The memories might be a little fuzzy, but you've likely heard Dan Wilson's voice at the end of some eventful evenings. His song "Closing Time," recorded with his band Semisonic, is the ultimate end-of-the-night anthem.
Semisonic made three albums. Their second, Feeling Strangely Fine, contains "Closing Time" and "Secret Smile," a brilliant tune that caught on in the UK but somehow stayed hidden in the US. Their third, Chemistry, contains "One True Love," which Wilson wrote with Carole King, the first of many high-profile collaborations.
Wilson went on to write with Dixie Chicks ("Not Ready To Make Nice"), John Legend ("You & I") and Taylor Swift ("Treacherous"). He's a music theory guy who knows what it means to make the pre-chorus nine bars long, which he did on Adele's hit "Someone Like You" to create an added touch of tension before the release. Written in two sessions, the demo he and Adele made was used as the actual recording, as even Rick Rubin couldn't improve it.
In 2017, he recorded new versions of 13 of his favorites for his album Re-Covered. The deluxe edition, available August 25, comes with a delightful book filled with the lyrics and tales of Wilson's adventures in songwriting. He also did the whimsical artwork, putting to use his visual arts degree from Harvard.
Wilson, who describes himself as "a machine for turning espresso into songs," treated us to a wide-ranging discussion where he explained demo-itis, told the "Secret Smile" story, and revealed the lesser-known Beatles song he spent the most time deconstructing.
Dan Wilson: Dude, how did you know? Yes, in fact, I have.
Songfacts: That seems to be a very important part of your life.
Wilson: It is. It's maybe too reverently important in my life. Maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Songfacts: Re-Covered, the book, is beautiful. It's very Shel Silverstein. He was also a songwriter.
Songfacts: Is there anything going on there?
Wilson: Well, I'm a fan of Shel Silverstein's poetry and art, and his songs. I think of his books as masterpieces.
Songfacts: You didn't go to school for music, you went to school for art.
Wilson: I did. That's correct.
Songfacts: So how did you get so good at music?
Wilson: [Laughs] By always being in a band and constantly practicing my piano and guitar, I guess.
I have this observation, which is that young artistic people are often omnidirectional in their artistic abilities: They can be in a play and they can sing and they can do a drawing and they can write an essay. And that's kind of what I was like. I was omnidirectional as an artistic kid. And perhaps looking for a path to unfold before me, like a lot of those types of kids, music was the path that kept calling, despite my varied interests.
Songfacts: But you're a music theory guy. You know the structure behind everything. Most people learn that at Berklee or something.
Wilson: Well, the music theory part, I credit my piano teacher, with whom I started in second grade. Her name was Marlys Strand and she was super into the circle of fifths and the underlying logic of harmony, which is extremely unusual. She was a midwestern suburban piano teacher. She didn't let on that she was a major theoretician, but she really saw music from that structural perspective and she passed that onto me in four years in lessons.
Songfacts: Of the other artists you've worked with, which are also music theory people?
Wilson: I don't run into that many people who got an early training in music theory. A lot of the best songwriters are people who got dragged out of their normal life by music and compelled to be a musician by passion and circumstance and the gravitational force of music, and they didn't do it in a studious, linear, foundational way. Less true of drummers - some of the best drummers that we know had to do their paradiddles for years on end to get as awesome as they are. But a lot of songwriters circumstantially fall into it and have to piece together their structural part later. I often write with people who don't really know the names of the chords they're playing or how they relate to one another, and yet they have a vast musical understanding that kind of sidesteps the question.
Songfacts: Artists like Adele and John Legend and Taylor Swift, I'm not sure they know how to read music and all the math behind it, but when you go in a room with them, it seems that combination of the music theory guy and the let-it-fly person makes the magic happen.
Wilson: I have no idea. When I'm in a session writing with people, the verbal part of the exchange is almost 100 percent either the equivalent of, "How about this?" Or "Instead of that, how about this?" Literally, that's the level of verbal interaction. Or the verbal part of the interaction is about telling funny stories that happened last week or it's about lyric ideas.
