Music fans of a certain age are probably familiar with Dan Wilson because of Semisonic, the ornate Minneapolis power-pop trio behind songs such as "Closing Time," "Singing In My Sleep," "Chemistry" and "F.N.T." However, Wilson has carved out a career as a solo artist — and, as a producer and songwriter, has had a hand in dozens of pop, country and R&B albums and hits.
The premise of Wilson's new solo album, "Re-Covered," involves him putting his own spin on a selection of these songs. Salon is exclusively premiering his take on the global hit "Someone Like You," which he and Adele co-wrote for her 2011 solo album, "21." On this version, the Kronos Quartet adds majestic shading to sparse acoustic guitar and Wilson's weary vocal delivery; the latter element especially captures the original song's combination of aching resignation and emotional fortitude.
Other songs on "Re-Covered," which is in stores Aug. 4, include Wilson's versions of John Legend's "You & I (Nobody in the World)" and the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready To Make Nice." The former is moody, languid soul; the latter, meanwhile, assumes a seething, desperate tone that conveys what it feels like to hold a grudge.
"Re-Covered" isn't all familiar songs, however: The record also has a distinct element of discovery, as it contains lesser-known songs Wilson wanted to elevate. Chief among these is "Landing," a song his brother Matt Wilson (frontman of criminally underrated band Trip Shakespeare) released on a 1998 solo album, "Burnt, White and Blue." The re-do on "Re-Covered" is a jubilant, copper-pop number that echoes's post-"Skylarking" work.
Wilson checked in with Salon via phone from Los Angeles to discuss "Someone Like You," the genesis of "Re-Covered" and what else he's up to. "In the midst of all the prep for 'Re-Covered' coming out, I'm still writing a lot of songs," he says. "I haven't cleared the decks — I'm still really busy with lots of stuff." Among these projects: Wilson produced the forthcoming new record, "When The People Move, The Music Moves Too," by Bay Area musician Meklit. "In her words, it's Ethio-jazz in 2017," Wilson says. "We made a very rowdy, kind of triumphant Ethio-Jazz modernization."
What was it like writing "Someone Like You" originally?
Adele and I wrote that song in a small studio that is very modest, a homey place in Hollywood, called Harmony. It almost feels like a loft, not a fancy studio, not auspicious. I loved it, and I chose it because I thought it would be a good vibe.
Adele is just as off-the-cuff, funny [and] unguarded in person as she seems to be in her public persona. So it all had a high-energy but casual feeling. And we were writing a song about a very sad story that she told, so it definitely had all that emotional aspect to it. But I didn't realize that we were doing anything aside from writing a really good song. It just seemed like a good vibe, hard work and, in the end, something beautiful. I didn't really say to myself "Oh, you know, this is going to change everybody's life."
It is such an intimate song, so you feel like you're eavesdropping, and you shouldn't be listening in on it. And it just resonated everywhere. You look at the stats and everything, and it's mind-boggling.
I think the intimacy of the recording is partly due to the fact that it is the demo that Adele and I made together. For some reason, I think that the demo we made almost sounds like you're opening a door into a private space and hearing someone talking. It's really special in that way.
When you were looking to do the song for "Re-Covered," what new nuances of the song did you want to bring out? How did you want to approach it?
I've been performing it at my shows for several years. It took me a while to get inside it and not just be covering it, Adele's phrasing, you know what I mean? So by the time the recording session for "Re-Covered" came up, I had a way of singing the song. We tried a couple of different versions: We tried a slow jam, old-school-R&B-type version, which was nice, but it didn't have the emotional impact, I guess.
And then I met Kronos Quartet at that Big Star tribute concert that was recently made into a movie ["Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s THIRD Live . . . And More"]. I sang a couple of things with them playing and, afterwards, we vowed to find something to collaborate on. It occurred to me that maybe Kronos could bring some more of that emotional fever to my interpretation of the song. And I think that's what they did.
It is true. They come in and there's this . . . it builds in the song, and then they come in, and it's like this shading. It blooms almost.
Yes. It's interesting, because they're brilliant players, but I think this arrangement is not challenging for them in that kind of a technical sense at all. It was all about them creating that dynamic, and the sense of something bubbling over, like boiling over. I think they did a great job with that.
Have you played this version for Adele at all?
I sent it to her; I haven't heard back yet. I sent it to her just two days ago, so we'll see what she says.
Is there anything else about the song that you want to point out?
You know, for me, it represents a high point of songwriting, just in my own experience working with somebody so spontaneous, so visionary.
It's interesting, because when I'm done writing a song, I don't assess it. I don't think about whether it's great. I mean, I usually think [casual voice] "Oh, that was great," but I don't really think about what's going to happen with that particular song. And I'm accustomed to a kind of cultural thing in the music business, where you don't always hear back right away from the other people involved, whether they like it. It takes a while for people to get their heads around things.
