Wilson Phillips in 1990
Photo by Rob Kinmonth/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images
California Girls, California Dreamin’: Wilson Phillips Reminisce On 30 Years Of "Hold On" And Their Multi-Platinum Debut Smash
When Carnie Wilson, Wendy Wilson and Chynna Phillips released their multi-platinum debut album Wilson Phillips 30 years ago this month, the initial press buzz surrounding the group mostly centered on their '60s rock royalty lineage: siblings Carnie and Wendy are the daughters of the Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson and Marilyn Wilson of girl group The Honeys, while Chynna is the daughter of John Phillips and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas. However, as the talented vocal trio unleashed a string of Billboard number one hits—"Hold On," "Release Me" and "You're In Love" (all of which they co-wrote or wrote themselves)—the story quickly refocused around the group’s impressive harmonizing and songwriting, their charmingly photogenic yet down-to-earth aesthetics and their relentless work ethic.
Along with generating five charting radio singles, being certified 5x platinum in the U.S. alone, and creating one of the most memorable music videos of the 1990s with their mountaintop-crooning, beach-lounging, boardwalk-strutting "Hold On," Wilson Phillips also netted the trio five GRAMMY nominations—including, among others, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best New Artist. Since the whirlwind early-‘90s period of their pop cultural ascendency, both Wilson Phillips and "Hold On" have experienced a renewed second life after their celebrated appearance in the finale of the 2011 comedic film Bridesmaids.
Recently the trio chatted (from a safe social distance) with the Recording Academy to reminisce about recording their stunning debut album with producer Glen Ballard, taking the 1990-1991 music scene by storm, appearing in Bridesmaids, and recently re-recording their signature smash hit as "Hold On Today" in an effort to reclaim the financial benefits of their career-defining single.
Carnie Wilson: It seems like we’ve been performing together our whole lives. When we were really young kids, Chynna would always come over to our house and we started singing together on the fireplace mantle for whoever would listen. We would sing all of our favorite music, which at that time was like The Carpenters, disco, whatever was on the radio from like 1972 to 1978. We didn’t start singing harmonies until my mom taught us when we were in junior high. That’s when I became obsessed with harmonies thanks to groups like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. As we got into our later teens, Chynna’s mom connected us with Richard Perry, a record producer who had worked with the Pointer Sisters, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon and all these other artists. Richard thought we had something, but he said we needed to write our own songs. At the time, Wendy was still in high school and Chynna and I were out of school and both pursuing acting, but we put everything on the back burner and just started focusing on songwriting.
Wendy Wilson: We were writing songs and finding our sound for a couple of years, even while we were still in high school. The lyrical sentiments that we were writing as young women were coming from our hearts and we were just trying to express what we were going through at the time. We eventually recorded a four-song demo and pitched it around to a few different places. We started getting interest from record companies around the time that I was 19 and the other two were 20. That’s when it started feeling like, "Wow, this could really happen."
Chynna Phillips: The lead up to us getting signed was a really exciting time for us. We had about seven or eight different record labels pursuing us and battling each other. I remember they all sent us these huge, wonderful bouquets and it was Charles Koppelman of SBK Records who outdid them all. When we ended up signing with SBK, we had already written songs like "Hold On," "Release Me" and "You’re In Love"—the ones that would become our biggest hits. In fact, Charles had those exact songs sitting on his desk for months and months and he kept telling us that they were good, but he needed to hear some hits. We were like, "Are you sure you don’t hear anything in those?"
The soon-to-be-hits that had gotten Wilson Phillips a record deal with SBK were co-written, recorded and produced by Glen Ballard. Prior to working with the talented vocal trio, Ballard had produced artists like the Pointer Sisters, Paula Abdul, Jack Wagner and others. At the time, his biggest success had come as a co-writer of the triple-platinum, chart-topping single "Man In The Mirror" from Michael Jackson’s 1987 album, Bad. Ballard would eventually become best known for his production and co-writing work on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album a few years later, but, at the time, his work with Wilson Phillips on their demos and their subsequent self-titled major label debut netted him his biggest successes, resulting in three Billboard number one singles, five GRAMMY nominations and over 10 million copies of Wilson Phillips sold worldwide.
