Even though he has won multiple Grammys and has co-written songs for some of the biggest stars in the world, most people probably still know Dan Wilson as the voice behind Semisonic’s immortal last call anthem “Closing Time,” which was a chart-topping modern rock hit in 1998.
Though his band never hit those same heights again (a decline captured in the fantastic must-read memoir So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, written by Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter), Wilson has carved out a niche for himself as a go-to collaborator for the likes of Taylor Swift, Adele, Pink, Dixie Chicks, John Legend, and Jason Mraz, among dozens of others.
But for now, he’s putting his performance hat back on. His second solo album Love Without Fear dropped today, and he’ll be hitting the road over the course of the next few months to get behind the microphone. Wilson called in to EW last week to talk about working with Taylor Swift and the songs he wished had been bigger.
Entertainment Weekly: At this point in your career, what drives you to put out solo material?
Dan Wilson: It’s an urge that just won’t go away. It’s a thrill to make a new song and sing it for an audience, and it’s a thrill to get a group of brilliant musicians together and arrange it with my voice in mind with the idea of presenting it to my fans. I left a criminal amount of time between the last one and this one. A lot of stuff has been happening. But I never lost interest in the idea of making a solo record.
I’ve talked to a lot of performers who then turn to writing and lose the urge to get up on stage. You still have that performance bug?
I love getting in front of an audience and playing new songs. It’s always been part of my creative process to try things out in front of an audience. I’m always interested to speak to a songwriter or a producer who has never been a performer, because I can’t quite imagine what that would be like. For me, I’ve just had that very visceral, real connection to an audience for a long time. Even if I just picture singing a song in front of the audience, I immediately know if it’s good or bad.
Are you able to bring that test into songwriting collaborations?
Somewhat. When I’m working with somebody on a new piece of music, I’m always asking myself, “Is this song we’re working on a song I’d want to play for my fans?” And if I think I wouldn’t want to play it, then maybe it’s not even good. Maybe we should start working on something else. I think it’s a valid test. A lot of the songs I feel best about, like “Treacherous” which I wrote with Taylor Swift, I can sing that happily in front of my own audience. “Someone Like You,” by Adele—I was surprised, but I can totally sing it with conviction and it feels real when I sing it to my own audience. I’m happy those things can be in the same universe.
How has your songwriting evolved since you started working on songs for other people?
When I was first figuring out how to write songs with people, I’d be with a collaborator and working on a new piece of music, and I’d be thinking to myself, “I don’t like this song at all, but maybe this is the kind of thing their audience loves.” So I’d continue working on it, and of course those songs I didn’t dig turned out to be songs that no one liked, including my collaborator. It turns out they were bad! So after a while I developed a trust of my own sense of “Is this a good idea?” It made things a lot easier once I pictured myself singing in front of my own fans.
The first single from your new album Love Without Fear is a track called “Disappearing.” How did that come up?
I have this creative process trick that I have used for a long time. I have a pile of white note cards at all times in my music space, and each card has a title or a few lines of lyrics or a quick staff with a melody or a riff idea. When I started writing the songs for Love Without Fear, I had a big pile, like 200 cards. I thought that I would do an experiment where I take these ideas and I pretend like I’m the collaborator who comes in to help realize them and finish them. I found the first verse of lyrics for “Disappearing,” which I didn’t remember writing, and I just started getting into the idea, and pretty soon I had finished it as though someone anonymously sent me the idea. So I finished the song and it seemed really special to me. After I recorded it I brought it to Sara Bareilles. We had done some songwriting together, and she put some harmonies on it. She really transformed it. She put a couple of twists on the lyrics at the end that made it even more three-dimensional. It became a test case of my own ability to take an idea and finish it, because I couldn’t remember starting it.
Did that pattern play out on the rest of the songs too?
A lot of the songs came that way. “However Long” was a note card I had forgotten. “When It Pleases You,” “Too Much,” “ We Belong Together,” “Two,” those were all from the cards. “Even the Stars Were Sleeping” was a co-write I did with Rachel Yamagata, and I re-appropriated it for my record when it seemed like she wasn’t going to use it. But almost all the rest of them came out of the note cards. Some had been written only a few weeks before recording, and others I have no idea when I wrote them. It was gratifying, because it turns out keeping those cards was not a total waste of time.
Very close to it. Bands write songs together and it sort of happens by chance, but I had this notion that I was going to launch into co-writing with people and I would write for their records. At that time, the environment for that wasn’t there. So I asked a lot of people around Minneapolis to write songs together, and nobody was interested. It was very strange. I kept putting the idea out there to all my friends in bands, and finally a mutual friend put me in touch with Bic Runga. She and I wrote this song together, and at the time I think she was having writers’ block. So we wrote this song called “Good Morning Baby,” and a series of fortunate events happened and it ended up in the movie American Pie. That was very encouraging for me, because it was the firs time I had tried this and ended up in a movie. So I kept the idea out there and again my sheer luck and happenstance, my publisher called me and said Carole King was interested in writing with me. So that was my second co-write. So I went to a bungalow in L.A. and met Carol, and that was essentially a master class in songwriting for me. We ended up with a song I’m super proud of.
You’ve worked on some huge hits, including Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Once you’ve finished a song, can you tell if it’s going to be a hit or not?
I though the Adele song was great, but I didn’t think it was going to be a big success. If I’m super excited to play it for my friends, it probably means it has the chance to be a big song. But I can never recognize it right away. So even with “Closing Time,” my main thought about it was that bartenders were going to find it really useful. And they did! But I wasn’t thinking this is a hit single that will be played all the time on the radio. When I heard “Chemistry” on the radio, I thought, “Man, that sounds great on the radio.” But what I learned was everything has to be working all at once. “Closing Time” came out at the same time as “Brick” by Ben Folds Five and several other songs that were more gentle in spirit. And a few years later, a lot of the things on the radio were more like Limp Bizkit, just a lot darker and cruel-sounding. “Chemistry” had a beautiful spirit, but it wasn’t in keeping with that moment in radio and what was happening. In some ways, that’s the album that got away. Which is a real shame, because there are some songs on there I’m really proud of. Like, “She’s Got My Number” is one of my favorite things I’ve ever been involved in.