ON MARCH 18, 2011, Jeremy Wilson posted a collection of on-the-road photos to Facebook titled "Driving on Empty Through Empty Spaces." Among the comments, guitarist Dylan-Thomas Vance wrote, "It's a song."
It is a song. It's a song about that drive—more than 3,600 miles from Florida to New Orleans, across Texas, onward into New Mexico, Arizona, and California before turning north to Oregon. Along the way, Wilson scribbled the words that became the title track of his first solo album, Empty Through Empty Space.
Almost three years later, sitting in his Southeast Portland studio, the album and its songs still feel raw. Empty opens with the sound of rain falling, tires on wet pavement, windshield wipers working. Drums pound out a monotonous beat while a guitar figure repeats like blurred scenery out a window. "The strongest emotions I've had in years," Wilson sings on the title track.
On one end of that drive, in Florida, he was leaving behind a broken relationship. On the other end, he had a couch to sleep on in the studio, heart surgery scheduled for a rare condition that had been haunting him for years, and a complicated nonprofit, the Jeremy Wilson Foundation, dedicated to assisting musicians with medical costs like the ones he had piled up. He had time to think about it all as he stumbled upon Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and when he pulled over in the middle of the Arizona night to sit atop his car and stare at the stars. Somewhere along the way, he began to let go of some anger and regain his perspective. "The greatest gift I ever received came from the hardest bargain," he sings in "The Whisper."
Since then, things have gone so well—Wilson's engaged, and the foundation gave out more than $90,000 last year, he says—that it has taken until now to release the record, recorded with a core group consisting of Vance and Matthew Rotchford on bass. The sonic landscape ("epic minimalism" is the phrase Wilson prefers) is fleshed out by many of Portland's usual suspects—and all the members of Wilson's first band, the Dharma Bums.
"It's a record about forgiveness and compassion for yourself," Wilson says. "I'm glad I was able to find a little bit of healing."