Someone Like Dan Wilson: An Interview with the Former Semisonic Leader

As the co-producer of Adele’s Grammy winning, multi-platinum (and still climbing) album 21, Dan Wilson is in high demand these days. He also co-wrote three songs with the singing sensation including the hit single, “Someone Like You”, which spent five weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, becoming the first strictly voice-and-piano ballad ever to reach the top spot. The album track is actually the original demo cut with Wilson on piano, as it was wisely left untouched by producer Rick Rubin. Adele recently commented in Vogue how she can feel the connection to her fans with this raw, emotionally charged song and it owes to the stripped-down production.

Wilson is in such demand out in Los Angeles now that he has posted an open letter to songwriters looking for some introduction to the star on his website. He tells them to look for the next Adele or someone else, because who knows what Adele will want to do next. The thing is that Wilson takes the “co” in co-writing seriously, whether it’s collaborating with Josh Groban, Weezer, KT Turnstall, Engelbert Humperdinck or the Dixie Chicks (another Album of the Year win in the 2006). Other country music acts such as Dierks Bentley and Keith Urban have written songs with Wilson, along with the Band Perry, Mike Doughty and the Ben Folds Five.

Rubin provides the link to this line of work, also serving as the executive producer for Wilson’s solo album, Free Life, in 2007. The ability to select projects close to home suits Wilson’s family life, especially during the time when one of his daughters was being treated for serious health complications. Before that, Wilson was on the road often as frontman for the alt rock band, Semisonic, which scored big in the ’90s with the hits “Closing Time” and “Secret Smile”. Wilson was also part of the early jam band scene in his brother’s outfit Trip Shakespeare — so together, Wilson accumulated 15 years on the road playing approximately a thousand gigs. A Harvard graduate with a visual arts degree, Wilson also pursued a career in painting for a time. Yet in the music world today, there’s a hunger for authenticity and raw emotion that seems to be Wilson’s specialty. His iTunes bio calls him a “cult hero of American smart pop music”. But as his Midwestern upbringing taught him, it only looks effortless.

* * *

“Closing Time”, your hit with Semisonic, was recently featured on The Office. How did that come about?

I think that’s a gesture of love, really. It’s mocking and yet loving at the same time. People talk about exposure — that’s not about exposure because it was only a joke if everybody knows the song. It’s already been exposed, you know? I think it wouldn’t have worked unless they assumed everybody had heard the song and had various thoughts about it. I was screaming with laughter when I saw it — a friend of mine linked it to me before they explained what it was. So there was no hype around it, I just had a really good laugh. TV shows have to ask for permission in some formal way but it often doesn’t explain what’s really going to happen. Or I don’t really pay attention but it definitely was a funny surprise.

Congrats on your recent Grammy wins — how was it working with Adele on her songs for 21? You knew you had a huge voice to work with plus an emotionally powerful artist, how did you approach the collaboration?

I went into it as a fan already. I had “Hometown Glory” and “Chasing Pavements” [off of Adele’s first release 19] on my most played list from the year before. And when Rick Rubin put us together, I asked him “What kind of thing are you looking for? What are you trying to do?” He just said, “We’re just looking for a great song.” So I didn’t really have any preconceptions. When Adele and I got together, we hadn’t met before. We met in a studio called Harmony in West Hollywood and essentially she played me Wanda Jackson clips on YouTube for about 45 minutes. She was just so excited at that time about Wanda Jackson and also about a kind of down and dirty American musical vibe.

We spent about another hour of trading things back and forth online while talking about stuff. Then we went into the room that had a piano and she had a guitar. Adele had two starts of songs — she had the first couple of lines to what turned out to be “Rumor Has It” and several lines of what turned out to be “Someone Like You”. I just gravitated right away to the super sad one. So we launched into working on that one for about two days. It was a pretty continuous effort the whole time. It was intense, because I think we knew we were on to something good. We pushed each other in both the musical and the lyrical type.

