Someone Like Dan: Wilson Talks About New Album of His Songs Made Famous by Adele and Others
By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief • August 3, 2017
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter-producer Dan Wilson has had his hand – and heart – in some of the biggest hits of the past two decades. From “Someone Like You” for Adele to “Not Ready to Make Nice” for the Dixie Chicks to “Home” for Dierks Bentley to “Closing Time” for his own seminal '90s rock band Semisonic, Wilson has achieved incredible success across the musical spectrum.
He has also released two critically-acclaimed solo albums, showcasing his masterfully-crafted songs sung in his crystal tenor voice. For his third solo outing, he decided to create something totally unique – reinterpretations of songs from his storied career written with and for other artists such as Chris Stapleton, Taylor Swift, John Legend, Josh Groban and more. Featuring 13 of those songs, Re-Covered was produced by fellow songwriter-producer Mike Viola with creative input from Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Attractions), and recorded live and mixed in one week-long session at United Studios in LA.
In addition to the album, Wilson will release a deluxe edition hardcover book and CD (available August 25th) that contains 56 pages of Wilson’s drawings, essays, lyrics and songwriting observations.
As one of today’s most accomplished songwriters, Dan Wilson has also been a strong advocate for his fellow music creators. He has traveled to Capitol Hill to entertain and inform members of Congress about the creative process and the challenges facing songwriters in the digital age. He has also appeared at ASCAP’s “I Create Music” EXPO to share wisdom and advice with emerging writers.
As he prepared to release his album and book and launch a tour, he spoke to ASCAP about the experience of bringing his songs into the world in a new, deeply personal, light.
How much fun was it to make this album?
It was a pretty good time. [Producer] Mike Viola is great at remembering to make the process enjoyable. Pete Thomas played drums, and he is one of my favorite drummers in the entire world. The vocals are live. It was all recorded to tape.
The way they used to make records.
Right. I asked Mike if he would produce this record. He said he would do it only if we could do it live in the studio and record to two-inch tape. We would mix on the last day. And probably get most of it done in one week. He said, “First, how often do you get to record to two-inch tape? Not that often; second, recording live is a way to get great performances, you know they are great, and you don’t have to mess with them; and third, you’re a busy guy, you don’t want to spend months on this. You’ll be so happy to get this accomplished in a couple of weeks.” He was right.
Technology can often make things too easy in making music. Sounds like you enjoyed the self-imposed pressure of a time limit to push you to achieve the level of quality you wanted.
You also have to take into account the obsessive-compulsive component that is in most musicians’ character. So having the tools and the ability to digitally tinker with something actually means you are not letting anyone off easy. You are actually working ten times as long as you ought to. There’s always one more perfect thing you can add.
As a producer yourself, how easy or hard was it to leave yourself open to direction and hand the reins over to Mike?
It was easy. It was great. I loved just being the artist and letting Mike produce me. We talked about that in advance too. I think he had minor concerns that I would be producing while I performed. But I was so enthusiastic about the idea of just letting go, being inside the music and giving myself over to that most honest, true interpretation and spirit of the songs in the moment.
You wrote these songs with and for other artists and songwriters at different times and in different places in your life. In some ways, as a collection, this album must feel like an autobiography. What was the experience like to fully capture them in your own way?
It was more mind-blowing then I thought it would be. I didn’t really take into account that I would have to be sifting through a lot of my past. I finally sat down, and said okay, there are enough songs out there for me to do this. I made a huge list of possible songs, and I knew most of them weren’t going to work. At first I had a list of 40 songs. Then I got it down to 25 songs. I made simple demos, just myself on the guitar, or on the piano. And some with Anthony Wilson, my friend who plays guitar. Then I ended up with demos of those songs. In the process, I had to re-learn them all, and I had to get back inside the lyrics, and I had to understand them, and believe in them. And in doing that, I couldn’t help but go back to the original sessions mentally, and remember so many details about them, and think about what I was doing right in certain phases. You know? Sometimes when I hear my stuff on the radio, I’m more aware of what I did wrong then what I did right. But in this case, it was interesting because there would be certain things where I would go, “Oh man, I really knew what I was doing back then.” You know, almost a little bit like, “I hope I still do!” [laughs]. It was just mostly fun. Most of the songs we chose, by coincidence or not, were songs where the sessions were ridiculous and fun and silly, and although serious work was being done, they were good times.
Some of the songs on this album were career highlights for you. Are there some songs you chose because they have grown deeper in meaning to you as time has passed?
