"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...