Dan Wilson: Hit man

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2012 - 7:10 AM

From the classic "Closing Time" to Adele's "Someone Like You," Twin Cities songwriting wiz Dan Wilson has become one of pop's great closers.

It is the pop music equivalent of speed dating. A producer pairs a songwriter with a singer. They meet, try to establish a connection and pen a tune together in precious little time.

Adele broke the ice when she met Minneapolis songwriter Dan Wilson in a Los Angeles recording studio the summer before last. Recalled Wilson: "The first thing she said was, 'My mum wanted to make sure I tell you she's a big fan of Semisonic.' We had a laugh about that."

Instant connection. Within hours, Adele and the former Semisonic lead singer penned what would become the biggest ballad of 2011, on the year's top-selling album, "21." If it wins a Grammy Sunday night for album of the year, Wilson will get a trophy, too, as a co-producer.

Such is the life Wilson chose when Semisonic -- of "Closing Time" fame -- went into semi-retirement a decade ago. Though he's a songwriter for hire, he doesn't sit at home and pen songs to pitch to other artists. Rather, he's a collaborator. In the past year or so, he has teamed with Josh Groban, John Legend, Faith Hill, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Ben Folds and the Band Perry, who are up for a best-new-artist Grammy. He has sessions booked with Pink and Spoon's Britt Daniel.

Currently he's at No. 7 on the country chart with "Home," title track of Dierks Bentley's new album. And he's still in pop's Top 40 with "Someone Like You," the blockbuster ballad he wrote -- and performed -- with Adele that spent five weeks at No. 1 last fall. It was one of three songs that Wilson helped contribute to the disc.

Their matchmaker was super-producer Rick Rubin, known for his work with Johnny Cash, Metallica and the Beastie Boys.

Wilson said the session commenced with Adele playing some YouTube clips of rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, her latest favorite. "Then I went to the piano and she played guitar and we launched into writing. It was very natural and low-key.

"She told me she had this terrible big breakup and it was all she could think about. She had the first four or five lines [of lyrics] and a melody, and she sang the verse."

Wilson then played the song on piano, embellishing it with big, classical chords. "She said, 'That's way more inspiring.' Things started to move quickly, and by mid-afternoon, we started recording."

The next day, Wilson asked Adele to evaluate the previous day's tune. "She said: 'I love it. I played it for my manager and me mum.' I was kind of crestfallen. 'Oh, no, it's not finished. What did they think?' She said, 'My manager loves it, and it made me mum cry.' That day we finished the song."

Between hourly cigarette breaks for Adele, they re-recorded the third verse to reflect the more ragged, more pained voice she had on this afternoon. That two-day demo actually became the final recording that launched a million I-need-a-good-cry sessions 'round the world.

"Dan brought out the soppy side of me," Adele told Australia's The Advertiser last year. "Before that, I was just writing bitter, angry songs like 'Rolling in the Deep.'"

Superproducer's go-to guy

Wilson is a go-to resource for Rubin, who has paired him with Groban, Weezer and the Dixie Chicks; he won a Grammy for co-writing the Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice," the 2007 song of the year.

"Dan is one of the few [songwriters] I know who helps artists write lyrics based on their perspective, not his," Rubin said in an e-mail interview.

That's Wilson's job. He's there not to express his own point of view, but to draw out the singer's emotions and perspective.

"If you're going to write a song, you need to be very vulnerable and kind of spill your guts for somebody," he explained over coffee in Minneapolis. "It's got to be about real emotions and real events to work. If you're going to collaborate with somebody, you have to be able to talk in some kind of explicit way. You do need to trust that person."

Open to ideas

At 50, Wilson is rock-star thin, movie-star handsome and proudly nerdy enough to wear oversized Elvis Costello glasses. He's the kind of big thinker who weighs his words before he speaks, so you expect something profound -- but he's just as careful a listener.

Just ask Groban, who teamed with Wilson in Minneapolis to write six songs that wound up on his 2010 album "Illuminations."

"His greatest help for me was finding the words," Groban said last year. "Dan provided so much inspiration for lyrics, based on conversations we were having about life and love and everything. We'd sit and scribble in our journals and so often he'd come up with a sentence that would make me think about the rest of the song.

"He hit all the adjectives I wanted: Don't be afraid to be romantic, don't be afraid to be chivalrous with your words, don't be afraid to be poetic."