“Someone Like You” won for Best Pop Solo Performance in the original demo version with you on piano — how was this decision reached at the time?

You know what happened? It was interesting because by the end of the first day, we were maybe two-thirds of the way done with the song. She came with the guitar, vocal and the beginning of the verse, so I started playing it on piano. And she immediately said, “Well, that’s a lot more inspiring.”

Then we made it through the first verse and we wrote the pre-chorus that goes, “I hate to turn up out of the blue.” By the end of the day we had most of the piano and I tried to make it most like a performance as possible, so it would be inspiring for her to sing to. We left the studio with maybe two-thirds of the song. Adele had to run, so we both left with a rough mix to listen to in our cars. I remember it didn’t have the bridge, it was missing some if not all of the second verse, and the choruses were a little bit different. But when we came back the next morning I said to her very openly, “What do you think of our song?” She said, “I played it for my manager and me Mum.”

I was a little worried, because I really hate playing works in progress for people. It’s kind of unfair — people don’t really get the picture and they end up forming opinions before it’s created almost. I said, “Oh wow, well what did they think of it?” And she said, “Well my manager loved it and me Mum cried.” So I thought how we might be onto something. The second day was almost grueling. Adele had a deadline: she had to drive up to Malibu to play some songs to Rick Rubin and the rest of her label team. We just hauled ass to get the thing done and beautifully recorded. I had to rerecord a couple of the choruses because her voice was even more raw and emotional sounding on the second day. So we went back and redid a bunch of that. Every minute was spent either recording or pounding away to make sure the melody or the lyrics were really great.

She told a friend of mine afterwards that it was the hardest she ever worked in a writing session. Then she laughed and joked to the friend, “Don’t write a song with Dan, he’ll wear you out! He made me work harder than I ever worked before.” But I think we both knew we were onto something and we knew we had to get something done before she went to this song listening session. It was a wonderful deadline — it was perfect. To be perfectly honest, part of my mindset was since Rick was going to produce these songs that Adele and I wrote, I was trying to make the demo as good as possible. We did it totally audiophile, we made sure the piano was recorded great and the vocal was too. My engineer Phil Allen’s hair was standing on end during the whole thing. I was just thinking, I’m making a demo that’s going to blow Rick Rubin’s mind.

What did you think of Adele’s much anticipated performance at the Grammy’s after her throat surgery and all that build up?

I was worried but once I knew that she had decided to do the show, I was pretty confident. Adele just does not put herself into dumb situations. She’s got really impeccable judgment about what is going to be best for her artistically. So I was actually pretty relaxed about it after I heard that. And I think it was one of those things — I mean I don’t know much about what exactly she had done or what her problem was — like when an athlete has an injury and everyone’s worried but the doctor. The doctor is saying, yeah we fix these twice a week or three times a week. Sure, it’s going to be hard to recover from but there’s a 99.9 percent chance of recovery. They’ve seen it before.

It was interesting because she wasn’t tearing the roof off, which she might have done if she was on tour a month before or if it was the last song in a show. But I think there was something kind of powerful about her rendition [of “Rolling in the Deep”] being less about sheer power. You got a glimpse into her vulnerability and realness because it was dialed down just a little bit due to the surgery. You could see a lot of emotion in her eyes during the performance.

When you work with individuals like Adele or Josh Groban versus Dierks Bentley or the Dixie Chicks, how do you respect their genres as a frame of reference?

Well, with the Dixie Chicks, it was interesting because we had a little discussion about that. I told them early on in our session that I was a bit hesitant, because I wasn’t really well versed in that third person story which I had associated with them. The funny, kind of detail-filled, almost works of fiction found in a traditional country song that is all about setting a tone and a place in a time. It’s almost like a short story writer. I said how I’m much more comfortable telling a story from the first person, how a person feels right now or what’s happening to me right now. They just waved their hands and said that’s great — we want to sound more like you! In other words, don’t worry, we want you to bring your thing to this. And then one of them said how once they start playing and singing on the song, it’s going to sound like them anyway.

