Dan Wilson Comes Home

The LA-based Semisonic frontman compares good pop songs to The Odyssey, discusses penning hits for Adele, and gets misty about homecoming gigs in Mpls.

Dan Wilson
Photo by Steven Cohen

Dan Wilson is coming to Minneapolis. Which is no big thing really. The Grammy-nominated songwriter who pens hits for Adele, Taylor Swift, and Josh Groban comes here often to throw his kids in a lake or into a snowbank like any true Minnesotan.

“I live in L.A.,” he says. “Minneapolis is home.” When he’s home he can be found at the Amsterdam Bar performing at a benefit. Or at the Fitzgerald celebrating Christmas with his old pals in The New Standards. Or at the Pantages singing with his brother and former Trip Shakespeare cohort Matt Wilson.

But it’s been some time since the guy who gave the world “Closing Time” did a full-on solo show, and he’s doing it right. For his three-night stand at The Cedar, which kicks off a tour for his new album, “Love Without Fear,” he’s promising a different show each night. “I’ve always felt extra-strong extra pressure to deliver at a hometown show,” he says. And that actually is a big thing.

What made you want to start the tour here?
Actually, I'm not exactly sure if it really makes sense, but I had my mind set on either starting the tour back home, or finishing it back home. Maybe because if I started the tour, I could come a little early and hang out with family and the people I love before the tour began. Or, similarly, if it was the last gig. Then I could linger and see my family and my friends. I think it was mostly selfish, personal motivation to spend time in Minneapolis. Extra time.

You get back here very often?
Yeah, I do. It seems like I get back every two months, something like that? Sometimes if I'm deep into a songwriting groove here in L.A., then I have to be a little more conscious about making plans to come back home and visit. Usually there is a good reason to come back every few months anyway.

Do you find yourself missing Minneapolis much?
Yeah, I definitely miss Minneapolis. You know, it's home. I live in L.A., and I've made my home here. It can't take the place of my ancestral home. There are so many associations, and so many people that I'm close to in the Twin Cities. Of course I miss it.

Do you find that when you play here it's a completely different thing than when you perform in other parts of the country?
I have always had this thing about hometown shows, Twin Cities shows. No matter what band I was touring with, and how things were going, I always felt this strong extra pressure to deliver. And be as great as I can possibly be at a hometown show. That's still totally in effect when I have a gig there.

And it’s interesting, because I think it's a two-way street. I feel like the love and sense of almost being part of a family that I get from Minneapolis fans, or Twin Cities fans, is stronger than anywhere else also. There is just this sense of being—what's the right word?—being a musical fixture, or a landmark or whatever you want to call it. Something that people sort of count on and count as among the things that they rate highly, or that they care about.

Yeah, it's cool. I clearly remember one of your Semisonic shows at First Avenue and how fun it was. Also the Trip Shakespeare show at the Cabooze. I don't know if you get tired about reminiscing, but I went online and was amazed to find the Trip Shakespeare website. Who maintains that? It looks like it hasn't been updated since 1998.
We don't maintain it, but it's a nice resource. It has been updated since 1998. I don't know what that means. If it's the one that has B-sides on it, and unreleased live things, sort of chit chat about the band. They've updated some of the musical components of it. It's nice to have that resource. There are songs on there that we don't have copies of ourselves.

Right. No, it's very cool. I don't mean that as an insult, I mean I felt like I was back in 1998 again. Oh my gosh! Here we are.
I think once they got it kind of sorted out, there's not been that much to update. It's nice that someone would basically play the role of the archivist for us.

So it’s a fan site?
Yeah, it probably would have been smart and diligent of us to make a site of our own. But that would also be out of character for us to be so proactive.

You're just a bunch of slackers.
No, not exactly slackers, but very focused on the making of the music.

Exactly. The making of the music trumps the business aspect of it. I think that's something that's really hard for a lot of musicians. They are artists, and then there's all the business side stuff that has to be done.
Even to make recordings, you have to have a bunch of people helping you out. You can't really do it yourself. Even if you think you're doing it yourself, you really can't. You need an engineer, and you need a whole team of people making things run.

Personally, I think it's usually not necessary for a musician to have that much of a business mind, because most musicians don't have enough action business-wise to make it necessary. But then when a little bit of success comes your way, suddenly you're totally in over your head. The business aspect of things is very confusing.

Artists that I talk to also complain about having to deal with the internet. I really enjoy it but I think a lot of musicians feel almost obliged. Oh geez, now I have to go be on Twitter, and I have to do all these other things. I have to have a website. I think a lot of musicians, they didn't really sign up for that. Personally, I love all that stuff. I have a lot of fun with it. But I know that even for me, there are aspects of what I do where it's like, "Wow, I didn't know I would have to get good at this."

