Since reinventing himself as a songwriter for
hire, former Semisonic singer/guitarist Dan
Wilson has been on quite a roll. The launching
mechanism for Wilson’s second act was the
Dixie Chicks’ 2006 hit album Taking the Long
Way, for which he collaborated on six songs,
including the anthem of defiance “Not Ready
to Make Nice.” He hit his next home run by cowriting
and co-producing Adele’s chart-topping
big ballad, “Someone Like You.” In the two years
since that memorable collaboration, Wilson
has been all over the place, geographically and
stylistically. The locales range from Nashville,
where he partnered on Dierks Bentley’s country
chart-topper “Home,” to Australia, where he
and Missy Higgins came up with her single
“Everyone’s Waiting.” In the most improbable of
his collaborations, Wilson co-wrote and co-produced
a track on Nas’ Life Is Good, his first foray
into hip-hop. Wilson’s recent writing partners
include Pink, LeAnn Rimes, Kim Perry of The
Band Perry, Keith Urban, Michael Fitzpatrick of
Fitz & The Tantrums, Josh Groban, writer/producer
Benny Blanco, and Taylor Swift. Between
co-writing sessions, Wilson has nearly completed
a studio album of his own, the follow-up to
his solo debut, 2007’s Free Life. In the following
conversation, the affable and articulate Harvard
grad describes the process that led to some of
his biggest songs and generously shares his
co-writing and producing secrets.
Semisonic’s “Closing Time” really put you
on the map as a songwriter. What inspired
that modern-day standard? Semisonic had just come off the road from
[1996 debut album] Great Divide, and the guys
were clamoring for a new song to end our sets
with. They were tired of playing “If I Run,”
which was my favorite song to end the set lists
with. I don’t mind repetition—I like to eat the
same breakfast every morning—but I took it
upon myself, almost like an internal commission
for the band, to write a new closer for
us, and thought of the title “Closing Time” in
terms of this mission. About halfway through
the writing of the song, I realized that I was
writing this sort of pun about a baby being
born, because my wife was pregnant at the
time. So the song took on a double meaning for
me, and I ended up making sure that every line
was doubly interpretable. It was about being
bounced from the womb, I guess. But I wrote
the whole thing in a very short time—about
20 minutes. Only two things changed about
it after I wrote it. One, I went to [Semisonic
bassist] John Munson’s house to do a demo of
it, and while I was there I wrote a chord progression
that could be an instrumental bridge.
Then, when I sent the demo to our A&R guy
at MCA, he suggested that the lyrics were too
repetitious and the second verse needed some
variety. So I did those lines that go, “Gather
up your jackets/Move it to the exits/Hope you
found a friend.” That’s the one variation in a
pretty strict lyrical pattern.
When you get input like that from your A&R
or publishing rep, you have to consider it
carefully, right? You’re in business with these
people, so you can’t be precious about it.
That makes some sense to me, although I
must confess that it’s difficult for me to make
a change in a song because someone said it
would be more “commercial” that way. My
hunter instinct doesn’t kick in when somebody
says, “You could make more money if you did
this.” But that same kind of hunter/seeker
instinct totally kicks in if somebody just says
something as raw commentary or potential
input for a song.
And following your artistic impulse has
frequently led to commercial results for you.
I’m very fortunate in that, when I like something,
there’s a really good chance that other
people will like it. And I can tell if I like it.
With a lot of people, they know when they like
something, but not if they have to know—not
when it’s their job to know if they like it. Once it
becomes a job to know whether you like something,
you become very confused.
Having worked in A&R, I know exactly
what you mean.
Right. So, with me, if I really love something, it
often turns out that everyone else loves it too. I
have this tendency to discover music that comes
to me through pop culture, and it’s not gonna be
like the tastemaker, cool-guy kind of thing—it’s
always the huge, smack-down-the-middle hit that
everyone’s really tired of within a few months.
Do you have an appreciation for the side
of mainstream pop dominated by writer/
producers like Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and
Bennie Blanco? I have that experience that all songwriters have
where you hear something on the radio and you
go, “Ooh, I wish I had written that.” There’s a
Bennie Blanco/Shellback/Maroon 5 song “Payphone,”
and the first time I heard it, I immediately
had that super-excited but envious kind of
feeling. So I definitely enjoy really poppy stuff,
but I’m more interested in great songs than I
am in slammin’ tracks. With a lot of songs that
are hits right now, you almost feel like they’re
hits because of the mechanics of the production.
