May 31, 2023


Creative living

The Winding 30-Year Journey of Wilson Phillips’ ‘Hold On’

12 min read

At age 19, Chynna Phillips was just trying to get well.

The singer, who formed Wilson Phillips in 1986 with Carnie and Wendy Wilson, had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction throughout high school. As the trio cultivated their sound, learning together how to turn beautiful harmonies into thoughtful, original songs, she sought help.

“I was at a real crossroads in my life because I was still in a lot of pain over my ex-relationship, and I was just struggling to navigate through some pretty painful childhood experiences in therapy,” she says. “I was just depressed and anxious and trying to stumble through my teenage years and find myself as a young adult and figure out who I was.”

At the time, the three bandmates were driving to Encino every day to work with producer Glen Ballard in his garage studio. During one of their early sessions, Ballard presented the group with a track that needed lyrics. Something about it piqued Phillips’ interest, so she took a cassette of it home with her. Before she made it into her mother Michelle Phillips’ home, where she was still living, she sat outside in her car and began writing out a set of lyrics with the pen and yellow legal pad she kept with her.

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, AA tells me, just hold on, just one day at a time.’ I thought, ‘OK, if I can just hold on for one more day, then I can do this. If I can just take life one day at a time.’ It sounds so cliché as I’m saying it to you, but if I can just hold on for one more day, then I will be able to get through life if I just take it one day at a time.”

Phillips brought “Hold On” back with her the next day, singing it for the Wilsons and Ballard, who immediately loved it. The group recorded it, singing the three-part harmony into one microphone together as they always would. They were still unsigned, and for another couple years, they kept “Hold On,” “Release Me,” and a couple other tracks they’d eventually release on their 1990 self-titled debut under lock and key, pulling them out in their cars for supportive friends and judgmental boyfriends.

“I remember one guy I played it for said, ‘That’s not going to go anywhere. That’s not a very good song. It’s really corny,’” Phillips recalls. “I just remember thinking to myself, ‘God, I hope he’s wrong.’”

He was. “Hold On” was featured on a four-song Wilson Phillips demo that started a bidding war between record companies, who sent them flowers and tried to woo the group into signing. In 1989, the trio went with new label SBK Records. Wilson Phillips turned out to be a good investment: Their debut would produce four Top 10 hits, but none more enduring and massive than “Hold On.” In June 1990, “Hold On” topped the Billboard Hot 100, edging out Madonna’s “Vogue” from the spot. It became the biggest single of that year, and would land them the cover of Rolling Stone the following May. Even as the decade ended, it remained a radio staple.

Spurred by the band’s unforgettable cameo in the finale of the 2011 comedy Bridesmaids — accompanied by Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig’s hilariously intense dance routine, complete with lip-syncing and lyric-miming — the song has enjoyed a resurgence. Since then, it’s been featured on Glee; heard in a Progressive Insurance commercial where the spokeswoman recites the lyrics to Carnie Wilson; and, just this week, covered by Kelly Clarkson (with some help from the trio that made it famous) during the “Kellyoke” segment on The Kelly Clarkson Show. Visit any karaoke room, anywhere in the world, and odds are strong that “Hold On” will pour through the speakers at least once as amateur singers belt out the chorus’ hopeful, fast-paced harmonies.

“Hold On” was a breakout phenomenon, but it was no fluke. The young women of Wilson Phillips — the children of pop royalty from the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas — had spent years hustling not just for success but also respect.

“I give them so much credit for not trying to be like anything that was out there,” Ballard says. Both Wilson Phillips’ sound and look were the antithesis of the leftover glamour and excess of the Eighties, caught in between an era of flashy arena-pop wonders and the gruff cynicism of grunge. The three lifelong best friends were earthy West Coast gals, wearing jeans and relying on their voices above everything else.

“They were inspired by their parents’ music more than anything, and it is really unusual for 19- and 20-year-olds to look at their parents and go, ‘I really dig their music more than anything,’ but they did,” Ballard adds. “There was a huge respect for Beach Boys and Mamas and Papas. There was legacy of incredible writers and musicians and artists, and I think they wanted some of that. I think they wanted their own version of that.”

The story of Wilson Phillips began with a basketball game. In 1968, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips would meet in their spare time at a local school to shoot hoops; their wives brought newborn daughters Carnie Wilson and Chynna Phillips in carriages to the court. A year later, Carnie’s younger sister Wendy was born, and she became a part of the two families’ joint gatherings.

“[Our dads] formed a really close bond, and of course me and Carnie and then Wendy all formed a very close bond as little girls,” Chynna Phillps recalls. “I used to go over to their house almost every single weekend, and we would play and sing and dance and put on shows and hang out together and swim. They became just a real fabric of my life.”

