Semisonic’s Dan Wilson Discusses The Road From “Closing Time” To Penning Taylor Swift Deep Cuts
Welcome to the second installment of “Tracking Down,” a new Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
The public isn’t unaware of Dan Wilson’s exploits over the last decade and change. Most of the world is familiar with Adele’s brokenhearted new standard “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ Bush-era Molotov cocktail “Not Ready To Make Nice.” But people may not be aware that the guy who sang the ’90s’ last-call epic “Closing Time” is behind them. Wilson’s new solo album Re-Covered (out this month via Big Deal Media/Ballroom Music) may help bridge that divide, as he interprets his own tunes for other artists, effectively making sure that any interested parties know he’s the only person ever to work with both Taylor Swift and ex-Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty.
With Semisonic, Wilson was one of the brainier and warmer voices to share airspace with Matchbox 20 and Creed at the tail end of the ’90s; the onetime alt-rocker’s songs now effortlessly veer from John Legend albums to Dierks Bentley albums to Josh Groban albums. Now 56, Wilson spoke to Stereogum about what it was like making the leap from a face on VH1 himself to a behind-the-boards role on a few of the biggest songs in recent vintage.
STEREOGUM: What was it like looking back at your whole career in macro on Re-Covered?
WILSON: I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but it’s been a very powerful experience. It’s messing with my head a little bit. [Laughs.] Not necessarily in a bad way, but I was kind of overwhelmed by my own past.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about the transition between fronting a rock band and chasing stardom yourself and becoming a more behind-the-scenes person, taking a backseat to your own songs.
WILSON: When Semisonic stopped touring, we had been touring for seven or eight years and I’d had a lot of time in front of big audiences singing the songs that I wrote with my band. I wasn’t tired of it, but I’d had a lot of it. I had a personal change; my wife and I had a daughter who was born into a set of disabilities that were pretty complicated and I needed to be home more than I was able to when I was touring. The baby ended up driving the bus for a while in that way. And while I was home a lot more, I turned my attention to songwriting and thinking about how to become a songwriter for other people. There wasn’t really a great model for it because none of my other rock musician friends had made a transition like this, but it turns out a bunch were doing it around the same time as I was: Linda Perry, Kevin Griffin from Better Than Ezra. So there was something in the air.
STEREOGUM: Did you feel like you’d artistically fulfilled everything that you wanted to do with a band, or were you unsure if this was actually gonna replace that for you yet?
WILSON: I thought songwriting was gonna be kind of a new side thing that I did to perhaps have another outlet for my other songs, or extra songwriting energy. I assumed I would always stay in a band and that writing for other people was something that seemed really interesting; I’ve always liked being helpful in life. So it really got out of hand in a really wonderful, amazing way. A lot of times when I’ve gone into a session with an artist, it’s been incredibly helpful that I’ve lived through all the same bullshit and excitement and worries that the artist is going through, so I can really relate to them and they can relate to me more than if I was just a professional who had never stepped foot outside of the studio.
STEREOGUM: Having been on both sides, do you feel that the landscape of being in the studio with an artist now is healthier than it was at the time when Semisonic were on the charts?
WILSON: I think when Semisonic were very active, my peers had a kind of a stigma against co-writing songs in general, and I made a major effort during those Semisonic years to write songs with my fellow bandleaders. I tried to get my friends to write songs with me because I had always done that in my band, with Jacob [Slichter, Semisonic drummer] in particular. I didn’t have any kind of stigma about co-writing because it was just part of my band life and my band history. I think a lot of artists who may have been predisposed against it 10 or 15 years ago are now saying, “Yeah, of course, I do that all the time.”
STEREOGUM: Having read Mike Doughty’s book, it was so fraught in Soul Coughing that I don’t know if it was easy or difficult for him let another person into the songwriting process again.
WILSON: Mine and Mike’s collaboration has been extremely fruitful and the songs we worked on together sound a hell of a lot like good Mike Doughty songs. I think his experience with Soul Coughing made him more hesitant to collaborate. On the other hand, like I said, the common experience of being in bands and dealing with the ups and downs of being in a band probably made Mike feel like he wasn’t with some kind of song doctor who was going to analyze and dissect his ideas for the pop charts.
STEREOGUM: What did it take to ascend to the level of being commissioned by Taylor Swift and Adele?
WILSON: People in the business are really opinionated about songs — which ones work, which ones don’t, which are great, which ones suck — and they also have a great respect for a song that becomes bigger than even the artist that made the song. “Closing Time” and “Secret Smile” both had this quality for Semisonic of becoming enduring ideas, as opposed to the flag we waved for that tour or that album. When I started getting into the idea of writing with people — and sometimes you need the cooperation or stamp of approval or assistance of someone in the business — it was just incredibly helpful that I had written two songs that had expanded so far beyond expectation and even become kind of iconic. I think that helped to make me seem like a credible option: “Hey, if he can make that happen again let’s try this.”
