Songwriter Dan Wilson has stood atop the pop charts since his 1998 song with Semisonic, “Closing Time,” rocketed to Number One. Wilson has written songs with varied artists including Pink, Nas, Taylor Swift, Dierks Bentley, and many others. His latest solo album will be released in 2013. What follows is the story, in his own words, of teaming up with Grammy-sweeping megastar Adele to co-write her hit song "Someone Like You." Find out more at danwilsonmusic.com.
Early in 2010, I got a call from [Columbia Records co-president] Rick Rubin telling me he was going to produce the next Adele album. I told Rick that I had been listening to Adele’s songs “Hometown Glory” and “Chasing Pavements” since their release on her album 19, and that I was definitely a fan of hers. Rick replied that Adele was a really spontaneous songwriter and that she liked to work quickly and intensely on songs. He said that she could write great lyrics on the fly during a session. Those qualities in a writing partner were exciting to me, because I like to work on songs and be completely done with them in two or three days. I like to start from scratch, and it really helps if the person I’m writing with is willing to work on lyrics right then and there, because I find it difficult to re-enter the spirit of a song weeks or months after its inception. I’m much better when things are still malleable. I signed on to the project, and this is the story of our writing her hit “Someone Like You.”
Adele and I first met at Harmony Studios in Hollywood, California. It’s a small studio on Santa Monica Boulevard with a terrific Yamaha C7 piano and a great all vibe. Adele told me she’d been working with [producers] Fraser T. Smith and Paul Epworth. She played me a few songs, including “Rolling in the Deep,” which I thought had a weird title but sounded amazing. Adele also said she wanted to play me some clips of the singer Wanda Jackson, so our engineer Phil Allen went on YouTube from the studio computer and we listened to her for the next 40 minutes. I was struck by how Adele was firing me up with music from 50 or so years ago that had nothing modern about it. There were no synthesizers or four-on-the-floor kick drum beats—it was just this amazing, old, rockabilly kind of music that set the tone for the two of us to do something totally simple and heartfelt. It was a strange and inspiring way to spend our first hour together.
Adele and I went out into the main studio space and she showed me two lyric ideas she was working on; one was the first four lines of her song “Rumour Has It,” which she already seemed to have a pretty developed lyric concept for, and the other was the first three or four lines of what would become “Someone Like You.” I told her I really liked those lyrics, which began, “I heard that you settled down, that you found a girl and you’re married now.” At that point, the music Adele had written was a simple guitar riff that was pretty close to the eventual opening piano part. Adele was actually playing guitar that day with just one finger, fretting only the low E string and moving it around to let the other strings ring out accordingly. She sang the first four lines of the song along with the guitar riff, and then she asked me to learn the guitar part as well. For some reason, the guitar riff just wasn’t exciting me, so I translated it onto the piano as a sort of hybrid classical-meets-’70s ballad piano part. Immediately, Adele said to me, “That’s a lot more inspiring.” And so we dug in and started writing.
We got to the end of the first verse pretty quickly. Adele had a really clear idea of what the song was going to be about. She was thinking deeply about the guy she had broken up with, and how to translate those feelings into song. Sometimes I’d play a piano part and suggest some melodic ideas to her, and if she liked what she heard, she’d just launch in and start writing lyrics. I think she also may have had some prepared lyrics in her back pocket.Later, I suggested some chords and possible notes as a starting point to a pre-chorus, showing how we could go back to the root key for the chorus. While we were working on the pre-chorus, Adele wrote those lines that scan so beautifully with the melody, “I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited, but I. . . .” Just the way those lyrics hit the rhythm was music in itself. We finished the pre-chorus and Adele said, “That’s the best pre-chorus I’ve ever written.” It was sweet to hear her say that.
Stretching Limits on the Chorus
After we finished writing the pre-chorus, Adele went into the other room and wrote the first three lines of lyrics for the chorus. I can’t remember exactly how the chorus melody was written—if she came back with it or we fleshed it out together—but halfway through the chorus, we got into a disagreement because I wanted to push the melody up a major third. Adele didn’t love the way she sounded singing those high notes on the lyrics, “Don’t forget me, I beg,” and so on—but I loved them. They sounded poignant and desperate, with her singing in an area of her voice that’s much more “cracky” and difficult. When Adele sings, “Never mind I’ll find someone like you” in her full voice, it sounds like some Mount Olympian goddess is singing through a giant wall of thunderclouds. It’s so powerful, it hits you like a storm blast. But when she goes up that major third, it’s just this incredible pathos. It’s wrenching. I thought her going up like that made the chorus much more emotional and intense, especially if she was slightly uncomfortable singing the high parts. Eventually, Adele relented and agreed to try it my way.
