Dan Wilson

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Dan Wilson, nineties guitar-pop legend, speaks to our editor about writing songs for other people, why he writes songs at all, and working with Carole King.

Dan Wilson

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Dan Wilson

Dan Wilson, nineties guitar-pop legend, speaks to our editor about writing songs for other people, why he writes songs at all, and working with Carole King.

Dan Wilson is a pretty legendary figure in certain circles. If you’re too young to remember his band Semisonic completely dominating the nineties, then you’ll certainly have heard his writing since. Adele, Pink, Weezer, John Legend, Taylor Swift, Nas, Spoon, Alex Clare, Birdy, The Dixie Chicks, the list goes on. On Dan’s latest single (from his first full solo album in seven years), ‘Love Without Fear’, it’s the soothing southern tones of Dixie Chick, Natalie Maines that you hear on supporting vocal. [“She’s killer.” – Dan on Natalie.]

The success of his work, whether it’s him performing it or not, is thanks to the intelligence and insight of his song writing. His solo work is notable for its sparkly pop guitars, Minneapolis tinged folk rock vocals, and the added intimacy that comes through when he’s writing for his own release.

Raw Meat: Hi Dan, thanks so much for talking to me today. So I want to start by talking about the single, ‘Love Without Fear’, it’s a great song, but why now? You’ve been working with other artists, writing and co-writing non-stop since the beginning of your career. Why go back to producing music under your own name now?
Dan Wilson: It’s funny. I like that question. The missing piece for anything but the U.S. is, I did an album in late 2007 called Free Life, I did that with Rick Rubin on his label [American Recordings], and I think it only got released in the U.S.A. And even then it had been, like, seven years since my last Semisonic album, and it was definitely even then a feeling of, “Why now?”, you know? To me, it’s funny, because all these things kind of work on an artistic timetable that’s based more on interest and passion than anything else. I’m very happy to write with other people and work on other people’s records and be known as a song writer, but it seems that every once in a while a batch of songs comes up and I can’t really think of anything better to do than to sing them myself. It’s almost like, this is when it happened. I sure wish it was something I did more often, but this just seems to be my own path.

 

When was the decision made? How long ago did this album start its process of creation?
In the winter of 2010 I did this thing that I do every three years or so, which is I shut myself up somewhere and I write a song every day for a month. And the rules are simple. Rule number 1: start and finish on the same day. Rule number 2: no sketches, it’s gotta be done. And rule number 3: it doesn’t matter if it’s good or not.

I was going to say! I mean one a day? Surely that means there’s going to be fifteen terrible songs in there. [laughs] I mean, if it was me writing! Maybe that’s unfair to say that to a world renowned song writer... If it was me there would be about 29 terrible songs in there.
No, no, no. It’s a good reminder. I’ll be at the end of the day, it’ll be 11:30pm and I’ll be loving this process of writing a song every day and I’ll go, “Oh damn, I only have 30 minutes.” And I’ll do a really fast song and I’ll be almost intentionally writing something bad, or just really… not good. Just trying to finish it, not caring really whether it’s any good. And there’s just no correlation. Sometimes, you know, they’re really good. A month later you’ll go, “Wow, that one I wrote at the last minute is really great.”

There’s something about this process that’s going to get you out of the assessment, judgement, self-hate mode, and into a kind of flow. But anyway, I’m digressing from what I was saying. So I did this in winter 2010 and ended up doing it for six weeks and came out with 35 songs (so I slowed down towards the end), and thought, “Some of these sound like an album to me.” Or at least six or seven of them sounded like the beginnings of an album. And so I got all excited and started working on them and then my family ended up moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. I had the first version of this album, Love Without Fear, and I was all alone, kind of like Stevie Wonder or Elliot Smith, playing every instrument… and then when I got to L.A. I finished it up in that form (this was probably some time late 2011) and I played it to everybody, and everybody just thought it sounded weird. And it sounded weird to me too. I think it’s because I was lonely in Minneapolis, I had a small community that was shrinking for various reasons, and then I came to L.A. and my neighbourhood (if you’ll call it that) suddenly got really big. I had all these genius musicians who were willing to play with me on all these things, and really wanted to. I ended up starting the record over, and it took me another two years to figure out how to do that. So that’s the extra couple of years in the process.

