The Guts of Songwriting: A Conversation with Dan Wilson
From Adele to Taylor Swift to Pink, artists have been calling on Dan Wilson for decades to help them write songs. We spoke for an hour about how he brings out the best in his collaborators.
You’ve heard Dan Wilson’s music. Whether it’s Adele’s “Someone Like You”, The Chick’s “Not Ready to Make Nice”, or Taylor Swift’s “Treacherous”, Dan Wilson’s compositions have been in your ears for the last 20 years. But you’ve also heard Dan Wilson’s voice. If you’ve ever made it to when the lights are flicked on at your local pub, you’ve probably been played out by his band Semisonic’s “Closing Time”, a song he wrote and sang lead vocals on.
It is of course interesting that Dan Wilson has had massive success as a songwriter and performer, but what makes him even more interesting is his ability to explain his process, his ability to get into the weeds about what makes a song work. Last month, Dan and I spoke for an hour about his life as a songwriter and performer, what makes certain Beyonce lyrics tick, how The Talking Heads became legends by missing the mark, and Semisonic’s first new album in 22 years.
A Conversation with Dan Wilson
Semisonic, the band that first brought you into the mainstream in the late 1990s, is putting out Little Bit of Sun, their first record in over 20 years. Was reuniting with and writing for that band seamless? Or did it take some time to make things work?
It wasn’t seamless because so many things have happened in all of our lives over time. But we were helped by the fact that we never really fell out of touch. We never really got to any point where we don't know each other anymore. Plus, we’d played one-off gigs and benefit shows from time-to-time. But those are different types of creative projects than making recordings from the ground up. So, we had to relearn how to collaborate when the stakes were higher, which was good.
I’ve always found it interesting that Semisonic was formed in Minneapolis. Did you think it was any harder for you guys to make it being from the Midwest rather than New York or Los Angeles?
I actually think it was a huge advantage. We had low overhead living in Minneapolis. Plus, there was this kind of a regional network of nightclubs and bars that we could play at. So, we were able to figure out how to be a band and how to make great music without being challenged by what it would cost to live somewhere like L.A. On that practical level, it gave us a couple extra years to learn and experiment.
So, you fronted bands. But you are also a very, very successful songwriter for other artists. I want to talk about your personas as a writer and performer. In 2017, you put out a record called Re-Covered, which saw you reinterpret songs you’d written that were made famous by other people, like John Legend, Chris Stapleton, and Josh Groban.
I want to focus on a song from that record that is a bit more obscure: "Never Meant to Love You". This song was originally done by Cory Chisel and The Wandering Sons. Your version takes the song in a whole new direction. Can you contrast Cory’s version and your version to give us a sense for how you think about a song differently when you know you’ll be recording it?
When Cory and I wrote “Never Meant to Love You”, I didn’t even know if he thought it was a good song. He had some ideas, and it all kind of fell together. I wasn't even sure if someone was going to record it, so I was delighted that he did. I wasn't there when he recorded it, so it was all about the vision of him and his collaborators.
In these cases, the interpretation comes from the people in the room. And sometimes they will make something that's different than you intended or even something different than they would make if they all got together in a room again. The song is not set in stone. Here’s a good example of that.
The other day a friend of mine sent me Harry Nilsson’s version of “Over the Rainbow”. It is an incredible rendition. Great songs can cross genre. You can have two different voices in two completely different styles singing the same song and create different experiences. I guess I come from that school of thought that the song is not completely tied to the recording. That’s why my version of “Never Meant to Love You” is different from Cory’s.
I feel like the flexibility of songs has become an old school opinion. The pop world today is heavily influenced by the Swedish process where production and writing have become united. That school of thought almost views songs and recordings of songs as the same thing.
I learned to play guitar in the north woods of Minnesota. You’d write a song on your guitar, and then try to figure out how to get a day in the studio to record it. They were two different processes entirely. I'm not against the idea of the song and recording coming together at the same time. A lot of music is dictated by the scarcity of money and time. The pressure is on if you need to get a song written and recorded in one day. If you’re running out of time, something's got to give. Maybe the lyrics will suffer.
