2014, Features, Interviews — May 20, 2014 at 7:30 am

Dan Wilson


“…I just kept writing and I probably ended up with forty or fifty songs, and a lot of the things that fit together had that kind of lonesome and mournful vibe, but there were some that were also like sunshine was coming in, and that’s how it all kind of came together, it was like the songs that fit together had that lonesome but with hopeful and sunshine at the same time.”

You may or may not know who Dan Wilson is, but one thing is for sure, you’ve heard a song he’s written… best known for his band Semisonic as song writer and front man, Dan has had a string of hits with the band as well as many more due to his collaborations with other artists, you may have heard a song called ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele? Yeah, he co-wrote it… the list goes on and on and on… but when he’s not working with other artists, he still releases his own material and now with his newest solo release ‘Love without Fear’…

We had the pleasure of speaking with Dan Wilson about his new solo album and its creation, his collaborations and song writing, and also maybe a question thrown in about the future of Semisonic…

You’ve just released your newest solo album, your first of all new original material since 2007, I guess the obvious question is, what took so long?
That’s right, damn… well a couple of different things, one thing is I guess I’m pretty damn picky about things being good, at least by my own likes, also I did a whole version of it that I finished about two years ago and something was wrong with it, it wasn’t clear. I did a whole version of it that was just me solo playing alone and playing all the instruments and that was an interesting experience and very cool and I thought it was a good idea, but then when I listened back to it and I showed it to my trusted friends, nobody was that excited, it was like it wasn’t really quite coming to life and I just had to have a bit of a break from it and think again. One thing I realised is that I had moved to Los Angeles, I was in the land of geniuses and amazing musicians and I somehow was still working on this record all alone and it didn’t make any sense, and once I got my friends to play on it and on the songs and started over, everything came together. So I guess I made it twice which is the reason for the long time.

In the seven years what has inspired you to create the songs that have ended up on the album?
Well the first batch songs I did was in the winter months of 2010, early 2010 and I had this idea to isolate myself, cancel all my co-writing, stop seeing anybody and really be alone with my song writing, because I had done so much collaborative song writing for several years before that, and I just thought it would be an interesting experience to just really, really isolate myself so I did that for a couple of months. The first batch of songs that came out were probably somewhat coincidentally, or by maybe actually makes perfect sense, a lot of them were lonely, isolated, disconnected type songs like ‘Disappearing’, and ‘When It Pleases You’, and ‘How Long?’ These songs that are just waiting to connect with somebody, or feeling like somebody’s drifting away, so that was all lonely, super mournful songs and then the year after that I just kept writing and I probably ended up with forty or fifty songs, and a lot of the things that fit together had that kind of lonesome and mournful vibe, but there were some that were also like sunshine was coming in, and that’s how it all kind of came together, it was like the songs that fit together had that lonesome but with hopeful and sunshine at the same time.

What does the title ‘Love Without Fear’ represent to you?
I think just very plainly, I wrote it in a song after I had a confusing conflict with a friend of mine, one of those conversations that just get worse and worse and you don’t know why? I was kind of confused and bummed out about it and after a while of thinking about it, he said I was gonna do some stupid stuff that was gonna hurt him or cause him a lot of problems and trouble, and once I realised the whole conflict was about him being worried and fearful about what I was gonna do, I was able to just chill out and I was able to maybe decide that the thing to do was just love him a lot and show him I wasn’t going to do something dumb. Then after I thought about that, I just wrote the song in a very short amount of time, and interesting combination of words, love without fear…  a friend of mine said as soon as you say ‘without fear’ it makes it scary, why couldn’t you just say love, do you have to say without fear? Now I’m scared, but I think it makes some kind of sense, if we’re trying for some larger type of love then you have to do it fearlessly.

I was intrigued by the ‘A Song Can Be About Anything’ Project, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Well the song called ‘A Song Can Be About Anything’ is interesting as I tried to make sort of a list song, I was trying to make a list that sounded awesome, and then it turned into this very other thing, it turned into this very heartfelt song, and then I just kind of had this notion that if people could join in the list making and add a crazy new topic to the list that would be really cool. I think someone in my record label office had the basic idea for it in doing a collaborative project with people and I got really excited with it, like what we can do is we could try to spend six months or four months gathering people’s song subjects and kind of a sense of how broad or are there patterns, do people say the same things now and again? Then create a video clip for it, I thought that would be kind of cool.