Are the people you mentioned giving backup on ‘Love Without Fear’ contributing as favours to a friend, or is this the beginning of a band for the tour? [Other than Natalie Maines, Dan also mentioned Lissie]
I wasn’t really thinking about how to do a tour, or how to present things. I just was nervously asking my various super talented friends whether they’d be willing to sing on something, and they were all very nice about it.

 

How was the ‘Worlds and Music by Dan Wilson’ tour of the U.K.?
It was really nice, I was so happy. They way I did it was kind of an excuse for me to tell more stories. So I did it with my multi-instrumentalist accompanist, Brad Gordon, and I just told a lot of stories about where the songs come from, and how I feel about collaboration, and what it’s like for me to be an artist, and what I think it’s like for other artists.

It was quite unusual in that the emphasis was as much on the process of writing and thoughts behind the music as it was on the performance itself. [Each gig on the tour featured not only his songs, but his stories as well. Between stripped down renditions of his own modern-day classics and those written with collaborators, Dan shared his insights into writing and the moments of discovery that led to them. Every audience member also received a set list featuring Dan’s hand drawn illustrations mapping the connections between the songs and stories from the show.] How did you get to that point? Whereabouts did that decision come from? It’s funny because it was a… What would you call it? It was a slow evolution. A couple of years ago I had been exploring the idea of talking to other artists about collaboration and writing… I get asked so, so often about how to do it, how to improve. “Dear Dan Wilson, here’s a song of mine, how do I improve my work? What can you tell me? Why do I feel stuck?” I get a constant flow of them, and in one way it’s beautiful, but in another way it’s kind of overwhelming because I don’t have the time to give everybody who asks attention.
So exploring the idea was of doing a performance of some kind based on the questions I get. I worked on it a bit with Jacob Slichter, who’s the drummer from Semisonic (and an author as well), we did a lot of brainstorming about what this would mean. In the end it snuck its way into a bunch of shows I was doing in L.A. where I would carve extra time in the middle of the show to tell a story about one of the songs. And then I found out I had something to say about a lot of the songs… and it’s of some interest, you know? Not just to boffins, but to normal people too. It kind of grew. And then when my manager and I put together the idea of doing the tour in the UK this year for the album, I think that there was some momentum behind this concept, so I decided to do all my shows that way.

Does the writing process differ if you know it’s going to be someone else’s song?
You know… yes and no. Emphatically yes, and emphatically no. The yes part is… I read years ago a British poem by Anne Richardson, I had been reading some work of hers I liked and I read an interview of hers and she said that for her to write a poem she needed to get into a state of melancholy, but it wasn’t a bad feeling, it was almost like a pleasant state of melancholy. And I so related to that.
There’s some kind of lonely insanity that you need to get into to be a writer, and it’s challenging to find time in life to get into that state of melancholy, and I have joked that co-writing is almost like song writing without that state of being lost… in a fog... out on the moors, you know? It’s like you get to have the lost feeling, but you’re with someone else being lost and you’re laughing. You might be suffering the pain of the subject matter of the song, but you’re almost able to… It's like, the better a line is, the more likely both people are to laugh about it, even if it’s really sad. You’re like, “Oh my god that’s perfect.” And you’re laughing, but it's possibly about something that’s very painful. It doesn’t have that lonely, lost in a fog feeling. It’s interesting, I like both.
And then the reason that it’s the same is that I will it to be so, for myself. There was a time when I thought that writing for someone else was different, and so if I was writing with someone else for them and the song we were working on seemed kind of bad to me I would think, “Well maybe this kind of bad is perfect for this person’s sound.” But then it would always turn out that nobody liked those songs. I didn’t like them, my co-writer didn’t like them, and they never reached any kind of audience because they sucked. It turned out that it’s the same set of means and values and thrills that I would use to check whether I love a song that I’m going to sing. It’s the same excitement and amazement. I use that set of feelers for someone else’s song too. I don’t have to be one person for me and then a different person for you. And that realisation was a huge, huge improvement in my life. That’s been really great for me.

