Interview: Dan Wilson
Dan Wilson first made a name for himself with the hugely successful and still very popular American alternative rock/pop outfit, Semisonic. Throughout the nineties the band produced a string of hit singles including Secret Smile, Chemistry and their signature penning, Closing Time.
Outside of the demands of the touring and recording collective, Wilson has also maintained a successful solo career and spent a vast amount of his time writing some of music’s most iconic hits for a plethora of talent. Over the years the singer-songwriter has worked with the likes of Taylor Swift, P!nk, LeAnne Rimes, Keith Urban and more extensively, chart-topping country darlings Dixie Chicks. Among his biggest successes however was his work as co-producer for Adele album juggernaut 21 and co-writing Someone Like You which stands as one of the songbirds most successful hits to date.
Taking time to focus on his own solo work, Dan Wilson recently released the charming and highly personal collection, Love Without Fear. Busy promoting the record which is Wilson’s 3rd solo studio album, we were lucky enough to catch up with the singer-songwriter and hit extraordinaire to discuss the new record, what it has been like working with and writing hits for some of music’s biggest artists and his creative process. Here is what he had to tell us…
BV: How are you Dan and where in the world does our interview find you?
DW: I am home in Los Angeles, having spent the past weeks in Minneapolis, New York, and London.
BV: You have recently released your 3rd solo album, Love Without Fear. What’s the reaction been like from fans so far?
DW: Seems like people are loving it and hearing it in the way I had hoped. Still haven’t heard the first inevitable angry fan saying I’ve betrayed their hopes and dreams for the album. It’s actually kind of weird to have to wait for that moment.
BV: What would you say the main differences are between Love Without Fear and your previous solo records?
DW: My hope was for it to be very similar to Free Life – that same acoustic-instruments-playing-rock-music vibe, super-intimate lyrics, big melodies, slide guitar. So it’s interesting that it’s quite different in some ways. There’s more twang, more sense of old-school country sneaking in around the edges of the Beatle-y vibes.
BV: The title of the new record suggests that it may be quite a deep and personal collection? What are the main themes heard throughout Love Without Fear?
DW: Yes, I tried to make it very personal. The only weird thing about it, is that even though every line of lyrics is about someone in particular, and something that really happened to me, the “who” changes from line to line or verse to verse of the songs. So the first verse of a song might be about a friend of mine, then the chorus is about my wife, then the next verse is about another woman I know, or about one of my daughters. It’s all mixed up in there. But I hope the songs have a coherence despite my own confusions!
BV: Is there a favourite song for you on the record and if so, why is it a favourite for you?
DW: I think my favorite song, just for pure songwriting, is A Song Can Be About Anything. I was so surprised when I finished it, it wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be. My favorite track is We Belong Together. I just love the 70’s AM radio pop vibe of that one, the horns, the grooviness.
BV: The title track and opening song on the record features Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks and it is a spectacular duet. How did the collaboration come about?
DW: Natalie and I got to know each other musically during the making of the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way. I wrote 7 or 8 songs with them for that album and they ended up using 6 of them, and we had a great time, very cathartic, writing the songs and doing the recordings. So when I was writing the songs on Love Without Fear, I had it in the back of my mind to ask Natalie to sing on one of them. I was nervous about it, really didn’t want to impose on her. But when I emailed asking could she sing some harmonies on my song, she wrote back right away, saying, “How about Wednesday?”
She adds an amazing emotional lift to Love Without Fear and Too Much. It’s really a reminder how lucky I am to work with such brilliant musicians and creators.
BV: You must have a long list of hopefuls lining up to record or write with you. How do you decide who is best to work with – is there a checklist you go through to determine whether or not a collaboration is going to work?
DW: I do have a little checklist.
Great voice? It always helps me get inspired when the person I’m writing with sounds amazing right there in the room.
Fans? Have they already figured out how to interact with an audience? Are they out there in the “real world” playing for people? That gives our song a better chance.
Good person? Do they seem generous, kind, or at least polite? Do they seem like the kind of person I’d like to introduce to my family?
No drugs? That’s my own thing, I just don’t seem to get along with people who are into hard drugs. I don’t mean pot or wine, I mean heroin, cocaine, etc.
Reasonably smart business team? Some labels or managers are so impossible that I don’t really want to get drawn into their orbits. It’s kind of hard for me to write a song with someone knowing that it will end up in the hands of someone less-than-awesome.
BV: Who has been your favourite artist to work with over the years and why?
DW: Super-hard to answer that! I love so many of them. One of my big dreams has been to work “repeatedly” with artists – to be able to know them personally and musically over many years. And so far that plan has worked pretty well. I’m lucky that way.
BV: One of your most recent successes outside of your solo work has been part of the team behind Adele’s Grammy winning success of 21 and you have worked with a long list of other musicians over the years. Are you working on any projects with any other artists at the moment that you can tell us about?
DW: I have a couple of great tracks I produced and co-wrote with Birdy, I’m excited about those. I wrote a batch of songs with Joy Williams of the Civil Wars, I love those songs. Florence Welch and I wrote two great ones over the winter. Lots of stuff coming out, actually.
BV: Have you ever worked with anyone in the past that you later regretted that you can tell us about?
DW: I’m so picky about whom I write with that the sessions usually work out. I’ve had a few sessions with epically late artists – Nas kept me and Al Shux waiting for three days once, that was pretty epic lateness. But Al and I had a great time during those days, so I actually don’t regret it. My only regrets have been co-writers who really didn’t want to co-write – they agreed to meet with me because their labels were pressuring them to write a hit. It never works if one partner is not into writing a song.
BV: How do you decide what songs should be left to record yourself over those you offer to other musicians?
DW: No, I always just use my best current ideas in whatever session I’m doing. I never save songs or ideas, I always spend them. It’s a way of telling myself, “No problem, you can always come up with better stuff later.”
BV: With experience as frontman of a band, working with other artists on their records and having your own successful solo career, you have certainly been able to experience the different forms of creating music. How do you most prefer to work – in a band, solo or with outside musicians on their own records and why?
DW: I love collaboration. I love the speed of it, the surprises, the laughs. Writing songs or painting alone can be beautiful, that feeling of being lost in one’s work is delicious. But it’s not as fun to work alone, and there sure aren’t many laughs working alone. I love people, especially musicians. They’re my tribe. I want to be with them.
BV: Aside from having your own successful solo career, the world also knows you as the face and voice behind the band Semisonic. Semisonic have been very successful for a long time so is there ever an expectation to be as equally successful in your solo career?
DW: I try not to compare the various projects I’m working on. I might write a great song that gets played at a wedding, but it never becomes a hit. Well, that’s a kind of success that very few songwriters have, to have their song played at a wedding. And then another song might become a huge hit, and that’s another kind of great outcome. You never know what’s going to happen to a song.
BV: Are there any plans to return to Semisonic in the future or is your solo career going to be where the focus remains moving forward?
DW: I’m trying to be open to all possibilities. Stranger things have happened than a successful band re-forming after taking a many-years-long break.
BV: How do you find fans from country to country – are there more intense fans in particular territories?
DW: I’ve always loved playing in UK. I think it’s because most of the music I loved as a kid was either jazz or British rock and pop music. I feel like my musical DNA is at least half British, even though I’m 100% American.
BV: Will you be heading out on the road this year to promote Love Without Fear?
DW: Yes! I’m going to play as many shows as I possibly can.
BV: Thanks for your time Dan and all the best with the new record.
Dan Wilson’s new album Love Without Fear is out now.