Adele, Dan Wilson, Taylor Swift (AP/Chris Pizzello/Amy Sussman/Featureflash via Shutterstock/Salon)

Dan Wilson: "I’m like the world’s expert in super mournful, lonely songs right now"

Talking music with Dan Wilson, who wrote "Closing Time," and then hits for Adele, Taylor Swift, Pink and more


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Annie Zaleski
May 3, 2014 3:00AM (UTC)

Dan Wilson's career is proof positive that smart, elegant songwriting has a place in music.

As part of the Minneapolis bands Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic, Wilson and collaborators constructed intricate, deeply romantic songs smudged by classic rock, folk and power-pop. Widespread commercial success eluded these groups — save for Semisonic's indelible 1998 hit "Closing Time," which remains a pop culture touchstone today.

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Yet in the past decade, Wilson's melodic gifts and knack for vulnerable wordplay made him a go-to collaborator for the pop elite. The 52-year-old is now an in-demand songwriter, producer and collaborator, working with Adele ("Someone Like You"), Dixie Chicks ("Not Ready To Make Nice"), Taylor Swift ("Treacherous") and Pink ("The Great Escape"), among others.

In recent times, however, Wilson has made the time to focus on his own art. Last year, he released a series of archival songs to members of his mailing list as part of a project dubbed "Songs From the Ballroom." He also took up calligraphy and started a Tumblr to display his lettering and sketches.

But Wilson's current artistic focal point is his fantastic new solo album, "Love Without Fear." Featuring several of his musician pals (including Rachael Yamagata, Sara Bareilles, Natalie Maines, Sean Watkins), the record is a lovely amalgamation of chamber rock, gentle country, gooey '70s pop and snappy soul.

While walking around New York City, Wilson spoke about the inspirations behind his solo work; what his songwriting collaborators teach him; and how the illness of a daughter reignited his love of visual art.

Let’s talk a little bit about your songwriting. First and foremost, why now was the right time to release this particular record?

Well, I think because I finally finished it is the only reason. I did an entire version of it and wrapped it up like two-and-a-half years ago. It was totally different. It was all me. I played every instrument and did everything on it; [it was] very solitary, very lonely. And something wasn’t right about it.

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I had moved to L.A. at the time, and I was really connecting with a lot of my musical friends and collaborators in L.A. It seemed strange to be working on this record all alone in the land of musical geniuses. So I kind of started again — wrote several new songs, and redid a bunch of the other ones with my favorite musicians playing them. It just took on a great spirit. And then when it was done, it was time to put it out.

But the core of it is still lonely. In fact, you have said, "It’s an album about feeling alone, but desperately wishing for connection and togetherness.” So what led you in that direction? 

Initially, it was almost an accident. I was going to write a batch of songs. I had had a lot of ideas, and I had been doing a lot of co-writing; this was probably 2010. I was very primed to go into my own music, and I told my family and friends and musical colleagues that, basically, they wouldn’t be hearing from me for a couple of months. My plan was three months — I would disappear, live at home, but not talk to anybody. Get my girls off to school and then go to the studio and not come back until the wee hours every day and just really isolate myself in my music. It seemed like an interesting idea.

Coincidentally, I had had various situations in my life with different people, where there was distance or I had fallen out with a couple of friends, and that was really kind of bumming me out. And there were some struggles within my family that were difficult. So the setting in which I chose to write linked up almost too well with what I was thinking about as a person and suddenly, I started writing all these really lonely songs. I found a tone in the songs that really worked.

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Interestingly, when I finished the first batch I came up for air -- it was actually only like seven weeks -- and I was like, "I can’t stand this any more." I kind of stopped, and I had 30 songs or so. And then I got this call to meet with Adele and write with her. And we got together and she said, “I’m so sad, I’m so lonely, I’ve just broken up with this man, I’m heartbroken. I feel so adrift and I don’t know what to do, and I need to write a song about it. “ And I kind of felt like, "Wow, I’m like the world’s expert in super mournful, lonely songs right now. You’ve come to the right person." [Laughs.] Because it was only a month after I finished this massive, isolating, strange, personal songwriting process. In a way, it worked out really well for both of us.

It's like, “I’m in the mindset, bring it on.”

Yeah, I was totally in that mindset. I'd just written 30 songs that were all about this. Then when I started writing more songs about a year later, for some reason the sunshine kind of peeked through, and I wrote “Your Brighter Days” and some other songs that had more joy, or hope, in them. And I think that sort of combination became what the record turned out to be. And as for the interesting question about timing, I just think of this [as] I finally finished it, I want to share it with people.