Have you ever written a song that you didn’t know if it was going to be yours or someone else’s?
Yeah, I have. Sometimes I’ve written them thinking that it was going to be for me, and it’s ended up being for someone else. And sometimes I’ve written songs that, for one reason or another, weren't really suitable for the person I was writing with, but I loved it and it ended up being something that I wanted for myself. But I’m really trying to blur those lines. I know that in the world of writing, a lot of my peers, really don’t think of themselves as performers (I mean, it’s not egoless), but it’s all in service of a hit and the artist…probably in that order. And I get that and I really respect it, but it just turns out that I am less able to sense greatness when I am in that mode. I really do love the idea of helping somebody have a hit. I love the idea of helping somebody create something that’s going to be really true to them, and really personal, and really correct, in an emotional way, and that other people will feel the same way about. That’s exciting to me, to make something that’s really deep and right. And then feel like, “Wow, I think that other people are going to like this too.”

Do you ever feel like the pressure is different? Like, “This has to be good because I have to stand behind it.” Or, “This has to be good because I have to give it to a client.” (I don’t know if that’s the correct word there…)
Well… with my own work, the path is so winding and I work in such a… I take two steps forward and two steps back and I throw things away and I start again and I forget all about it. Maybe that’s why it takes me such a long time to make records, because it’s not super linear. In a way I feel a lot of pressure in both cases, but in my own work the pressure is less about delivering and it’s more about trying to surrender to... to give in to my dream of music and really get as close as I can to that. When I’m working for somebody else there’s often a time crunch and I am sometimes the last thing to happen. [laughing] Quite often I am the last thing to happen on somebody’s record. So they’re a little bit stressed that I’m not done, so I feel more of a… logistical urgency.
It’s funny because I think my album, Love Without Fear, doesn’t sound like eleven radio hits all lined up in a row. It’s a very different experience to listen to, and yet I really, really wanted it to be exactly what it is. Very intensely I wanted it to be a strong flavour of something that people could really live with and grow with, enjoy deeply. And so maybe that's the pressure I felt with that.
I’d have a version of one song and I’d listen to it and listen to it in the car and at home and I’d go, “You know, this sounds really good, but I don’t love it passionately.” And I’d know I’d have to try a different path and I’d start again. That’s how the pressure manifests… for me.

 

When I was growing up and working lots of really boring jobs I had a bunch of Semisonic stuff on minidisc (and other out-dated mediums) and your writing has always (for me) had quite a timeless quality, and even the stuff you hear being released through other artists, your writing definitely has this timeless thing, so it’s interesting you saying you want it to be something that people can keep going back to and going back to. That feeds into that idea.
This is definitely one of the things I really bonded with Rick Rubin over… we did a lot of work together over the past, almost, ten years, he’s very aware of what things sound like now. He’s almost more aware of how new wave artists are doing stuff now as opposed to what the sound might be, or the newest kick drum or whatever. He’s more interested in the changing methods of writing a song. One of the things we bonded on was almost trying to sneak in a sense of timelessness into a piece of music, while not just allowing it to be retro… vintage sounding. It’s two different things, trying to be timeless – you’re working against yourself if you just make it sound like long ago.
Because that’s dating it, rather than it being timeless?
Yeah. It’s not current, but you’re not fulfilling that dream. So one thing I learnt form Rick is that concept that there are certain things that maybe will date something more… more badly? And certain lazy decisions things that will make something sound really dated later. If you really push yourself not to make those lazy decisions and still try to be part of the current world, you know? You can kind of have it work both ways.

How are you feeling about the album? Do you think this is a precursor to more output in shorter intervals?
Yeah, I do, I really do. It’s interesting that you should say that because I really feel that way. I’ve recently finished an illustrated lyric video for the song ‘Love Without Fear’ and it’s almost like a book that I made for online, which kind of looks like a graphic novel, but one panel per page. An art comic book, something like that. While making this illustrated video I could almost hear what I want to do next, which was a nice experience. I could hear what I could leave behind conceptually, and what I could bring with me into the next project. I’m already in the mind-set of, “What’s the next thing to try?”

Do you envisage there being another single from it?
I like ‘We Belong Together' a lot, and I always felt that song ‘Two’ sounded like a single to me. Like, it’s a single in the universe of Dan Wilson, but it may not stand side by side with Nicki Minaj, you know?