Now many will know that you are a prolific songwriter and have had a hand in many huge hits for artists, what is it you enjoy about collaborating with artists and seeing them perform your work?
That’s a rush especially as I have been very lucky with the people that I work with, so many of them are just amazing singers and performers, and I get to see ideas of mine performed by the best voices around you know? That’s amazing. There was a point when Semisonic did ‘Feeling Strangely Fine’ I had written sixty songs for that record and at that time I didn’t have any practise writing with other people or helping them with their songs or whatever, I saw the writing on the wall and it was going to be writing sixty songs every three years for an album that comes out. So write all these songs and only use a fifth of them on an album and maybe a few others as B-sides, and have like forty five songs that weren’t getting used for every album and I just felt like geez, I wanna be prolific but I also want some chance of my extra output having a life in a world also, so I happened upon an idea to write with other people for their albums…

Oh and it works…
Yeah, the first one I did was with a New Zealand born artist named Bic Runga, I asked all my friends in Minneapolis if they wanted to write a song with me and they said no thanks… they were all just kind of scared of it I guess, but Bic and I got together and wrote a song and it ended up in this movie called ‘American Pie’ and it almost made things kind of easy to me. Wow I co-wrote this song for the first time and it ended up in a movie, that’s pretty easy.

How do you decide what songs you keep and what songs you give to other artists?
I try to do it this way, if I’m with somebody for a session, if I have a great idea I just show it to them no matter who they are or how precious I feel about the idea I just show it to them right away, I always feel if I could use my best idea today then I’ll think of a good idea tomorrow for something else. So I don’t really pick and choose in that way, if I have a really good song idea in a co-write session I’ll just show it to my co-writer, ‘do you like this?’ and they’ll either say yes or no and I guess sometimes if they say no, I’ll finish it for myself and sometimes they turn out to be really good.

This will be near impossible to do, but do you have an all-time favourite song you’ve written or had a hand in writing?
Oh… well I guess I have a couple that I feel pretty great about. ‘Someone Like You’ is probably my favourite one… There’s a song I wrote with Gabe Dixon, he’s a Tennessee based singer song writer, he and I wrote a song called ‘All Will be Well’ and it’s one of those songs where I feel if I hadn’t written any other good songs then I’d still have done the job with that one song, but very few people have heard that one comparatively… I like ‘Secret Smile’ of Semisonic’s that meant a lot that might be up there; there are a little handful that mean something special.

You’ve worked with our own Aussie in Missy Higgins, how did that relationship come about?
Missy and I had actually, I think we were each on each other’s radar as potential co-writing partners for several years and for one reason or another it just didn’t work out, maybe she was not interested or it was just the timing, but I had the feeling we were supposed to get together and write, and I had heard a lot of her music and I was familiar as a fan with her music. I think it was probably 2010 she was passing through LA after she had been at the Burning Man festival I think, and we just got together and we got introduced by some mutual friends and got together and wrote several songs, and had a great time. We wrote a couple of things that ended up on her recordings, and then it was many months later I was working on ‘Even The Stars Are Sleeping’ and she was passing through town and we were talking about we were going to get together and do a little more work on this song that was ‘Set Me On Fire’ or it’s maybe called ‘Melody’, we were going to do a little more work on that song and I asked her if she would also sing this other track with me. So that’s how ‘Even The Stars Are Sleeping’ came about, it was almost like ‘oh yeah while you’re over here let’s do a performance of this other song too…’ and she was gracious enough to say yes.

