"I'm elusive, even to the people who work for me," Dan Wilson says via phone from an airport-bound taxi, after his management team finally secured a coveted interview slot for me. If the famed singer/songwriter seems hard to get a hold of, it's for good reason. For the past two decades, he's been responsible for a steady stream of chart-topping songs that span the musical divide, from his band Semisonic's seismic smash "Closing Time," to massive hits for everyone from Adele ("Someone Like You"), the Dixie Chicks ("Not Ready to Make Nice"), Taylor Swift ("Treacherous"), and, more recently, Weezer ("California Kids"), Dierks Bentley ("Why Do I Feel"), and Phantogram ("You Don't Get Me High Anymore"). I had the good fortune of co-writing a song with Wilson back in 2013 (entitled "Stay"), after years of chasing him via email to do so. Watching him craft a song, as well as dissect a melody and lyrics with the skill of a surgeon is a process I won't soon forget, and one that taught me more about songwriting than any college-level course ever could. While prepping for the release of his upcoming solo album Recovered (due out in early 2017), Wilson agreed to take a look back at the formative experiences that shaped his fertile musical career.
Take us back to the beginning. Did you study music formally as a child?
I'm from Minneapolis. I started out taking piano lessons in second grade, because I think my parents thought it was the thing to do. They found a teacher three blocks from our house; her name was Marlys Strand, and her teaching method was really theoretical. We talked about things like the circle of fifths, key signatures, and how different keys relate to one another. There was always a music theory component to her lessons; even for beginners. So from the very start I was steeped in a music theory approach, which I think affected me a lot. All during elementary and junior high school I was listening to pop music. At the same time, my parents listened to things like The Beatles and a lot of folk rock – like Carole King, James Taylor, and Simon & Garfunkel. But I never put those two things together. It never occurred to me that my piano lessons and the music we were listening to were the same thing.
Were there any other kinds of music percolating in your house, like jazz or classical?
Christmas carols were a really important part of my emotional life, for some reason. I'm not really sure why. When my brother Matt and I were 13 and 11, my parents gave us an acoustic guitar to share. We quickly learned a bunch of the basic chords, and very shortly after getting the guitar, we wrote our first songs. It was up in our cabin in the north woods of Minnesota. We had the guitar, and we somehow cooked up the idea that we were each going to write a song. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and each of us wrote a song. I remember mine had chords that I really liked, but my brother Matt's seemed like an actual, really great, song. So I was actually kind of dismayed at my first effort. But it was an early revelation that there were two different things going on.
Do you remember the name of that first song of yours?
I think mine was about "going down the road," or something like that. We lived on a long dirt road that had about six miles of dust and dirt between us and the nearest highway. There were always big trucks rumbling by, kicking up huge clouds of dirt. So I think it had something to do with that vibe. I was probably trying to sound like George Harrison! In junior high school, I wanted to become a drummer, but my parents couldn't afford a practice pad for me. So I continued playing guitar.
That may be the first time in history that a rock drummer's career was stymied because of the lack of a practice pad!
True! [laughs] A couple of years later they were a little more "flush," so they got my brother a practice pad, and he became the drummer in the family. In junior high school, I used to build puppets with my brother. We built a rock band out of puppets, and they were very elaborate. You could make the drummer do lots of things with his sticks, with rods that were attached to the arms and head. We were able to put on entire rock shows for our friends with these puppets.
This would be about the mid 1970s?
Yeah, we're talking about junior high school, which would have been around 1976. At that point, the songs we were using for our puppet shows were all kinds of glam rock – things like [Elton John's] "Bennie and the Jets," and other ultra colorful songs by people like David Bowie. We were miming along to those records with our puppets. Soon, my brother Matt's drumming got so good that we decided to start a band together. We had a neighbor who was a guitar player – who's now a Los Angeles-based producer known as Jimmy Harry. And since it was my brother on drums and Jimmy on guitar, I decided to become a bass player, which started getting me into [the music of famed jazz bassist] Jaco Pastorius. That got me into a lot of jazz music, which got me to switch my piano lessons over to jazz piano lessons. I took a year and a half of lessons from a guy named Herb Wigley, and he basically taught me how to read songs from a "fake book." I learned things like what kind of chord substitutions would work in the left hand, and just how much liberty you could take with an innocent show tune. It was very interesting for me – I suddenly realized that the piano was an expressive tool, and not just a job I had to do every week for my lessons. Classical music is written so differently than jazz. With jazz, the whole idea is that you're left to your own devices a lot of the time. You're standing or falling, based on what you do in the moment. That started becoming really important to me.