Speaking of, what's the most surprising thing that's happened to you when it comes to fan interaction?
One was when Trip Shakespeare was touring, we got a note from someone in Omaha. It was the family of a young woman who had died. One of her favorite songs was one of our songs, called Jean, J E A N. Basically, they wrote us a letter to tell us how much that song meant to this woman and their family, who had passed away. How much it reminded them of her, and how important it had become to them. This was a fan interaction, but at a very, very important, heavy level of life. I think for me anyway, it gave me a sense that the music that I was making could have significance way beyond what I might have hoped for.

Something that's happened lately, which is really nice, is that I keep getting e-mails from people who say things like, "I'm in a band. Things are going pretty well and Closing Time was the first song that I learned on the guitar."

I think of that as being beyond a dream come true, because I never would have listed that among the things I was hoping for as a musician. I never would have thought it was even dreamable, that one of my songs would be a lot of peoples' first song they learned how to play on an instrument. That's a level of fan-artist interaction that gives me a very strong sense of the meaningfulness of my music. It's a real privilege for me to be able to be part of that interaction.

I just recently got an e-mail from a fan who said, "Just wanted you to know that your song you wrote with the Dixie Chicks, "Easy Silence", was the first dance at our wedding. We want to thank you for how important your music has been to us, and how much a part of our falling in love your music has been."

Where does a musical sensibility that illicits responses like that come from?
It was something that no one needed to instill in me. I was just so crazy about music from a very young age. I always assumed that I was going to be a musician. It was never any question really.

Always? Even when you went to art school?
When I went to art school I was in bands, I was performing, I was writing music. I had this funny plan, I think, that I was going to be a professional fine artist. Then if I could have music as this thing that I always would do. It's very funny, because the idea of one's sure thing being I'm going to be a painter. That's a kooky plan.

So, like, being a fine artist would be the practical thing?
That would be my practical thing. I'll be an artist and I'll have gallery shows. Then for my crazy hobby, I'll be a songwriter. It sort of turned out to be the opposite. It's turned out that the job that pays me is making music, and I get to do art as a hobby.

I listened to your new album just before I called you. I actually listened to the whole thing. It's just beautiful. I got the same dreamy feeling I've gotten from other songs you've written in the past. What’s your favorite song on the new album?
My favorite song is "We Belong Together" for a couple reasons. One is I really feel like I've been wanting to make that type of 1970s AM radio pop song sound for a long time. Just for my own joy. I feel like I have totally nailed it on "We Belong Together." I love the fact that there's some sunshine in the lyrics, even though it's not super optimistic. It's got a nice balance of optimism and struggle, I guess you'd say. It makes me smile when I hear the horns.

It seems like you have a pretty good sense of what might resonate with the people.
I don't know. My taste is my own. I feel strongly about what I think is really good. But I often like the things that turn out to be really, really popular. In most of my big discoveries I'll hear something and think, "Oh, I've discovered this special new thing that no one's going to understand but me." I'll always think it's a new wonderful discovery of my own. Every time I embrace something like that, it turns into a giant hit that everybody loves.

That's quite a talent.
It just means that I've got . . . That I'm really good at making music. I have some kind of super powers in that area. But my taste is the taste of a normal suburban guy.

Funny. What do you think that quality is that makes something a hit?
I don't know. I think generally it's awesomeness, just something has to be really, really great. I don't think that there are that many really big, lasting hit songs that are bad. Most of them are really, really good. Most of the hits that last for more than a year or so are astonishingly good, just as songs. I think the public can mostly be trusted, over time, to pick the greatest stuff. There's a reason why we're still reading The Odyssey. I just read a few pages of The Odyssey the other day, and it's fucking amazing. It's hilarious, and violent, and full of surprises. It's super insightful and strategic and thought-provoking, and sticks in your mind. It's really great. Well, there's a reason it's been a hit for 3,000 years, or whatever. It's just that good.

Is it sort of about subverting the audience’s expectations?
I had read a little essay about jazz improvisation. That the great improvised solos of jazz always maintained a balance between satisfying the listener's expectation, and startling the listener with something unexpected. So that if it was continuous unexpected, shocking notes, the listener would lose the thread and they couldn't really follow along. They would just disengage. If it was all familiar, expected, unsurprising note or phrase choices, the listener would get bored and start to feel like this is just one cliché after another.