They hit you with a really hard, beautifully constructed
kick drum, and then they hit you with
an even harder, more beautifully constructed
kick drum for the chorus, and they also hit you
with even more blaring guitars or synthesizers.
It’s like the difference between getting a nice
backrub from someone you love as opposed to a
professional masseuse. You’re definitely gonna
get your bones cracked in all the right ways by
the pro, but there’s not a lot of feeling in it.
So much of the current pop stuff rigidly
hews to a particular structural and dynamic
formula. You have to shoehorn content into
that approach, rather than the ideas dictating
It just feels very functional. I read a couple
of very different books at the same time that
coincidentally pointed me in the same direction;
one was Animals Make Us Human by Temple
Grandin, which is about the shared emotional
lives of people and animals; and the other was
Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, in which a young
composer sells his soul to the devil to become
the greatest composer alive. Animals Make Us
Human said that the experience of following
your curiosity is the most powerful neurological
circuitry in the animal brain, and it’s the same in
human brains too. The book describes that feeling
of being about to open a present after coming
downstairs on Christmas morning as being
the queen bee of all the emotions. And one of
the characters in the Thomas Mann book says
to the other, “Love is strongest emotion of all,”
and the second character says to the first, “No,
there’s one stronger—interest.” To me, that’s
the flag I try to wave to myself. If I’m writing
something and I’m really, really interested, and
I don’t know where it’s going, it’s almost like
I’m just about to open a present on Christmas
morning. That’s the feeling I want to have about
writing a song. I don’t want to be satisfying
a checklist of criteria and second-guessing
whether I could make someone else excited; I
have to have my own curiosity totally engaged.
You’ve produced a number of the commercially
successful songs that you co-wrote
with the artist, including Adele’s “Someone
Like You.” Do you walk into the room with
that intention? How do you become the
producer as well as the co-writer?
We were halfway or two-thirds of the way into
the song on the first day, and she laid down
some amazing stuff. So we had a recording of
most of the song, but there were big gaps missing.
On the second day, we wrote the bridge
and finished the second verse, and it was interesting—
she had a different sound to her voice.
It was more cracking and distorted-sounding;
it sounded more hurt and weary—it had this
extra element of blues and sadness. So I asked
her to go back and re-record the choruses of
the song, even though we had nailed them
the day before. So half of that second day was
spent writing the bridges and the second verse,
and the tweaking of details about the voice and
the melody, and half of it was spent rerecording
the vocal parts that were perfectly good the
day before, but they just weren’t as captivating.
So “Someone Like You” as it appears on 21
was written and recorded from scratch in
From beginning to end, yeah.
What was she singing to?
Just me playing the piano. She was gonna
produce the record with Rick Rubin at the time,
and he ended up producing the other two that I
wrote with her, “One and Only” and “Don’t You
Remember.” I thought he was gonna produce
“Someone Like You” as well, so partly I was
thinking, “This piano demo is gonna blow Rick’s
mind. He is gonna love this.” But what happened
was everyone fell so madly in love with
the piano-vocal demo that they made it the
record. They decided no one was gonna beat it.
I imagine you could do an amazing classic-soulpop
version of “Someone Like You,” but there
was no need for it.
You’ve been working on your second solo
album. Can you describe your process in
writing and producing it?
I started out with 30 or 35 songs in Minneapolis, and right before I moved to L.A., made a big
batch of simple piano-vocal or guitar-vocal
demos and ended up with a very isolated and
mournful-sounding batch of songs. So when
I moved to L.A. a year and a half ago, I came
with this notion of doing the record alone,
like Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, or Elliott
Smith. I ended up doing that, but for some
reason it just didn’t feel right or sound right. It
didn’t have the depth of emotion I wanted, and
I’m not the best drummer in the world. So this
year, I wiped the slate clean and gave a whole
bunch of those songs another shot. I collaborated
with some musicians that I’ve met in the
year and a half that I’ve lived here and brought
them into the album.
Did this new crew cause a chemical reaction
with the lonely material you’d written?
It’s funny because, with my own playing on the
first version, the songs almost sounded too joyful
and too bright. It seems like I’ve been able
to get a simpler, darker sound with the musicians
that came on board for this second try.