After high school, you went to Harvard University. What did you plan to do after graduation?
I had plans to be a fine artist. My puppet efforts were part of a larger practice of doing a lot of drawings, cartoons, and sculpture all through junior high and high school. These were just things I did when I got out of school every day. At Harvard, I thought I was going to go into the painting department, but the head of it took a leave of absence for the entire time I was there. I was a bit disappointed, but almost instantly during my freshman year I started auditioning for bands. I soon got into a band called, regrettably, The Seal Beaters. It's not a name I'm particularly proud of now, but it seemed like a good idea at the time!
What kinds of things were you doing with the band?
I started writing songs for the band. We had okay songs, but I thought we could do better. I started writing songs so we would have some material.
This was the early 1980s?
Yeah. I was listening to things like Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and The Clash. I was still listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin and Joni Mitchell. My brother came to Harvard two years later, and we formed a band called Animal Dance. Later, a band from Los Angeles took that name, so we formed another band called the Love Monsters, and we played a lot of shows. I was probably away from school two nights a week playing gigs with the band on bass. It turned out to be a good way to get a job in a band, because no one else could play the bass!
Were you singing as well?
Yes, more and more. I also started to be a lead singer, although my brother Matt was the lead singer of the Love Monsters. I was the lead singer in other bands. During this time, I was writing songs; but Matt had become a better and better songwriter, so one of the things I got good at was helping him finish songs of his that he hadn't finished himself. So if he had two-thirds of a song finished, but he didn't know where to go, I learned that I was pretty good at suggesting the last thing to do in the song, or adding a chorus to a verse. So that became one of my roles in my collaboration with my brother. Or he would give me a bunch of lyrics and I would write a melody for the lyrics. It was really an early start on what I do a lot of now. The last thing that happened to me while I was at Harvard was that my brother and I got lured, with our band, to record in New York City at Electric Lady Studios. So we went to New York and stayed at our guitarist, Oswaldo Costa's, parents' house. His father was the Brazilian ambassador to the United Nations, so we stayed for three nights in his parents' amazing brownstone. Each night we'd hear from the house engineer that someone bumped us from our session and that we'd have to wait until the next night to record. On the third night, we got the same news that we couldn't come into the studio, so we drove back up to Boston without ever having recorded anything. I found that very dispiriting. I didn't realize that it was just business as usual! I was bummed, so I decided that I was going to move to San Francisco and not do music for a while. I was just going to focus on my artwork. I moved there for a couple of years and lived a bohemian life. I had a fabulous time, but I also cried a lot because I didn't know what I was doing with myself. At the end of those two years of me doing a lot of painting and artwork, and making some really great friends, I got a call from my brother asking me if I would move back to Minneapolis and learn all the second guitar parts for a band he was starting called Trip Shakespeare. I agreed. I learned how to play electric guitar, which I hadn't really done a lot of, up until then.
You seem to relish the challenge of learning new things, whether it's a new instrument, new pieces of music, or, recently, your newfound social media-displayed interest in calligraphy.
Yeah! I'd hate to think I'm floating aimlessly through my musical life. On the other hand, every time something interesting that I don't know how to do yet comes up, I jump on it.
So you moved back to Minneapolis?
I did. I learned all of the parts, note for note, and I became the fourth member of a quartet. We started touring. I had very long hair and I wore a lot of beads. We jammed a lot, and had long jams. I helped bring long, improvised sections into some of our songs. I got a digital piano and played a lot of piano on stage. We started touring, and basically never stopped. I'm sure we had several 200-plus show years during that period. We broke up in 1992.
Why did the band come to an end?
I think we had been on the road for seven years together. We had gotten signed to A&M Records, and they didn't know what to do with us. We made two albums and an EP for them, and then they dropped us. So everybody was looking for a fresh challenge and something new to do. At that point, my brother used to tease me that I listened to the radio too much and that I was too influenced by pop music. But when Trip Shakespeare stopped, I decided that I was going to try and make a band that really could be played on the radio. I was going to learn how to write songs that were really simple and iconic – songs that expressed my vision, but that wouldn't perplex people too much. That was the idea behind Semisonic.
Were you looking at the hit music around you and asking yourself, "What is it about this that's reaching people? Why is it successful?"
