When Wilson Phillips competed as the Lambs on The Masked Singer this season, making it all the way to the finale, it was a reintroduction to the group for many. “I mean, Bridesmaids was really cool,” says the trio’s Carnie Wilson, referring to their memorable surprise cameo in that 2011 rom-com’s final scene. “But this was really just a big explosion for us, visually, and in such a different way. It was a really interesting way to kind of come back.”
Carnie, sitting with her sister and bandmate Wendy Wilson, reveals that The Masked Singer had approached her about competing solo on the show, but she “turned it down a couple of times” because she “knew it didn't feel right. I felt insecure, truthfully. I feel whole and at home and right when we're all three together. I feel there's a great power in the one voice that the three voices creates. And it's very meaningful. I'm so glad that we decided to do it.”
While Wilson Phillips — Carnie and Wendy, the daughters of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and Chynna Phillips, daughter of the Mamas and the Papas’ John and Michelle Phillips — have reunited many times over the years and perform regularly nowadays, many Masked Singer viewers or casual/younger fans may not realize just how massively successful the group once was. Wilson Phillips’s self-titled debut album sold more than 10 million copies, yielded four top 10 hits, and at the time of its 1990 release was the best-selling album of all time by a female group.
“I think because of Bridesmaids, people really harp on ‘Hold On’ — and it is such an inspirational song — but I'm glad that you pointed out that there wasn't just one hit,” Carnie tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I mean, I think that's why we sold that many records — because we had a collection of songs that a lot of people could identify with in different ways.”
However, just two years later, it was all over — for the next 14 years, anyway — when the trio went on indefinite hiatus. While Carnie says she “never lost hope” that they’d get back together, and Wendy says, “We always knew we would at some point rejoin and ‘marry again,’” the split was difficult for them at the time — especially because their deeply personal and much darker sophomore album, 1992’s Shadows and Light, had failed to replicate the phenomenal success of Wilson Phillips.
“Things were coming at us at a million miles an hour,” Wendy recalls of that whirlwind era. “We were in our early twenties, and it was a lot emotionally.”
“And, you know, it's a group. It's three people. And not everybody was on the same page in 1992,” says Carnie, recalling how Chynna eventually went off to record a solo album, Naked and Sacred. “It took a long time for me to get over. I was so angry. I didn't understand why one person wants to go and do their own thing when we're on top. It was hard for me, and it took a long time for me to be patient and realize that everybody has their own thing — that we are our own people, with our own goals, and we have to respect each other. It's taken a long time. I mean, I'm 54 years old. I've learned a lot in the last 30 years, and controlling people and making somebody do something is not going to happen.”
Looking back on the 30th anniversary of the underrated Shadows and Light, Carnie notes that much of her anger was not directed at her bandmates, but at SBK Records and the label’s mishandling of that album. The group wanted “Give It Up” to be the lead single, while SBK insisted on going with a ballad, “You Won’t See Me Cry.” The latter went to No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “Give It Up” peaked at No. 30 when it was eventually released, but that was a far cry from the successful Billboard run of the previous album’s “Hold On,” “Release Me,” “You’re in Love,” and “Impulsive.” Meanwhile, Shadows and Light’s third single, “Flesh and Blood” — one of the LP’s most important and meaningful tracks — didn’t chart at all.
“We were also mad at the record company at the time, because they painted it out like our second album was a ‘failure’ — but we had still sold almost 4 million records. And to me, that's unbelievable,” Carnie recalls. “You’ve just gotta have thick skin and say, ‘F*** it. That's just somebody's view.’”
While the trio’s signature 1990 anthem “Hold On” was misleadingly cheerful — it was actually about Chynna’s struggles with drug and alcohol addiction — many of the songs of Shadows and Light were more overtly serious, often inspired by the group members’ family trauma. “Flesh and Blood” and “All the Way From New York” were about their fraught relationships with their rock-star fathers, for instance, and “Where Are You?” was about child abuse. The record received mixed reviews. “We were always, like, the ‘positivity people,’ and I think people got a lot of inspiration from our words and our lyrics,” Wendy muses. “So yeah, we went to a darker place, and we delved into things that were kind of uncomfortable on the second record. Maybe it was kind of just too much for people.”
