Remember Semisonic? Their Singer Now Writes Tunes for Adele and Taylor Swift
By Jackson Truax
Adele’s “Someone Like You,” Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” and Semisonic’s “Closing Time” were all massive hits, becoming instantly recognizable and forever etching themselves into our collective cultural consciousness. While Dixie Chicks’ polarizing anthem remains an important time capsule of America during the George W. Bush administration, an entire generation nostalgically associates “Closing Time” with college partying. And Adele’s song was such a pop culture phenomenon it was the basis for an especially memorable Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Emma Stone.
All of those songs were written or co-written by musician, producer and former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson, who earned his first Grammy nomination for writing “Closing Time,” before winning Song of the Year for co-writing with the Dixie Chicks and Album of the Year for producing Adele.
Wilson’s career comes full circle with the Aug. 4 release of Re-Covered. After two acclaimed albums of fresh solo material, Re-Covered finds Wilson performing his own versions of songs he co-wrote with the aforementioned artists as well as Josh Groban, LeAnn Rimes, Chris Stapleton and Taylor Swift.
During a recent two-hour interview at Augustine Wine Bar in Sherman Oaks, Wilson recounted the shift from touring and recording with Semisonic to being a prolific co-writer, which was precipitated in part by the premature birth of his daughter. “My first daughter was at home after a year in the hospital. I realized that I couldn’t be touring as much as I had been. I started putting the word out that I wanted to write songs with people. Because I felt like I could be like Carole King, writing hits for other people while still singing my own.”
The success of “Closing Time” opened the doors to a number of writing partners, including King herself, the most successful female songwriter of the 20th century. Their session, Wilson’s second co-writing credit, resulted in the memorably sweet “One True Love” from Semisonic’s final studio album, 2001’s All About Chemistry.
“That was one of the most concentrated learning experiences I’ve ever had,” Wilson says. “She was very generative. She would think of an idea and show it to me instantly. She was very open to my opinion, even while she was very forceful about her point of view. It was a real balance of pushing and accepting.”
After All About Chemistry, Semisonic called it quits. Wilson, feeling invigorated to continue working as a co-writer with a range of engaging talents, spent the next few years working prolifically with artists including Rachael Yamagata, Glen Phillips, Sean Watkins and Jason Mraz. These collaborations ranged from one-off sessions, similar to his work with King, to Wilson being asked to work on a handful of songs over multiple sessions, as he did on the Dixie Chicks’ 2006 Taking the Long Way. After he co-wrote “So Hard” with the band, about their shared parenting experiences, he suggested they make an artistic statement addressing the controversy surrounding the band’s criticisms of Bush, an experience that served as the basis for the documentary Shut Up and Sing.
“I’m a fan to the nth degree. When I have an artist in my sights, I always know what I want to hear them talk about,” Wilson explains of his approach to co-writing. “With the Dixie Chicks, they were tired of talking about the incident. But I felt like we needed to go at least one round to try and write this song about it. It felt like a really good encapsulation of their emotional, personal stance about that whole experience. It wasn’t a political song in a didactic sense. It was more about how do politics enter your life and screw you up, and how do you stand up to it and fight back.”
After another several years of fruitful collaborations, Wilson wanted to make an album of his own versions of the songs born from his writing partnerships. He decided to wait until he had an immaculate collection of songs that would sound right coming from him, an idea he felt ready to pursue after writing “Someone Like You” with Adele from her 2012 album 21, and “Treacherous” with Swift from her 2014 album Red, both of which appear on Re-Covered.
Wanting a producer with a fresh perspective, Wilson enlisted the help of Mike Viola, best known for writing with and producing Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis and Andrew McMahon. Viola insisted that Wilson cut the songs live to 2-inch tape in one weeklong session at United Studios in Los Angeles. When Wilson asked why, Viola said, “All of these songs are from different times in your life, written with different collaborators in different places. We have to cut them all so they sound like one moment in time.”
The resulting album will entrance old and new fans of these songs in equal measure, as Wilson’s interpretations of his own work add intriguing and compelling dimensions to some well-known sets of lyrics. If Adele sings “Someone Like You” with all of the pain and catharsis of someone in the middle of soul-crushing heartache, Wilson’s take, recorded with the Kronos Quartet, feels more autumnal, looking back after finally having achieved a sense of resolution. And while the Dixie Chicks’ version of “Not Ready to Make Nice” rings out as a bold, impassioned statement to the world, Wilson’s introspective rendition resonates as if he’s making that same statement to himself.
Wilson plans to celebrate the release of Re-Covered with a handful of tour dates following his popular “Words and Music by Dan Wilson” format, including a local stop at the Troubadour for a rare seated show on Oct. 13. “I’m super excited about it,” he says of that show in particular, “for the echoes in my own musical fan history. I’ve never been in that room when it’s been set up that way. So I think it will be really special.”
When asked how he feels about the likelihood of fans singing along to these iconic songs, Wilson beams. “I love it. That’s the best experience. They can help themselves. If the audience made every song into a karaoke sing-along, that would make me really happy.”