Dan Wilson on Semisonic, Adele, and the sincerity of Taylor Swift

Dan Wilson on Semisonic, Adele, and the sincerity of Taylor Swift

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process. 

The artist: Though Dan Wilson got his start as a member of late ’80s rock band Trip Shakespeare, he came into his own as the front man of ’90s alt-rock darlings Semisonic. The group’s “Closing Time” became the musical mantra for bartenders and relief pitchers everywhere, and had the group not also landed singles like “Singing In My Sleep” and “F.N.T.,” Semisonic could have ended up riding the one-hit wonder bench with acts like Spin Doctors. 

Not that any of that would matter to Dan Wilson, who’s since gone on to become a major songwriter and player at-large in the music scene. Wilson won a Grammy for Album Of The Year as one of the producers of Adele’s 21 in 2012, and nabbed a 2007 Song Of The Year phonograph for the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice,” which he wrote with the trio. He’s also written with acts like Taylor Swift, Mike Doughty, and Dierks Bentley, though he still saves some of his best songs for his solo material. His latest LP, Love Without Fear, is out now.

“Love Without Fear,” featuring Natalie Maines (from Love Without Fear, 2014)

Dan Wilson: “Love Without Fear” was a song I wrote in a hurry because I was thinking about a friend of mine. He and I were having a mysterious conflict, one of those falling outs that you don’t know why it’s happening. I suddenly had this realization that he was just afraid I was going to do something really stupid, and once I realized it was about that, I could just love him and not worry, and then I could basically put him out of his anxiety. It totally worked. I got out of the conversation with him and wrote the song right away. And then after I recorded it, I had the idea of having Natalie Maines sing on it and I was super nervous about asking her. I didn’t want to impose, but I sent her an MP3 of the song and I very humbly asked her to sing on it and she wrote back, “How about Wednesday?” And I was like, “Yay!”

The A.V. Club: How do you decide what songs are yours to sing and what songs are someone else’s?

DW: If I write it with someone else and they want to sing it, it’s for them. My philosophy for several years has been that if I’m writing a song and can’t imagine myself singing it, it’s probably not any good.

I feel a freedom to cover my own songs, or almost an obligation to try them out onstage as a way of testing to see if, “Oh yeah, this is actually good, this actually works.” Last year I did a gig in L.A. and I decided that I was going to sing “Treacherous,” a song that I had written with Taylor Swift. It was so fun to sing and it communicated so well that I was like, “Oh, this is a really good song; I could sing this to my people.”

Taylor Swift, “Treacherous,” (From Red, 2012)

AVC: What’s the process when you’re writing with someone else?

DW: It depends on how they work. With Taylor, we had been kind of circling around, very much aware of each other’s work for a while. We figured out these two days to work together and she came to my studio super excited and said, “I had an idea in the car.” And she sang me the first three or four lines of it and said, “I want to call it ‘Treacherous’ and maybe the chorus can go like this.” And we were writing the song in 10 minutes and she was just so full of excitement.

It’s interesting because I find that she’s very sincere and very what-you-see-is-what-you-get. When you see her on an award show and she wins the award and she looks astonished, that’s how she looks when you’re writing a song and you come up with a good lyric or a good melodic idea. She looks amazed; she’s like, “Whoa!” She’s just like that. She’s also very consistent and a monster songwriter.

AVC: She’s 24 years old. She’s allowed to be sincere.

DW: And that’s the kind of person you’re dealing with. She’s that way from beginning to end.

Dixie Chicks, “Not Ready to Make Nice” (From Taking The Long Way, 2006)

DW: All three of the Chicks and I had a really great experience writing together. They had written a whole bunch of songs for their album, but I came in at the end and we ended writing a lot of songs that dealt with a lot of central issues in all of our lives. On the second day we wrote “Not Ready To Make Nice.” They had been touching on a political firestorm that they had stumbled into on their other songs, but I think they felt they’d only just been mentioning it throughout their songs without dealing with it. When they were ready to do “Not Ready To Make Nice,” it was an interesting collective sigh because they felt like, “Ah! Thank God! Now we don’t have to mention this in any of the other songs. We can write the songs about something totally different now; it doesn’t have to be this elephant in the room now anymore.” It really was liberating; we could write “Lullaby” which was just about putting a child to sleep; we could write “It’s So Hard When It Doesn’t Come Easy” which is about trying to get pregnant in the modern world; we could write “Easy Silence” which is about being in a relationship where your partner creates a space of peace and safety for you. We were totally free to write about whatever we wanted to because we had dealt with it so directly in “Not Ready To Make Nice.”

Dierks Bentley, “Home” (from Home, 2012)

AVC: Is there a difference between writing a country song and writing a rock or pop song?

