Local Current Blog

Dan Wilson on new album ‘Re-Covered,’ songwriting for Semisonic

Dan Wilson at the Clown Lounge. Photo by Emmet Kowler for MPR.

Dan Wilson makes many things for many people. He fronts Semisonic, the Minnesota-based band that scored ’90s fandom with “Closing Time.” He has written songs with dozens of musicians, from edgy pop artists (Phantogram, K.Flay) to country greats (Dixie Chicks, Chris Stapleton) to mainstreamers whose albums your mom tracked down at Target (Adele, Taylor Swift). He’s a producer and a visual artist. Between bands and songwriting, he’s also released lovely, simple albums Free Life and Love Without Fear under his own name.

Earlier this month, Wilson announced his third record, Re-Covered: a solo album with a twist. As teased at his semi-secret Clown Lounge show in January, Wilson spent some of the last several years reinterpreting songs he’d co-written. With the original performers’ blessings, he recorded his own version of each song and will share them as Re-Covered on Aug. 4.

Talking over the phone from Los Angeles, Calif., Wilson shared how Re-Covered came about, why he gets to know his collaborators, and what’s in store for Semisonic.

Local Current: I’m really excited about your album Re-Covered. It’s been in the works for several years; what made you decide now was the right time to put it out?

Dan Wilson: Well, we recorded the first tracks two years ago. And then I thought about other songs that could go on the record for a while, and then I did another session of other songs that could go on the record. Then it seemed done, and I wanted to share it with people.

The idea came up a while back — maybe like seven years ago. A friend of mine said, “You should do an album of all the songs you’ve done with other people.” She might have even had an idea about using a pun about the word “covers.” But at the time, when I looked at the list of what I had to offer, my song list didn’t seem quite good enough. I wanted it to be a great list, and I wanted to include some things that very few people, comparatively speaking, have heard. But I [also] wanted to still include a couple more truly awesome songs.

So a few years passed, and [I wrote] songs with Adele, Taylor Swift, Chris Stapleton. A bunch of really good songs happened, and I felt like the idea would be worth people’s trouble.

You co-wrote all but one of these songs, which means you share songwriting rights with the other co-writers. Was it difficult to navigate the legal territory of releasing them on your own, or no?

No! It wasn’t. The general vibe of my collaborators was, “Whoa! Cool.” Everybody was really supportive.

Nobody that I worked with is going to be surprised by this record, because we’ve talked thoroughly about it. I didn’t want to catch anybody by surprise. And these are songs that are important to myself and the people that originally recorded them.

Cool. You’re based in Los Angeles, right? I’ve noticed a ton of Minnesotan musicians moving out there lately. Have you noticed a recent surge of energy or collaboration opportunities?

Yeah, it’s interesting, because when I moved out here, it was 2010. And when I first started coming out to L.A., it was 15 years before that. I think the county museum was here, but it was medium-small, and it was kind of weird. And there was the Getty way out on the beach. You had to make an appointment to go into it. There was no Disney Hall; there was no Broad Museum; the Getty Center had not rebuilt yet when I first started coming out to L.A.

When my family and I moved here six and a half years ago, all of these amazing cultural things had taken place. At the same time, for whatever economic or trendy reason, a big migration of musicians from other cities to L.A. had begun. I feel like I was accidentally at the beginnings of that. Even a lot of my colleagues from London moved to L.A. around the same time as I did. It probably won’t last forever, but it’s a really nice time for Los Angeles.

When I first came to L.A., I went to see some theater pieces that people were doing, and I was amazed that it was no better than the great stuff that I would see in Minneapolis. It’s a much bigger city — it has every reason and a bigger talent pool. Now, the local arts in L.A. have really caught up to the size of the city. It’s a great place. I like it a lot.

So I talked to one Minnesotan rapper who plays the Dixie Chicks every time he gets in the studio with someone new, just as a palette cleanser. Do you go through any rituals when you’re starting to write with someone, or does it depend? What’s the first encounter like?