That’s the case on some of those Swedish pop records. You quite often have incredibly emotional melodies and really pathetic lyrics. They don't need good lyrics, because the recording and the melodies are so filled to the brim with meaning. It doesn't matter what you say as long as you make sure the vowels are correct.
Yeah. It's the Max Martin approach.
The thing about Max Martin that doesn't quite fit with what I just said is that his camp is not constrained by time. They have different people on their team making whole other production approaches to songs just to make sure they haven't left any stones unturned. So, I guess they aren’t necessarily driven by scarcity or haste. They are just focused on one thing and not another.
Let’s talk about your writing process a little. In a 2017 interview with Brian Hiatt on the podcast Rolling Stone Music Now, you talked about how you learned some of your songwriting chops in Nashville: “You get together. You hang out. You talk about life or family or whatever is happening in your own personal lives … Then you might play a few chords or a melody that you thought of or somebody might have a clever title … You sorta then glide naturally into writing a song. I got trained in that Nashville way of writing.” Does great writing always come from establishing conversational trust with your collaborators?
That's a really interesting way to frame it. I think most of us do our best work when we're feeling secure in ourselves. You wouldn't want your parents sitting in the room with you when you're trying to write a song. You would feel observed and possibly assessed. You'd be thinking about how you are coming across.
I don’t know if establishing trust in a collaboration is a functional necessity, but it’s at least a matter of kindness and politeness. I know that there are sessions where people are torturing each other and demanding better work, but I personally wouldn't want to have some partner that tortures me and makes me miserable. I'm much more inclined to be at peace with the person I'm collaborating with, and let them know that I respect them and they can have any kooky idea they want.
People must like working with you because it feels like you’ve worked with basically everybody at this point. You’ve written country songs with Dierks Bentley. You’ve written rock songs with Weezer. You’ve written electronic songs with Phantogram. You’ve written soul songs with Leon Bridges. You’ve even written a hip-hop song with Nas. Does your collaborative process change at all depending on who you are working with or what genre you are working on? Or are the differences really just instrumentation?
Every genre has what Nashville writers call “furniture”. A Nashville song with a Subaru Outback in it rather than a pick-up truck would be pretty funny. It might be a good song but it seems unlikely that the singer is going to describe jumping in their Subaru Outback and driving down a dirt road. Every genre has scene-setting furniture.
It’s less true with pop music, which manages to do without a lot of that stuff entirely, but it’s true with hip-hop. Like country, hip-hop has a lot of scene-setting details and furniture that you could get right or wrong. I don't feel so arrogant that I can get it right in every genre. But I like having the freedom to collaborate with people in any genre and contribute what I can.
I'm super glad I got to hang out with Nas, learn from him, and share moments of musical connection. That has happened with me and a lot of unexpected people. If I can stay humble enough to not think that I'm suddenly a master of this new style, I can contribute something to the session at hand.
It certainly must at least keep you on your toes.
For sure. One thing that I learned when I first started touring with Trip Shakespeare and then Semisonic was how I wasn’t that unique. Early on, I thought I had this weird way of writing songs that no one else shared. It turned out that I basically use the same method as tons of other songwriters. No one taught me. I just figured it out from listening.
Coming from Minneapolis, I sort of thought that people from the other genres would be different types of people. What you learn is that the people in these wildly disparate styles of music that you're encountering on tour are pretty similar no matter what genre they're doing. They probably played the trumpet in the high school band or something. If there was some nerdy group of people sharing music - whether it be metal or hip-hop or jazz - they were probably part of it. Quite often they are bookish. I thought I was going to be the only one of my tribe out there. I found out that people in all the different genres are similar.
Let’s continue on this songwriting path for a moment. When asked about your songwriting process in a 2022 AMA on Reddit, you said the following: “I either start with random guitar strumming and mumbling, or I have a ‘thing that's happening in my life’ that I want to write about.” Can you pick a song that came about with each of those methods and walk me through the creation process?
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