Being born into musical families meant that the girls inherited an early love for their parents’ passions. They would put on shows, covering Seventies staples like ABBA, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and the Bee Gees.

“We used to sing into our little hairbrushes or our broomsticks. We loved standing up there and the three of us just singing,” Carnie Wilson says, fondly. She became obsessed with harmony, forcing friends to join her in singing during lunch and free periods. “We didn’t know anything back then other than the fact that we loved it, and it was fun.”

As the Wilsons entered high school, they lost touch with Phillips. The three reconnected in 1986, when Phillips had been approached about putting together a group of children born to famous parents for a charity single. Moon Zappa (Frank’s daughter) and Ione Skye (Donovan’s daughter) had both declined, but Phillips knew the Wilsons would be perfect for the project. She reached out to her old friends as well as Owen Elliot, Mama Cass’ daughter.

To prepare, the four young women gathered in Wendy’s bedroom. They sat cross-legged on her floor, playing albums by artists they had long loved — Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Heart — and flexing their voices the entire time.

“We started harmonizing together,” Phillips continues. “Carnie and Wendy taught me what harmony was because at that time I didn’t know how to sing harmony. I would hear them do it and think it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.”

“The sound was so specific and warm and fresh and authentic that it kind of blew our minds,” Carnie adds. “We were taking bong loads, so we were pretty fucking stoned, but still.”

Though the charity single never came to fruition, the quartet kept singing together in Wendy’s bedroom. Their moms were the first to recognize their budding talent. Marilyn Wilson heard them through the door and interrupted one of their sessions to tell them how incredible they sounded. Michelle Phillips helped facilitate a meeting with producer Richard Perry, known best for his work with the Pointer Sisters. While the teens knew they had a very specific sound, they had no clue what to prepare for Perry. They looked to their shared musical hero, Stevie Nicks, to guide them through the meeting.

“Carnie and Wendy taught me what harmony was…. I would hear them do it and think it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.” —Chynna Phillips

“We went to Richard’s house and we sang him four words from ‘Wild Heart’ by Stevie Nicks. It was just ‘dare my wild heart,’” Carnie says with a laugh. “We sang the four words in the harmony, and we stop and he goes, ‘That’s it?’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s all we’ve got.’ And he hysterically fell back in his chair laughing.”

Still, Perry saw potential. “He’s like ‘I see the Beatles,’” Carnie continues. “He was also getting high. ‘You guys should call yourselves Pretzels With Mustard.’”

Perry helped them record some demos, including their first-ever song “Mama Said,” featuring a rare moment of Carnie singing the high part of the harmony. They were still a quartet but not for long; Owen Elliot wasn’t feeling as enthusiastic about the project and decided to leave. As a trio on the precipice of adulthood, they were suddenly faced with the reality that their hobby could become a career.

“I was very shy as a young person,” Wendy explains. Up until she began recording with Carnie and Chynna, she had been contemplating other dreams: modeling, writing, nutrition, interior design. “I think it was a little harder for me to come out of my shell. But I realized that there was the performer in you and then there’s the regular person, your everyday person. I rose up to the challenge and I became a performer.”

What ensued was a multiyear incubation period that eventually led to Perry introducing them to Ballard, an up-and-coming songwriter and producer who had been working with Quincy Jones — co-writing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” — and would later produce and co-write Alanis Morissette’s megahit 1995 LP Jagged Little Pill.

“When I first met them, they sang something a cappella, and I was completely floored because I thought it sounded like one voice,” Ballard says. “I knew they had everything it would take to make some sublime-sounding record with them. They had already done 18 to 20 years of working that stuff out, which you can’t really fake. Without knowing it, they had done their homework.”

The three worked diligently while also celebrating their newfound freedom. We were moving out of the house. I was living in an apartment,” Carnie explains. “I was very social, and there was a lot of partying going on. We weren’t in college, but we were definitely partying. We were [also] extremely focused, and it was professional.”

That focus would feel like both a blessing and a curse in 1990 as they worked to make “Hold On” a success. Wilson Phillips spent that entire year on the road doing radio gigs and promotional tours to get the record played, living in hotels and private jets, and visiting up to six cities a day. Frustratingly, journalists, DJs, and new fans had difficulty moving past their famous family members.

“We spent a long time trying to prove that we weren’t just the Beach Boys’ and the Mamas & Papas’ kids,” Carnie emphasizes. “We were songwriters and singers, and we had a great album. We were off to great start with a strong single, and this was the first impression.”