Some kind of balance between resolving a melody or a sound in a way that a person might expect. Then going somewhere unexpected, I guess some portion of the time. When I'm writing a song, I never ever think about any of this stuff. It just doesn't even occur to me to think about some kind of theory of surprise versus delight.

What’s more fun for you, playing your own tunes, or seeing someone else do it? How are those experiences different? Do you prefer one?
I feel like both. There was a time when I first started deciding I was going to be a songwriter for other people. It was when I had realized I had written 60 songs for "Feeling Strangely Fine".

Only 12 or 13 or whatever it was got onto the record at all. Then the other 45 or 50 songs would just kind of get killed under the earth, and no one would hear them. I suddenly thought I don't know, it's a little bit too heart breaking. Certainly all 60 of the songs I wrote for that album were good, most of them were not that great. But there were 5 or 10 that didn't make the album that were really, really good, and they were never going to be heard.

So I just started to think there's got to be some other outlets, so I can be as prolific as I want to be. I believe that it's necessary for a songwriter to be really prolific in order to be good. I started to think maybe I could find a way for my ideas to be part of other peoples' music as well. I learned how to do that, and then I really learned how to love it. It's not like I could really tell you which I prefer.

Did you sing a lot as a kid?
Yeah, I was always walking down the street singing. I was constantly singing. I was walking down the street from school to home and I would sing on the way home. I'd walk to see my friends, and I'd sing all the way to their house. I can remember being about 10 and walking down a street in St. Louis Park to my friend Robby's house and just singing the whole way.

Who are you listening to now? Who is going to be the next big thing?
I don't know, because the thing I was listening to this morning is somebody who is already big. His name is James Blake. I really like his newest record and his musical art is really good. Who else have I been listening to? I've been listening a lot to old jazz records, as usual. I can't really say that that's going to be the next big thing.

I'm going to go tonight to see Ray LaMontagne. Not a new artist, but an artist that I love a lot. I'm going to go to a concert of his tonight, I'm very excited about that.

Those are the things I've been listening to, and none of them are really particularly new. Although I guess James Blake doesn't have a big audience in the US yet.

What’s the set-up for your Minneapolis shows?
I've been doing this type of show called Words and Music by Dan Wilson. It’s kind of license to tell a lot of stories and recount some of the funny things that happen in songwriting along the way. Maybe also share with people some of my philosophy about how we do what we do, and how we write songs.

That first night it's Words and Music by Dan Wilson. That's just me and my multi-instrumentalist friend Brad Gordon. I'm going to tell stories, and we're going to run through songs, and it's going to be fun.

Then the second night is Dan Wilson and Friends. That's just me and a bunch of my long-time collaborators who are going to help me out, playing that second night. I'll have some guest singers. I'll have a little more instrumentation, we'll rock out a little bit more.

The third night I call the Chef's Choice. I am going to play some covers of things that were really influential for me. I'll sing some songs that I don't get a chance to perform very often. Maybe things that are part of my catalog. It will be more about just lots of songs and a little more variety or digging deeper to find some songs that have meaning for me.

Okay, I think I've gotten what I need. Is there anything else you want to tell me about?
No. I only talk about things I'm asked about. I can't ever think of anything extra.

You can't ever think of anything extra?
No. I guess the thing I would want to just mention is with the new album release. One thing I have found unexpectedly great and challenging is that I've brought so much more of my own visual art back into the picture. That's been really gratifying.

There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal recently. It was a full page, and it was in the Art section. They basically reprinted a whole bunch of my cartoons and illustrations and calligraphy.

Oh, I didn't know that.
Yeah, look it up. It kind of is a showcase for a lot of the visual art that I've been doing the past couple of years. I just have been really happy and excited to integrate my visual art back into my music.

Is their art in the album?
Yeah, there's a lot of art in the album. Then there's a deluxe version in the album, which is an illustrated book. Then I've been doing a lot of calligraphy and cartoons and drawings online, and that's been really fun. It's been a nice thing to have that visual outlet. And to feel like people are enjoying it too; I like that a lot.

That's neat. I did have one question for you and that is totally taking a U-turn here. I remember when you did that thing—I think it was on Facebook—where you were telling songwriters to stop sending you songs for Adele. Why do people still do that?
Yeah, that was pretty funny. [And] I think it happens less now because people went to my website to send me a song for Adele, and they saw that piece on the website. They suddenly went, "Oh, maybe I won't send him a song for Adele."

Maybe I won't send you mine then.
But it still totally happens. It happens every day. People ask me to listen to their music every day.

Every day?
Several people ask me to listen to their songs, yeah. There are a lot of people out there who want to be musicians, and want some advice.

Dan Wilson plays June 4–6 at The Cedar.