I don't think I was thinking about success, per se. If I was thinking about a band or a musical artist that I loved, and what song I loved the most of theirs, it was always their biggest hit song. I was a huge fan of Miles Davis, and I listened to all of his albums, but Kind of Blue is my favorite one. It's no coincidence that it's his biggest hit. Music that didn't capture my attention was often elaborate and didn't have a populist element to it. For instance, all of my friends really liked Frank Zappa, but I was just so mystified why anyone would like [his music]. And I think it's because it was only for super-knowledgeable "musos." It wasn't for normal people. When I was transitioning out of Trip Shakespeare into Semisonic, it wasn't that I was like, "How can we make a lot of money?" Or, "How can we be successful?" Because all I thought of at that time was, "How can I convince people to give us a budget to make another recording?" To me, it was all a big scam to convince the next person to invest a bunch of money in us so that we could record. I wasn't trying to have the most success, I was just thinking, "Where's the action? Where are the coolest things happening?" And it was in the hits of Motown, The Beatles, Elvis Costello, and others. I loved Led Zeppelin, and I used to listen a lot to all of their music, but my favorite album is their fourth album. I think I just wanted to be part of that conversation – of that big picture. I wanted to try my hand at writing songs like that – what I perceived to be big, great, classic songs. When you're learning jazz, you're learning songs like, "My One and Only Love," and "My Funny Valentine." Songs that are the fucking most powerful, beautiful, expressions of pop song writing. That's what jazz did for me, and where the "rubber hits the road." And I wanted to be part of that.
Was the drafting of this new "mission statement" for Semisonic when your songwriting really started to take off?
I think around that same time, I kind of figured it all out. It happened with a series of songs where I suddenly realized that I needed to write about my daily life and adventures, and I also needed to allow myself to look like a jerk once in a while in the lyrics. I was probably too couth before that.
Give me an example of a Semisonic song that evinces this new lyrical directive.
There was a song called "Temptation" on the first Semisonic album, Great Divide. When I first wrote it, it was almost about how I was resisting temptation with regards to a woman in my life, and how I was behaving myself and being a good guy, because I was married at the time. When I played it for my wife, she said, "Well, the problem with this song is that nothing happens." And I was like, "You're right! Nothing happens in the song." And I thought that I was going to have to have the song be about cheating. That was uncomfortable for me, because I had to present myself as very fallible. There was also a Semisonic song called "Brand New Baby," [also on Great Divide] which was about being dumped by somebody who was pretending that they needed time to think about things. But, as it turns out, they were really just falling for somebody else. The song is super resentful, with a level of vengefulness and wounded-ness that I think, early on, I wouldn't have known how to present. But, what I figured out is that you need to stand up in front of people with your arms outstretched and be almost transparent, as well as super vulnerable and open. [You have to] try your best to show whatever crazy feeling you're having, even if it's not what you would share with your family at the dinner table. So you have to be vulnerable, open, and embarrassing in your music, even if you are trained to be more guarded and polite in your normal life. You have to live both of those lives.
We can't talk about Semisonic without mentioning your monstrous hit, "Closing Time." How did that song come about?
It's interesting. I really thought that the first full-length album we did, Great Divide, had one hit single after another on it. So I was really excited about it, thinking that I was going to be taking part in a larger conversation. Instead, the critical response to the album was that it was perceived as an art project – quirky, brainy, and hooky, but more art than commerce. People praised it, and liked it. I thought it was very weird that I thought of it as a "fastball right down the middle," but it was perceived to be some sort of "crazy, floating knuckleball" instead. I found that to be very instructive. For the next album, I basically took that as permission to make as much of an art project as I wanted to make. I decided to not worry about hits or radio sounding songs, and instead do what was most exciting and interesting to me. I wrote about 60 songs for the record, and by the end of the writing process every little thing that happened in my life was turning into a song! I wrote "Closing Time" partly because my guys in the band, John [Munson] and Jake [Slichter], wanted a new song to close our sets. They were bored with a song of ours called "If I Run," which we always ended our sets with. Also, another friend of mine, Jim Barber, who was an A&R guy, told me that if I thought a song of mine was great but overlooked, to just write it again. I thought that was an interesting idea, so I took some elements from that song "If I Run," and I took Jacob and John's desire for a new closing song, and I took the fact that my wife and I were pregnant and our lives were about to change radically, and I put them all together in this short, very simple song. Halfway through the writing of it, I realized that it was a pun about being born – like being bounced from the womb. Every line in it, except for maybe two, work on two levels of meaning. I had this big theory that you needed to be able to interpret every line in a song in two really different ways in order for the song to be good. And I was working really hard to make that work. So I thought "Closing Time" was a fantastic new song to finish our shows with, and I thought maybe the bartenders would be able to use it. And then, when we recorded it with Nick Launay [Tape Op #105], everybody who heard it thought it sounded like a good single to release. Everybody except our label, MCA, who thought we didn't have any singles on that album. Nick worried that it was going to take us off of that "art pedestal" and put us in a more populist position. And I, of course, thought that would be awesome. It succeeded in a big way, well beyond what any of us guessed it would do.