I would say one percent of it is devoted to the music side of things, because the music side of things is being communicated in a nonverbal, intuitive way that doesn't need the verbal side or the theoretical side or the mathematical side. You're doing math by making sounds and you're not really explaining it to any degree at all.
So in my interactions with songwriters, I tend to go mostly into that extremely intuitive way of being rather than pulling my colleagues into a more theoretical or highly contextualized way of thinking.
Songfacts: Do you need to know what a song is about before you start working on it?
Wilson: No, I don't. I can have a glimmer of what it's about, or if it sounds cool and interesting, I can have faith that it's about something. Then I go about trying to be patient while I discover what it's about. Eventually, it becomes clear what the song is about or it starts to become clear that it's not really about anything in particular, in which case I lose interest and I have to try something else.
Wilson: I heard one of them.
Songfacts: And what did you think?
Wilson: I only heard it one time, and I had a small case of demo-itis about the version that Adele and I had done. But I honestly thought about my version with Adele as a demo and I never entertained the idea that it was going to be on the record. I was just hoping for the best possible more-fleshed-out version.
I heard this one and it was nice, but it didn't seem better than the demo. I didn't give it much thought beyond that because I trusted the people involved. I figured between Rick and Adele, it was going to turn out amazing. I just didn't know that they would achieve that by using my demo.
Songfacts: Your version on Re-Covered sounds different, but it has to be, there's no Adele on it. But I was amazed how well the song holds up in this arrangement.
Wilson: That's so great to hear, because the limb I was going out on this whole album is the idea that a great song is portable: It's resilient enough to be reinterpreted. It's got the bone structure and muscle tone to appear in different forms and still be awesome.
To sing any of those songs after someone has already sung it amazingly is intimidating. To sing "If I Walk Away" after Josh Groban has already killed it, it's intimidating. That's not a lighthearted task to attempt. But I just had to go on the faith that the songs had this kind of underlying awesomeness that would shine through in another interpretation.
Songfacts: They play incredibly well in context. I heard one on The Current (the Minneapolis public radio station) just in their playlist, and it flowed. It was "Not Ready to Make Nice."
Wilson: That one scared the crap out of me. [Laughing] That one really scared me, because the Chicks' version was so definitive, and Natalie is such a giant as a singer. I'm a much more low-key singer, and her epic passion is untouchable for me, so I was intimated to do that version. But I'm really happy with how it turned out and I'm pleased that it sort of flew by you. That's tremendous.
Songfacts: What is demo-itis?
Wilson: Demo-itis is the general fact that you're always going to like the first version of a song you hear best. Demo-itis is a specific case, because most normal people don't get to hear the demo of a song, but often, the demo is recorded when the idea is fresh and alive and new and thrilling to everyone involved, and they don't even really realize that - they're just riding the wave of the idea that they're creating.
The demo is finished and everyone listens to it, and it slowly dawns upon them that this song is tremendous, and they fall in love with the demo because it carries that fresh impulse of the idea, and because it's the first version of the song that they've ever heard. Then they go into the studio or wherever it is that they record, and they try to get that to happen again with a better sound quality. And every time, they have the devastating experience of realizing that the demo is still better than the recorded version. It happens again and again.
It's only a specific thing. For example, my favorite version of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" is the Carole King version, because that's the version that she put on her Tapestry album and my parents played Tapestry around the house when I was little. And then much later I heard the Shirelles' version, and it took me years to realize how great, just how devastating the Shirelles' version is. But I didn't know that, because I had demo-itis. I loved Carole's version, because it was the first one that I had heard.
Even if a song results, it might suffer from what a friend of mine calls "baby bird syndrome": Like a mother bird who will no longer care for chicks that have been touched by human hands, the artist also disowns the song that was touched by another writer.
Pleasing him is so intoxicating, it's like taking drugs.
Common Songwriting Method
We sing nonsense syllables, and listen for real lyrics in the nonsense. This moves the melody writing forward, and real lyrics have an amazing way of appearing within the nonsense lyrics.
