Before Wilson Phillips' first No. 1 single, "Hold On," reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in June 1990, founding member Chynna Phillips had to hit rock bottom. The singer, who formed the group with Carnie and Wendy Wilson in 1986, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction throughout high school. “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 told Rolling Stone. "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."
Phillips wrote the lyrics based on lessons she learned at AA
In the late '80s, the trio of women had been working on their earliest songs together in producer Glen Ballard's garage studio in Encino, California when the Grammy winner behind Alanis Morissette's 1995 album Jagged Little Pill, wrote them what Carnie called a "real catchy, pop, melodic" track. Phillips took Ballard's cassette tape to the home she lived in at the time with her mother, Michelle Phillips, and sat in her car writing lyrics on a yellow legal pad she carried 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,'" she explained. "It sounds so cliché . . . 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."
Carnie recalls her bandmate returning to Ballard's studio the next day with 90 percent of "Hold On" already written. After a few minor tweaks, the song "about personal inner strength" was finished, she said. As Wendy added: "Chynna had the inspiration for 'Hold On,' and wrote the majority of it. It came from her heart and the feelings she was overcoming at the time. A very sophisticated point of view, and memorable lyric."
The women recorded the song, but because they still weren't yet signed to a record label, the only people who heard it for a few years were "supportive friends and judgmental boyfriends" they'd let listen to it on their car radios. "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 said. "I just remember thinking to myself, 'God, I hope he’s wrong.'"
The song reached No. 1 and put Wilson Phillips on the map
Despite that criticism, "Hold On" was among four songs the group included in their first demo, which sparked a bidding war among record companies. Wilson Phillips eventually signed with SBK Records in 1989 and dropped "Hold On" as the lead single off their self-titled debut album in February the following year. Within months of its release, the song knocked Madonna's "Vogue" out of the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 chart.
Carnie remembers all the hard work it took to promote the track around the world while competing against "huge artists" like Madonna and Mariah Carey. "We were in Japan when it hit number one on the Billboard charts," she remembers, calling it a time she and the other women will never forget.
For Wendy, that moment — and the era as a whole, even — felt surreal. "Going No. 1 with 'Hold On' almost didn't seem real," she explained. "In fact, that whole time in our lives was kind of dreamlike. We were working our record and traveling like crazy. Touring the world at 20 and 21 years old."
Although the song only spent one week in the top spot before Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" bested it, Wilson Phillips sold 10 million copies of their debut album and became the best-selling all-female group of 1990. Two additional singles, "Release Me" and "You're in Love," also went on to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Wendy credits themes of "liberty and empowerment" contributing to the strong resonance “Hold On” had with the public. As she summed up, "Being strong as a female and turning a negative into positivity — anyone could relate, really."