DW: There are massive similarities from genre to genre. In country, though, you can write a song about having kids and you can write a song about having parents; those are two things that are not allowed in most pop songs. A real pop star is not allowed to talk about their kids or their parents, much less their grandparents, whereas in country you can talk about your grandparents, you can talk about your parents, you can talk about your job, you can talk about your dad’s job. In country, there’s a lot more subject matter essential to human life. It’s funny because there are more things people shy away from in pop, but in country, you can write about anything.

AVC: How did you figure that out?

DW: I’ve just worked with a lot of country artists, and I’ve listened to a lot of country music.

One thing about country is that you have to know all of the little code words. It’s a lot like rap. You need to know to mention the right soda pop and you need to mention the right car or truck and you need to mention certain kinds of high school experiences. There’s a certain Southern theme that you need to mention, so there are a lot things that people feel obliged to mention in their country songs. That’s not a part of my life, really; I don’t really know what a bottle of Yoo-hoo is, so I don’t put it into my songs. I don’t know any of that stuff in any context, so that’s one area of country music that I’m mystified by. The part about emotional directness and laying it out on the line, I can do. Craig Wiseman, who is a great country songwriter, said this to me once: “Here’s the great thing about country music: When in doubt, just say it.” That’s really true.

Semisonic, “Singing In My Sleep” (from Feeling Strangely Fine, 1998)

AVC: This song succeeds for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that it’s so specific, lyrically. Lines like “pray to Sony my soul to keep” make it ring true to a specific audience. Can you talk about how that song came about?

DW: Someone that I knew had sent me an amazing mixtape, and I was loving every song. A way to seduce someone is to make them a list of music, a playlist that, once they hear, they’re more likely to fall in love with you. She sent me this amazing mix and I was listening to it and, because it was a time where I still had a cassette player, I was watching the little gears go around and the word “Sony” was right in the middle of the cassette so I just included that in the lyrics. There was a song on the tape called “Did You Ever Look So Nice” by The Samples, so I included that. The lyrics were easy because once I gave myself permission to use all those phrases, the whole thing took on this self-contained and complete vibe. Sometimes, in lyrics, people don’t need to know what you’re talking about. They just need to know that you’re actually talking about something.

AVC: Do you think that mixtape culture still exists? Could Taylor Swift send her friend a tape?

DW: I think there is. My kids’ playlists are super eclectic from era and time period. Their playlists will have “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and “Hey Ya!” by Outkast and “Ain’t That Peculiar” by Marvin Gaye or “Blue Monday” by New Order. It makes perfect sense for them to make a playlist with songs from a 50-year spread.

Stylistically, I think people are almost a little more focused on songs right now than artists. They really appreciate the artist for giving them the one song. They don’t need to pledge loyalty to a certain style or person. There are always going to be people who are more into the lifestyle, people who are more into hip-hop because of what the lifestyle represents to them. A much larger mass of people don’t have any pretensions to live the hip-hop lifestyle. They just love the music.

Adele, “Someone Like You” (from 21, 2012)

AVC: “Someone Like You” certainly works with your theory about writing relatable songs.

DW: It’s interesting because we got halfway done with it on the first day and both left with a rough mix. Then we came back the next morning and I said, “What did you think of what we did yesterday?” because it needed a lot of work and she said, “Oh, I played it for my manager and my mum.” I was kind of bummed because I never like to play people a work in progress because no one is ever going to like it, so I was like, “Okay, what did your manager and your mum think?” And she said, “My manager loved it and my mum cried.” And I thought, “Wow, we are totally onto something here.” So we finished the song in a big hurry then basically everyone I talked to or emailed for months was like, “I heard that song you wrote with Adele. It made me cry.”

AVC: That song became almost synonymous with crying.

DW: It’s a funny thing, because when Saturday Night Live did that sketch making fun of its tendency to make people cry, I thought it was such a cool tribute. It’s not just talking about the song as just this famous song; they’re talking about it as this famous song that does this one specific thing as if it has a personality, which is so cool and specific.

Semisonic, “Closing Time” (from Feeling Strangely Fine, 1998)

AVC: Speaking of that, “Closing Time” has been used as a plot device in a ton of pop culture, including an episode of The Office. It’s taken on a life of its own in the culture at large.

DW: Interestingly, that really came around, like, six or seven or eight years ago. It wasn’t as much of a touchstone until then, I don’t think. It’s just been sort of hanging out at the party now for so long that everyone’s good with it now.

AVC: Is that weird for you?

DW: I’m happy about it. I have friends who say, “Oh God, you must get so sick of playing that song,” and I’m like, “Why? It’s really good. Why would I get sick of that?” It’s this wonderful gift in my life and it took me 25 minutes to write, except my A&R guy made me change one line a week later.

