Discovering the Relevance of Words
As lead singer of Semisonic, Dan Wilson’s “Closing Time” was the theme song for the ending of every last call at the bar, final moment at prom, graduation, karaoke, and whatever else you can possibly imagine. When the 90’s ended, and Semisonic called it quits, Wilson was far from done. He may have moved out of the spotlight, but behind the scenes he’s written hit songs for Adele, Dixie Chicks, Weezer, and has been involved with countless other radio songs that you know and love. The Poetry Question had the opportunity to ask Dan about his life. Below you’ll find the unedited interview.
TPQ: You first received major notice for Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” and somehow fell into the “one hit wonder” black hole of the 90’s. Semisonic’s catalog was full of incredibly well written lyrics, sonically stunning music, and catchy hooks. What happened in the 90’s that allowed so many great bands to fall away so quickly?
DW: Semisonic had 5 or 6 songs that got respectable, but not huge, radio airplay. Then along came “Closing Time.” “Closing Time” was a huge hit, far bigger than any of the other songs, bigger than Semisonic even. When that happens, a band can get labeled as a “one hit wonder.” We were always consoled by the fact that “Secret Smile” was a way bigger hit in UK and the rest of the world than “Closing Time” was. So even though in the US, the band had one hit, in the world we had two giant songs.
And of course since then I’ve written or co-written several songs that have become very big hits, so I’m not really worried about being a “one-hit wonder”!
TPQ: You’ve moved into quite the illustrious career as a songwriter, and co-writer. You have have worked with everyone from Dierks Bentley to Carole King to Weezer, Gabe Dixon, the Dixie Chicks, and most notably, Adele. You came to major acclaim with both Adele’s “Someone Like You,” and Dixie Chicks “Not Ready To Make Nice.” Can you talk about the collaboration process for writing these songs?
DW: Both the Dixie Chicks and Adele songwriting sessions were quite similar – in both cases we started with “something to write about,” a real sense of mission as far as what we wanted to talk about in the songs. With Adele, it was her recently-ended relationship, a real heartbreaker for her that became the overarching theme for her whole 21 album. With the Dixie Chicks, a lot of things had happened since their last album. They’d all had kids, they’d all spent a few years out of the limelight trying to focus on their family lives, and they’d gone through the media firestorm kicked up by their criticisms of President Bush and his war in Iraq. The controversy led to a large number of their fans “breaking up with them,” and it was clear that they were going to have to reinvent themselves musically in order to move forward as artists.
When we got together, we talked about these stories and the emotions around them, and then tried to write songs that would express those emotions and the stories.
TPQ: In your 20+ years in the music business, what do you feel has been the biggest change? How have you had to adapt to fit that change?
The internet has transformed the music business, obviously. When I got started, it was possible for a musician to develop and grow in front of audiences, but not in front of the entire world. So you could get better in public without having to be absolutely brilliant from the very beginning. Now, there’s no such thing as “workshopping” your songs – the minute you sing something in public, it has the potential to be seen by everyone in the world, and that “unfinished” version might well become the final and definitive one, just because of how the internet works.
Also, it used to be that copies of music, in the form of tapes or vinyl records, were seen as valuable by fans. Now a digital copy is seen as having no value, and recordings are thought of as free goods, volunteered by the artists. This has had a huge impact on even the prospects of people making a living in music. There used to be a lot of decent middle-class jobs surrounding the music business, but most of them are gone. You’ve got far fewer people succeeding a little bit, now people either win the lottery and succeed a lot, and there are only a handful of those – or they do music as a voluntary hobby, not getting paid.
I’ve been super-lucky, I haven’t really had to adapt to any of this, I’ve just continued to write my songs and people want to hear them and record them. At some point I’m sure I’m going to feel the pinch as the music business continues to shrink, but mainly I’m thanking my lucky stars every day.
TPQ: What is your personal writing process?