STEREOGUM: Looking back at 2001’s All About Chemistry, do you feel like the industry had more confidence in you following up your hits as a songwriter than as an artist?
WILSON: I think the challenge of following up a hit is well-known, because people talk about one-hit wonders and have a general, instinctive understanding of striking gold once as something any idiot can do and then striking gold twice you’re suddenly confirmed as a genius, you know? [Laughs.] For various reasons, the Chemistry album didn’t hit the same heights as Feeling Strangely Fine did commercially. I think a lot of the time artists really want to have something to prove, to have a big point to make, and so the point I got really super into proving, by virtue of circumstance, was to make other songs as great as “Closing Time” and “Secret Smile.” That took a while but I think I’ve gotten real damn close, if I haven’t beat them.
STEREOGUM: As you ascended in stature as a songwriter for others, was there a moment where you felt starstruck?
WILSON: Writing with the Dixie Chicks on Taking The Long Way was definitely that. I had seen them several times and thought they were amazing. I loved their taste in songs and I loved their crazy forthright bravery in politics. I was definitely really excited and nervous to work with them; I’m not sure if I ever thought of it as the big leagues as much as it felt like the stakes were high. They needed to make a record that was a reply to a lot of the misadventures they were having in politics and the blacklisting they received from country radio, so we really had to hit a home run of a song to be a proper reply to their critics and antagonists. And “Not Ready To Make Nice” totally worked. If I hadn’t been so nervous, and if it hadn’t seemed so important, maybe the song would have not turned out quite as well as it did.
STEREOGUM: When you’re writing something like “Treacherous” for Taylor Swift, do you ever have an awareness that something isn’t going to be the big marquee single and you’re intentionally trying to make an album track that fulfills a whole different purpose for an artist normally known for making hits?
WILSON: “Treacherous” is an interesting song because it has these bridges that got out of hand and became sort of epic. The song breaks some rules of structure for a single, and it has, like, two sections that both compete for attention. I think artistically it was a big victory but maybe commercially it wasn’t really simple enough. Generally speaking, if I’m writing a song and it sounds like there’s greatness down this one path and a wannabe single down the other path, I tend to go for the greatness that the song is wishing for itself.
STEREOGUM: Do you have ambitions to do more with Semisonic?
WILSON: We’re playing a bunch of shows focusing on our  album Great Divide, which is going to be fun because several of those songs were rarely performed live. And this year is the first time in a long time that I’ve written a bunch of songs that sound like they could be Semisonic songs. I had tried in the past every couple years to go deep and try to write Semisonic songs, but they never sounded like the band for some reason. This year, I don’t know why but I wrote seven or eight things recently that sound an awful lot like really good Semisonic songs, so fingers crossed, maybe something cool will happen.
STEREOGUM: Did you guys just want to play the Great Divide songs specifically or was there a belated anniversary thing in mind?
WILSON: Yes, we tried to schedule the shows for [an anniversary] last year but it didn’t work out. I feel like we came up in a time where the idea of albums was getting abused. We would notice this happening a lot where the single on the album was one thing, often produced by one person, and then the rest of the album was this other thing, produced by somebody else and not as good. We very plainly noticed this trend and it annoyed us a lot, so we really lavished a lot of care into making every song as awesome as we could. It feels like the whole record can survive being performed, so we’ll see how it goes.
STEREOGUM: Has there been open discussion with the band about making a fourth album?
WILSON: We’re all close friends and we’ve talked about that a lot over time, so it’s strangely been kind of an open topic for quite a while. These shows are probably going to lead to the idea. I’m excited by the possibility for sure.
STEREOGUM: “Closing Time” is going to be 20 next year, have you thought about what that means for you?
WILSON: This answer is going to be so craft-oriented, but when I hear “Someone Like You” on the radio or I hear “Not Ready To Make Nice” or “Closing Time” or a handful of other songs, I just hear them for what they are and appreciate them and I can kind of love them. Most of my work, when I hear it I think, “Ah, fuck. I could have fixed that one thing.” There’s just a few where I don’t have that experience and it’s interesting to me that the public is of a similar opinion. But almost everything I write I can think of something I would tweak. “If I just had a couple more weeks of perspective I would have changed that one word” or “that bridge is too long” or whatever. There’s just a handful that I get to enjoy that have a jewel-like completeness to them that I don’t think of tampering with.
STEREOGUM: What’s a song that sticks in your craw because of something you would change now?
WILSON: [Laughs.] I don’t know if I want to say because then the person that I wrote with would be annoyed with me. I can tell you that a couple songs I’ve written that I really like, I could kick myself because they don’t have any great places to breathe for the singer. Because it’s just so mean to write a song where the singer is gasping for breath. You could leave out one word and put a breath there instead.