As the day was coming to a close, I decided to record the piano part. I always like to make simple demos, and I also happen to know that Rick Rubin, unlike most A&R people today, really loves listening to music in that kind of stripped-down, unproduced format, so I was really excited to make a killer piano/vocal demo for him. It took a while to make the piano part work. I used a click track, and at the end of certain sections, I would say to the engineer, “Okay, make the click speed up by one bpm over the next two bars. And then at the end of the pre-chorus, slow it down two bpm over that bar,” and so on. I did it all by feel so that each section flowed naturally into the next one. I was also trying hard to not just play triads in my right hand. I wanted the arpeggios to have a little bit of a dissonantflavor to them, so sometimes I’d play the second instead of the third of a chord. Composers like Bach and Mozart, who I play quite often on the piano, don’t feel obliged to have every block of eighth- or sixteenth-notes in an arpeggio define a chord. Sometimes they’re just creating dissonance and movement throughout a bar of music. I was trying to keep the piano part flowing by having those non-triadic moments happen throughout different sections of the song. Adele then sang the first verse and the choruses, but there were still some gaps in the song structure which we would finish the following day. Before we left for the night, Phil Allen made each of us a CD rough of the song. I listened to it in my car once or twice and thought it sounded pretty good. And I never listened to it again.
Race to the Finish Line
The next day, Adele and I got together around noon. She said to me, “I have to be done by six tonight because I’m driving out with my manager to play a bunch of new songs to Rick Rubin.” Then she said, “I played the song for my manager and me Mum.” I was kind of crestfallen, because I don’t like people to hear works in progress. I feel it’s unfair to the song and to the person listening, who is usually disappointed. Feeling slightly bummed, I said to her, “What did they say?” Adele said, “My manager loved it, and me Mum cried.” I thought that was a good sign.
We launched back into working on the song. The music was finished the day before, but we still had a lot of work to do on the lyrics. We finished the second verse and sorted out where things would go in terms of the overall song structure. Adele had a one-word change she wanted to make in the choruses, so we had her re-record those parts. Adele’s voice sounded rougher—more raw and emotional—on that second day. And so even though we had the choruses and the first verse done from the day before, I asked her to completely re-sing the choruses. She was a little skeptical, as we were pressed for time. Then the issue of those high notes came up again, as now her voice was rougher than the day before and it wasn’t easy for her to sing them. I told her, “Look, it’s only a demo. You can always do a final version without the high notes, but I really feel strongly that they’re helping the song.” And so she took a leap of faith and sang them.
It was a mad rush to finish the song by six o’clock. We wrote the lyrics to the bridge and added the harmonies as well. There were moments where Adele would say, “You know the kind of line we need here is. . . .” Then we’d brainstorm on it and find a line that worked. At times, she had an almost historical perspective on songwriting, saying things like, “A great song at this point would have a line that is more general and about life, as opposed to one about the story itself.” She seemed to understand how great songs were put together. I finished the song by playing a bunch of arpeggios that changed slightly—not walking through a series of chords, but rather a series of slightly shifting dissonances that finally resolved. We had Phil do a quick mix of the song, and then sent Adele and her manager on their way with a CD copy of it.
The next day, I started getting “reports” that her record label and a bunch of other industry people were incredibly excited about the song. Then I forgot about it. Most of the year passed by, with me at one point hearing, through a friend, a soul version of the song Adele had done with Rick Rubin. The piano arpeggio had been simplified down to quarter-notes and the high chorus notes were no longer there. There was even a full orchestra on the track. It sounded amazing. And then I heard nothing.
One day, completely out of the blue, Adele’s manager emailed my manager and said, “We need the multitrack parts for the original demo of ‘Someone Like You,’” which was ironic because it was really just four tracks: stereo piano, Adele’s vocal, and one harmony track on the bridge. I had Phil send them over, wondering what they were going to be used for. Later, I would hear that they were using our demo of “Someone Like You” as the final version on Adele’s album 21, which would eventually go on to sell over 25 million copies worldwide.To me, that demo really captured a moment, just like Adele does over and over again wherever she goes and whenever she sings. Those were a couple of days where everything was working in our favor. Every decision was right. It was hard, easy work.