When I start a session to write a song, I usually just end up shooting the breeze with the person. I don’t mind the thought of jumping into work before you’ve had a chance to talk, and I know some people just like to get to work and they don’t want to have any chit-chat, but somehow, it feels like for me, those first couple conversations often include the sparks of whatever it is you’re going to end up writing. There’s a kind of personal connection that allows you to guess a little bit more about your collaborator, and them about you.

Maybe I like to pretend that it’s a low pressure — high stakes, but low pressure — situation. I like to think that it’s just a song, after all. It’s not going to be the beginning or end of the world. It’s our opportunity to have a great day and do something really creative. That’s probably why I like to chat.

I’ve had a lot of sessions where we forgot to go to the songwriting part, and we just laughed and talked the whole day. Which is not super productive, but it’s a nice way to live once in a while. And sometimes there’s just a lot to talk about, and the moment demands it, instead of getting down there and make some chords and a lyric or whatever.

What have you learned about yourself through going back and recording these songs?

A couple of different things. I’m not sure exactly how to say some of this, but one thing I’ve learned is that my voice is just my voice. It’s nobody else. It’s obviously me, and not everybody has that. Whether I have a great voice or not is almost beside the point, but people just know it’s me when I start singing. I didn’t really hear that in the same way before I made this record, because I didn’t have the contrast. Now I can hear myself sing all these songs that I’ve already loved and appreciated and listened to so many times with other people singing. Now I hear myself sing on it, and due to the contrast, I can hear: That’s what makes Dan sound like Dan. That was a positive experience.

Totally. I’m obviously not a percentage as close to it, but I was at the Clown Lounge back in January, and I kind of had the same realization.

Yeah, and I guess one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I really like living in the present. Recording the songs was an exercise of bringing the songs into the present, which was really positive for me and great. I enjoyed that a lot.

But I wrote some essays about the songs for the deluxe version of the album, and it turned into a short book.

Whoa.

It was all about songwriting, and the friends that I’ve worked with, and funny experiences I’ve had, and things that really formed me. Not in a way that I’m complaining about, but it was very much about times gone by. Appropriately so. But that was disorienting and strange, and I didn’t like that nearly as much as I like just having my current-day projects at the top of my mind and being excited about what I’m doing, and living in the present. So, bringing the songs into the present by interpreting them all in a studio setting, I dig a lot. But then writing the essays and thinking about the past was like, “Whoa! Too much.”

That meditation gets overwhelming.

Yeah! I just got overcooked. So I’m happy to be back in the present.

And I got to do some things — you know, I never would’ve guessed that I would record something with the Kronos Quartet. That was a wonderful experience. They have a way of working with each other and bringing the phrasing and the emotion more and more into focus, and it’s really inspiring to watch. It’s inspiring to be a part of, because they’re committed to sounding great and being musically true and expressive.

It’s funny that you’re talking about the past and the present, because you’ve got a trio of sold-out shows coming up here in Minneapolis/St. Paul. At two of them, you’re going to play Semisonic’s Great Divide from 1996.

Yes! Relearning those songs — it’s amazing what muscle memory can do. But the muscle memory doesn’t bring you back to that honed, battle-tested state of mind that a touring band has. So it’s been challenging but really cool to realize that John [Munson], Jake [Slichter], and I went through a lot of experiences together and put a pretty sharp point on our sound.

Yeah, and then going back to the present, you’re also writing and recording new music with Semisonic, right?

I guess maybe I’ve told people about that. For a bunch of years, I would sit down and go, “I want to write a song for Semisonic.” And then I would write that song, and it wouldn’t sound like the band. It’d just be wrong. It was interesting for me to have to just be honest with myself and say, “As much as I would like this to be a Semisonic song, it just isn’t.” What is that elusive thing? I really couldn’t figure it out.