There are some things here that I’ve always loved, and I never really would have thought that I would have put them on a record like this. Like “Your Misfortune” that I did with Mike Doughty. I think of that as so much of Mike’s song. Even though we worked on it together, it just feels like Mike. Somehow because of that it was like a time capsule in my mind and I hadn’t really thought about the session. So when I was re-learning the song and figuring it out, I was really moved by the lyrics and the spirit of it. And I vividly remembered the parts that we wrote together. It was unexpectedly a moving experience.
What has been the most productive approach for you when co-writing a song with another artist?
If I think about it, it would be that almost every song was completed before we turned on a computer. For me, it’s been better luck writing the whole song first and then going in to record it afterwards.
You’ve traversed several genres of music in your career. You started out in a rock band, and you’ve written for pop stars and with country artists. Do you enjoy one genre over another these days? Or do you look at it in that way at all?
Because I like to write with minimal instrumentation and orchestration until it’s done, it’s like I’m picking up something really abstract. It’s just words and melodies. It’s not really a style. Certain things have to work within a style, and certain things might be more likely to stay in one style then another, but for me, when I’m writing a song, I’m really thinking about the melody and how it works with the words. Are the words moving me? Are all of the components sort of bumping up against each other in a cool way? I’m really almost consciously trying to stay away from thinking about what style of music it is.
"Someone Like You" and "Not Ready To Make Nice," are two of your songs that were part of a zeitgeist in the culture, not just songs that reached the top of the charts. Now that you've had a little bit of distance and time from these successes, how do you feel about them being part of something more than hits?
I know what you mean about the songs, and in a way “Closing Time” has its own cultural impact that kind of transcends the charts and what it meant commercially at the time. It’s hard for me to get my head around that because it’s just me. I helped write those songs, and I know that they are bigger than both of us, so to speak. I don't know exactly what I did differently with one song over another one. This is just me theorizing, but when I talk about writing a song in a very abstract way, it is like it is the barest bare bones of a song when I'm writing. It’s not spruced up. There are no drumbeats. There is just a song. Just melody and words and simple instruments working together. Because of that, they don't know what style they are, and the person who records them understands that they’re just a really great album track, but they don’t obviously have a home. But when it works, then you get a song that connects with people at this really deep bare-bones level. It’s the architecture of the camp-fire, sing-along simplicity of the song that is connecting with the person in addition to whatever instruments are added. So you can have songs that have a deeper connection because they're working on a simpler, elemental, primitive level with people. They don't have the sophistication of cool instruments and drum machines in their DNA.
You've been a great advocate for your fellow songwriters and have traveled to DC to help educate our lawmakers about music creator rights. Do you feel progress is being made?
I think that it’s obvious to people that the creator of a piece of music should be paid for it. But I feel like even though we've seen a trend, and it looks very very ominous for songwriters and music artists in general. I think actually that the way people value music in their lives, I think actually it’s very much valued. I think there was a fear that the economic trend would lead to a new reality where music was meaningless to people. But I don't think that’s what has happened. Music is still important to people. Ways of rewarding artists for being artists are being cooked up all the time, and a lot of creativity is going into that. I actually feel it is a pretty hopeful time.
You are the quintessential example of a songwriter who has had an amazing career because you've looked beyond yourself, and wrote songs with and for others for the sake of the song. Could you offer some advice to other songwriters who may not have ventured yet into co-writing?
Two things. I read a really great quote on the internet, that may be completely misstated but it was a quote about Duke Ellington. Ellington was an amazing composer and he had some amazing composers on his team that he worked with. He also had a group of instrumentalists that played with him at all time. He wrote to their strengths all the time. He said every artist needs an ensemble. In other words, you can't go it alone. That’s why bands exist. That’s why producers collaborate with singers, and singers collaborate with producers. Because there is something about creating music collectively, either as a team of rivals, or a team of friends, that makes the music better. Duke Ellington knew that. And he was one of the greatest composers in the world, ever. The other thing was what a friend of mine told me once a long time ago: an artist without a movement is soon forgotten. You need a community. You’ve got to make your music within a community. You’ve got to be bouncing your music off of your friends and your colleagues. That just naturally leads to collaboration. There is a long road for people on their laptops, sitting on the edge of their bed, making tracks out there. I wish everyone luck, but that sounds terrible to me. Music creates a magical opportunity to connect with other people in a deep way.For more info and tour dates, visit www.danwilsonmusic.com