A Conversation With Dan Wilson, the ‘Closing Time’ Singer Who’s Written Hits for All Your Favorite Female Pop Stars
How the former Semisonic frontman became a hitmaker for women
On February 11, 2007, the Dixie Chicks were basking in the glow of a triumphant night. They were at the Grammys, where they were the evening’s big winners, collecting trophies for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Album of the Year. When they went on stage to accept the prize for Record of the Year for their song “Not Ready to Make Nice,” which explicitly referenced the fallout from their 2003 comments about being “ashamed that the president of the United States of America is from Texas,” band member Martie Maguire looked around mid-euphoria and asked, “Where’s Dan Wilson? We wrote this song with Dan.”
To the casual observer, that name probably didn’t ring a bell. But for fans of Semisonic — or their ubiquitous hit “Closing Time” — Maguire’s comment stirred an old memory.
The Semisonic frontman?
What was he doing working with the Dixie Chicks?
That Grammy moment highlighted the transformation Wilson had undergone in the decade since “Closing Time.” A former member of the alt-rock group Trip Shakespeare, which he formed with his brother Matt, Wilson enjoyed his greatest commercial success leading Semisonic, a pop-rock band that went platinum with 1998’s Feeling Strangely Fine, which contained “Closing Time,” a seemingly romantic song about last call that was actually inspired by the upcoming birth of his first child.
But by 2001’s All About Chemistry, which failed to match Feeling Strangely Fine’s commercial success, Wilson was looking for a new direction. And so, he became a songwriter working for other artists, slowing accumulating an impressive resume of hits in different genres. Besides his collaboration with the Dixie Chicks, which netted him one of his two Grammys, he’s had a hand in songs for John Legend, Taylor Swift, Josh Groban, Chris Stapleton, and most prominently, Adele, with whom he co-wrote “Someone Like You.”
Wilson still records the occasional solo album of new material, but on his latest disc, Re-Covered, he’s essentially covering himself. The record is populated with his versions of other people’s hits. “Not Ready to Make Nice” and “Someone Like You” are on here, and it’s striking to hear all of these songs sung in that sweet, plaintive voice Wilson once brought to Semisonic.
Talking to MEL from his L.A. home, Wilson is thoughtful and introspective as he looks back at his journey from frontman to the man behind the scenes helping other people write radio smashes. As someone who always enjoyed Semisonic’s comforting, melodic pop music, I was curious how easy it was for him to give up the limelight. We talked about that — and about his daughter Coco, whose arrival led to “Closing Time” and whose difficult early years and cognitive disabilities prompted him to walk away from Semisonic. We also discussed why being pegged as the nice guy by girls growing up may have helped him have commercial success with female artists in his adult life.
Was part of the appeal of doing this album the idea that you wanted to reclaim these songs? Or show how you would approach them on your own?
I’ve long had this idea that the best way to check whether a song that I’m working on with someone else is good is to imagine me singing it for an audience of my fans. In other words, not try to guess whether the public at large would like something — not try to guess whether my collaborator’s fans would like something. Just picture me playing it at a show — does that feel good? So I’ve had that rule of thumb for a long time, and what that led to was a greater and greater comfort with me performing my co-writes at my own gigs.
In some ways, it seems like you’ve got the best of all music jobs. You get to write hits with other artists, but then those artists are the ones who have to spend the next couple of years singing them over and over again on the road.
Some aspects of that I relate to, but I like performing. One reason that this new album exists is because I like singing these songs to people, and so I like having the luxury of going out on tour and singing for fans.
I’ve always had this excess energy for songwriting. I have friends who write exactly the number of songs that they release on their own records, and I’ve always been vaguely jealous of that, because I write a huge number of extra songs all the time. Not all of them are good, but some of them are, and I’ve always liked the idea of being able to send those songs into the world. I’m often sending the best thing I could ever do out with other artists.
So where did this talent come from? Do you have creative people in your family?