Wilson doesn't waste time when he's on a speed-date.

"We had two days booked to write in Nashville," country star Bentley said via e-mail. "I thought we might spend the better part of the first day getting to know each other but he and I and Brett [Beavers, Bentley's longtime collaborator] all jumped in on 'Home' pretty quickly. Dan is down to Earth and open to whatever ideas are getting tossed around."

Creative tricks from college

Growing up in St. Louis Park, Wilson was the kind of music fan who read liner notes and was aware of behind-the-scenes talents, like frequent Eagles co-writer J.D. Souther. After earning a degree in visual and environmental studies at Harvard, he returned to the Twin Cities and joined his younger brother Matt's band, Trip Shakespeare. That group evolved into Semisonic, whose 1998 hit "Closing Time" earned Wilson his first Grammy nomination.

After two albums, Wilson decided to explore co-writing, so his music publisher hooked him up with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Carole King.

"I was scared. I was intimidated. She was my childhood idol," Wilson recalled of the Los Angeles session that resulted in the song "One True Love" for Semisonic's last album. "She has a way of putting people at ease and making you feel like a peer. The die was cast. I learned enough about what could happen in a session of four or five hours."

With his daughter hospitalized for more than a year in the early '00s, Wilson decided that songwriting, not touring, was his ticket to ride. In his typical egghead way, he did the homework, traveling to Oslo, Stockholm, Nashville and Los Angeles to meet with producer/writers who were thrilled to show him how digital recording worked.

Wilson collaborated with alt-popster Mike Doughty and then started making regular writing trips to Nashville, learning the ethic of writing and recording a polished demo in a day. Next came the Dixie Chicks, with whom Wilson co-wrote six songs for their 2006 album "Taking the Long Way."

Unlike other in-demand songwriters, he doesn't ask a fee for a writing session. Operating on spec, he'll meet with a singer and see if they click.

When lightning strikes, it can be lucrative. From U.S. sales alone of "Someone Like You," Wilson will gross nearly $900,000 in royalties, according to RollingStone.com. That doesn't include his take as co-producer or from radio royalties -- or other countries, where "21" has done nearly twice the sales of the United States.

Wilson doesn't come from the "I'm waiting for divine inspiration" school of writing.

"He works incredibly hard," said Minneapolis bassist/singer John Munson, Wilson's bandmate of 25 years in Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic. "Musically, he's fluid and flexible. He's tenacious. He gets stuff done. He's a finisher."

At times he plays the role of psychologist, coach and handholder, employing creative tricks to get partners out of their comfort zone, like the kind he learned in college art classes.

"We had a whole session where they made you take the pencil or charcoal out of your dominant hand and use your other hand instead," he said. "It's as though you're a beginner. Certain beautiful, unexpected things happen. You see your raw creative self in action."

Once he and Groban got stuck while writing, so Wilson joked: "What would Neil Diamond do right now?" Groban, a Diamond fan, immediately sang four lines, "and we used them all," Wilson said. "They were great -- and funny, too."

No fad or fashion

Rubin pinpoints three keys to Wilson's success as a writer: He's smart (Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude from Harvard), grounded ("one of the most egoless people I have come across in music") and timeless ("there is no fad or fashion in his work").

Wilson is practical, too. That's why he, his wife and two daughters moved to Los Angeles a year ago. They found an excellent school for their 14-year-old, who has special needs. And he's discovered a community of musicians who make him feel at home.

"I'm very aware of my Midwestern background," he said during a November trip to Minneapolis to play a fundraiser with Semisonic.

He's also aware that he can't put his own recording career on hold forever. "I'm about three-fourths done," he said of the follow-up to 2007's "Free Life," his Rubin-produced solo debut. "Seven or eight songs really thrill me when I hear them and the other seven or eight are misbehaving a bit."

Meanwhile, he could watch songs he's written with other stars climb the charts. But he doesn't. "Having a song on the charts is kind of abstract and out of reach," he said. "It's really different from hearing your song on the radio, which is electrifying and exciting."

How did he feel the first time he heard "Someone Like You" on the air?

"The first couple times, I thought about all the things I could have done better," he said of his piano playing. "Now when I hear it in the background, I just smile."

  • THE GRAMMYS

    With: Host LL Cool J and performers including Adele, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars.

    When: 7 p.m. Sun. 2/12

    Where: WCCO, Ch. 4.

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