In the words of Barry Manilow, Dan Wilson "writes the songs that make the whole world sing." Literally. From Adele to John Legend, Taylor Swift to the Dixie Chicks, Wilson's ability to craft unexpected, unforgettable pop fare makes him one of the most sought-after songwriters on the planet.
I know a little bit about Wilson's process, as I chased him via email back in 2013 to work on a song of my own entitled "Stay." That song was eventually championed by television's Dr. Oz, but only after it received serious intervention by Wilson. "Try an 'A' here instead of 'G,'" I remember him writing me about a particular passage of the melody. I followed his advice, and it made the song soar.
But Wilson isn't only the star's secret song surgeon, he's also a formidable solo artist in his own right. From his work with the band Semisonic, whose song "Closing Time" still permeates radio airwaves decades after its release, to his intimate "Words and Music by Dan Wilson" solo tours where he tells the history behind some of his biggest hits, Wilson is a live and recorded force to be reckoned with. His latest release Re-Covered finds the nimble songsmith revisiting some of his most acclaimed songs. I spoke to him about the inspiration behind the new album.
Listening to your new album Re-Covered reminded me of a conversation I had recently with Howard Jones, where he said, “I think people can get carried away with the sounds and production… if you can’t sit down and play a song on a piano and make it really work, then maybe it needs a bit more work.” Many of the songs on your new album are presented in a much more stripped-down way than their original versions, but they are every bit as powerful.
I agree. I think before I really knew what I was doing, I already thought of a great song as something you could play at a talent show. Or something that could be sung around a campfire with an acoustic guitar. I already had a kind of ideal of portability about a great song, and I still feel that way. So, I’m glad to hear that about the album, because I hold that up as one of the criteria for greatness for a song – that it can work in different settings.
Having written so many songs in your career, how did you go about distilling this album down to just 13 of them?
It wasn’t easy to come up with the original list. I came-up with around 40 songs that I thought would good candidates for the album. Then I made really simple piano/vocal or guitar/vocal demos of them. It’s like I re-demo’d them, which is funny, considering what you just talked about – songs that can be stripped down. I really did the ultimate stripping-down of all the songs. Then [producer] Mike Viola and I listened and we chose the ones that sounded best when I sang them and were the most convincing. Some of the songs I would have liked to have included just didn’t sound great when I sang them. For instance, I really liked the work I did with Phantogram, but I just didn’t have the tone of voice for them. We chose the material based on what felt right in my mind.
Is the new album is a result of playing more stripped-down gigs on your own where you tell the stories of how many of these songs came to be?
Well, the idea for this album has been around for quite a while. A friend of mine suggested it to me in 2009. She said, “You need to make an album of songs you’ve written with other people for their records, but you have to make sure that the album has a sound. It can’t sound like demos – it has to be a whole, new album.” I really loved that idea, but in 2009 just didn’t feel like I quite had the songs. So, I forgot about it for five years. Then a couple of years ago when I started thinking about making the album, those songs started creeping into my live shows. It was almost like as the idea of Re-Covered as an album started to become a reality, I started playing more of those songs that I did for other people in my live gigs. That actually felt like a natural progression.
I have to say that as a nearly new father myself, hearing “Closing Time” for the first time under those circumstances really affected me. I also remember how it affected me some twenty years ago when it was released – as a semi-inebriated guy in a college bar at the end of the night. You really over-wrote that song to capture the full human experience!
[Laughs.] When I wrote that song, I realized pretty quickly that it could be interpreted as “bar time,” but also as being born. And I liked that a lot about the song. But a bunch of friends of mine in Minneapolis would hear it and tell me, “You know, that song ‘Closing Time’ is almost like a lullaby.’” And I thought that was a really cool take on what was a loud rock song. So, on the new album, I literally did it as a lullaby.
Photo by Noah Lamberth
Everybody knows “Closing Time.” You could play that song from New York to New Delhi, and people will be singing along to it!
When I wrote the song, it went-by in a blur. I knew it was going to be a great way for us to finish our Semisonic gigs. I literally wrote it to be the closer for our gigs, because we needed a new way to end our sets. Of course, I had no idea that people would be singing it decades later. It’s turned into a sort of talent show staple. And that’s a funny thing.
What new artists are affecting you these days that you’d like to work with?
I think [singer /songwriter] Julia Michaels is really amazing.In terms of who I listen to, this past year I probably listened to Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean as much as anything. The sweet situation that I find myself in is that if there’s somebody that I really want to work with, I’ve got a half-decent chance of working with them. So, I’m constantly in that mode of visualizing who would be really great to work with. I almost have to picture what I could bring to the party. It’s not just about my own ego.
As a guy that came-up steeped in classic songwriters and song form, I’m wondering if you’re sensing a sort of sea change in the way songs are put together these days. With artists like Julia Michaels or Halsey, there seems to be a whole new paradigm of what a song can be. A song can be just about anything these days, it seems.
Yeah. That’s probably healthy. It’s funny, because when I’ve written a song that’s become a hit, I can never remember how I wrote it, or what I was doing when I made it happen, or when a collaboration really clicked. I can kind of remember the events or the occasion, but I can’t remember how I did what I did to make a song great. So, in a way it’s impossible to recreate past successes. You have to look towards the future in figuring out a new way to make art all the time. Strangely, in some ways I feel like my sensibility is more useful now than it was ten years ago, for how people like to make songs.
Why is that?
For example, with Halsey - I’m a part of one of the songs on her new record, called “Alone.” In that case, the melody of the verses is my melody. It was almost like a “cut and paste” or collecting ideas from a couple of different people, and making it into a record. In a way, sometimes my knack for a really good fragment of a song is really helpful.
So, you feel as comfortable writing songs in 2017 as you did a decade ago?
Well, I think I’ve always been an outlier. I’ve never been an expert at creating songs and tracks that just fit in with everything else that’s happening. It’s a real expertise to be able to make something that sounds like everything else. For some weird reason, what I’m good at making - every once in a while, is a song that stands apart from everything else and almost occupies its own corner of the landscape. I’ve also never had the experience of my sound suddenly becoming obsolete. If someone rules the charts for two or three years, they’re always going to have that experience of becoming outdated. That’s never happened to me, because my songs are such oddball outliers. They just kind of crop-up out of nowhere. So, I’m not scared of the way songs are made now. I’ve always been scared that I couldn’t ever write a song again. Every time I write a song I feel like it’s going to be my last one ever.
Does that mean we won’t see you performing solo with a loop pedal and a drum machine instead of your Gibson J-45 guitar?
[Laughs.] I hate to tell you – on my upcoming tour, I’ll be playing mostly a J-45!
What’s next for you?
I’ve been visualizing what I want to do next. I think I want to “woodshed” on the piano and do a really piano-centered run next year sometime. Prince’s “Piano and a Microphone Tour” was extremely inspiring. It was the best thing ever. I would love to do something like that, but I’ll have to get-out my Hanon and Czerny [technical excercises] and really get my sh$t together!
Find-out more at danwilsonmusic.com