Semisonic’s Dan Wilson on Unexpected Inspiration and Listening Mindfully

Ron Hart / September 6, 2022
From “Closing Time” to writing with Adele and Carole King, Wilson explains the small strategies he’s learned to turn musical roadblocks into great songs.

For decades, Dan Wilson has been a consummate songwriter's songwriter. Whether as a solo artist, as songwriting partner for Adele, Taylor Swift, and John Legend, or as part of alternative rock acts like Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare, Wilson has approached music with amazing versatility. 

Interviewed for our Songwriter Saturdays series by Alyssa Cotsalas ahead of his new new song, "Dancing On The Moon," Wilson proved that no matter how much experience you have, artists and songwriters should always embrace the unexpected and take the time to really listen. Read on below for some of his top learnings.

Switch It Up

His first time working with Adele, "she showed me two ideas, one which later became 'Rumor Has It.' And the other, which was the beginnings of 'Someone Like You.' ...It was those first three or four lines, and obviously it's gonna be beautiful song. And she was playing something like the piano riff on the bass," he says. "So we tried to write to that bass and then she switched over to a guitar and did a similar thing on the guitar."

Then, "she said, 'Why don't you try playing something on the piano? That might be more inspiring.'..Once we switched over to her singing and me playing the piano, it just all started happening really smoothly."

Lose Yourself, Find Yourself

"I had a really inspiring meeting a few years back with Liam Gallagher, who I really admire," Wilson explains. "We talked about me writing some songs with him for one of his records and I was pretty excited about it. Over the next two weeks, I came up with like five ideas and made real quick demos and emailed them to him." Those tracks didn't make Gallagher's record, but they did set off an aha! moment for Wilson. "I had this almost like revelation that they sounded really more like Semisonic songs than anything I had written for years and years... I guess what I figured out was that Semisonic's formula for songwriting is me pretending I'm Liam."

Inspiration for a Hit Song Can Come From an Unlikely Place

"When I wrote 'Closing Time', I was in touring life," he says of Semisonic's biggest hit. "It wasn't theaters or arenas or anything like that. It was small places, and there were always bartenders there and there was always the last call...I was like, my peeps were the staff, we worked in bars. [So] I literally had this vision that I was very delighted that the bartenders and bouncers around the country were going to use it at the end of the night. And, in a weird way, I thought it was going to be a hit among the bar staff. Those were also people who are usually more musically hip than others, you know? I liked the idea that I would be sneaking my band into playlists [made by] the bar staff. I didn't really think that normal people were gonna like it particularly. I just thought it was almost like a gift to my peeps."

Study Up for Your Dream Collab

When Wilson landed the chance to work with singer-songwriter legend Carole King, she kinda knew that I was nervous," he admits. "I was just so starstruck.. I think maybe my sort of reverence for her allowed me to not really have any kind of concept of what it was we were trying to do. We're just going to try to write something really great."

But when he let his deep knowledge of her music come into play, it helped the process.  

"I knew certain things about her," he explains. "I knew so many things about the details of her musical ideas, you know? So at one point I played a little chord progression that's very Carole King... She laughed and she knew what I was doing [so] we ended up using it because it's great in that spot in the song."

True Listening Isn’t Waiting to Talk

Wilson's daughter Coco, "spent 11 months in intensive care and was very sick for a long time," he shares. "She's very hard of hearing and as has serious disabilities in processing verbal, outgoing speech. She can tell what we're saying, but it takes her forever to answer... I learned not to try to give options. Everybody does this, they start offering possible things you're about to say. If you're stammering or if you look upset, they start, 'Are you hungry? Are you sleepy? Are you nervous? Do you want to go outside? Are you mad? Are you excited?' They start offering stuff and it just kind of shuts down the person's ability to speak almost. So I [have] this person in my life who required a really unusual type of listening [and] that turned me into someone who could wait for a long time while someone tried to formulate their thoughts."

For Wilson, this exercise in loving patience has served him well in the studio. "That helps because I don't feel the need to steer it and I don't feel uncomfortable if we're not getting anywhere," he adds. "Or if the person is just pausing for a long time and trying to collect themselves. I just wait. And I think that's what sort of changed me as a collaborative presence."

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