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Is it difficult for you to isolate yourself now because you do so much co-writing? Are logistics weirder for you to be able to work on your own stuff?

That’s interesting partly because no one can force me to do a musical collaboration, but there are so many brilliant people out there. And when one of them wants to write a song with me or produce a track for them, it’s super hard to say no. A lot of times there are people that I really admire and have listened to a million times. Logistically, it’s probably kind of easy; I just say, “No gigs, no sessions between now and July.” That’s not hard to do. The hard part is when someone says, “Except so-and-so wants to write a song with you," or "So-and-so wants you to produce a track." And I find myself saying, “Well, I do really want to do that, okay, I’ll do that, just that one.”

It's interesting that you say the record has some more positive songs, because there's a nice emotional continuum on the record. There’s that stuff that’s a little bit desperate, a little bit sinister — and then by the end, the optimism is peeking through.

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There were some other songs that were kind of more “fun” or “lighter,” and I couldn’t make them fit. There was a vibe that was just working and really true. And it was better for me to try to do something that was really unified. Even though when my friends listened to it, they would call me up right away [to ask] “Are you okay?” I’d have to have a conversation.

I like the title of the record too, because it has so many different meanings. It’s a deceptively simple phrase. Depending on your personality, the phrase "love without fear" can be frightening or optimistic or an ideal. So I thought that was an interesting choice.  

I had a couple of rationales about it; do you want to hear what they are?

Yeah!

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I had several titles, and that one kept coming back up again and again. And I wrote all the different titles down. I have this theory that people hardly ever say the title of an album, but they read it a lot. And so it had to be something that read really great. So you would look at it and feel something looking at it. Basically, I looked at all the possible things I might call the record and with that one, just looking at it felt so right.

If you say “love” and mention “without fear,” it’s like, "Why did you have to mention fear? Why did you bring that up?" [Laughs.] "And now I’m slightly afraid. Is there a reason to be afraid?" And there’s another thing: My last album was called 'Free Life,' and that’s two really short, but really big words. And I also felt that 'Love Without Fear' had two really giant words — short, but giant. I felt that was a cool connection as well.

How have all the other musicians you’ve worked with shaped your own personal songwriting voice? What have you taken from them?

I’ve learned enormous amounts from my collaborations. Huge amounts. I was once trying to explain to friend why I felt like great songs and great songwriters are always moving almost towards each other, towards a central place. Like, from all different directions. They’re coming closer and closer to a central place where the really great songs are more and more similar to each other. Not similar in that they sound the same — they have something in common, a connection, an emotional truth that’s common.

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If you look at the map of a mountain — but it’s basically just one of those elevation maps, it looks flat — but then you plot the path of all of these songwriters walking towards the center of your map, which is the tip of the mountain, you don’t see it on the map when you’re looking at it. It looks like, "Oh, they’re all just moving towards the middle. Oh, middle of the road, towards the middle, and middling." But if you tipped the map up and showed the mountain, the same little plot points that would be all the songwriters trying to get better and better, it would be them climbing up towards the top of the mountain, which is the center of the map. Not only are they going towards the middle, but they're getting higher and higher and higher.

I feel like, in a way, when you write with a lot of people, you’re moving towards the center. I’ve had sessions and successful songs with such a wide variety of artists and styles. You know, I had a country number one with Dierks Bentley and I did “Closing Time” [with Semisonic] and "Someone Like You" with Adele, and Weezer ["Ruling Me"] and I had a song on the last Nas album. And all those things — for me, they don’t obliterate you and spread you apart and send you in different directions. It brings the common, shared things of great songs closer and closer together.

That's a very interesting way of looking at it.

It’s because I’ve always feared eclecticism, but at the same time, I really love musicians. I just love musicians. I don’t want to cut myself off from spending time with somebody brilliant, merely because I feel that stylistically I want consistency. Like, all of my sessions are just with guitar and piano and notebook. There’re no stylistic indicators when I’m writing with people, no matter who they are; there’s no sound yet, just words and melody lines.

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What was it like working with Nas?

We had a grand piano, and a computer to record on if we needed to record the piano. He’s a super soft-spoken guy, and he doesn’t babble. If he doesn’t have anything to say, he doesn’t say anything. And if he has something to say but he’s formulating exactly how to say it, then you find yourself waiting for a while while he formulates what he's going to say, and what he says is really clear. It was an interesting day — we would talk about things that songs could be about, things that we could write about, things that were happening in his life that he wanted to make themes of his record. And then I would go to the piano and say, “What about this? It could sound like this,” and I would play something. And he would go either “Yeah” or he would go “Mm-hmm,” so we would talk about something else.

