A chat with Dan Wilson, Lead singer of Semisonic, Dan Wilson interview

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It's strange to think of a musician who hasn't released anything since 2001 under his own name as a busy guy, but trust us when we say that Dan Wilson, leader of Minneapolis pop rockers Semisonic, is indeed a busy guy. Between session work with his producer friend John Fields (which yielded one very unlikely collaboration) and writing Grammy-winning songs for the Dixie Chicks, Wilson has only recently gotten back to writing for himself, releasing Free Life, his first solo album, in October. Bullz-Eye chatted with Wilson about his new album, writing for the most polarizing band in music, and how when people meet him, they can't wait to talk to him…about his drummer's book.

Bullz-Eye: This is your first release in six years. Did you mean to take so much time between albums, or did it just turn out that way?

Dan Wilson: Well (long pause) I think it's a lot longer than I expected it to be. I'm not sure how long I would have guessed that this would take, but I think that I was imagining that I'd have an album out in about 2003. (pause) That was a while ago. Some of the length of the process has been artistic, and there have been a couple of years of sorting out our label situation. My label, American, has moved from Universal to Warner Brothers to Sony during the last two and a half years. So that added to the length of the process, but I have to confess, I have spent a lot of the rest of the time working on other records. (laughs)

BE: Did you have a specific approach when it came to making the album, or did you just let things fall where they may?

DW: There were two phases, and they were both pretty specific approaches. The first phase was completed in 2003; I did 15 or 18 songs with a bunch of friends in Minneapolis and some friends that flew in from other places. And my idea at the time was to do half of an album, or three-quarters of an album, and then find a mentor. I had this very specific idea that I needed to find someone who knows more than I do about making records. So I did those recordings, very much live, very much spontaneous. I had this big plan that I was going to teach the musicians the songs separate from each other. So I met with them all individually, hung out, taught them the chords, sang with them, and strummed through it with whatever instrument they were playing. And so when I brought people together for the sessions, they all knew the songs in a campfire-ish (way), you know, so they were surprising each other a lot with their ideas. It was a good way to do it, because there wasn't a lot of anxiety about, "What's the next chord?" The pure mechanics were sorted out.

So I went from that to playing (the album) for people, and phase two unexpectedly began when Sheryl Crow, who sang on a couple of those songs with me, gave those tracks to Rick Rubin, and Rick said, "We can do this two ways: we can put this out as it is, this is really great. Or we can experiment and try things, and see what happens. It could be open-ended, and it might take a while, but I think it might be worth it." And I said, "Oh, let's do the second option. Let's experiment."

BE: And then, indirectly, you wound up finding your mentor.

DW: I found my mentor without even realizing that it was going to be him. He's somebody that I have admired for so long, and I have racks of albums that he made, and singles, and it's funny because probably about half of (my) record is stuff that he heard early on, and some of those things were worked on quite a lot. And the rest of the album is just the product of lots more writing, and a lot more recording and learning and trying things. And he's very willing to listen to something that has taken a lot of work, and say, "Sounds great. Why don't you try another version?" And sometimes he'll say something really specific, and other times he'll say something really general. He really left me to my own devices, but also gave me great guidance. So phase two was longer than I expected, I suppose.

(On writing for the Dixie Chicks) "It was about freedom of speech, it was about war! It was about the direction the country was headed. It was about a lot of things that are really important. I wouldn't be as excited about getting together with someone who had a lot of problems with tabloid-y stuff."

BE: I don't have complete liner notes for the album, but the press release suggests that you corralled nearly everyone from the Dixie Chicks sessions.

DW: (laughs) No, no, no. Only a few (from the Dixie Chicks sessions). I corralled a lot of people…it's one of those things where you call it a solo album, but truly, it's a cast of thousands. I got Benmont Tench to play on a bunch of the songs, and he was amazing. Sean Watkins from Nickel Creek played a bunch of guitar, and Bleu, who's an L.A.-based singer/songwriter, he played a lot of acoustic guitar and he really added a lot of amazing flavor to the songs, because he plays the acoustic guitar in a really strange way that's unlike anybody else. Minneapolis colleagues and friends, Eric Fawcett, who played drums on the first N.E.R.D. album, and John Munson, who's in Semisonic, played bass on a lot of the songs. My brother Matt plays keyboards on one song, and Jake (Slichter), the drummer from Semisonic, plays keyboards on a bunch of songs, but not the drums. It wasn't quite "whoever was available," because people were pretty enthused about doing it, so for me, it was a wonderful luxury to be able to dream up, "Who could be great on this batch of songs? Who could be great on that batch of songs?" Mason Jennings plays on a bunch of things, and he's just a fantastic guitarist.

BE: And Gary Louris does the solo on one.

DW: Gary does the solo on "Cry," he does the solo on "Come Home Angel," and he played a bunch of guitar on "Breathless." And he played guitar on a few things that didn't make the record. The one thing with the Rick (Rubin) method is that you record a lot of stuff and it doesn't all make the cut. Which is OK.