Writing With Carole King
I suppose I expected a palace of some kind, with a spiral staircase and a white grand piano in the style of Liberace. Instead, I pulled my rental car into the driveway of a single story rambler, and walked around the back to a renovated garage. Sliding glass door, low ceiling, a couch, a chair, and a Casio keyboard in the middle of the room.
Wilson: It was by design. There was a certain point when I had demo-itis enough times that I realized if I could get a really good microphone in front of the singer or myself when the demo was being sung and sing through a really good preamp and just have the signal chain be righteous, then if I never could beat that vocal, I would just use that vocal on whatever recording it was. And similarly, if the other instruments on the recording were a nice, well-recorded acoustic guitar or piano, then in the last resort, you could always use, literally, just the demo. And if you ever wanted to add something to it, you could.
I learned a bunch about this from Rick Rubin in my work with him. A lot of his Johnny Cash albums are essentially demos with nothing added. They're guitar vocal versions. Then Rick did a lot of experiments with Johnny Cash and added different instruments. Sometimes he would add just the cello to one of those Johnny Cash recordings and it would be Cash singing with his acoustic guitar, and then a cello added later. And it would just seem so satisfying.
So I learned from Rick to make sure that the original demo is not expensively recorded, because Harmony is not a very expensive studio, it's a very tiny place where I recorded with Adele. But they have a really good signal chain that the microphones are really old and good. They have a really nice piano, and I would always bring my favorite acoustic guitar.
So from those Cash records and from Rick Rubin, I learned that principle of making sure the original recording is beautiful from the get-go.
Songfacts: When they used your demo, that made you the producer of that song, did it not?
Wilson: Yeah, it did.
Songfacts: Oh, that's gotta be nice.
Wilson: [Laughing] Well, yeah. Yes.
Songfacts: You've talked about how, in your Semisonic days, you were able to reject any kind of formula and convey a kind of chaos and confusion to the listener in much of the way Big Star did. That's very hard to do as you progress and you start working with other artists. Can you talk about how you've been able to do that?
Wilson: Well, my attitudes or my theories or my approach have always been evolving, so I almost swing like a pendulum. For several years at a time, I'll be trying to figure out a way to put more structure into what I do or to figure out a way to simplify my music by looking at it coldly and figuring out what to remove.
And then I'll swing back for several years and try to figure out how to add more metaphors in the lyrics or push the lyrics towards nonsense, the way R.E.M. might have done. Push towards a nonsense that makes sense, if there's such a thing. So that might be part of the mental chaos thing, trying to create something that dislodges the listener's mind from clichéd ideas and loosens things up enough to make it a new experience.
So I kind of bounce back and forth from extremes, and I've always got some theory going on, so it usually comes along with me having some grand idea that lasts for three or four years.
Wilson: Yeah. That's interesting.
Songfacts: I'd like to get your thoughts on that and what you think of so many people hearing that line as the bar closes, when it could burrow somewhere into their brains to trigger a life-changing event.
Wilson: Well, I should be so lucky. If what you're saying is true, then that's amazing. The phrase does have a kind of timeless, proverbial vibe about it. It does seem to be literally tattooed on people's arms and reprinted in thousands of places. And it's been falsely attributed to ancient Roman philosophers, actually. So I guess there's definitely something about it. If it's been useful to people, I can only be grateful for that.
Songfacts: "Secret Smile" came to you in a dream, but can you talk about the thoughts going on in that song?
Wilson: Well, first of all, yes, that song, "Secret Smile," the first half of it came to me in a dream. I woke up in very early morning hours with this song playing in my head. I got up, ran to a piano, and I wrote down the words that I heard in my mind and I played the chords on the piano and wrote down the names of the chords. Then I went back to sleep.
And then the next day when I woke up, I remembered the song from the dream. I went to the piano and I saw my notes. I played the song and I thought, Well, this is great. It must be some song that I've heard before. Then I asked all my friends about it, and they all said, "No, that sounds like a song of yours."
Later I found out that this exact same story happened to Paul McCartney with the song "Yesterday." I'm not saying that they're the same type of thing, but it was kind of amazing that there was such a parallel, because I really couldn't quite believe that my dreaming mind had thought of it.