I saw you in Sydney play a solo show a number of years back and just watching and listening to the way you command the crowd was amazing, what do you think it is about your music that people relate to?
It’s funny because I was talking with Rick Rubin about his musical taste and he was saying that in one way he’s got really good musical taste, but it’s really the good taste of a suburban kid from Long Island New York… it’s kind of normal guy good taste, and I really related to that, I feel in one way that if I hear a new piece of music and I suddenly go ‘oh this is amazing, this is my own special little discovery and no one’s ever heard of it and it’s never gonna be huge’ for example the last time that happened I heard this song by Lorde before she was on the radio and I just thought ‘this is so special, I’ve got to know more about this person, she’s gonna be my new private discovery’ and then always, what always happens is they become the hugest thing that everybody’s heard a billion times.  It’s like my taste is very much in line with everybody else’s *laughs* or the broad run of people. So in a weird way if I write a song that really makes it to my standard of awesomeness, which doesn’t happen all the time, it happens every twenty songs or something like that, but when I make a song that really pushes my buttons and I say ‘oh fuck that’s a really great song’ I don’t even think everybody’s gonna like it, I never go to that place, but those are the songs that lots of people like, the same ones that I think are really great, it’s just that I’ve got maybe a super power in the area of making music, but my taste is very relatable to everyday people, I just have that kind of taste.

I also enjoyed when you performed songs that you’d written for other people but with your version and I thought that was great…
I have this kind of principal that I figured out maybe six years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out when it first started, I had this thing that happened when I was in a co-writing session, I’d be thinking this is not so good or I don’t like what we’re working on, but maybe they like it, maybe their fans are going to like this bad song, I don’t know? So I would kind of go along and then we’d finish the song and neither of us would ever mention it again, it always turned out that it was bad. I started to think how can I avoid that kind of thinking? What mental tests can I do to make sure I’m really digging what I’m working on? One of the things was if I could picture playing this song for an audience of my fans, and that makes me feel good then I know we’re onto something good, then I know that I dig it and I’m not second guessing anything and I’m really being honest, so if I’m working on a song and we’re nearly done and I kind of mentally imagine putting it into the set of my own shows and how did that feel? Did that feel good? That’s how it turned into me thinking well why don’t I actually just do that? I could do ‘Easy Silence’ or ‘Lullaby’ I’ve been playing ‘Someone Like You’, I do ‘Don’t You Remember?’ that I did with Adele, I did ‘Treacherous’ at a show last year that I did with Taylor Swift. I just really try and do more of that and it’s great as it integrates more of my musical practise.

Can we expect to see you back anytime soon?
Boy I really wanna go there, I’m not sure when it’s gonna happen but everybody that works with me knows it’s something I really wanna do, and the last time was 2008, it was quite a while ago, a long time, so I always have loved travelling in Australia and New Zealand, it’s all been sort of a dream for me, so I wanna get back. I honestly am banging the drum here with my whole team to get back as every time has been dreamy and really inspiring and I always come back to America like with a whole refreshed perspective on lots of things, it’s really interesting, I don’t say that about every country that I’ve visited, it just seems to happen when I go down there.

Australians would probably best know you from Semisonic, I do have to ask, any chance we’ll ever see the band out there rockin’ again?
Well every time I say there’s a chance then the headline of the article is ‘Semisonic  might be back together’ *laughs* so my honest straight up answer is, that I would love that, we’re all still really good friends, Jacob and John and I still see each other at least a couple of times a year, as we live in three different cities, but we visit each other’s homes and talk on the phone quite a bit, so it would actually be a great pleasure for all three of us to do more Semisonic records and tour, I think that would be great. What’s holding it up strangely, is me, writing the songs, I just have to get into the right mood of writing for a loud, loud rock band and I think it would all just come together. For some reason it just hasn’t happened, I guess I’ve been super busy writing for other people and making this solo album and drawing a lot of pictures… but I sure love the thought and I definitely don’t want to rule it out as I think it would be a very fun thing to do.

The year is well underway now, so let’s predict the rest of it, so if you can finish this sentence for me, by the end of 2014 Dan Wilson will…
*pauses* oh… have written twenty five more songs…

Yeah that’s by next Thursday, so what about the rest of the year?
*laughs a lot* I just don’t want to hold myself to too high of a standard because I want to take some vacation this summer.  Plus if there’s ever excess that’s no problem…

Essential information

From:  Minneapolis, MN, USA

Latest Release: Love Without Fear

Website: http://www.danwilsonmusic.com

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