We gathered up a bunch of vibes, and my friend Al Shux and I made tracks for several of them, and then nothing happened. Months and months later, basically, I had heard that he had put lyrics on the song, which is cool. He wasn’t going to say something until he felt like he had something to say.

Musicians have a lot in common. Once you’ve been on tour in a tour bus for a year or more, and once you’ve been in the studio waiting around endlessly for the engineers to finish something, and once you’ve done a lot of interviews, it starts to be a shared experience that transcends the style you might play.

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I’ve heard of that before. Generally, across the board, being in music is not as glamorous or "rock star" as you’d think. There’s a lot of drudgery involved in that.

But it’s also a life. Like any kind of job or mission, there’s parts that are more and less exciting. But one of the results is that when you meet a musician who’s been through all that themselves — maybe from another country or part of society or style of music or whatever — there can be a lot of surface differences, but you get together with them, you find out you’ve gone through the same basic training, or the same boot camp or the same kind of campaigns that they have. And you realize you have a lot more shared experience than you might have thought. Like a tribe that often recognizes each other.

Is there a song or an album that you’ve worked on that you feel was underappreciated or unappreciated, like the one that got away?

Well, there’s a song I wrote with Gabe Dixon, called “All Will Be Well,” which I think is a real lifetime song. I think if he and I had never have written a better song than that, we would still have nailed it. It’s so good, and it’s got a lot of truth and emotion in it. But it never really took off. And it’s funny, because this is the privileged version of it, but I feel like that song “Treacherous” that I wrote with Taylor Swift on her last album ['Red'] is an amazing song. I’m so into it. And it’s not that I think it got underappreciated, but I feel like maybe I’m the person in the world who thinks it’s most amazing, you know. But I love that one.

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It's true that it seems like a lot of the other songs on the record got a lot more attention than that one.

It sold millions of copies, and I’m fine, but I do feel like that song was kind of a sleeper on her record, but really particularly good.

I really admire her as an artist; I love that record. I think she deserves a lot more respect than she tends to get for her songwriting.

Yeah, she is the real deal. And she came in with focus and clarity and it was super fun to work with her. We just roared through our writing and recording sessions. She was just really nice, really respectful, fun to hang out with. Very cool.

What influenced your "Songs From the Ballroom" project?  What was your take-away from that? It seemed like you were really enjoying going through back pages and unearthing stuff.

I really was. And it was like a structure that I could make an eclectic batch of songs, and it didn’t have to hold together in any way; it could be just, "I tried this, and I tried that." I want to do it more. It made me more excited about doing recordings that might or might not end up being officially released, because I have this outlet now, where if I finish something and it’s an outtake or it's not going to go on my album, I have a way of showing it some love by giving it to fans.

There is so much more flexibility now. Artists are able to do that. "Hey, I wrote something today, and I can get it out to you guys.” That must be so empowering.

Yeah, yeah. I really want to do that. I’ve never written a song and given it to everybody on the same day. But I think that would be the final threshold for me to go over of spontaneity, and I think it would be really great.

That would be an excellent exercise too as a writer. I don’t know how much you labor over things.

I always try to get to done on that day. I’m a perfectionist who’s in a hurry. I try to get it done on that two or three days, or one day. But the cool thing, like, is the idea of having other people hear it, before you’ve had a chance to think about whether it’s any good. Make a decision, write a song a day for a week and send it to fans, once a day for six days. I think that would be really cool.

You used PledgeMusic as well for this record. Personally, I like buying a record and knowing my money is going to an artist directly. It feels like a special experience. People talk about how now a record has to be an artifact to make it worth your while, and it always feels like when I pledge for a record, it is.

There is a flipside, too: The exercise or idea of trying to find different, special things to offer people. At first, it’s like, what could I even offer? For me, it’s led me into this really great reawakening of my visual art. I’ve made an illustrated book as one of the items that people can buy; I’ve done a whole bunch of clips of myself doing my calligraphy or practicing songs. It’s been a real impetus for me to share different aspects of what I do, and you know, to open up. From my end, the PledgeMusic project has been really really positive.

Was there any other kind of impetus for going back into visual art?

One of my daughters got very, very sick last summer, and I spent a long time in the hospital with her. I had always wanted to learn how to do calligraphy, and I decided if I was going to have to be on vigil waiting every day for weeks, I would do this thing that would be almost like a meditation. So I bought some books and went online and learned how to do calligraphy. I could sit and figure out what seemed beautiful to me. It was like a meditation, or it would be like knitting or something like that. But then it turned into something else; it turned into, like, an expression.


Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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