BE: You've probably known Gary from way back, both growing up in Minneapolis, right?

DW: Yes, although I've only gotten to know him in the past couple years, actually. Our paths didn't cross as often as we had thought they ought to. But we've collaborated on a few songs, and we played together on the Chicks sessions, which was really fun.

BE: I keep wondering if he plans to make another Jayhawks record, because I haven't heard a peep from him in years.

DW: Rainy Day Music was really nice, and I sort of hate to think that they're not going to (make a record) again. I don't know what their plans are. But if they did make another one, I'd get it right away.

BE: As would I. OK, be honest: how much has your life changed since you won the Grammy for Song of the Year?

DW: Um, about 3 percent. Not a lot. I have a Grammy on my mantle, that's a big change.

"I have a friend who won an Oscar for a film that he had made, and before I won the Grammy he said, 'Well, if you win this, you're going to get a lot more opportunities to do things you don't really want to do.'"

BE: I figured you would get a ton of requests from people who would want to write songs with you after that.

DW: Well, that remains to be seen, I bet. I think that's gonna happen. I've been laying low on the co-writing side of things. I've been (pause) not encouraging any discussions of co-writing, so only a few things have been slipping through the cracks. Interestingly, people in the music business were already aware of what I was doing for several years, so I have been getting a lot of calls about (co-writing). I just have the feeling that it's the kind of thing that accumulates. People's respect for you accumulates, and…I have a friend who won an Oscar for a film that he had made, he's a documentarian. And before I won the Grammy he said, "Well, if you win this, you're going to get a lot more opportunities to do things you don't really want to do." When he won the Oscar, he was suddenly asked to do a lot of really lucrative stuff that he wasn't interested in doing. And that might be part of what's going to happen for me, but actually, whatever change is going to happen is going to blossom over time. I really think so.

BE: How did it feel to write songs for someone else, and not just someone else but one of the biggest lightning rods in music?

DW: Heh heh! That felt great. As a songwriter, I love the idea that my tunes, or my words or my help, my collaborations are going to be part of the discussion. When I was writing with the Chicks, we were not going to provoke anybody just to provoke anybody, obviously. It was exciting that some of the songs were going to get interpreted, you know, totally in the light of the travails and the controversies. But it was the right kind of controversy, because it felt like a very serious kind of controversy. It was about freedom of speech, it was about war! It was about the direction the country was headed. It was about a lot of things that are really important. I wouldn't be as excited about getting together with someone who had a lot of problems with tabloid-y stuff, you know?

BE: When can we reasonably expect to see another Semisonic record…

DW: (instantly starts laughing) Heeeh heh heh, heh heh…

BE: ..because the band isn't finished, right?

DW: We did a show last year. We played at the Aquatennial in Minneapolis. And there were thousands and thousands of people there. It was astonishing. There was a huge variety of people, and it was so exciting, we played great. Afterwards, I said to the guys, "Well, maybe we should just hang it up.

"People knew all the words, and people, from the looks of it, have learned the songs about two years ago."
That was so perfect, couldn't have been better!" And they both looked at me like, "What are you talking about? That's stupid! Things went really well today, so we should quit?" Oh, yeah, you're right, I guess that is kind of silly. So we've kind of been loosely discussing doing something again. I know we'll make some more music together. But I don't know…I can't even say when, because it really does depend on a big batch of new songs arriving from my imagination. And that's just so unpredictable.

BE: What was your reaction when you discovered that Q Magazine gave Chemistry five stars?

DW: Ho. Well, I was right chuffed. I was very proud. (pause) I was pleased with the work we had done on that album, but it was much more of an ordeal than I would ever want to go through again. My daughter was suffering from pretty complicated health problems. I was channeling a lot of creative energy, but I was not having a very good life at the time, and the guys in the band suffered with me. And of course that ends up on the tracks, and it ends up in the lyrics, and it ends up in the spirit of the record. People were very mixed about that album, but the people who were blown away by it, I think they heard the soulfulness in it, and I think that's why they found it to be powerful. So at the time I was kind of a wreck, and I knew that we had done good work, and I knew that it was not the obvious next step for the band. I knew it was risky, but on some level I knew that we had done something special, and it was good to get recognized for that.

BE: I was always a big fan of "She's Got My Number."

DW: Mmmm! That was really…that was the epic. That was really an interesting experience. We had a wonderful recording experience with that song, actually. It was like being entranced. You know, it's funny because I felt like a couple of the songs were just about as arty as you can get, and because of the expectations of what people expected from Semisonic, I think, people didn't really perceive it that way. People who had heard "Closing Time" a million times heard "She's Got My Number," and would be kind of confused.

BE: Is there something you had written that you were positive would be a hit, only to watch the label completely skip over it?

