You may not know it, but you’re already familiar with the work of songwriter Dan Wilson. The former Semisonic member has served as behind-the-scenes co-writer on earworm hits like Adele‘s Someone Like You and the Dixie Chicks‘ Not Ready To Make Nice, which both won Grammies.
But though it may come as unexpected for someone as successful as Wilson has been in the music industry, standing just inches out of the spotlight, in conversation Wilson comes off with an egoless air of satisfaction and humility, even seeing the bright side of Lily Allen walking out on a session.
Speaking to Music Feeds, Wilson discusses Minnesota’s rich and variegated music scene, his romantic theory on why so many songs (including his own) are about love, and how he turned that unfortunate Allen walk-out upside-down by turning it into a productive and enjoyable day for himself.
Watch: Adele – Someone Like You
Music Feeds: Hi Dan. How are you?
Dan Wilson: Fabulous, doing really well. I’m in Los Angeles at the moment. [But] I am driving out to Malibu to hang out with a pop producer, a dance producer called Zedd.
DW: Yeah, I think so too. I can’t wait to hear what he plays for me.
MF: You’ve done a lot of behind-the-scenes work on some big, popular songs. From a high level, what’s it like to be responsible for such big hits that have won Grammys, even though you yourself are not the performer?
DW: Great, really nice. I’ve got a pretty healthy ego, I don’t mourn the fact that I didn’t sing Someone Like You or Not Ready To Make Nice because Semisonic have had really big songs and I’ve had that experience of having hits. It feels really good to help someone else create a track that’s going to do the same thing for them, give them that amazing experience.
MF: I found it so interesting that you co-wrote Someone Like You and Not Ready To Make Nice which, to me, are the definition of earworms.
DW: You know what? I really like to perform and sing for people, but I also like to be helpful. I like to be of service. Obviously I am trying to make something awesome for my own satisfaction when I’m doing a co-write, but part of me is also thinking “How can we make something that will serve my collaborator’s needs? What kind of things do they want to say? What do they want to accomplish with this song? What would be great for them as a statement to make to the public?”
It’s a really different mindset of just getting out there and making songs.
MF: One collaboration that didn’t end up coming through, was Lily Allen, who ditched you at the studio. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened there?
DW: [laughs] Oh, my usual, very demure facade has failed me. You know, Lily and I, I thought we had a really good song happening and I think maybe she didn’t think so. Sometimes the first day with me is very slow and a little bit sleepy, and I don’t necessarily feel I need to get a lot accomplished on my first day.
Usually people are happy to slow down to my slow pace but I think Lily sounded a little bit alarmed, like we weren’t getting anything done, you know? She had travelled from the UK and she just really wanted to get back home, and felt like we weren’t getting a lot accomplished so she just bailed.
MF: That’s a bit annoying.
DW: Well, actually, it’s funny because I didn’t really get annoyed. I don’t get annoyed when people cancel. [It’s] probably something came up and they just had to go or whatever, but the other thing is usually I’m booked in a really nice studio with a nice piano, and people there are ready to get me an espresso if I really need one.
And this was in New York City, a great place to work and so when it became apparent that she wasn’t going to come, I already launched into working on another song that I had started a few months before which I was stumped on. I ended up making one of the best songs that I did last year, on that day that it was supposed to be me and Lily.
But I ended up coming to the studio and playing piano all day, and then I went to the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and then got a little bit drunk at an organic wine bar across the street from the Met. I had a great day, so I’m not complaining.
Watch: Missy Higgins – Set Me On Fire
MF: I guess I just wanted to ask as well about an Australian artist that you worked with, Missy Higgins. You worked with her on some songs from her 2012 album The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle. Was there anything about Missy Higgins that you liked about her, that she brought to the studio?
DW: One of the really good things about Missy that I really benefited from was that she just can’t get behind something, just can’t pursue an idea if it feels false or if it feels off to her. She really has to believe in something, and she’s got a really good set of antennae [as] to what’s true, what she believes in, and she really wants to make music that she really believes in.
I admire that. It keeps me at a very high standard when I’m working with someone like that. We worked on a song called Melody, and Set Me On Fire, and we worked on a really good song called Unravelling that never came out, but I love. Then she wrote and I produced a song called We Ride which was in a movie last year about the Burning Man festival.
She had a very transforming experience at the Burning Man festival, so I asked her to make this track for me for this movie. She wrote an amazing song for that, very passionate, very real. She also sings a duet with me on Love Without Fear, the last song, Even The Stars Are Sleeping, and I think she killed it on that too.
MF: Speaking of your latest album, Love Without Fear, it came out earlier this year. I’ve listened to a couple of tracks on it and what I like about it is that I get this sense of hope in a lot of the songs. Do you think there’s a reason why this features in your songs?
