breathing space now to really go all in with the new creative push, and feeling kind of excited about being in my fifties. Feeling like my voice has never been better in a lot of ways. I love singing, and in my 50s for some reason the singing is even more rewarding.”


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