Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and producer Dan Wilson has always worn distinctive eyeglasses, from his days as frontman for the rock band Semisonic to his more recent career co-writing and collaborating with the likes of the Dixie Chicks, Josh Groban, Nicole Atkins, Keith Urban and many others. But while his eyes may need corrective lenses, his musical vision has never been more powerful. This year finds Wilson riding high with two major hits. His song co-written with Adele, "Someone Like You," is one of the year's biggest hits around the world and on numerous radio charts. A newer song, Dierks Bentley's "Home," written with Bentley and Brett Beavers, has quickly climbed the country charts. Wilson, who is currently working on his second solo album, talked to Playback about his banner year.
"Someone Like You" has been a phenomenal hit this year. What is it about Adele and that song that you think is connecting so well with people around the world?
Well, I can only theorize. It only took us two days to write and record it. Such a simple thing, but we really worked hard on making it great. At the end of the first day, we had quite a bit of the song done. I don't think we had a bridge. I think we were missing a bunch of lyrics here and there.
And the next day she told me that she had played the song for her manager and her mom in its unfinished form. I instantly got kind of nervous, because I always feel funny about playing people unfinished things. It's not fair to the person listening. They're hearing something that isn't as it's supposed to be, and they're supposed to respond.
So I nervously asked Adele what her manager and her mom thought. And she said her manager loved it and her mom cried [LAUGHS]. And so I was pleased because it moved her mom, but also I was relieved.
In what way?
It was interesting to realize that even in its three-quarters finished state, it was very emotionally affecting. I think the song is really an honest statement. The emotions in it are complicated. Adele has said in interviews that she's kind of playing out the scenario of never finding another love, and showing up at this guy's door when she's 40 years old. It's such a powerful, unusual perspective for a song but it feels really direct.
It must be incredibly fulfilling to be aligned with someone at her point in her career, who is transcending all sorts of borders, including age groups and radio formats.
I love the performance on the recording that we made, but when she sings it live on television, amazing things happen. It seems like we have had two or three years of ever-increasing tempo and production values on singles. Every little hit of every little instrument for several years has had to sound like a bomb going off. The beats have become fuller and fuller, and very aggressive. When "Someone Like You" came out, it suddenly looked like she was doing this really revolutionary, wild and different thing. When she would stand on television and sing the song with Miles, her piano player, it was shocking and great. Some of the shows she's done have featured several different artists; mostly it's just one extravaganza after another. Then Adele comes out, standing there alone, shockingly, tragically, vulnerably alone. It's fascinating.
You also have a song, "Home," rising on the country charts right now. How does that feel?
I feel really fortunate because I think Dierks and Brett Beavers and I wrote a song I'm extremely proud of.
Logistically, how did you write it?
The beginning of the song was really an even give-and-take between the three of us. I had asked if we could write in a place with a grand piano, and that's really unusual in Nashville. Usually you write a song in the publisher's office with a printer humming next to your head and the phone ringing every once in a while. You're just sitting on somebody's couch, literally, in a little office. I have never really found that very inspiring.
So we got a place with a grand piano and we kind of talked for a little while and didn't really play any music. We talked for about 20 minutes and shot the breeze in a kind of general way.
And then Dierks got a phone call from his wife and he had to go out and answer it. It was about his car, and it was some little thing that he had to take care of. So he went out of the studio.
And I think Brett started strumming something and I might have played a chord on the piano, and in about five minutes, we had the verse melody, which was mostly Brett, but I think it was inspired by the piano.
He had told me that he never writes with people sitting at a piano. It's very unusual for him. And it was a strange and kind of cool new thing to do. When Dierks came back in, we played him this thing. And he said "when did you come up with that?" [LAUGHS]
Brett said, "We did it just now." Dierks replied, "Where did it come from?" And Brett said, "It fell from the sky." Then I think we kind of banged around on verse ideas. I'm pretty sure that I sort of announced boldly that the song sounded like a patriotic song, and it needed to have the word "America" in it.
Both Brett and Dierks were slightly horrified by the blatantness of putting the word in. But I kept waving that flag. Then Brett wrote what turned into the third verse. Then Dierks came up with the hook line of the song.
You represent a very positive trend in the music industry, which is the cross-pollination of genres with great writing. To have a song on the pop charts and the country charts at the same time must be a good feeling.
With my songwriting, my performing and everything that I do, it seems like I've ended up in this situation where I don't need to worry about stylistic boundaries or rules or fences.
What goes into your decision to get involved in a project with another artist?
I love being part of an artistic flow. If an artist is in the room and we're writing a song for them, I love the idea of helping their career and helping them find a way to express something that they might feel deeply, but not know exactly how to say.
So I had made this decision some years ago that I was going to write with artists or on my own for artistic reasons, as opposed to commercial reasons.
I had done all those sessions with the Dixie Chicks already, and they were such amazing singers, it became apparent that if the singer that I'm working with is inspiring, just as a singer, so many good things happen. Physically, I just find it pleasurable. So I started listening more carefully and thinking more about how it feels to listen to a person's voice. I ask myself: "Will that voice spur me to greater heights?"