I’ve been kind of taking that as my watchword in all these things. With Josh Groban, when he and I would try out ideas it would sound so different when I would sing them to him (or when he would sing them to me). But that was OK, we could double check if something was going to be great or not. If a song could sound great with me singing and then also sound great when he was singing, it was something we both could really feel confident about.

Usually when I’m writing with people, it’s me and them plus a guitar and a piano. There aren’t any stylistic elements to really define what kind of song or track it is. Sometimes I have an idea of what it might be, but it’s more about the melody and the minimal accompaniment of what is going on at that moment.

The adjective “timeless” appears often when others describe your songs — did you listen to the standards growing up or lots of different kinds of music to tap into this quality

Well, I took classical piano lessons for eight years, and then I took jazz piano lessons for two years. This was a wonderful counterbalance to the classical piano. Then I learned to play the bass, because all my friends had bands but no one had a bass player. I just thought it’d be a good way to get into a band so I learned to play the bass. Bass gives you a very different view of how Rock ‘n Roll works and even how Tin Pan Alley or Broadway musical songs work. In learning jazz, you really need to know the theoretical structure of the music. Classical is taught the way you might need to teach a wide receiver to catch a pass — you don’t need to know why. In jazz it’s a much more intellectual process because you need to be conversant in the building blocks of the music, as opposed to just learning the notes. So I think I had a musical background that made me appreciative of lots of different types of music.

One of my favorite songs ever is “Bohemian Rhapsody”. To me it’s a über creative, genre-less, rock ‘n’ roll, quasi opera, classical, and Broadway show, all at once. It’s just creativity, wild creativity.

When I first played in bands, I played bass and sang. Some people say that the counterpoint element of it is difficult but I never found that, probably because of my classical background. I only became a guitar-playing singer because my brother Matt asked me to play guitar in Trip Shakespeare. So I learned all his second guitar parts and taught myself guitar.

Your modesty in dealing with all the music industry success has been attributed to your mid-Western upbringing or your East Coast education, do you agree? How did you handle moving and now living in L.A.?

It’s funny, because I actually think I have a really big ego. I don’t know what people are talking about me being modest. I guess I don’t have the kind of ego that needs to put a stamp on things necessarily. I was writing a song with a friend of mine who was traveling the week of the Grammys, even though he could have easily gone to it to high five a lot of people. But he jokingly said, “But I’m I this for the money, not the glory.” For me, that’s not the case. If I were writing a song and felt like if I changed something it would be more commercial so I could make more money, I would never make anything good caving into that impulse. But if I make it more interesting for myself, then it often turns out that lots of other people get sparked by it too.

So, luckily for me, I’m really motivated by being interested in things. I don’t work with people because I think this is an opportunity to earn. I really can only bring myself to do it if I think oh, this will be really interesting. This will make me do something new or this is uncomfortable but potentially really awesome. I’m much more motivated by that and I’m greedy for it. I will sacrifice a bunch of other things in order to have an interesting experience. I’m also a Minnesotan and we have a lot of external modesty, but my motivations make me somewhat atypical. I have an ego but it doesn’t really get in the way of people around me.

You have another solo album in the works — will it be filled with more heartfelt, personal songs like the first one?

I’m about three quarters the way done and I don’t know how long it will be three quarters the way done. Half of it sounds really good but then the other half of it sounds really troubling. For a while I thought, I’ll just make the same sound again but then I got bored with that so I did something really, really different. Then I got a little more intuitive about it. I’m sort of in the process now that a lot of the intentions and ideas laid out at the beginning are probably playing themselves out. But I’m ignoring the initial road map because the music itself is dictating a lot of it. So I’m in a nice place that way, where I just get to vibe out on the music and make sure it’s going to be really beautiful and tickle people’s imaginations.