Interview: Songwriter, Producer + Multi-Instrumentalist Dan Wilson

Examining the illustrious career of a truly prolific pop penman

It’s impossible to weave the accomplishments of Dan Wilson into a simple introduction. But his forthcoming album Re-Covered offers a nice snapshot of the sonic landscape. Wilson might not be a household name, but the works he’s delivered as a singer, songwriter, band member and producer have been playing in homes across the globe since 1998. As co-founder, co-songwriter and vocalist of Semisonic, Wilson offered the world “Closing Time,” a critical and commercial success. For it, he received a Grammy nomination. He’d go ahead and win two Grammies later, however. One came for Album of the Year, as one of the producers of Adele’s 21, for which he co-wrote “Someone Like You.” Another came for his work on the Dixie Chick’s track “Not Ready to Make Nice,” which took home Song of the Year. More importantly, it reinforced a strong, resonant statement from a band that was at that time at odds with some of its listeners.

From deeply personal solo tunes like “What a Year for a New Year” to collaborations with the likes of Taylor Swift (“Treacherous”) and John Legend (“You and I”), Wilson’s impact stretches across decades. And with the aforementioned Re-Covered, he is covering songs that he’s written for or with others, including many chart toppers. Re-Covered reminds the world that Wilson not only knows how to write one hell of a song, he also knows how to deliver it. He’s been an essential component to the musical development of so many pop stars, meaning he’s had his hand in the soundtrack of millions of lives. Re-Covered is a beautiful reminder of that.

Why is now the right time for you to release Re-Covered?

The idea came up seven or eight years ago—a friend of mine had the idea probably around 2009. She outlined it in an interesting way. She said, “You need to do an album of songs you’ve written for other people, with them or for them, but don’t do simple acoustic guitar busker versions. You need to make an album that has a sonic idea to it. A sound. It has to have something to say sonically, beyond just presenting the songs.” I loved the idea.

Then I made a list of songs I might use. It seemed short of just two or three. It didn’t seem to have enough to hang my hat on. I needed a couple more big songs. We fast forward three years and “Someone Like You” had become such a big hit. In subsequent years, there was Chris Stapleton and Taylor Swift and even My Morning Jacket. I thought, now I can do this. There’s a big enough repertoire. I made a huge list of 100 or so songs that was way too long. Then brought it down to 40 and recorded about 30 demos before picking the final songs.

How do you react when something you wrote achieves tremendous success when sung by another artist? Do you have a strong reaction regarding song ownership or is more that you’re happy being a very successful songwriter as well?

It’s funny because I am very attached to my music, but I try very hard not to be too attached at the same time. The music side of music is hard enough. And the business side is heartbreaking. The more you are attached to your material and song and effort the more there’s an opportunity to be bummed out by the business. I find that by living somewhat at a removed position from the songs that I wrote from periods of time helps with this. When I write I song I can be so proud and so happy but then I almost put it out of my mind because all these other things on the business side must happen—and good decisions and bad ones can be made. The process is long and torturous at times. After I write a song, an artist has to figure out how to sing it and that artist needs to keep their stability.

When I started Semisonic I made three rules. First, life is more important than music. It must be. Rule number two was that if we are rehearsing and having a bad time then we have to go to the bar and get a drink together. Third, if we are working on song of mine and it doesn’t sound right we have to do a new song. I want to make everything with a light touch. Rather than be super-attached, I did the opposite and noticed that if a song doesn’t sound good it might not be good and we should do a new one.

Having worked with such big names, many recording artists must reach out. How do you determine the projects you take on?

That’s a tough one because there’s always more things to do than time to do them.

First, I write with people. I sometimes try to write at a distance. It almost never works. It’s usually not as cool as getting together with the person and jamming. So, I look for a couple of different things. Does their voice move me? That really helps. If I am trying out an idea and the person sings it back to me and it sounds astonishing, that inspires me. Second, I ask if they have clarity of mission and know what they are trying to accomplish. Do they know what their music is for and why people should listen to them. I look for that. And then, are they surrounded by people who know what they’re doing? Putting it another way, does their team seem to be composed of good people? Beyond that, it’s good if they can write lyrics or come with lyrical ideas.

You have succeeded for decades in one of the most competitive creative industries. I don’t want your secrets but can you offer some hints at how you manage longevity?

I’m stubborn about my decisions. I don’t chase things, sounds or people—or even my songs. I don’t chase anything. I care about things a lot but if you treat your musical life as a mad chase to grab some sort of explosive success, there’s a risk that it will not be sustainable through your life. I’m into being an artistic. I like music. I like to do it every day.

Do you write every day? Do you have a Hemingway-like routine?

I write four days a week. Songs are different than writing a novel. You can work hours on notes or sometimes it all blows out at once. I do have that Hemingway-esque attribute of having a regiment though. I like to get up, take care of my things like business emails or keeping in touch with people or making decisions and then by noon or one I like to be writing songs and do that until six or seven.

And do you seek out inspiration or are you overflowing?

I definitely seek it all the time. I love the visual arts. I love other musicians and new records. I like the way music is happening right now. It’s a great time for music. I mean, it’s a good time for pop music. There will always be a weird commercial, disposable music but there are also really good things happening in sound, singing, and expression.

So what are you listening to?

A lot of Joni Mitchell. I ended up with this box-set of Joni and I’m listening obsessively to that. There’s also “I’m the One” by DJ Khaled and Justin Bieber. Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat.” Aimee Mann’s I’m With Stupid is totally great. I just listened to “Ride With Me”b y Nelly and this music from this Norwegian woman Marit Larsen. I’m really into Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterly and I love Julia Michaels’ new songs.

Back to your new album. Is there anything you recorded that fell into place the easily, exactly the way you wanted it you?

Some of the work in making sure things fell together correctly was already done in advance because [producer] Mike Viola spent time with me just singing songs to him and him telling me what sounded good. I was surprised by a couple. “You and I” by John Legend and me, I had no idea how it would turn out. I didn’t know it would sound so soulful. We didn’t know that “Treacherous” by Taylor Swift and me would almost be like an ’80s, sad synth track. The band in the studio was laughing when we recorded it.

I sang all the songs live with the band and it came together in a spontaneous way. Then we fixed a few spots. Literally 95% of the singing is live, on the floor, with the band. We would listen to playback and it already sounded like a record—finished. Then we obsessed over is this a good record or bad record. We just did it all in a very old-school way.

Re-Covered, out 4 August, is available for pre-order through iTunes and Pledge Music. A pre-order includes instant downloads of three songs.

Lead image by Noah Lamberth, second image by Devin Pedde