You couldn't escape that song!
That song was inescapable for me, too. I heard it everywhere. The first time I heard "Closing Time" on the radio it sounded terrible, and I immediately went to work organizing a remix. It just didn't sound as loud and efficient on the radio as other songs. I quickly started waving the flag for a recall. We also ended up remixing it with Jack Joseph Puig, but the world chose the original Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #84] mix. So that's what most people hear. But after that first time hearing it and being critical, every time after that just became a crazy thrill. I used to go to concerts where people would not play their big single, and I never could understand why. So I've never been ambivalent or resentful of people loving that song. You do have to go through a period of performance where a certain percentage of people in the crowd only want to hear that one thing. So you might be playing a bigger room, but a certain percentage of people only want to hear that one song and then go home. And that took a while to get used to, but it took care of itself once we released a bunch more singles.
Can you talk about how your studio experiences have evolved over the years – from your early efforts, to working in more elaborate recording situations?
My earliest recording experiences were with a high school classmate of mine named David Bratter. He had a couple of reel-to-reel tape recorders, and he had perfected the art of overdubbing from one machine to another. He had some microphones and other gear – I'm sure none of it was top shelf, but we were able to experiment with the gear he had. It was quite miraculous to me; this experience of being able to put multiple iterations of yourself onto a recording. From there, I went straight to trying to be in bands. To my great fortune I immediately started thinking about material for shows, rather than songwriting in any pure way. I just thought about cooking up loud things to play at rock shows. They had to make some kind of sense, and be fun to play, and be loud. And so I worked really hard to pump out things that the band could play. It wasn't about expressing my soul. The songs were a catalyst for a human experience. I'm always amazed when I talk to songwriters in Los Angeles who have never played a live show. I can't really imagine what that's even about. How would you ever know when your song has that electric effect on people? I used to have this experience that when you play to a packed house, and you play the really good song that's better than the other ones, the whole audience seems to be about an inch taller. It's powerful. You can see this weird change in the room. In my early days with Trip Shakespeare, we were very much "Minneapolis, do it yourself." We had some friends who started a studio called GARK, which was a home studio that morphed into a real one. It was 8-track tape for a while, and it eventually became 24-track. We still did basically all the work ourselves. Part of the wonder of our second album, Are You Shakesperienced?, was that we had just discovered what a compressor was, and how it would make the vocals sound so much more presentable, and the drums sound awesome. What's interesting is that when I think about GARK, nobody who worked there had ever been an apprentice at any other studio. No one had gotten the "lore" from the masters. It was all very Midwestern, "figure it out yourself," like typing with one finger.
Do you remember what compressor you used on the album?
I don't remember what it was. It probably wasn't anything special; most likely an Aphex or something like that. [But] for us that was like a magical, transformative thing. But if we had lived in New York or Los Angeles, it would have been standard practice. Trip Shakespeare actually had a meeting with [Led Zeppelin's] John Paul Jones. He invited us to come to England and record in his castle. We thought about it really hard, we voted on it, and we voted, "No." We thought, "We don't want to go to John Paul Jones' castle in England." We wanted to work in Minneapolis in some studio, with someone that we knew. In the end, maybe it would have been better to take that offer, but we really had a do it yourself ethic. Interestingly, this all built-up around the time that Prince was turning do it yourself into a giant industry in the suburbs of Minneapolis. So we did our album, Across the Universe, at his studio, Paisley Park.
What was that experience like?