Then I had to finish the song, so I did that with a level of craft. We made the recording, but our American record label really didn't hear it as a single, although they did put it out as a radio single. They had us do a remix that was more, I guess, rock, or tougher sounding, but nothing really happened. And then a year later the international arm of MCA discovered "Secret Smile" and put it out as a single and it became an international hit in lots of countries. It's just never happened here.
Songfacts: Which is weird, because they were playing Savage Garden and songs that were clearly inferior on American radio.
Wilson: It would be great if labels actually could make things happen, but it's really up to the public in the end.
So use it and prove it
Remove this whirling sadness
I'm losing, I'm bluesing
But you can save me from madness
Wilson: Ever since I was a preteen, I struggled with melancholy and the blues. I don't think I ever went into full, diagnosable depression, although that was then and this is now. I have no idea, really.
But my family found my melancholy or my sad side to be very troubling and perplexing. Part of it was that I was a smart kid and I excelled at what I did. I was mostly pleasant. So I was lucky in many, many ways. The path was strewn with roses. My family couldn't understand why these dark moods would strike me for long stretches, but I imagine that's a lot of people's experiences growing up.
It lasted through my 20s and probably into my 30s, so when I wrote "Secret Smile," I may have just been experiencing exactly what the song is about. I can't really analyze it, because the lyrics mostly came from a dream and then the rest of it I just tried to channel my intuition rather than thinking intellectually about what the words were going to be.
Songfacts: It sounds like you were working out your melancholy, your issues, in your songs. It just wasn't an obvious thing.
Wilson: Yeah. I agree. And as a generally artistic person, a decision point in my life was when I realized that as a storyteller, as a person with something to say, I was mostly going to be able to say it through songwriting. And once I realized that songwriting was the way for me to be a storyteller, to be a person with something to say, the other talents or interests or obsessions that I had artistically became supporting players, and I allowed them to become supporting players because I realized that the big game was going to be found on my musical, and specifically songwriting, journey.
So once that happened, I set out to deal with all of my issues in songwriting and see what would happen. I didn't find it to be therapeutic, really, but it's been really interesting. And to have that license to dive into my own neuroses and problems and flaws while trying to find good lyrics for a song is really liberating, because there's a lot of good stuff in your least appealing and most tangled sides.
Songfacts: Well, you can't ask LeAnn Rimes or Taylor Swift or Adele to dig into their neuroses if you're not willing to do it yourself.
Wilson: That is totally true.
Songfacts: You've talked about developing your songwriting process by reverse engineering songs you love. What's the song that you spent the most time reverse engineering?
Wilson: Wow. Well, I've spent a lot of time fruitlessly reverse engineering "Fool On The Hill" by Paul McCartney. I think that song is musically just incredible. And mysterious. The way it goes from minor to major to minor just kills me every time.
Why it isn't a funny kind of silly song in my heart is just a mystery to me, also. The lyrics are like a nursery rhyme. It's so simple and there's nothing to it, yet I find it deeply sad and affecting and almost tragic, like it's some kind of tragedy of human nature being explained or channeled in a super-simple song that toggles from minor to major and back again.
Chris Stapleton – "When The Stars Come Out"
Panic! At The Disco – "Emperor's New Clothes"
LeeAnn Rimes – "Borrowed," "I Do Now"
Cold War Kids – "Free To Breathe"
Halsey – "Alone"
Dierks Bentley – "Home," "Why Do I Feel"
Weezer – Ruling Me, "California Kids
(This paired him with Rivers Cuomo, who also attended Harvard.)
Wilson: Oh, yeah. We did a bunch of extra songs. There were some songs that I really, really wanted to be on the record, but for one reason or another, they didn't make the final cut.
Songfacts: Did you try "You Don't Get Me High Anymore"?
Wilson: No. I didn't. I thought real hard about "You Don't Get Me High Anymore," but when I sang that song on my own in just an experimental way to see how it felt, my voice just didn't sound right singing the verses the way Sarah sounds so right on the Phantogram version.
Songfacts: What is your take on music videos?
Wilson: I like them.
Songfacts: Do you take control of them in the way that you take control of your artwork?
