Opening time: Dan Wilson on the return of Semisonic and writing hits for Adele and the Chicks
The "Closing Time" singer talks to EW about one-hit wonders, being an in-demand songwriter, and the return of his Minneapolis power-pop trio.
The Write Stuff is EW's occasional series on songwriting
Semisonic never officially broke up, they just ghosted us.
The Minneapolis trio — guitarist Dan Wilson, bassist John Munson, and drummer Jacob Slichter — released three sterling albums filled with perfectly polished power-pop pearls between 1996 and 2001, including their Grammy-winning smash "Closing Time." (Fans of the film Friends with Benefits may remember it as a central plot point.)
"When we stopped playing, we didn't really make an announcement," says Wilson with a laugh. "People just slowly realized that they hadn't seen us touring and we weren't doing anything."
Reopening time arrived similarly without fanfare as the group recently released its first new material in nearly 20 years with the five-song EP You're Not Alone. From the soaring title track to the uplifting "All It Would Take," You're Not Alone could snugly sit beside songs from previous albums without sounding remotely dated, which is a testament to the timelessness of the group's approach.
Since not-exactly-disbanding Semisonic, Wilson has become an in-demand songwriter, writing or co-writing hundreds of songs across a wide variety of genres, from country (Taylor Swift, the Chicks, Dierks Bentley) and pop (Adele, Jason Mraz), to rock (Weezer, Brian Fallon) and soul (John Legend, Leon Bridges).
EW recently caught up with Wilson to discuss reuniting with Semisonic and the stories behind some of his best-known songs, including the timeless weeper "Someone Like You" by Adele and the Chicks' incendiary "Not Ready to Make Nice."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A few years ago, Semisonic played gigs for the anniversary of the Feeling Strangely Fine album. Was that the catalyst for this reunion and EP?
DAN WILSON: At the time of those gigs, we were already starting to cook up these songs. We were starting to feel like they sounded like the band and we were getting excited. It was interesting because I would have been less happy to do a purely backwards-looking gig, although I feel like Feeling Strangely Fine is wonderful and I'm really happy about it. But it was extra warm and nice for me, to be playing those shows, knowing that we had good new songs that I was writing [and] excited to share with people. That was the beginning of this new phase.
When did you decide to make it official?
We ghosted the world. I think we did a similar process of just fading back into view; the same ghost had just reappeared. I think John might've hinted about new music during some interview we did a couple of years ago. Then last year when we played in Minneapolis we played three new songs, and then it started to become obvious; we had to tell people what we were up to.
Not to seem ungrateful but why an EP? Why only five songs?
That's funny. Yes, we have eight or nine more songs, but I have to say that maybe four of those are not quite good enough. But the other ones are. And that feels really great to me. I'm slowly cooking up some new ones. I still feel pretty inspired to do more music. When we were talking about making an EP versus an album, one of the things that came up was, if you release an album, the first thing you'll hear is, "Oh wow, we loved it." Immediately afterwards you hear, "When is the next one?" That to me sounded so crushingly daunting that I thought, well, if we put out an EP and people go, "We love this EP, when's the next one?" it's less daunting.
Right, so you only have to come up with five more, and you're saying you may have those five, so you're already ready and playing the lowered expectations game.
No pressure. [Laughs] Yeah. I'm playing it big time.
As someone who works with a band, records solo albums, and collaborates with others strictly as a songwriter, how do you know where the songs belong? With these new tracks it seems so obvious that they are for Semisonic but is it clear in the writers' room that this one is for Adele or this one is for Chris Stapleton? Or is it just a function of the fact that if you are writing with someone it is for them?