Well, my parents were medical people: My father was a doctor, and my mother was a nurse. But they had their artistic sides, which they only expressed once in a great while. My dad had been a singer in high school in a doo-wop quartet, and they did pop songs in a vocal-harmony style. He always told me that I ought to learn how to play the piano. “Because,” he said, “at parties everyone will be hanging around, and if you sit down at the piano and play the pop hits of the day, they’ll all sing along, and it’ll be a great way for you to meet people.”
So he proposed this idea that I would learn to play the piano so that I could play it at parties. [Laughs] Which, of course, has never, ever happened in my life. My parents came from another era, but they thought that if I could learn how to play the piano, it would make me popular. They could tell that I was a nerdy, smart, mathematical kid, so they wanted me to have a leg up.
It’s funny you say that, because I think of your songs as the type that bring people together.
I always felt like one of the great things about a pop song is that it makes everyone remember where they were during that particular season when the song was out. Everyone kind of remembers together, and everybody shares that pop song — whether it’s something that annoys them or something they loved. You could always mention it to someone else years later and compare notes about what was happening to you during that season of your life. And that kind of thing is deeply romantic and beautiful to me. That’s a role for music I really like.
Your music is highly melodic. Starting out, though, did you ever feel self-conscious about writing “pretty” music? Like that you should write stuff that rocked harder?
It’s funny, because this playwright Craig Wright and I have been friends for a long time. I once played him a new Semisonic song, which was very dark and gloomy as well as aggressive and loud in an ominous way. And he said, “Dan, this is really, really good, but forgive me for saying that we don’t need to get our angst-y aggressiveness from you. We can get that from other people. We’re looking for something else from you.”
I was really struck by that — [the idea that] I could make a legitimate-sounding kind of hateful song that had no place in the world because no one was looking to me for that vibe, and that it didn’t ring as true as it needed to. I’d never thought of my music in those terms before Craig said that to me.
I used that conversation as permission to be more extremely myself without need to counterbalance it or prove to people that I also had ominous music and darkness in me. I realized that it was okay, and that I could always listen to other people’s music for that. At that time, I was listening to a bunch of Metallica — I can really enjoy that, but I don’t need to provide any of that music for the world. It was already covered.
When Semisonic ended its run in the early 2000s, did you want to move into songwriting for other artists? Was that a conscious plan?
So, it’s 2001, and All About Chemistry has come out, and we’ve gone out on tour for it. It’s 2002 and we’re exhausted. Between Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic, I’ve been on tour for maybe 15 years. I had a toddler, who’d been born very premature and had a series of injuries that led to her life being extremely complicated and medically difficult for several years. At some point, it didn’t feel like an option for me to be away on tour for 200 days a year any more. Maybe that would’ve happened with any child, but I’m not sure. I think that the peculiarity of that circumstance — the hyper-vigilance and state of continuous emergency — was a unique moment in my life. I just needed to reinvent myself so that I could stay home for several years. That’s what maybe led to a greater focus on songwriting.
I met [producer] Rick Rubin through Sheryl Crow, who was a friend and for whom Semisonic had opened a lot. Rick fell in love with some songs that I had written, and our collaboration lasted a bunch of years. It was really fascinating, and it was a huge learning experience for me. He’s the one who introduced me to the Dixie Chicks. After that, my songwriting for other people started to become kind of a thing in the world.
And not to say that I just passively follow whatever works, but when something is working stupendously well, you have to at least consider continuing it. Plus, I loved writing songs with people and having them sing them. So for the next stretch of six or seven years, I put my head down and ran straight ahead into that heavy songwriting thing.
Some songwriters would never do that. They’d say, “I’m an artist, I need to be doing my own music.” Did you have to wrestle with your ego?
Yeah, I think maybe I did. I think I need to put a little disclaimer on this: I’m not any more self-aware than most people. But I’ve met some people that were natural lead singers and natural front-people in bands who were really good at it and really special. In my 20s, I started recognizing the disproportionate amount of ego you need to have to be a proper front-person or a pop star. I mean, you really need to care a lot about getting attention — more than I had in me. I love attention — I like being appreciated, and I like it when people dig what I do — but I don’t have that extra-special amount of desire for that.