This year, for a couple of strange reasons, I ended up writing more than a handful of songs that seemed very much like Semisonic. They caught me by surprise. I’m certainly hoping that there will be some public release or upshot from that, but I’m not sure how that’s going to work. But we might play one of two new songs at the shows at First Ave.

Oooh. How has writing with so many talented artists affected that songwriting for Semisonic? Can you even put a finger on it?

That’s hard for me to objectively talk about. But I was once asked to say something about songwriting and greatness — one’s dreams of greatness. One’s aspirations to be as great as one can be. And I thought about it, and I tried to use a metaphor of a mountain. If you look at a map of a mountain, the mountain is in the middle of the map. We tend to denigrate or belittle doing the art that’s in the middle of the culture, but when you look at the mountain from the side or from the slopes when you’re climbing, everybody’s trying to climb together to get to the highest point.

As things become greater and greater — the music gets better; the honesty gets bigger; the clarity and boldness increase — everybody from all different styles of music is climbing up different sides, but everybody’s kind of converging toward this central point that’s way at the top.

With great mash-ups or duets, or weird Grammy moments where a hip-hop artist performs with a metal band, you realize that as people get better at whatever weird thing they do, they converge toward the mountaintop.

I feel like I’ve been on that climb with a lot of unbelievably brilliant people, and it just makes you clearer about how to get a little bit higher on the mountain if you get to work with someone who’s one of the greatest mountain-climbers in the world, metaphorically speaking. Most of these people don’t go out on mountaintops. Me neither, but you know what I mean.

It’s funny  I’ve been listening to Halsey’s hopeless fountain kingdom quite a bit since it came out the other week. And yesterday, when I was brushing up on what exactly you’d written with who, I saw your name by “Alone.” [laughs] I was like, “Oh my gosh, here Dan Wilson is again.”

[laughs] When I’m at a party and somebody says, “What do you do?” I go, “Oh, I’m a musician.” They go, “What kind of music do you do?” I say, “Oh, I don’t know. I work with people of different styles.” Whoever I’m with goes, “G—damnit, Dan!” Then they have to give the other person my CD and explain what I do. The person I’m meeting, who’s asking me the question, goes, “Oh, I love that song! Wait, you did that?” There’s this whole kind of funny bonding experience.

If we get deeper into it, it does get a little ridiculous, because I’ve worked with so many different brilliant artists. It sometimes, I think, unfairly seems like I’ve cherry-picked somebody’s favorite artists. But it’s probably because I’ve done a lot of really, really amazing sessions with people.

And that speaks to your experience and talent as a songwriter, too, so I think you should own that.

[laughs] I’m trying to own it! Give me some time. Eventually, I’ll own it.

Well, I’m basically good to go, but I wanted to ask: do you have a preference among writing verses, bridges, choruses, or anything else?

Hmmm. When I work with people, quite often — and I try not to make it a cliché about myself, because I don’t want to get into too many habits. But I’ll often have this experience where we’ll be working on some bit of music. I’ll kind of open my mind, and I’ll hear the next section of the song in my mind, and I’ll do my best to communicate the idea to the person I’m working with. I’ll sing this idea; maybe it has words, maybe it doesn’t. Sometimes they go, “Well, I don’t know.” But sometimes they’ll say, “That’s amazing!” or, “I love that.” And then they say, “Is that a pre-chorus, or a chorus?” Or, “Is that a bridge?” I always go, “I don’t know. That information didn’t come with the piece of music.”

In some ways, that’s cool, because if you’re working and you have too many parts of a song, you can always just remove the one that’s the least awesome. Suddenly, the thing that you thought was a verse is gone, and the thing that you thought was a chorus is now sort of functioning as a verse. Then the thing that was the second chorus you wrote that was better than the first chorus becomes the chorus. I try to keep it kind of flexible in my mind.

So I think what I’m good at is thinking about the next part of the song, whatever that might be. Then we just have to figure it out.

Semisonic play the Turf Club on June 14 and First Avenue on June 16-17. ‘Re-Covered’ comes out Aug. 4.