I felt like Paisley Park had a cold, industrial décor. It was like a giant refrigerator. The door handle was made of stainless steel, and you felt like you were going into a meat locker or something. It wasn't funky. Later, Prince put a lot of murals up and made it a lot funkier than it was in the beginning. But I was accustomed to these home studios that were kind of crappy, so this slick, ‘80's architecture thing put me off. We recorded the fourth Trip Shakespeare album at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. It was really a glorious, woodsy, beautiful space. There were giant windows in the main room where you recorded – giant picture windows that looked out onto the woods, with natural light coming in, and a sense of expansiveness and beauty. That was so much more appealing to me than the corporate atmosphere of other studios.
Who are some of the recording artisans – producers, engineers, and the like, that have shaped you along the way?
After those first do it yourself recording experiences, the first time Trip Shakespeare worked with a sonic genius was in on our last album, Lulu, where we worked with Justin Niebank, who is now one of the biggest mixers and producers in Nashville. At that time, one of the striking things about Justin was that almost all of the discussion with him involved what to play, and how fast to play it. "Oh, you have an idea? Let me run out and throw some mics up so you can play it!" There was hardly any process that took a long time, technically. We were able to instantly talk about the ideas like, "Why are we playing this sitar on this song?" Everything I had done before that was so painstaking. It would take forever to get the bass to sound right, because none of us knew what we were doing. And here we were – we got with this guy who was so good, none of our time and effort was spent getting a sound. That was just fascinating, and a real breakthrough for me. The next sonic epiphany I had was when Semisonic had already done a record and a half. We were going to do our second full-length CD, and we got Nick Launay to produce us. Nick, in some ways, was self-taught, but he had been an assistant engineer and producer with Public Image Ltd. [aka PiL]. He had been the assistant for hugely accomplished producer/engineers in London, and he got that "lore" of which microphones to use. He had opinions about which of the five or six super old microphones were the best to use, and he would put a Neumann U47 FET in front of me all the time. By the time we arranged to work with Nick, this new studio in Minneapolis was opening called Seedy Underbelly. We went on a tour of the studio, which was started by a guy named John Kuker, who passed away last year. John had been lending Semisonic microphones and preamps to record demos in our rehearsal space. He was already being super generous to us. When we toured his new studio, it was still in construction. There were walls that weren't finished, and the mixing desk wasn't even hooked up. But Nick Launay saw the gear in the racks and said, "Oh, this is all the exact equipment I would ask for. Let's do it!" So we were the first project in this amazing new studio in Minneapolis that was designed around John's impeccable vintage gear taste. He had the Tape Op aesthetic, maybe even years before it existed! He was so far ahead of the curve, and he created an amazing playground that we got to record in. It was also incredibly fascinating to watch Nick Launay work, because I wasn't clued in to how the sounds were made. The way Nick dials in an EQ is he flings the knobs around at incredible speed; the sounds goes from one thing to another very violently. I once asked him, "Do you have a system? Do you always put a little 3 kHz into your guitars?" I was trying to learn a little bit about recording And he replied, "No, I just love these things. I just turn the knobs in all directions randomly, and, quite often, you happen upon a really great sound!" [laughs] It was a wild man approach, and always performance oriented. He was all about getting the vibe, and getting the performance.
When this new recording world of vintage gear and recording techniques was shown to you, were you fascinated by it?
You know, I was only vaguely interested in the sonic element of recording. I had always played terrible-sounding guitar rigs, up until that point. I had played through a bad sounding Peavey amp in Trip Shakespeare, and I graduated to a pretty ratty sounding Fender Twin with a Strat through a RAT pedal. That's the reediest, thinnest, least ballsy sounding combination of gear you could possibly have. And I played through that rig for three years. One of the things the real deal dudes will do, is that if you say, "I wanna sound loud, and I want the amp to be really mid-range-y, but I want there to be a ‘thud' when I hit a chord," old school, legit engineers who have been around for a while will say, "Okay, you're gonna take your Les Paul, and you're going to plug it directly into your Marshall amp. Then you're going to turn all the knobs up, all the way, and bring the presence back down." It's like, "There you go! Look out!" You're gonna sound just like all of those records. All of that dicking around will be swept aside for the simplest, obvious solution.
On Semisonic's 1998 album Feeling Strangely Fine, you started bringing in heavy hitters like Bob Clearmountain. What did you take away from that experience?