I always had this feeling in my band: “I’m really good at this, and I have something to offer, and what I can share with the world is unique, and I’m trying to just make it as pure and as big as it can be.” But I didn’t have the desire or drive to keep doing it. So by the time I was writing a lot of songs with other people, I’d been served very nicely by the world. I’d had number-1 songs, which I sang and performed in front of tens of thousands of people many, many times. It’s not like I was tired of it, but I’d checked off some of those things on my list, and I didn’t have an endless well of desire to have that happen over and over and over again. So it wasn’t a bummer to help other people have that experience — it was actually kind of nice.
Your biggest successes, with the Dixie Chicks and Adele, have been with female acts. Is there something about working with women that you prefer?
When I was in junior high, I liked talking with girls. In that early part of my life, I think I was looked at as a nice boy who wasn’t someone to date or have a crush on, but more someone who was funny and fun to talk to. And for some reason, that probably gave me a lot of experience bridging whatever it means to have a conversation between genders.
Maybe I find that interesting even in songwriting. I think women have more flexibility in the culture to sing a melody than men, and I’m very interested in melodies. For some reason, the culture is less interested in a really melodic song from a man, and so maybe my intense love for melody has worked better with female artists. But if I were to look at my history of writing with people, I bet it’s 50/50 men and women.
Father John Misty also has worked with several female artists, and earlier this year he described the industry as “categorically anti-woman.” Because you write with plenty of female artists, how do you feel about that characterization?
I can’t characterize the music industry completely separately from the general world that we live in. There’s a longstanding tradition of limiting women’s opportunity and freedom and authority that I think we’ve made some serious progress in reversing. But it’s a longstanding tradition of men trying to prevent women from having equal rights and opportunities. I don’t think the music business is that much different — it might be a little different, but it’s not that much different.
I’m interested in the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of your work — the stuff that goes beyond creativity and talent. When you’re working with an artist, how much of the job is simply being reliable, dependable, collaborative, et cetera?
You have to think about the weirdness of writing with people. Here we have an art form that works best when you’re revealing uncomfortable, vulnerable, foolish or evil aspects of your personality. You need to be able to go to an extreme in a song and reveal the part of you that you wouldn’t want to reveal in a speech to your high school class. It’s like comedy in that way.
And so, the idea of getting together with somebody you don’t know that well but who you immediately must open up your thoughts and heart to? To basically say, “Well, here’s this incredibly awkward thing I was thinking recently!” Or: “Here’s this super-vulnerable thing!” Or: “I have this really reprehensible thought — maybe that can go in the verse!” It’s a fraught, weird thing.
Your own music isn’t very political or topical. So how did you approach working with the Dixie Chicks on “Not Ready to Make Nice”?
Rick Rubin produced that album, and Rick likes music that has a purpose in the world. He likes music that breaks barriers or has an outlaw aspect to it, and he likes things that are a big statement. But he doesn’t like things that are preachy, or that are trying to teach a person how to feel about something. And the Dixie Chicks are outlaw characters in an unexpected way — even their record before the one we worked on is uncompromising and wickedly funny, like “Goodbye Earl.” Because they’re charming, they can get away with being provocative in their music, but they were never preachy.
They got cornered into that controversy, because they can’t help but speak their minds. When I was going into [start work with them], my tendency is to try to find in songwriting what the personal angle is on a scenario. I’m trying to find an expression of personal predicament, emotion, passion or fear. With “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the lyrics are almost the story of a person being advised to chill the fuck out, and they’re responding, “I just can’t do it. I want to thank you for trying to advise me to chill the fuck out, but I just ain’t gonna do it.”
