A Song Can Be About Anything: An Interview with Dan Wilson
In 2014, former Semisonic frontman and "Someone Like You" scribe Dan Wilson released a solo album, re-released his pre-Semisonic band Trip Shakespeare's albums, and challenged his fans about the fact that a song, in fact, can be about anything.
On his most recent solo album, Love Without Fear, Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter/producer Dan Wilson offers up some of the best and most reflective music of his 25-year career. Inflecting his Beatles-esque pop sensibilities with a rootsy Americana, Wilson imbues his lovelorn songs of loneliness with an atmosphere of delicacy and youthfulness.
Yet even with that, he still retains his wit. On "A Song Can Be About Anything", Wilson seems to be trying to convince himself of the title, rattling off a list of potential song topics: the second grade, the TV news, peace, war, the discontents of fame, or obscurity. Each time he tries to make this list, he gets sidetracked, caught up in what his mind is really on: unrequited love. Try as he may, it's all he can write about. It seems a song can't be about anything. "That song is a funny one because it really does double back on itself," he tells PopMatters. "It's really just a sad song, it's hard to know just really what the title is about."
Wilson himself feels he's limited in his songwriting as well. Contrasting the third-person, character-based songwriting of his brother Matt Wilson when the two were in the band Trip Shakespeare, Dan Wilson only writes what's personal to him. "I don't think I wrote any songs about the third-person, or 'A Guy Who...'. It was always about stuff that I was experiencing or going through with particular people in my life." Not that he feels that one way of writing a song is more valid than another, though. He claims that, "I'm not very good at fanciful creation of a character, which is a very legitimate way of writing a song. My brother Matt did a bunch of them that were great and so did Bruce Springteen." In the end, he feels that "your song can be about anything, but mine aren't gonna be about any old thing."
Wilson's fascination with music came at an early age. He took classical and jazz piano lessons throughout his youth, but his fondest memories center around the radio. "I very vividly remember hearing the song 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' on the radio. I remember just being completely transfixed by it. One interesting thing about it is that my parents had been listening to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for several years at this point, but I don't know if I even connected the two sounds to one another. I remember being really locked in my place by that song."
Adolescent summers were spent with the family at their cabin in the Northwoods of Minnesota where Wilson remembers listening to the radio station KOZY, "which basically played this sort of canon of countrified pop hits from Hank Williams to Tammy Wynette." Around this time, Wilson and his brother received a guitar from their parents and started writing their first songs. "We said, 'Let's each write a song,' and we both went off to write a song and then we played them for each other. My song was about driving down the road or something like that. I can't remember Matt's exactly, but I vividly remember that it was way better than mine." This pattern, he says, continued as they grew up. After playing bass in bands throughout college at Harvard and then moving to San Francisco to pursue a career in visual art, Dan Wilson joined his younger brother's already successful band Trip Shakespeare in Minneapolis as a second guitar player.
In the band, Wilson found his role organizing and polishing Matt's ideas. "A lot of the time, I would just finish a song that was three-quarters of the way done. I was good at thinking of the one last piece that would follow naturally from the two or three pieces he had already put together." By the early '90s, Wilson had started writing his own songs that he felt confident about. "I think Matt cracked the code of song writing many years before I did. He probably wrote his first really great song when he was 22 or 23, but I was about 30 when I finally figured it out." At this point, Wilson was demoing these songs during a Trip Shakespeare hiatus with his bandmate John Munson on bass and drummer Jacob Slichter. This project would soon become Wilson's full-time band, Semisonic.
"What I wanted was to be more straight-forwardly rock than Trip Shakespeare," Wilson continues. "Matt used to joke that I listened to the radio way too much, and so my songs at the beginning of Semisonic were very influenced by my love of radio hits. I was listening to Screamandelica by Primal Scream; I probably listened to "Come Together" 200 times. I was also listening to Nirvana and Flaming Lips all the time. But then I would also listen to C&C Music Factory, which would drive Matt crazy. 'My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)' by En Vogue, that stuff."
With Semisonic, Wilson got his own taste of mainstream radio success. Their signature hit "Closing Time" not only reached no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and no. 1 on their Modern Rock Songs chart, but was also nominated for Best Rock Song at the 1999 Grammy Awards. For Wilson, however, the song was never designed to be anything special. He recalls "I wrote it literally because my bandmates were complaining about us always doing the same song, 'If I Run', at the end of every show. They wanted a different song to close our sets with so I thought, 'OK, I'll write a song called Closing Time.' None of us said to ourselves, 'Wow! This is our cash cow.'"
After the song's success, Wilson wanted to try co-writing other songwriters. Through a chance phone call between his manager Jim Grant and Wilson's publisher, one of his first collaborations was with songwriting legend Carole King. The two wrote the song "One True Love" for Semisonic's third and final album, All About Chemistry. "She was constantly coming up with full-fledged melodies and chord ideas, it was just kind of amazing. She really put me at ease." Wilson claims that the most "Carole King-y" parts of the songs were written by him and the most Semisonic-y parts were from her. "It was basically like she was thinking 'Oh maybe Dan will like this' and I was thinking 'Oh maybe Carole will like this.'"
Since that writing session, Wilson has gone on to write with a number of other artists, for his own albums and for theirs. Most notably, he co-wrote and produced the Grammy Award-winning, chart-topping single for Adele, "Someone Like You", but he's equally proud of his work with other major artists like the Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift, and Josh Groban, and lesser-known artists like Gabe Dixon or Mike Viola.
In writing with such varied artists, Wilson tries to keep some consistency in his songwriting: "A lot of my stuff has a particular combination of melancholy and joy. A joyful innocence or flying quality in some of the melodies, but at the same time there's a sense of melancholy in it, or having loss something. It's a contradictory sensation. My lyrics are often intimate-sounding. I think they're thoughtful but it doesn't sound like a smart person thinking and making other people feel like they're not smart. Simple tools with sometimes complex emotional results."
Musically, he places an emphasis on melody over complicated chords. On "Get You Back", a song Wilson wrote with Mike Viola for Viola's 2011 album Electro De Perfecto, the two songwriters challenged themselves to write a song with only two chords. In doing so, more attention had to be paid to crafting beautiful contrasting melodies and lyrics. "I have a lot of friends that are real musos, and I am too, but I always have to explain to somebody, 'Well this section of the song you think is interesting because it has this series of alternate chords, but you and I and maybe 10,000 other people are the only ones in the world that would ever notice that or feel the difference. Everyone else will sense no interest and no change. You have to also put the interesting things also into the melody and the lyrics.'"
Early in his career, his musical aspirations were distinctly populist. "I was trying to make things that would give people joy and stimulate their imaginations and make their lives a little bit better, but in a very simple, big-tent way." He's stuck to those ideals to this day, whether writing mainstream hits for other artists or his own personal brand of pop for his solo albums. He shows no signs of slowing down, either. This year, in addition to the release of his second solo album, Love Without Fear, its accompanying self-animated lyric videos, and the reissues of the first two Trip Shakespeare albums, Applehead Man and Are You Shakepearienced, Wilson says that "I've written more songs this year than probably the last five years put together" -- and hopefully we'll all get to hear them all very soon.