“It was an uphill battle from the beginning because I think a lot of people had preconceptions that we had somehow been handed this,” Phillips adds. “That’s just not the way it went down at all.”

The success of “Hold On” made SBK both very proud and very hungry for more. The radio promo didn’t stop once the song peaked, and Wilson Phillips had to quickly push out more singles and eventually get into the studio to record a quick follow-up to their debut.

“We had no break,” Carnie details. “Charles [Koppelman, who signed Wilson Phillips to SBK] didn’t care. We were money machines, and he wanted more material. I remember I started therapy because I was so freaked out by everything.”

Through therapy, all three girls began to discover long-repressed trauma from their childhoods, spurred mostly by the mental-health and addiction issues of their famous fathers. They wrote Shadows and Light, a darker album than their first, and one that all three remain proud of. Even with a collection of material they couldn’t wait to get out into the world, a change in management turned the rollout into a disaster. They were forced to drop the earthy, jean-wearing look of their first LP and pivot to something sexier.

“The first single was ‘You Won’t See Me Cry,’ and they made us wear these sexy corsets and all this shit, and it was really bad,” says Carnie of the Michael Bay–directed video. Meanwhile, there appeared to be moves on management’s end to make Phillips the “star” of the group. “I can only speak for me, but I had gained weight because I was so stressed out,” Carnie says. “I didn’t feel like I belonged. I was insecure. I was resentful.”

“I don’t feel that the management was looking to make me a lead singer in any way, but I will say that they did want us to be sexier,” Phillips counters. “It was pretty agonizing to watch that ‘You Won’t See Me Cry’ video, because we knew it just wasn’t a reflection of who Wilson Phillips truly was. What was done was done and there was no turning back.”

In comparison to Wilson Phillips, Shadows and Light was a commercial failure. The record company was disappointed, and tensions were high within the band due to the stress piled on by SBK and their management. Phillips left the group just months after their sophomore album was released. The Wilsons went on to record music as a duo, releasing the Christmas album Hey Santa! a year later. Carnie, who had become Wilson Phillips’ main spokesperson during their short-lived career, became a TV personality and launched her own talk show in 1995. That same year, Phillips’ solo album Naked and Sacred was released, though the sales proved disappointing.

“Hold On” persisted as a sunny radio favorite, a reminder of a brief, bygone era of early-Nineties pop. The three women’s lives remained interwoven. In 2001, they performed together with the Beach Boys at Radio City, paying tribute to John Phillips just days after he died. In 2004, they reunited for the first time to release their third album, California. On it, they covered all the Seventies FM pop they used to sing along to in Wendy’s bedroom.

“Hold On” found a second life in 2011 thanks to Bridesmaids, a comedic film about the same type of tumultuous sisterhood and friendship that the members of Wilson Phillips knew well. For the lavish wedding scene that ends the film, director Paul Feig and writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo contemplated what band they should cast to surprise the bride, played by Maya Rudolph, and her guests. Feig polled people on set to gauge what their favorite wedding songs were. Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” won by a landslide, beating out Stevie Wonder and Cher.

“I have to admit I had never heard the song,” Feig says. He listened to it and decided to reach out to Wilson Phillips, who agreed to make an appearance. The whole cast and crew “freaked out” at the prospect.

“We shot them like they were at a concert,” he says. Feig was especially nervous that day because Rudolph’s husband, Oscar-nominated director Paul Thomas Anderson, happened to be visiting the set. 

“We shot the stuff with the girls, you know, standing on the stage dancing along, and that’s really when Kristen and Maya just started acting it out,” he says of the pair’s improvised dancing. “That’s their relationship anyway. They’re such close friends. Off camera, they love singing songs to each other in really funny voices. That’s the kind of clowning they do between themselves a lot. That’s why it was so joyful on camera because that’s really who they are.”

The band itself wasn’t given a lot of context for the scene. “We had no idea until we saw the movie why we were in the movie,” Wendy says. “They didn’t really reveal to us anything until we actually saw the movie. In a way, they were poking fun at us, but on the other hand, it was a compliment. I think it’s given ‘Hold On’ a new life as well as the band. The phone started ringing, and we started getting more shows. I think it was just a great platform for us.”

Wilson Phillips are once again an active, tightknit group. They still perform shows and make television appearances, their harmonies still as angelic as they were 30 years ago. Ballard is still a close friend, and he considers the three to be his “sisters,” so many years on.

“I listen to it now, and it doesn’t get old,” Carnie says of “Hold On.” “This is so fucking corny, but I feel like it’s a door opening, and there’s sparks of light around it saying ‘Yay! Here comes hope!’ It’s a beautiful feeling.”

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