I'm really glad you say it's so obvious that they're Semisonic songs. I think I'm almost over-determined to make that happen. I told the guys when we first started experimenting in the studio that my biggest manifesto was that we were not going to update our sound in any way. Part of the reason for that is selfish because I feel like I get plenty of golden opportunities to work on things that are very updated — I've got a couple of things with Leon Bridges and Ricky Reed. JoJo is a longer career artist, but I have a thing on her record, and I've got an Alec Benjamin song that came out a couple of months ago. I've got no chip on my shoulder about updating Semisonic. I just thought it would be kind of liberating for us to have as a goal to not update our sound and just play what we play. It helps keep that clarity: "Oh yeah, I know this, this is those guys."
In addition to sounding like yourselves there are two songs on the EP that really sound of this moment: the title track and "All It Would Take." But you did not write them recently.
I wrote "All It Would Take" after I saw that movie about Malala [2015's He Named Me Malala]. I found the film and her as a person to be extremely inspiring. I just wrote the song in response to that sense of being made better by someone else. That feeling is not connected to any particular time.
When I was working on "You're Not Alone," it was probably 2018. We were coming up to the midterm elections and we had had the Women's March and protests and basically manifestations of the same thing that we're seeing now. Maybe now feels more dismal or more desperate, but all those manifestations were different manifestations of the same issues. Even though the names have changed, the reason for marching remains the same.
They are also the musical manifestation of the simple concept of think global, act local. And it helps that they are catchy.
It does help that they're good musically, but I really don't like preachy sounding songs. Also you've got to have the right voice to preach and I don't. I've been asked at various times, why don't you write more political songs? Sometimes people have said, "Where's the anger in your songs?" Part of the answer is, "That's not what I'm moved to write in a song." But part of the answer is [also], "Oh, we sound terrible when we play an angry song. It just sounds preachy." When someone can preach in a song, I have huge respect because it's one of the hardest things to do in a way that isn't alienating or annoying. I don't want to tell anyone how to feel. I just want to say how I feel.
Whenever I've seen you play, solo or with the band, you seem to have no resentment about playing "Closing Time" and enjoy walking through the allusions to the birth of your daughter — that "this womb won't be open 'til your brothers or your sisters come" becomes "this room" a la the bar— or being perceived as a one-hit-wonder.
Oh no. None whatsoever. But that was going to be obvious. My guys would tell you that. John and Jake — especially John I think — would be more likely to get annoyed with one of our songs the more people demanded that we play it. And I know that's a reaction a lot of musicians have. They feel like their hit is like a boulder that's hanging around their neck or something. But I never have felt that way.
The stories I've been able to tell about the song, the sense of it coming to me as a gift, and being there at the right time, it's kind of a chameleonic song. My lawyer told me when he first heard it, "Congratulations. You've finally written something dumb enough to be a hit." And I argued with him. I was like, "This isn't dumb." And he goes, "It's dumb. Come on, admit it. It's dumb." And I said, "No, it's not. It's a really good song."
He was essentially calling one of the momentous events of your life dumb.
I know. [Laughs] But I was the only one at the time who knew that, so that was a secret. And I didn't really want to argue that point with anybody. But I thought even if it was just about closing time [at a bar], I thought it was a really good piece of work, and I felt really good about it. So, it was very funny that I would fight back against it. He was trying to praise me, but it was a little bit ass-backwards.
It's interesting because so many wonderful bands — Crowded House, Ben Folds Five, Fountains of Wayne — are perceived as one-hit wonders that have this great body of work and I always feel like saying to those people: "That's one more hit than you're ever going to have. Maybe you should sit down."
You know what? I was talking with my 13-year-old about this. She had just seen a thing about a one-hit wonder on the internet. We end up talking about it, and she eventually was surprised when I said that people had said that Semisonic was a one-hit wonder. And she named a bunch of our songs that she perceives to be hits. But she lives here, you know? [Laughs] And then, I told her that, "It does shine a light on how impressive it is if you think about some of the artists that had many, many hits." If you think about say David Bowie: many, many hits, in different styles, with different backing musicians, and different eras, and different fashions. Knowing as I do how hard it is to make one hit happen — and I've been involved in a bunch now — I think about David Bowie and what he accomplished, I understand why we need the phrase one-hit wonder. Because it shines a light on how insanely impressive it is that he did that again, and again, and again.
