After the breakup of Minneapolis cult heroes Trip Shakespeare, Dan Wilson brought his impeccable sense of pop polish to the trio Semisonic, who scored a Top-10 hit in 1998 with "Closing Time." With that group on an extended hiatus, Wilson set out on his own as a producer and writer, striking gold earlier this year with a Song of the Year Grammy for co-writing Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready To Make Nice." For the last five years he's also been working on a solo album, Free Life, which broadens the scope of his sound without losing the hummable quality of his earlier music. Released in October, Free Life, was co-produced by Rick Rubin and features Sheryl Crow and former Jayhawk Gary Louris. Wilson chatted with The A.V. Club about the new album, the importance of unstructured recording, and how to approach your first solo record.
The A.V. Club: Are there any fringe benefits to winning a Grammy that the general public isn't aware of, like a 10-percent discount at Starbucks or something?
Dan Wilson: No, none of that! But you do get a little statuette that all your friends want to touch. Doesn't matter how cool they are, they still want to touch it. [Laughs.] There wasn't a little coupon booklet that came with it or anything, sadly.
AVC: Your solo album, Free Life, has been in the works for quite some time, with some of the songs dating from when Semisonic was still in high gear.
DW: Several of the songs I wrote or recorded basic tracks for in 2002. Most of the work was done a couple of years later. And I've basically been adding this or that song, and posting this or that song for the last couple of years while waiting for everything to get together.
AVC: Why did it take so long to get the album released?
DW: I think there were a couple of big delays. One was that my record label, American Recordings, changed parent companies twice during this time. I'd guess there was about a year added to the process for each of those journeys from one label to another. Maybe a little more. Another thing is that I got really sick, and I had to have lung surgery. That cost me maybe half of 2005.
AVC: How are you feeling now?
DW: Oh, I'm great. I think I can confidently say that they cured me. I'm better than ever.
AVC: Did that affect your singing?
DW: Yeah, it really did. I didn't realize how much I had learned to compensate.
AVC: How so?
DW: I was writing songs with short phrases, and I had slowly, over time, developed a lot of tricks that made up for my reduced capacity to breathe. Since then I've kind of gone overboard. I have one song on the album called "Easy Silence" that I did with Dixie Chicks, and it's got the longest phrases. When I sing it, I almost get mad at myself for pushing the envelope of what could be reasonably expected of a singer. Same is true with "Breathless," [from Free Life] which has really long phrases. I think it actually works as a part of the metaphor, the unconscious part of the song.
AVC: At the beginning of "Breathless," just for a moment you can hear a child's toy piano. Is there a story there?
DW: The story is pretty simple, but it's good, because it has a lot to do with how the record was done. Early in the process, I had this idea of leaving a couple of toys in the room where the drums were, and not really talking about it. Like, not saying anything, I'll just leave these toys out, and then maybe whoever's drumming will turn around and see it and get excited and play something on one of the toy instruments. In "Breathless" it's not that prominent, but it gives it this sort of spooky, scary, tinkly kind of feeling. And I really love what [Eric Fawcett] did. I didn't ask for it, he just picked up this toy piano and played that little melody.
AVC: So you were going for something more unstructured in the studio, sort of providing opportunities for randomness.
DW: Everyone I worked with on these tracks is really musical, and has a good sense of what belongs where. One of my favorite things about the song "Golden Girl," is that there's no drums. Eric Fawcett was going to play drums, but he had this idea for a melody on the piano. It was so beautiful while we were rehearsing the song that we just recorded the song like that. And that kind of thing happened over and over again, where because people knew that I was probably going to say yes to what they came up with, they just came up with the most brilliant ideas. It was definitely different from the experience of recording with a band, in which often the band members are kind of jockeying for the same area of the midrange. It's almost like a territorial fight that happens during the recording. That can lead to amazing, great things, but I wanted this experience to be really different, so that the sound would be really distinct from Semisonic. For example, "Cry" needed a guitar solo. Well, I'm sure I could have played a guitar solo on it, but it was much more fun for me to ask Gary Louris to play a guitar solo, and what happened was something I never would have thought of myself. I didn't give him any direction or ideas, I just kind of cheered and laughed and kept things rolling until he nailed what he wanted to do. That was a very fun, positive part of it, for me, not to control [the recording], but almost emcee it.
AVC: How important was it to make this record sound different from Semisonic?
DW: I pretty consciously wanted to do something very different from Semisonic, partly because I've had the experience of hearing the "solo" album that sounds like a watered-down or slightly confused version of the person's band. And I've never enjoyed that. I've always liked it more when it seems like the person went off into more of a unique area that they hadn't gotten to do before. That was a conscious decision or ideal on my part, to have it not sound like the band. I think a lot of my tendencies, for this album, were to have everyone, as much as possible, be in the same room together, and [create] a kind of candle-lit, bottle-of-wine vibe about it for the musicians. When you're doing that, and singing in the same room as the instruments, there's going to be a lot less gnarly, squonky guitars. You just can't have a giant SVT bass rig fired up and blasting. If you're going to set up and sing in the same room as all the instruments, then it pushes you toward acoustic instruments, or instruments that just don't have that kind of blaring, distort-y, midrange-y thing that Semisonic is very good at.
AVC: Even going back to Trip Shakespeare, your music has always had a strong sense of melody and harmony.
DW: I think it's interesting, because aside from "Honey Please," which has a few jazzy chords in it, I think there are probably fewer "interesting" chords on this album than on any song of Trip Shakespeare's. It's been about boiling down and boiling down and getting simpler and simpler. But I hope that there's a similar sense of lift-off to the melodies, that there's an ascending feeling.