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 the approach.
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 the studio.
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 the band?
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.