So I'm comfortable with that, because when I write a song, I kind of put it out of my mind. And I was just about to do that after Adele and I wrote "Someone Like You." I was about to put it out of my mind, and forget about it, and just let it be what it was going to be. She had to write other songs, and she was going to be the one to decide if it made it on her album.
And instead of the usual long pause to find out if people dig what you've done, I heard back immediately from the head of her record label, from the head of Columbia [Ashley Newton]. Rick Rubin pronounced it an A-plus. Adele has told me that she knew the minute we were done with the song that her life was changed.
In the coming months, I kept hearing from people who work for Columbia, or for Adele, or in some way were related. I kept getting e-mails or phone calls saying "I heard that song you wrote with Adele." And since she and I had written a bunch of them I would say "Which one?" And eventually I just learned that it was always going to be "Someone Like You" that they were talking about. Everybody knew but me. And it was an interesting experience to sense my not recognizing the hugeness of it — and, in contrast, to feel that everybody else knew right away it was a big deal.
That's an interesting contrast, and such a strange position to be in. It's surreal when you describe it like that.
As a songwriter, as a musician, as an artist, I find it difficult to listen to what I've done, and experience it even remotely like someone else would experience it. I hear my own work, and I think about what I would fix. I don't get swept away on the emotions of something that I've done. I think "Oh, it would have been better if I'd changed that word." So I think it's kind of okay not to be able to spot some kind of life-changing song while I'm working on it. That might just be the strategy anyway.
If I was in that position, I think I'd feel very self-conscious as I was doing something.
[Laughs.] Exactly. "This is going to be huge, I better not mess it up!" It's an odd position to be in. I think artists in general don't know what they're doing. I mean, we know what we're doing, but we don't have the luxury of experiencing our own work as art. We just experience it as the work we're doing. Novelists could never read their own novel and have a very fun weekend. It would be a torturous experience. [Laughs.]
I've talked to some musicians who are like "You know, I listen to my stuff," and I've never understood that. As a journalist, if I'm playing an interview back, I don't want to listen to my voice.
[Laughs.] When you're making a record, there is a little grace period right when you're done with a mix, you can listen to it in your car for, like, a day and be so happy. And then reality starts to set in. That's that.
What was your thought process about choosing which songs you wanted to have on this record? I think Adele was pretty obvious, but how did the other songs come to the surface for you?
I knew I wanted to have some big hits on it, and I wanted to rise to the challenge of reinterpreting songs that are familiar to people. I thought that would be a real interesting thing artistically. And then on a redemptive, second chance tip, I have always had certain songs I've co-written that I thought were amazing and which, for one reason or another, didn't get the attention or the shot that I thought they ought to. I knew that it had to be a bunch of familiar things, just for it to work as a balance. But I definitely had certain songs that I really was savoring the idea of reintroducing to people.
There is an element of discovery on the record; I very much picked up on that. Like "Landing," by your brother Matt Wilson. Your version has such an XTC vibe. That immediately stood out.
The funny thing about that song is that my initial list didn't have that song on it, because I kind of thought that my history with my brother Matt was not part of the story that I was telling. Then I discussed it with my manager, Jim Grant, and he disagreed with that, and I came to realize, of course — Matt is a huge part of my story as a songwriter, because we learned how to do all that together. So it made perfect sense for it to be on the record.
I think one treat for me in the whole process was Mike Viola, my producer, had this vision that the musicians would all get together, and we would treat the list of songs as a batch. We'd play them in a short period of time, and we would flavor them with the feeling of that week or two. The songs would be brought closer together, because we'd all be making our interpretations of those songs in a short time, all together, in one space. They'd all be unified by that kind of intimacy. And it was a really good move, and it allowed me to take a song like "Landing," which was written so many years before "When The Stars Come Out" with [Chris] Stapleton or other songs. A lot of those things sort of live together, because they were being interpreted at the same time by the same people.
"Re-Covered" really underscores that the songwriting really does cut across genres, as long as the bones of the songs are there. You look at the tracklist, and you have country hits, you have pop. You even have alt-rock, for lack of a better term. But it all hangs together.
I think this is pretty formative for me: When I grew up, my family spent the summers up in northern Minnesota. We went fishing and swimming, and lived on our 14-foot boat, and our dock, and in the water and in the woods. And we listened to KOZY radio, which was one station that you could receive up there at the time. They played a mix of oldies, oldie pop songs and oldies and current country hits. And it made perfect sense at that time, in the '70s and early '80s, for a rural radio station to play both pop and country of the last 25 years, because it all was mushed together more.
And so I think a lot of my music has a little bit of a folk music, or country-folk music twang to it, a little bit in there, even underlying it. So there's something about putting all those songs together on my record. It's not in any way a country-flavored record, but there is an Americana undercurrent to the whole thing.