We had a nice, long conversation with Bob Clearmountain about mixing that album. At one point, we were asking him so many questions because we were trying to get our home studio rig to sound better to make B-sides and other recordings there. We learned that making really good sounding demos was a helpful thing for the band, because it allowed us to show our wares to the label. We had a huge project of sending out our recording to fans before we had any record label. We knew it was about going straight to the audience. So we had this long conversation with Bob about what he was going to do, how he was going to work, and what gear he used. Finally he said to us, "Guys, you know what? I just want to make it clear that when I'm working on a mix, it's really not all about this. It's not about the hardware, it's about trying to make the song sound as great as it can be." He said, "I'm happy to talk to you about these things, but I don't want to give you the impression that this is all I talk about. Because it's not as interesting to me as getting the song to communicate and be great." Working with Bob was really great. I was really picky about how the sounds and arrangements were going to work, and he was willing to match me, step for step. A couple of times, when I would give him a few too many notes on a mix, he would say, "Tell you what – why don't you guys take off and leave for two hours, and I'm going to start over." So instead of doing it incrementally, bit by bit, he would get the impression of what I wanted – which a lot of times was about having more room mics and more blend with the instruments; more smeary and less distinct. Once Bob realized what I was after, he felt like he could get closer by just starting over. Again, it was more about the performance than tweaking certain factors.
It's about energy, over the minutia. He gets it on a molecular level.
Yeah. I remember vividly that during one session, I had taken up a perch overlooking the top of the mixing desk. You know where you'd usually put a lava lamp? That was my head. So when Bob would look up between the speakers, there I was, watching him mix.
That must have been thrilling for him!
Yeah. At one point, I was just staring at his hands. He looked up and said, "Dan, am I doing something wrong? Do you want to say something? Because you keep staring at my hands like you want me to do something different." He was a little bit unnerved. And I just cracked-up and said, "Oh, Bob. I'm so sorry. I really was staring at your hands, and what I was thinking was, ‘Those are Bob Clearmountain's fucking hands!'" [laughs] I had thought of him as a legend and an icon.
When did you start to focus more on being a songwriter for others?
I became a father in 1997, and my daughter spent a year in the hospital. It was a very difficult time. I was actually at Seedy Underbelly with Nick Launay, John and Jake from Semisonic, and John Kuker overseeing us, a month after my kid was born. And it was already looking like it was going to be a very long road with my daughter. There was a point where I just realized that a few years and records down the line, when my kid was three and a half, I probably couldn't be on tour 200 days a year again. I needed to be home a lot more. Up until that point, I had focused solely on the vocal/guitar demo. The other option was the piano/vocal demo. Then I had always let the people around me create the ambience of sound. But I focused, almost like a monk, on just the words, the notes, and the groove of things. I really ignored all questions of sound, and I went super deep into what makes a song great; how people relate to them, what thrills them, and what makes peoples' hearts jump up in a song. At that point, I realized that, unlike my musician friends and producers, – like Nick Launay, Bob Clearmountain, and other songwriters – the people in the music business could not hear a simple demo of a song and determine for themselves if it was great or not. They needed the complete package. They needed a demo that sounded like a master. And it was a real sea change for me. I had to learn how to make great demos that sounded like records. In 2001 I had an amazing year that was like graduate school for sound. I have this theory that the analog people will never tell you their tricks, but the digital people will all tell you their tricks. So I went to Oslo and worked with a producer named David Eriksson, who was doing boy bands and other big pop projects. It was an early glimmering of the Scandinavians ruling the current pop music scene. David and I wrote some songs together, and he produced them. I asked a lot of questions, like, "How did you make that sound so good in the computer? What did you put the vocal through? Did you compress or EQ the entire thing, or did you do it all separately?" And because he was a digital guy, he told me everything. So I undertook a year of going around and writing with different people in a digital setting, and everybody basically taught me how to do it. When I went back to Minneapolis, I had the beginnings of how to make a great-sounding record in my house. We produced the last Semisonic record, All About Chemistry, ourselves, after our label was disappointed we only sold two million copies of Feeling Strangely Fine. So we took that as an opportunity to really take ourselves to school and learn about sound.
What kind of gear do you use to craft demos in your home studio?