It came dropping in from the sky and landed it on me, and it’s a really good song and it’s fun to sing and it has a lot of meanings. I get these emails from people like, “Hey man. I used to tend bar in Boulder, and for four years every single night we’d play your song—you know what song I’m talking about—whenever we’d close out the bar. It reminds me of good times and I just wanted to thank you.” I get that email and I’m like, “How lucky am I?” Some guy feels inspired to express gratitude for this song I wrote.

AVC: Is there a difference between a Dan Wilson song and a Semisonic song?

DW: You know, I don’t know if there is. If I’m writing for Semisonic, I have louder guitar in mind and louder drums and just “loud” in general. But all of those Semisonic songs were written either at the piano or on an acoustic guitar alone or with one other person in the room. It was just the way I write everything now.

I made a mistake when I was working with MCA Records. I told my label that when we were about to do Feeling Strangely Fine that I was just going to write a bunch of songs that sounded like Simon And Garfunkel songs and then we were just going to play them really loud. All they could hear was “Simon And Garfunkel,” and it really bummed them out. They got really worried and were like, “You can’t do anything like that!” They didn’t understand at all what I was talking about, so I just stopped saying that. That’s really what Semisonic is: folk songs played really loud.

AVC: How has being in a band influenced your view on the music industry as a whole?

DW: I think if I’m going to write a song for somebody for their record or their career and they’ve spent the last two or three years in a tour bus or on a van doing gigs, doing the occasional interview, the fact that I’ve lived that—not just touched on it, but lived it for a long time and at a high level—I think that gives someone extra trust in the collaboration. They know I’ve been where they are and that I’ve been where they want to go and so, in a way, it makes it a little bit easier.

It also makes me want to help them a little bit more, because I know how transformative it is to have a hit. A lot of times I write with someone and we can both tell it’s not going to be a single, but sometimes those are the best songs and you’re just as excited and just as motivated to make those songs great as the ones that are obviously singles.

Mike Doughty, “Na Na Nothing,” “Holiday (What Do You Want)” (from Yes And Also Yes, 2011)

AVC: You’ve written a number of songs with Mike Doughty. How does that collaboration work?

DW: We met on tour a long time ago. We met at a festival and then got together six or seven years later to work on some songs. It was easy and fun, and we had a very funny time together. There were a lot of differences in our backgrounds, but we had a lot of similar attitudes about things and he’s really funny. Then it slowly morphed into me producing his record, Haughty Melodic, then that slowly morphed into me producing a second record, Golden Delicious, for him. We’ve been in touch since and I’ve gone to his shows in L.A. and we’ve hung out, but a couple of years ago, we opened it up again with some writing and did a couple of things for his album two albums ago.

I just think he’s a really creative artist. He doesn’t do musical things unless he utterly believes in them. He has no patience for B.S. He can’t B.S. himself and he can’t B.S. other people when it comes to his music. He’s very pure about that.

AVC: Who else have you worked with that’s like that?

DW: I did some writing last year with Britt Daniel, and I feel like he’s very much an artist first. I wrote some songs with Matthew Caws from Nada Surf in the last several months. I respect him a lot as an artist. I think he makes decisions for art reasons as opposed to money or fame or whatever you want to call it. I did some collaborating with Jim James last year and that was amazing. He’s one of those artist’s artists because he does things because he’s in pursuit artistically.

AVC: Do you think you’re an artist’s artist?

DW: I think I am. That’s who I want to be. I’ve had this conversation with my manager Jim Grant where, over the years, I’d write something for myself to sing and he’d go, “The thing is Dan, it’s too hooky.” He thinks of me as an artist first, and so do I. But I’ll write this song that’s so hooky that it’ll distract people from that. Take some of the hooks out and people will see your artistry better. That’s kind of a puzzle, because I like hooks. Some of my favorite songs are the hookiest songs ever so it’s hard for me to dial it down.

AVC: Do you have a favorite song of all time? Or if there are a number of them, what’s your favorite song today?

DW: Oh, God. “In My Life” by the Beatles probably might be one. I love “Hide And Seek” by Imogen Heap a lot. I love “End Of The World” by Skeeter Davis.

You’re in for it now if you’re making me make a list, it’ll go on forever. There isn’t any one best one to me, but there are ones that keep popping up.

“Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush is amazing. I like songs that have operatic emotions. “Crying” by Roy Orbison; I like things that go up and up and up, and by the end, you’re totally destroyed.

AVC: Would you ever like to write a score or music for a play?

DW: That has sort of come up vaguely with people coming up with ideas, but I don’t know. I’m a huge Stephen Sondheim fan. “Maria” from West Side Story is probably one of my top 10 songs ever; I love Stephen Sondheim, but I don’t know if I have the DNA for writing a musical. I haven’t explored it, and I don’t know if I ever will because nothing about it calls to me. But I could be wrong.

AVC: Maybe Taylor Swift will be like, “They want to make a movie or musical about my song.”

DW: She’ll say, “Let’s write a musical together” and I’ll say, “I’ve always wanted to do one.” 

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