“We were very young when we first started Wilson Phillips. We were 16, 18 years old, sitting around the floor harmonizing. Wendy was still in high school. So, [making Shadows and Light] was almost like therapy for us. We actually had started therapy,” Carnie reveals. “Just growing up in the house of Brian Wilson, John Phillips, Michelle — it was not a normal or easy childhood. There were people who thought, ‘Oh, you were just given things.’ And yeah, we lived in a big house and had money and there were all these celebrities coming over, but it didn't substitute the lack of fatherhood, the lack of a family unit that was real solid and strong. And it created so much insecurity in our lives. There were a lot of things that happened that were really scary and not great. We sort of faced it when we got into therapy. And that's what we wrote about on the second record. And I think the subject matter was heavy in places, but it was cathartic. It was necessary for our personal growth.”
“During Shadows and Light and the promotion of it, we were asked [during interviews] about our issues and what the songs really meant, and we talked about it a bit,” adds Wendy. “We weren't ashamed of the fact that we were in therapy; it's not a bad thing. … And I think that at that age, it was pretty mature that we would delve into that, actually look at our stuff, and face it and move through it.”
“And I just want say that there are millions of people that grow up in a dysfunctional home where there's drug abuse and parents that are not on top of their shit and not aware of what's going on,” Carnie says, stressing that her experience is hardly unique to celebrity offspring. “If you look at mental health right now, the state of people, that's a prime example of how it is all about the parents. … And unfortunately in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people were doing drugs, they were experimenting. It is a different time now, yeah, but people are still dying to be able to express themselves and be themselves fully and completely. And we wanted the freedom to do that without being squashed. … That album gave us a platform to really write on our own.”
Over the past 30 years, Shadows and Light has found a sort of cult audience, and Carnie says that “Flesh and Blood,” in particular, really resonates. “We did that a live a few times in concert, and it was hard to sing,” she confesses. “That was a whopper. It's a heavy one, and it hit people big ways.”
“There's always people that come to the shows, and we talk to them after and they say some obscure song on Shadows and Light was their favorite song. And it's kind of surprising, but it is great to know that you're touching people because they can relate to your story,” says Wendy.
Of course, as second-generation musicians whose famous surnames were right there in their band name (“We couldn't think of a name, so we just said, ‘F*** it, let's just go with Wilson Phillips,’” Carnie chuckles), the trio was still considered privileged despite any personal troubles they grappled with at home. And so, perhaps a backlash was inevitable. “Of course there were a lot of people who said, ‘You're riding on the coattails of your parents’ — but that made us feel like we had to prove ourselves even more,” Wendy explains. And that was why Wilson Phillips were always so proud of all their music, which they wrote or co-wrote themselves.
“I’ll never forget the advice of Richard Perry, our first producer... who’d produced some great records for Barbra Streisand, the Pointer Sisters, Carly Simon,” says Carnie. “He said, ‘You have to write your own songs.’ So, that was one of the ways we thought, ‘All right, we're not bull-crapping around here. We are true artists.’ We write. We sing live. We've never had a damn tape played in the background. … It was important for us to prove ourselves."
Perry eventually introduced Wilson Phillips to songwriter/producer Glen Ballard, with whom they collaborated on both Wilson Phillips and Shadows and Light, although Ballard is probably best known now for helping launch the career of another female artist who trafficked in confessional, angst-ridden pop: Alanis Morissette, whose Jagged Little Pill came out just three years after Wilson Phillips went on hiatus. (Interestingly, the Lambs covered Morissette's "Ironic" on The Masked Singer.) It could even be argued that Wilson Phillips opened doors for Morissette and her mid-‘90s peers (“I mean, I would hope so,” Wendy giggles humbly). But whatever happens next for the group — they just released their first recording in a decade, a cover of Harry Styles’s “Boyfriends,” and have their “fingers crossed” that they’ll release new original material in the future — they are comfortable with their legacy. And they have no regrets.
“Honestly, we were proud of our music no matter what happened. That's all that we cared about,” says Wendy. “If it was going to be successful, great, and if it wasn't, we were OK with that too, because we were confident.”
“And also, if the goal is just to sell records, then I don't know how true of an artist you are,” Carnie points out. “We love everything we do, and we put our heart and soul into it. If it's embraced, great — but we have to get it out. It's expression. It’s artistry. So, when people like you want to talk about Shadows and Light, I think you like that album, and that means we made an impact. You're one of the people out there — joined by a lot of people, probably — for whom that album holds a special place in their heart. So, just hearing you do this interview and talking about that has made my day.”
Watch Yahoo Entertainment’s full-extended interview with Carnie and Wendy Wilson about their Masked Singer journey, working with Rihanna and Paul McCartney, their fondness for Harry Styles, and their memories of family friend Christine McVie:
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