DW: I have a feeling that my voice just communicates that vibe regardless of what I’m doing. I think there’s a melancholic streak to them too. In a way, they’re not just relentlessly sad, they’re cloudy with the sun shining through occasionally. Maybe that’s why it feels that way.
MF: One of the projects you did for this album was #ASongCanBeAboutAnything. Why was this important for you to bring to your audiences?
DW: Well, I like the title of the song. I like that it encourages a playful attitude. A couple of different interviewers have laughingly said that even though the lyrics claim that a song can be about anything, in the end that song is about having your heart broken.
And that’s the main thing that songs are about. I’m claiming to be so widely varied but in fact I’m going for the absolute main theme of everybody.
MF: I heard somewhere that 99% of songs are about love.
DW: Oh yeah, I believe it. You know what though? I have a theory about that, do you want to hear my theory about that?
MF: Yeah, go ahead.
DW: I feel like most songs are really about music. A lot of love songs are actually about being in love with music and making music. Like, think about how many hip-hop songs are about a rapper boasting about being a rapper, just talking about doing hip hop all the time.
It’s such a grand tradition of a song [being] about hearing a song and being swept away or something like that, or about taking our van on the road and we did this and that. Or I’m a better rapper than you are.
Watch: Dan Wilson – A Song Can Be About Anything
MF: The video for A Song Can Be About Anything contains some of your prints, which can be viewed online on your Tumblr. What do you enjoy about printmaking, and why is it important to you?
DW: Like music, it’s kinda just something I’ve done. I’ve always made visual art, I’ve also enjoyed showing it to my friends, and I just decided to start integrating this album with a lot of visual art, almost as if to integrate myself a little bit more.
[It’s] so that they can see a broader picture of what I find amusing and interesting and what I think they will dig. It’s not like I really know why I do it, but I don’t know why I’m a musician either.
MF: Again, according to your Tumblr, one of your “favourite places in the world” is the Common Roots Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is where you’re from. What do you like about that place?
DW: When I was travelling America for the first time with my first band, Trip Shakespeare, I discovered that if you could find the really good vegan restaurant in whatever new city you are in, then you could counteract the greasy, starchy, sugary, caffeine-laden diet of the rest of your road life.
So I became a health food dilettante [and] I would occasionally eat health food as much as I could. So in a way, Common Roots Cafe is a locally sourced [cafe]: they grow their own vegetables there, it’s super friendly, their food is very tasty, and it’s a really great place to just hang out and write lyrics.
MF: Just out of curiosity, what is Minnesota like in general and what does it mean to you?
DW: Well, it’s a lot colder a climate than Los Angeles where I’ve been living for three years. People are very focused on their hockey and skiing and winter sports. It’s a very stoic place, where people are accustomed to comfortable extremes.
There’s a very supportive arts environment and at the same time there is a little bit of a “don’t try to be anything fancy” cluster, and “who do you think you are?” [mindset]. It’s an interesting combination of [being] supportive of the arts, but also [having] hatred of pretension.
MF: Well, you touched on something I was going to ask about. The arts and music scene in Minnesota has boasted a lot of bands – the Hold Steady, Hüsker Dü, and Sugar, to name a few. As a solo artist and a member in Semisonic, how do you perceive the Minnesota scene?
DW: Well, there wasn’t really a tradition of major labels, big budgets, and infrastructure there for a long time. I think one of the ideals of Minnesota music over the years has always been “You make a scene, you create your own infrastructure.”
That was true for the punk scene with Hüsker Dü, that was true for Prince in his own scene – he created his own studio, and his own incubator for other artists. It’s also true of Atmosphere and [Minnesota hip-hop label] Rhymesayers right now. It’s not exactly DIY because it’s very communitarian.
It’s not people doing things alone by themselves, but it is sort of DIY in a sense that the community has its own infrastructure.
MF: One last thing about Minnesota: I listen to the Wits podcast. It’s hosted at the Fitzgerald Theatre and I found it interesting that your ex-bandmate John Munson does the music for the podcast. What was it like to be on that?
DW: I’ve been on Wits twice and it was amazing both times. The first time was with [actor] Fred Willard. I did some improvisational comedy with Fred and what I decided to do was try my best not to be funny and just say whatever sprang to mind. It was amazing how Fred was so generous.
Over and over again, he made sure that whatever I said seemed funny in context. It was really cool how I got to see him and other sketch comedy improvisers get great at what they do. It’s partly because they work really hard to make the people around them seem amusing. I really learnt a lot from that.
MF: Thanks for the time, Dan – really appreciate it.
DW: Cool man, thanks.
Listen: Dan Wilson – Love Without Fear
Dan Wilson’s latest album, ‘Love Without Fear’, is available now.