DW: (pause) Uh, when I get into the mode of what's going to be a hit or not, things don't work as well. Things start to get…funky. For example, and I don't know how people are going to respond to Free Life, but I have been very consistently in an art project kind of mode about it, just trying to make the most soulful, coolest-sounding, realist – whatever that means – thing I could possibly do. And now I think of what the marketplace is like, and now I think about what people are going to buy, and now I think about what is going to be a hit. And for me, I think that's a smarter way to be a songwriter, and to be an artist. Maybe some potential collaborator is going to read this and run away screaming! (laughs) But for me, every time I've just tried to be as much of an artist as I can, and make music that, instead of something that would be for this summer, or whatever the sound this winter would be, or whatever, try and make music that people will be listening to in 10 or 20 years, and will be moved by. How's that? That's not an evasive answer, it's just…

BE: No, that's fair. I've always fancied myself as the guy who should be the dude at the label who picks singles, because I see them botch that constantly.

DW: Yeah, yeah, that's true.

BE: How did you get involved with the Mandy Moore covers album?

DW: My friend John Fields produced it, and he brought me a track and played it for me, the Rundgren cover ("Can We Still Be Friends?").

BE: Which I quite like, actually.

DW: It's fantastic! It's a really good recording, and it's very convincing. He played it for me, and I thought, "Wow, this is really, really good," and I think he thought that he was going to have to make a really big hard sell to convince me (to work on the album). But I knew that (Moore) was funny, and I knew that she was talented, and it seemed like a fun thing to do. And he kind of let me go nuts with a lot of tracks, and that was a really enjoyable experience. John produced me, and I just sang and sang and sang. It was a lot of fun. Mandy and I got together, actually, and we wrote some songs. Really good ones, in fact.

BE: Really.

DW: Yeah, but they're in the great vault in the sky somewhere, unfortunately.

BE: Well, based on the reaction her new record is getting, that's a pity. It looks like she could have used a couple of those songs.

DW: (snickers) Well, for whatever reason you want to say, the two things we wrote didn't fit.

BE: For a while, it appeared that you and John Fields were just traveling around and visiting people while they were making records. You showed up on Glen Phillips' album too, right?

DW: (laughs) Yeah. There was a period of time, and it's probably going to happen again, when John was the social hub around which I was revolving. He introduced me to Glen Phillips, and those writing sessions that Glen and I did, that's some of the stuff I like the best. I think that the song "True" that we wrote, and the song "Released," are both really, really great.

BE: One of my editors wanted me to ask you what you thought of your drummer Jacob's book, "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Star."

"I guess I push people a lot, and it was very funny to read that. And I had no idea that it was such a stressfest for Jacob, the whole experience of touring and stuff. It was very funny, but slightly tragic to read about some of that stuff."

DW: I read the first draft, and told him that he was far too nice to me. And he said, "Really?" And I said, "Yeah. Yeah. You need to embarrass me a little here and there." So he went to work and made it a little more embarrassing for me, and improved the book in that way, at least from my perspective. I thought the book was hilarious, and I never knew…first of all, now I know what I can be like in the studio. And the book doesn't portray me as unpleasant in the studio, but as this positive force of obliviousness, where someone's having a terrible problem with something they're doing, and I walk in and say, "Make it better, OK? Cool, man!" Very upbeat, saying, "You know, that doesn't sound good enough. I think it should be better!"

I met Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie at the Grammy Awards, and I turned to him and I said, "I really love your song 'Tiny Vessels.'" And he said, "I just finished your drummer's book!" (laughs) He said, "It's the story of my life right now.

BE: So he doesn't talk to you about anything that you've done, he talks to you about Jacob's book?

DW: It's funny because I've had this experience with Jake's book where I'll be having a conversation with a fellow musician, and they'll say, "Oh, kind of like that time where you did such and such." And I'll have this moment like, "Were you there? How do you know about that?" For a minute, I won't be able to place why they know this little, private anecdote, or funny little moment that happened. And then I'll put it together: "Oh, of course, you must have read the book." But they feel like they knew me from reading the book.

BE: I've gotta read this now.

DW: It's tremendous. Really funny, it's really well written. It just flies by, and it's entertaining, and Jake wanted to make sure it had a lot of facts, so that a young musician could read it and get a flavor for what the inside of (the business) is like.

BE: Nik Kershaw did one a few years ago that was hilarious.

DW: Oh!

BE: I don't think it even came out in the States. It's really funny. He talks about the banality of shooting videos, how much money comes out of his pocket for shooting the video…

DW: (laughs) You have to go to the bookstore, and you have to go to the chapter, I think it's entitled, "Click." There's a chapter about a photo shoot, and it's pee-your-pants funny. It's really really good.

BE: Well, I'll keep you on schedule. I've had you on the phone for a long time, but I wanted to talk about the myriad of things you've done.

DW: There's a lot of stuff going on. This (solo) album is the focus for me, but I'm very aware that…even this book, I'm going to be discussing a lot of different things as I'm talking to people about Free Life because it re-opens a conversation that has a lot of potential topics, I think.

BE: And I feel bad, that I undersold the new album a bit, but I just had so many things I wanted to talk to you about, I wanted to make sure I got to them all.

DW: Well, just mention that the new record kicks ass.

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