Wilco's Jorgensen takes the lead with pront

March 27, 2009


Onstage as a member of Wilco, Mikael Jorgensen updates the role of Brian Eno in Roxy Music or Allen Ravenstine in Pere Ubu, twiddling the knobs of a synthesizer or manipulating sounds through a laptop computer.

Few knew that beneath that calm, scientific facade beat the romantic heart of a pop songwriter. Now, Jorgensen has bared that side of his musical personality on the debut album by his side project Pronto, "All Is Golden," recently released on Chicago's Contraphonic label.

"I've kind of been straddling that line my entire life," Jorgensen says. "I got my first synthesizer when I was in seventh grade, and I've never been able to really figure out a way to merge that part of my music and the sort of classic-rock/pop songwriting I was into with my first band in New Jersey, Lizard Music. They've always sort of remained separate. 'All is Golden' is a reflection of experiences and learning and thinking about the music-making process in Wilco, but also incorporating musical ideas that were like, 'I want to do this sort of '70s, Steely Dan-tinged stuff and take my first real crack at lyric writing.'"

Jorgensen cut his teeth in the fertile music scene around New Brunswick, N.J., in the mid-'90s. He moved to Chicago in 1998 to help John McEntire of Tortoise build SOMA Electronic Music Studios, and he joined Wilco to record the 2004 album "A Ghost Is Born." He now lives in Brooklyn but returns here whenever Wilco summons.

"Around 2005, I thought, 'I want to do something [outside of Wilco],'" Jorgensen says. "I was just kind of getting antsy in between tours, and I had all this personal upheaval going on. Both of my folks passed away in the course of a year, and there was a breakup with a girlfriend. I remember retreating to my apartment between tours and thinking, 'I've just got to hoist myself out of this. I need another project to look forward to when I'm coming home.' At the end of 2005, I played my first solo show ever at the Hideout, and then I made the decision that, 'I'm going to make a solo record and just see where this goes.'"

Recording at Wilco's famous North Side loft in the winter of 2006, Jorgensen recruited drummer Greg O'Keeffe, bassist Matt Lux (Iron & Wine), guitarist Jim Becker (Califone) and saxophonist Stuart Bogie (Antibalas). (The touring version of Pronto is now completed by O'Keeffe, Erik Paparazzi and Tunde Oyewole.) The result was a collection of 13 smart, emotional pop songs with an organic and intimate vibe that Jorgensen describes as "very '70s."

"I think the '70s thing is just a byproduct of my upbringing: My dad worked in recording studios in the '70s, and I would go and visit him and see all of the flashing lights and meters and people running around and music happening. I also think that it's a result of the actual studio practice: This was a record about songs and playing together in the studio to get as much of that on tape as possible before bringing it into the computer for mixing and overdubs. I think that brings the sort of accessibility that we associate with the '70s -- like the Steely Dan records and 'Sail Away' by Randy Newman, 'Carney' by Leon Russell or even [something] a little weirder, like Aphrodite's Child's '666.'"

Now that "All Is Golden" finally has been released, there is an inevitable question one must ask any songwriter who happens to be in a band with Jeff Tweedy: Is it daunting or inspiring to write your own material while working with someone on that level?

"It's kind of both," Jorgensen says, laughing. He adds, "I try not to compare myself to Jeff, because it's really not worth it. This is my first attempt at this, really, and I'm just trying to be as honest as I'm able."