 

So what have you got coming up in the new year?
The next couple of months are going to be really interesting. I’ve got a bunch of musicians that I know to play version of a lot of the songs that I’ve written that are on other people’s albums. I’m exploring what the vibe is that could sit in a batch of songs, or a series of singles like that. It’s interesting… so there’s a song that I wrote on the last Pink album called ‘The Great Escape’ and I really love the song, but when I sing it I’m very much aware of how much Pink’s delivery really made the song great. It’s a balancing act between the writing and Alicia’s singing. It’s interesting for me to try to sing the song and then realise, “Oh wow, maybe this song actually needs Alicia to sing it rather than me.” But there are others where I’ve adopted them for my shows or just for this exploration that I’ve been doing that sound really at home when I sing them myself.

So I’ll be doing that. I’ll be doing a bunch more shows. I want to do one more illustrated clip for one of the songs, but I want it to take a different form to the ones that I’ve done so far. I’m not sure exactly, but I want to do some sort of… like ‘Disappearing’ was really black and red and sad and slow, and then ‘A Song Can Be About Anything’ had images of me singing in it and the energy was higher in the calligraphy and the drawing… and this third one I’ve just finished for ‘Love Without Fear’ was super otherworldly and adventurous. So the next one I do I want it to be a different challenge, visually. Oh and I have a lot of co-writing!

 

I love the idea of you finding your own voice in songs that you’ve had to remove that from in the past. I think that’s a really interesting idea for a project.
Yeah and it’s fun and sweet for me because it allows me to revisit something that might have happened five years ago, but it also is a learning experience. The problem / glory is that there are so many. There’s just not enough time for me to even do a demo of every song I’ve written for other people. It would take forever. But it’s been… uh… more interesting than I even thought it would be. It’s definitely surprising which ones work and which ones don’t.

Thank you so much for your time Dan, I really appreciate you speaking to me today.
I’m glad for your questions! I might even think a little bit more about some of them actually.
Well if you think of anything, email me, I’m always up for more information. I’m a bit of a song writing/ cover versions nerd actually. I’m incredibly jealous you’ve worked with Carole King. [Carole King co-wrote 'One True Love' with Dan for Semisonic's All About Chemistry album]. I think that’s incredible. Unbelievable.
Yeah exactly. If anyone ever asks me who my favourite songwriter is, Carole King would always be my answer. I mean, if you want timelessness she’s the ultimate example I think.
I’ll tell you two things about Carole. The first thing … when she and I got together I was very nervous. And one of the things I took away from it was very unexpected. It was very early in my effort to try and write with other people, and she is an icon to me, like you’re saying, and one of the things I took away was almost like in an out of body element, I watched her calm me down. I watched her gently make me feel like a peer, that I was equal, that my ideas and her ideas… that we were just playing together. Even though I had the experience of being really nervous I was also having the interesting and wonderful experience of watching her… she’s like an inter-personal genius. She has that earth mother reputation, and I think that’s because people always feel better after they hang out with her.
I mean you were in the room with her, you’ve got to realise at some point that you’re good enough, you were there for a reason.
She made that feel very natural.
And then another thing is, I went to a concert which was a tribute to her music, and a lot of different artists sang her songs, and it was really interesting which songs were more coverable and which ones were less. And some of her songs that I find to be really personal expressions, like the song ‘Tapestry’ (I love listening to her sing it), I can’t remember who sang it but it was like, “Wow this is not an easy song to cover.” And some of the ones that were more poppy, like ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’…
Or ‘One Fine Day’.
Yeah, those were more coverable and easier for the other artists to latch on to.
I guess the more personal it gets the harder it would be for someone else to take that on.
And translate it. Yeah. But I mean she’s… she’s the top.
Even just in terms of back catalogue. But you’re getting closer; the number of collaborations is only going up.
It’s getting longer…. I’m running… I’m watching Carole King in the distance and I’m running as fast as I can. I’m not getting any closer, but it’s fun to try.

Thanks so much Dan, it’s been a real pleasure.

Speaking to Dan Wilson was not only fascinating, but also made me realise that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been making music, there will still always be that sense of mystery in its creation; something that few have thought about as deeply as Dan. That and I really, really want to meet Carole King.

Single, ‘Love Without Fear’ is out now on Ballroom Music via Kobalt Label Services.

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