Wendy Wilson: Glen Ballard was the perfect person for us to collaborate with. He really took our songs to the next level and made them feel really professional. Musically, Glen had to put it all together for us. We could dabble on the piano enough to write our songs but none of us really knew how to play guitar or anything like that. He proved to be a really great lyricist as well.
Chynna Phillips: We always considered Glen the "unofficial" fourth member of our group and we mean that sincerely. He was such an integral part of the songwriting and producing—the whole process, really. He was able to temper three strong, spunky, young women and help us all get along and all feel heard in a way where everybody got their ideas out there and nobody felt left out.
Carnie Wilson: The nucleus of our group was the three of us harmonizing and singing together since we were kids, but our songwriting, our musical direction, our integrity as a group, that all started developing when we started working with Glen. Having him on our side as a producer and co-writer was a really great thing because we knew were in really good hands. We all have different strengths and it was really interesting to watch Glen masterfully take one of Chynna’s melodies and one of my vocal arrangements and one of Wendy’s lyrics and put it all together with his instrumentation and production. The way that he was able to navigate our three energies in one room was quite remarkable.
A couple months before their self-titled debut came out, "Hold On" was picked to be the album's lead single and it was released to radio and retail on February 27, 1990. By the early summer, thanks in large part to the single’s charmingly inescapable chorus and iconic music video, "Hold On" overtook Madonna’s "Vogue" at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart while the group was on a promotional tour in Japan. The trio’s earthy, California cool aesthetic was a marked departure from the early-‘90s onslaught of neon and spandex and it featured prominently on their album cover and throughout the "Hold On" music video.
Chynna Phillips: Glen Ballard initially wrote the track for "Hold On" and after we messed around in the studio with it for a while, we all went home for the night to take another crack at it the next day. I was playing the cassette on the drive home and something just started to stir up and brew inside of me. I soon as I got home, instead of going inside, I grabbed this yellow legal pad from the back seat and started writing and replaying the track over and over. I had been going through the process of getting sober and the "one day at a time" concept felt so impactful to me. I wanted to try and make that idea accessible and get the power of that message across. I started jotting down all these ideas and literally within an hour I had the "Hold On" melody and lyrics written. I could barely sleep that night because I was so excited to sing it for everybody the next day.
Carnie Wilson: We shot the music video for "Hold On" on Venice Beach and in the San Gabriel mountains. It was freezing cold up there. Wendy actually started to get some frostbite or something on her fingers and she had to be taken down on a stretcher. We also had to sing it really fast, like triple speed, Chipmunk-style because of this pacing effect that they were using. It was funny to film on the boardwalk because we were brand new and all these people were just looking at us because we didn’t even have an album out yet.
Wendy Wilson: For that video, we spent the whole day in the mountains. We were up so high where you could only get there by helicopter. It was just breathtaking. I actually got a little hypothermia and they had to take me down from the mountain at one point. The director, Julien Temple, is this super creative British guy and it was all his concept. He saw us as these California girls who represented the "girls next door" idea. He wanted to put us out in nature as an embodiment of that. It feels very "California" but I guess that’s just who we are. I think that’s what helped to make it work. We were not singing what everybody else was at the time and we were not trying to be anything else than who we actually are.
"Release Me" was selected as the album’s sophomore single, a decision made evident to the trio when they were asked to film the music videos for "Hold On" and "Release Me" back-to-back during a grueling four-day shoot. "Release Me" not only hit the top of the charts quicker than "Hold On" but it also stayed there a week longer, knocking out Jon Bon Jovi’s debut solo single "Blaze Of Glory" from Young Guns II.