Wilson: You see the evidence of that. I've been trying my best to put on my personal stamp. I figured out a long time ago that a lot of people need a visual side to the music they listen to, and it doesn't make full sense to them without that visual side or it's just incomplete without it. And then, there was this whole industry around creating the visual side for one's music, and although it's good to leave things to the experts a lot of times, I think the industry, small and large, around making visual components for music, is often kind of detached from the artists' music. It's a separate set of agendas - it's someone else trying to be famous as a director or whatever. It's budgetary and a lot of things start to muddy the waters.
So I've decided to do my thing without engaging too much in that world, unless it's really in service of the vision I have for a song.
Wilson: Oh, yeah. [Director] Chris Applebaum and I had a bunch of meetings planning that out. It was his idea and I thought it was amazing. He got me to buy into all the details of it. It was really an incredible process, all the way down to the color scheme. He had clippings from magazines that showed what the tonality was going to be. I was so excited.
It was really thorough. I give him all the credit. But I was definitely very enthusiastic, and he and I discussed a lot of the wacky details of how it was going to work.
Songfacts: What do the numbers on your shirt in the "Singing in My Sleep" video mean?
Wilson: Those are the lengths of the songs on Feeling Strangely Fine. The whole idea of the song is about giving someone a compilation cassette. Every song you put on a compilation cassette has a length of minutes and seconds, so those T-shirts were all just references to the obsessive music lover who might even know the lengths of the songs.
Wilson: Yeah, there were a couple. Probably three from different people in my life that I had always been very struck by.
Songfacts: Many artists have tried to make the transition into songwriting for others, and from your era there are very few who have done it - Linda Perry, Kevin Griffin. Why were you able to do this when so many others could not?
Wilson: I have no idea. I really don't know.
Songfacts: What I'm learning is that you're very close to your whole process, which is probably a very healthy thing.
Wilson: It works for me. Because of my art school background, most of the artists that I grew up thinking of as exemplary knew exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it. They might have been wild people with overpowering tendencies in life and also in art, but they knew what they were up to and they worked to make it clearer and better and bigger and more interesting and closer to the bone.
Even Jackson Pollock didn't just happen by accident. He wasn't just some wild person who splashed paint around randomly. He had a lot of very, very specific ideas and goals, and a lot of friends who he argued and talked with constantly about it.
Songfacts: Are there regional differences when it comes to songwriting?
Wilson: I don't know if there are anymore. Everybody has the same record collection now. When I was growing up, Prince was a thing, but he was everybody's thing. I suppose Hüsker Dü was our thing, mostly, but they were also almost everybody's thing. Same with the Replacements. All of our local idols were everybody's. Even bands like Babes in Toyland were probably loved more everywhere else than they were in the Twin Cities.
Songfacts: Did you ever meet Prince?
Wilson: Yeah, a couple of times.
Songfacts: What were your impressions?
Wilson: Each time I met him was very brief, minimal. The first time I met him was in the hallway of Paisley Park when Trip Shakespeare [Dan's pre-Semisonic band] was recording there. I just quickly said hi and introduced myself, and he very politely but deftly warded me off and went on his way.
And the second time I met him was in a stairwell at the Beacon Theatre before a show that he was watching from the wings. It was a Sheryl Crow show, and I was opening with Semisonic for Sheryl. I saw Prince, like an apparition, in the stairwell in the Beacon about two floors up where I was going to warm up my voice for my set. I came upon him on the landing, and no one else was around. I quickly introduced myself and told him how much I admire him. My band had always played a Prince song at every show, Semisonic.
He said, "That's cool." And that was it. It was all he said, "That's cool." I ran away super excited. I told some people that worked for him all about the encounter. I said, "I don't think he knows who my band is or anything, but it was still thrilling." And the person that I was talking to said, "Are you kidding? He's the most competitive person in the world. You're from Minneapolis and you have a #1 song. He knows exactly who you are."
August 23, 2017.
Get Re-Covered, along with news and tour dates at danwilsonmusic.com
Photos: Devin Pedde (1), Noah Lamberth (2)
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