Indeed, you've experienced several hits with other folks. You made several contributions to Adele's classic 21, and of course "Someone Like You" was massive, winning the Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance in 2012. That is a very you song but it is clearly her story. Are you sort of the doula in these situations?
Well, maybe. Adele has joked that I had her on her knees weeping. And it wasn't quite like that, but I think she felt very free to be very unguarded in the writing. Her mom, heaven help me, was a big fan, and they listened together to a bunch of Semisonic. And Adele can pick and choose from music history. She's a brilliant filter for ideas. And it all goes into the mill of her own sensibility. But when we were working in some of her suggestions, I definitely heard echoes of Semisonic songs. [Laughs] She's with me suggesting a melodic idea, and I'm like, "Wait a minute. I know where that comes from and everyone's going to think that I thought of it."
What a funny sort of house of mirrors situation, her reflecting you back to you through the prism of her mom.
It goes back to even more. There's another mirror in this house of mirrors. Because much earlier, when I wrote with Carole King, my mom was a big fan of Carole's and had introduced me to Carole's music. And in the song we wrote for Semisonic called "One True Love," the parts of the song that are typical Carole are the parts that I was doing to impress her. Whether it's conscious or unconscious, it kind of normalizes that moment to me because I had done it years before myself.
The song "Home," which you wrote with Dierks and Brett Beavers and was nominated for the Best Country Solo Performance Grammy in 2012, has a real earnest, cinematic feel. It was also real turning point song for him. How did this one piece together?
It was one of those songs and sessions where the nature of the song is apparent, but how to get there was very mysterious for a bunch of the time. It wouldn't have worked had we not had the idea of moving what we saw as the third verse to the beginning of the song. The vibe of the initial guitar riffs that Brett Beavers played was so intense and so defining that we spent a bunch of the time almost chasing that vibe. And that's not usually how things work for me, and I don't know if it's how things work for Dierks. But we knew we had to take a risk of being a little bit maybe preachy or grand, and then later decide whether we liked it. So, we really, really went for it, and got very grand. We put a lot of heart into it. It kept popping up and getting re-recorded. So, everyone knew there was something there.
You also have worked several times with the Chicks, including their three-time Grammy winner "Not Ready to Make Nice" and more recently on "March March." One of the things that's interesting about the former is, after all of the acclaim and after all of the discussion, we're this many years later and that song is still really relevant in a way that's kind of upsetting. I feel like they were the beginning of the modern version of cancel culture, and that song is the anthem for that.
Well, one of the greatest things about it is that, if there was an effort made to cancel them, then for them to respond without a publicist's help, and stand up and say, "We're not f---ing sorry" is great. Because what they did was not wrong. I think the strength and doubling down boldness about that is impressive. But I think that's why the song hasn't floated away into the past.
What is your reaction now when you hear it?
When I hear it, I am completely focused on Natalie's gift. I am completely focused on the immediacy of her voice and her presence as a human being. And the rest of us did a great job serving that up on a silver platter, and making sure that the song was something she could believe in.
While that tune definitely bears your imprint, "March March" is more outside your wheelhouse in terms of melody and instrumentation. What was that process like, working with them again but also producer Jack Antonoff?
That was interesting because that was kind of a long and winding road. We jammed on a bunch of ideas, and I think they had already touched on many of the things I already wanted to say. We weren't getting anywhere, and [lead singer] Natalie [Maines] went off to the other room and made popcorn for everybody. And when she came back, she said "Remember that other song we were working on? Maybe we could put them together." And when they sketched out to me what the other song was, to me it was really obvious that the two songs were going to become one. I think part of my role was just being helpful in the process of hybridizing the two songs. As obliquely as I was involved in the record, I feel extremely happy to be part of it. I just seem to have this tendency to be involved in songs that speak to the moment.