Carnie Wilson: "Release Me" was actually a contender to be the lead single, but since "Hold On" was more up tempo and had that driving, catchy chorus, it felt like the perfect introduction for us. However, "Release Me" is the most special to me. It was the only song we ever wrote as just the three of us with no co-writer. To me, "Release Me" is really the quintessential Wilson Phillips song. It’s our heart and soul as a group.
Chynna Phillips: We wrote "Release Me" all together on my mom’s antique piano in her living room. It's the only song that we’ve ever all three written together from beginning to end without anybody else in the room. It’s three-part harmony from beginning to end, it never breaks, so that makes it super special to us as well. At the time, I was in a lot of pain because I was breaking up with this guy and that was the idea that inspired me to write the first verse. Then, I called Carnie and Wendy and asked them to come over to help me with it. They came over and we actually finished the whole song in one day. I remember that when we played it for Glen, he was so excited that he immediately made some tracks for it right then and there and had us stand around a microphone and record it.
Wendy Wilson: When "Release Me" became our second number one, it was really exciting. We were just very thankful that people were receiving us well. We worked really hard to establish our own identity away from our parents and it really felt like people were respecting us for our own music.
After a wildly successful summer touring with Richard Marx and netting back-to-back Billboard number ones under their belts, Wilson Phillips kicked off the fall with the album’s third single "Impulsive," a driving pop rock sizzler that featured Wendy on lead vocals and a searing slide guitar solo from Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. The single peaked at number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 just a few days before Christmas and they rang in 1991 by performing "Impulsive" live on the MTV New Year's Eve World Party alongside the Black Crowes, Vanilla Ice, Cinderella, Skid Row and Bon Jovi.
Wendy Wilson: I think the record company chose "Impulsive" as our third single because it was a more upbeat pop kind of thing. It showed a more fun side to us and it really kept the momentum going from the first two singles. I thought the record company did a great job with the promotion of the record like that. They handled the whole project with real class and forethought.
Carnie Wilson: Truthfully, the record company has the final say on things like which singles are released but it was kind of unanimous within our camp that "Impulsive" would be the next single. Clif Magness and Steve Kipner wrote such a great song and Wendy’s voice is so great on that one.
Chynna Phillips: When we heard "Impulsive" for the first time, we loved it immediately. It fit us so well and we could tell right off that it was going to be hit. It was cool for Wendy to get the lead vocal on that one and she did such a nice job with the laid back, raspy vibe of it. Glen had a contact for Joe Walsh and asked him to come in and play on it. I remember he was a whirlwind in the studio. He came in with this huge energy and just soaked up the whole room.
Spring of 1991 found the trio releasing their debut’s fourth single—the infectious pop rock singalong "You're In Love"—and (fortunately and unfortunately) showing no signs of slowing down. While "You’re In Love" would earn the pop stars their third Billboard number one (even simultaneously topping the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart for four weeks as well), constantly working on the road away from family and friends was starting to take a major physical, mental and relational toll on the group.
Chynna Phillips: With "You're In Love," it was very mind-blowing to get a third number one single. We were just so blessed to have a great team of hard-working people around us. Monte Lipman, now CEO of Republic Records, at the time was working A&R for SBK. One time, he slept in his car in front of this very popular radio station as the song was getting close to potentially going number one. He knocked on their door first thing in the morning and begged them to give the song multiple spins that day. It was so humbling to have people working that hard on our behalf.
Carnie Wilson: "You're In Love" has such a very special meaning to the three of us because it was our most collaborative effort with Glen, as far as the singles go. When it hit number one, we had so much momentum and we were working so much. They really worked us on the promotional performances and radio station events. At one point, we were going to something like five cities a day. We almost had nervous breakdowns because it was getting to be too much.
Wendy Wilson: We were so tired from traveling so much and being so busy. We were constantly going doing promotional visits and television performances here and there. It was fun being on a tour bus and flying everywhere, but it was hard work and we were missing home. I don't want to complain though because we had fun and the work that we did back then is still paying off to this day.