I'm always trying to get everything down to the bare minimum. It's like my philosophy about guitars; I could imagine wanting to own 40 guitars, each for a specific thing. But one thing I decided early on was that I was only going to deal with a small palette. It's the same thing with chords. When I'm writing a song, I'm going to use a diminished chord once in a while. But, usually, I'm going to use what my friend John Fields calls "the four chords of doom," which is I, V, VI minor, and IV. Why is that? I just feel like, "Give me the six-piece Crayola crayons set, and you can use the 64-piece one. And let's see whose picture is better." I'm going to try to paint a better picture than you, with the smaller set. I like the challenge of it. I think one reason that I'm eclectic, and that I can work with Nas, Adele, Taylor Swift, Weezer, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is because I'm so far down under the details that tell you what style it is. When I make a recording, I just want to have one really great microphone that works for around 75 percent of people, one great one that works for around 20 percent of people, and, finally, one that works for the other five percent of people. I really love the older Soundelux E47 microphones. I also really like the Bock 251. Then there's a Shure SM7 for everyone else. There are five guitars that I need: a Gibson 135 or 335 semi-hollow body, a Gibson SG, a Les Paul, a Fender Telecaster, and a Fender Stratocaster. I don't need anything else. In terms of acoustic guitars, I have a Gibson J-50 and a Southern Jumbo, both from the mid-1950s. In 2001, when I was starting to travel and write songs with people, my friend, Jacob Slichter (who played drums in Semisonic), told me, "You need to have a really good traveling guitar to get inspired from." So that's where those guitars come in. If I'm doing a writing session with somebody, what I really hope for is that I'm going to get an unbeatable lead vocal performance from the person I'm working with. And then we'll try to make the record around it. Because of that, I want everything to be a really good signal chain. I use one of those three mics, I send that through these 500-series Tubule preamps from Roll Music Systems – they sound amazing. Then I have a homemade 1176-style compressor that Scott Lieber in Minneapolis was selling to people pretty cheap, as long as they were willing to solder it together! It's like an 1176, without that hissy, extra top-end. The amps, in and out, are Neve-style, so it's darker. I also have a Manley Voxbox. I have an old [Avid] 96 I/O interface for Pro Tools. I figure that if I want to be somewhere that has lots of mics and other gear, I live in Los Angeles and there are 12 studios near me with all of that. I just want to be able to get an amazing vocal, and some kind of sense of performance that is happening. Sometimes I even use an Apogee MiC into my smartphone. I've done a bunch of background vocals for records that way, stacking them like the Beach Boys into GarageBand while sitting in my car.
How did you career morph from a rock band frontman into the behind-the-scenes "hitmaker" you are today?
I think it happened partly because I was always super focused on the song, and that a song should be super-translatable into different styles. I remember seeing Elvis Costello at the Northrop Auditorium when I was a teenager, and every single one of his hits had been rearranged to have a horn section. That really freaked me out, because they didn't sound like the records at all. It was eye-opening, like listening to different versions of Carole King songs. Songs should be portable; and to make them that way, you have to make them busk-able. I had been on tour for seven years with Trip Shakespeare, and eight years with Semisonic, and I needed to be home with my kid more. I decided I was going to become like Carole King. I was going to provide songs for other people, and figure out a way to have more of a platform for writing songs. I could be a recording artist some of the time; but I could also do the basics and write a song for someone, and let them figure out where to take it from there. I slowly got experienced in it. I got lucky the first two times – I wrote the song "Good Morning Baby" with Bic Runga for the movie American Pie. And then my second co-write was with Carole King, who had been my hero as a kid. My manager, Jim [Grant], was on the phone with [famed music publishing executive] John Titta, who asked him, "Hey, would Dan want to write a song with Carole King?" So we wrote the song, "One True Love" together. Then I went down to Nashville, and I learned how to do that "write a song in a day" thing. I got schooled in banging songs out like carpentry. That was the beginning.
What have you been doing on the solo front, as of late?
The last record I did was called Love Without Fear, which was a long process of accretion building up into a finished solo record. For my new album, Recovered, I had a chat with Mike Viola, a friend and sometime songwriting collaborator of mine, and asked him to produce. He said he would do it, but only if we recorded onto 16-track tape at United Recorders in Los Angeles. [The other caveat was that] everything [had to be] accomplished within a week. He told me, "You're going to be so happy when we do this with great musicians, live. Then we spend another week messing around with the songs, and then we'll be done." And that's exactly what happened. We went in with Pete Thomas [from Elvis Costello and the Imposters] on drums, who's amazing and had a stylistic concept for every song. We also had Daniel Clark on keyboards, Mike Viola on guitar, and Jake Sinclair, who played bass, engineered, and mixed. I sang everything live, and we did it all in a glorious, but spontaneous and inspired way. And it's all songs that I wrote with other artists for their albums.
It's like a Dan Wilson cover album!
Yeah. I'm calling it Recovered, because it's me covering the songs I got covered in the first place. So it's kinda fun.