DW: When I’m working alone, I get up early, get the girls to school, make a cup of espresso if I’m on caffeine at the time, and pick up a guitar and start to sing something. Either it’s something I’ve been working on, or I let my imagination start a new song. By about noon I’m worn out from thinking about music and maybe I have a song or the beginnings of one. While I’m working, I switch between piano, guitar and pump organ. I don’t have a computer in the room with me, I find that using a computer often causes me to turn unfinished ideas into finished work.
When I’m collaborating, I meet my co-writer at 1pm or so, we talk about the events of the day, what life is like for each of us now, what kind of song we’d love to write, and then quite often the ideas just start to flow directly out of the conversation. By around 6pm, my brain is tired and at that point we often have a finished song or half of one that we can finish tomorrow.
When I’m recording, I start early in the morning and work until midnight or so. I find that my imagination doesn’t tire nearly as quickly during a recording session as it does during a writing session. I’m not sure why, but maybe the reason is that writing a song is harder.
TPQ: Who were your major musical inspirations growing up – both musically and lyrically? Why?
DW: Loved bassist Jaco Pastorius, he really inspired me to get into music and try to be a good instrumentalist. The Beatles were big influences. They had great melodies and really involving, vivid lyrics. I loved them. Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell. I was in jazz bands until I was in my 20s, and so I was heavily influenced by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Ellington, Coltrane, Chick Corea and the Broadway composers who wrote the “standards” that you play in jazz, those musical theater numbers that have become cultural touchstones. Rogers and Hart, Rogers and Hammerstein, the Gershwins.
In the 90s, I was trying to rock in a way that also would allow me to write very personal and sensitive lyrics, and Radiohead really helped me figure out how to do that. Also of course Nirvana and Oasis for the same thing, although their poetry verged on nonsense at times.
TPQ: You attended Harvard University, and majored in visual arts with a focus on printmaking. You had a successful start to your painting career. What happened to your visual arts focus? Do you still paint at all? How have you been able to take what you learned from visual arts, and use that with your songwriting?
DW: I loved being a printmaker and a painter, but when I undertook to do it full-time, outside of school, I learned that I am too social of a person for that life. To be a painter, you have to be alone in your own company for 7 or 8 hours a day, and painting takes a lot of time, there are no shortcuts. And then when you sell a work of art, usually you’re talking about a single family who are the audience for that artwork. It’s in that family’s house, and that’s the limit of who you’re playing for. Whereas in music, I could always be hanging out with a band, creating things collaboratively, playing in front of crowds, reaching lots and lots of people over the radio and on television. The two lives are very, very different, and I’m just much more suited to the musician’s life.
TPQ: Who are your favorite visual artists? Why?
DW: I’m not going to say why, I’m just going to say who comes to mind. David Hockney, Ingres, Jasper Johns, Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Christo, James Turrell, Edward Gorey, Moebius, Giorgio Morandi, Cezanne, Saul Steinberg. I like comic artists and fine art artists equally, with probably Picasso at the top.
TPQ: Who are your favorite authors? Why?
DW: J.R.R. Tolkien, Patrick O’Brian, Flannery O’Connor, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Roberto Bolano, W.G. Sebald.
TPQ: Since we are The Poetry Question, we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask you this question: What is poetry?
DW: Wow. Okay, I’ll try. A poem is a work of art made of written words. There is a meaning component, which can be either a story, or imagery, a description, or something else; and a musical component that appears when the words are read out loud. In a really great poem, the musical component and the meaningful component join together in a way that emotionally affects the reader and listener.
TPQ: And finally, if you could collaborate with any current musician, who would it be, and why?
DW: Thom Yorke is pretty awesome, I’d love to make a song with him. Joni Mitchell is my hero – I’m not sure if she’s still writing songs but I’d love to make music with her. U2 and Springsteen are so amazing and I’d love to imagine us making a song together, on the other hand, I don’t think they’re really the collaborating types. Prince is too scary, even though he might be the one I admire the most. Paul McCartney is the best composer alive and maybe the best songwriter ever, I’d love to write a song with him and I can actually imagine that happening.