After releasing their sophomore album (1992's Shadows and Light), disbanding to pursue a few side projects and coming back together for a couple reunions in the 2000s, Wilson Phillips and their signature hit "Hold On" experienced a bit of a pop culture renaissance after the trio performed the track in the pivotal wedding scene of the 2011 comedy Bridesmaids starring Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph.
Wendy Wilson: It was so exciting to be asked to be part of the movie, even though we didn’t really know anything about it going in. They didn’t tell us anything about it; they just asked if we wanted to make a cameo. We spent the whole night shooting and we filmed the song a bunch of times. We had no clue that it would be such a hit movie or that it would impact our own career like it did. People started calling us for more shows and fans started showing up to our concerts in bridesmaid's outfits. We even got a call to perform at a wedding in Manila where they kind of surprised everyone and announced us just like they did in the movie. That whole experience was such a funny blessing for us.
Carnie Wilson: All we knew going in was that it was a Judd Apatow comedy starring Maya Rudolph and Kristin Wiig and we knew we would be in a wedding scene. We showed up to this big trailer and met the cast. All the girls in the movie all got ready at the same time, so we spent a couple hours laughing and talking. I remember talking to Melissa McCarthy and thinking she was the funniest person I had ever talked to in my life. We filmed from midnight until about two in the morning during this incredible heat wave. We sang "Hold On" about 15 times and it was such a fun, corny wedding scene. When it came out, I swear, I’ve never laughed so hard. It’s in my top 10 favorite movies of all time. We were so flipped out to be asked to be a part of it.
Chynna Phillips: I remember the weekend that Bridesmaids was released to theaters, my phone was blowing up like crazy. Everybody kept calling me and was just so excited for us. I honestly had no idea it was going to have this huge opening weekend. We just kind of did this thing off the cuff for fun and we didn’t know it was going to be such a big success.
30 years after "Hold On" took music, radio and TV audiences by storm and helped provide a captivating sonic snapshot to the pop cultural turning of the '80s into the '90s, Wilson Phillips recently returned to the studio to re-record their smash hit into a familiar-yet-fresh version they're calling "Hold On Today." Not only meant to celebrate the anniversary of their triple chart-topping debut, the group is hoping that by re-recording the song, they can take greater control of their career and the rewards afforded to them for all of the hard work they have devoted to their music and to their fans over the last three decades.
Carnie Wilson: When we decided that we wanted to re-record "Hold On," we knew that my husband, Rob Bonfiglio, would be the perfect person to help us replicate it. He produced our last record, Dedicated, as well. For "Hold On Today," Rob re-recorded all of the instruments and we all sang our parts and I think it turned out great. We chose to re-record "Hold On" because there’s no reason why we shouldn’t own this record and make money from it. Speaking of Bridesmaids again, they paid a fortune to use "Hold On" and guess who got the money? The record company, not us. So, we decided to re-record it and we actually have plans to do the same thing with "Release Me" and "You're In Love" as well. Why not? The music should be celebrated in a way that allows the artists and songwriters to get paid as well. There's no way to fully capture the special glow of the original but I think this is a lovely way to modernize it and hopefully reap the benefits that we deserve. The record company made all the money back then and why shouldn’t we make it now?
Wendy Wilson: We really wanted to make "Hold On Today" very similar to the original. It was surprising how hard it was to replicate because our voices have grown and matured. To try and go back and record it the way it was originally done was a little bit difficult to do. It was daunting but I think we did a pretty good job with it. Rob is so talented and helped us so much.
Chynna Phillips: I was surprised how close we were able to get it to sound like the original. I was pretty excited that our chops were still there after all these years. I’m really happy with how it turned out and it’s nice to have ownership of your own song. If an opportunity comes along where someone wants to us it, they can come directly to use and get it for half the price of the original recording. It’s a good thing to have in your back pocket. Quite honestly, I wish we would’ve done it like 15 years ago.