The song could be something that [frontwoman] Natalie [Maines] is saying to a friend or someone that she respects in a conversation. It’s very personal, and it’s very emotional — it’s almost not a political song, except that it stakes a claim for the band to believe exactly what they believe and not apologize for it.
Fans of “Closing Time” know that it was inspired by the birth of Coco. But you don’t tend to write in a personal/confessional vein. Have you written songs about your daughter’s health struggles and just decided not to release them? Or are you someone who doesn’t need to express personal things overtly in your own music?
There was a point when my wife and I achieved a kind of understanding about my songs in that she was going to be in the songs. Sometimes, a song would be half about our relationship and then half about something else entirely. But she had to reconcile herself to all of her friends thinking that all of my songs were about her and me. And that was something she eventually entered into willingly. We negotiated it as a couple, and it’s got some funny things about it. For example, every time I put out a new song — if it has uncomfortable things about a relationship — her friends assume it’s about her and me, and they ask her about it. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in as the spouse of an artist who uses personal stories in their art.
But writing about my daughter presents a different problem, because she doesn’t have the same cognitive capacity as other people. So much so that I’ve never felt like I could present this question to her: “Do you mind being in one of my songs or have me talk about your personal issues?” I never felt like I could present that question to her to have the perspective and agency to answer. She would always be an unwilling participant in a song that I might write about her, and it would have a voyeuristic or intrusive quality. I’ve just never been able to feel comfortable about that.
You turned 56 this year. Is it a challenge to relate to someone who’s much younger than you, like Adele? Do you have to reconnect with a younger version of yourself to make pop music?
I never would presume that my experiences as a 21-year-old would relate to someone that I’m working with. I think [this idea that] pop music is for young people — there’s a lot to it — but it’s not exactly what people think. If you ask most people: “What is the best song that was ever made?” Well, lo and behold, they all name something that came out when they were 16. Now, that’s not a reflection that that year happened to be the best possible year for music — it’s just the year that their mind was most flexible, they were flooded with wild hormones and every new idea was a mind-blowing, earth-shattering event. A great new song is wrapped up in all of [that].
Well, time passes, and a person’s brain gets less flexible and they start getting busy. Suddenly, they have mouths to feed or whatever it is that they have in their life, and they get less susceptible or open to music. Not me, though. Knock on wood, I’m super-receptive and absorptive of new music. I haven’t had that closing-off. I still find music to be incredibly beautiful, life-enhancing and fresh. And I’m self-aware enough to know that my perspective isn’t the perspective. So if I’m working with someone who has a different perspective than me, I’m curious and happy to know what their point of view is.
Re-Covered ends with “Closing Time” in a very different piano version. Because you’ve played it so many times over the years, did you want to find a new way to perform it?
Initially, “Closing Time” wasn’t on the record. The record was done, and I was really happy with it — it told the story of the co-writes that I’ve done and the adventure that I’ve had working with other people and having stupendous good fortune as a musician because of that.
And so, I sent it out to my trusted, smart friends. Everybody said nice things, but almost all of them also said, “Why the exclusion of ‘Closing Time’?” I explained to them that it wasn’t a co-write — I wrote it alone, and it just didn’t seem to fit the concept of the record. They almost all unanimously said, “Well, it’s going to look like a conscious and weird omission. It’s going to feel strange to the listener.”
I had to think about that. Like, “Wow, maybe my little rule for the record isn’t serving me.” So I played the song on the piano and realized it would be a beautiful closer for the album. It’s such an important part of the story. People would forgive me that it wasn’t a co-write, and it would somehow make the picture more complete and gratifying.
It’s your big song — you just can’t skip it.
Yeah, no, and I shouldn’t! Sometimes, the songs that are the hugest are the ones that were easiest to make, or they just happened in a flash and you didn’t notice it. And in a way, there’s less ego gratification: Lots of artists would like to think that the things we really labor over are the ones that prove how awesome we are. So it’s frustrating that the ones that pop out as though being channeled from another dimension are the better ones. [Laughs] You can’t take as much credit for something that you channeled from another dimension.