Were you recording live off the floor with
There’s only a handful of band takes on the
record, and a couple of the most band-sounding
ones were pieced together. In that way it’s another
real departure from Free Life, and really
interesting to explore working that way.
Let’s talk about some of your more recent
collaborations. You worked with Pink on
her new album; how did that go?
It felt like a really fruitful session. She had a
brand new baby and was basically coming from
that mommy fog back into the world of concentrating
on things, and I was lucky enough
to be part of those early days. We finished four
songs, and one was way too country for a Pink
album—but she’s definitely got that in her
DNA. Another song is called “Exit Strategy”;
I think it’s gonna be a B-side or a bonus track.
“The Great Escape” is a very grand orchestra/
piano/vocal number with me playing piano and
acoustic guitar, and a lot of people sawing away
at the strings.
You crashed the Nashville party with
“Home,” your co-write with Dierks Bentley,
which became a Number One country
hit. And since then you’ve collaborated
with LeAnn Rimes and Kim Perry of The
Band Perry. Seems like the dominoes have
started to fall for you down there.
Maybe. It’s funny, because I’d done so much
writing in Nashville between 2000 and 2006,
and nothing ever came of it. Then the Dixie
Chicks album happened, and I almost felt
permission to not go back because they were
so mad at the Chicks for the album. And then,
writing that song with Dierks, which went
so well, maybe there’ll be some more coming
down for me in Nashville. LeAnn, Darrell
Brown, and I did a three-person session that
was super-fruitful. We wrote a great song on
day one and another one on day two. Very revealing,
exposed, raw songs that I like to write.
The professional country writers I’ve talked
to seem to have a very particular kind of
discipline and methodology. Did you find
that instructive in any way?
I learned a ton from going down there once or
twice a year for those six years. One enormously
useful thing I learned was the idea
of getting a song done in a day, which they
do routinely in Nashville. There’s a power to
that—it goes against the “I’m not feeling it
today” kind of mindset. I read this QUOTE recently:
There’s always little muses around you
all the time, so keep working and you’ll have
small inspirations all the time, and you might
get a big inspiration once in a while. So don’t
just sit around waiting for the big inspiration. I
learned that in Nashville.
You’ve also spent some time at the other
end of the stylistic spectrum, with left-ofcenter
artists like Britt Daniel of Spoon and
Divine Fits, Ben Folds, and Lykki Li. Did
anything come of those get-togethers?
With Britt, it was more like us just hanging
around and talking, telling each other what
our favorite tracks were and listening to
things. It was fun. Ben and I got together a
bunch; we talked about music and jammed
on some of his new ideas. It felt like we had
a real meeting of the minds. My hope is that
I can get him to help me out on some track
of mine someday. With Lykki Li, we started
a song that I think is pretty cool—I’m supposed
to send her a demo. But I feel like my
role in situations like those isn’t to try to
write some big song for their album. It’s something
that you make up as you go along.
You co-wrote a song, “Treacherous,” with
Taylor Swift for her recent album, Red.
How did that go?
We squeezed in two days before a trip I was taking,
and we did a song each day, totally countrystyle.
But it was extremely inspiring. She gets
such a backhanded appreciation from the press,
but that’s just a bunch of bullsh*t. She’s so talented
and so spontaneous, and she really was on
fire for the sessions that we did together.
I was taken aback when I heard you had a
song on Nas’ Life Is Good. What was that like?
It was fascinating. The song is called “Roses,” and
I produced it with Al Shux. I got together with
Nas and we talked about songs and subjects. I
played the piano and he’d say, “Oh, I like that,”
or “Mmm, I don’t know.” I’d play the piano again
and he’d say, “I like that.” We did that until we
got a piano theme that was inspiring and beautiful,
and then Al came with his beats and amazing
sounds, and turned my piano piece into a track.
And then, after I left, Nas did the rap. I never
heard Nas’ part until the album came out, and all
I was thinking was, “I just hope it’s not so offensive
that I can’t play it for my parents.”
I’m not playing it for my parents.
Bud Scoppa has written for Rolling Stone,
Creem, Rock, Fusion, Crawdaddy!, and Phonograph
Record. He’s a senior editor at Hits
and industry-news site hitsdailydouble.com.