Using an old card trick – and lots of soul searching – the Grammy-winning songwriter reignites his recording career.
After several years of co-writing songs with the likes of Adele, Taylor Swift, Pink and Keith Urban, Dan Wilson had nearly forgotten how to write songs for his own voice.
So the Grammy-winning producer/songwriter used a gambit he sometimes tries when his all-star collaborators get writer’s block.
“I have a pile of 3-by-5 notecards on the piano with a phrase or title or couplet or riff in musical notation on each card,” he said of the collection he’s compiled over time. “I just cut the cards” to spark an idea.
“In a way, I became my own co-writer,” he explained over coffee recently in the North Loop.
It worked. “Love Without Fear,” his recently released second solo album, is another gem for the Minneapolis-reared singer-songwriter.
Wilson will discuss his songwriting process — for his solo records, his band Semisonic and for some of those aforementioned stars — in the first of three sold-out gigs next week in Minneapolis. That opening solo performance, billed as “Words & Music,” will be about 35 percent talking, he explained. The other two concerts will feature some surprise guests. (He didn’t mention names, but his Minnesota orbit includes Jeremy Messersmith, brother Matt Wilson and Semisonic bandmate John Munson, among others.)
Wilson, 53, who moved to Los Angeles three years ago to further his career, actually recorded two versions of “Love Without Fear,” his overdue follow-up to 2007’s “Free Life.” The first take was very solitary. “It wasn’t awesome,” he said without regret.
Although his style is clearly acoustic-driven pop, the new record has a twangier vibe than previous works under his name.
He said “the twang partly comes from Blake Mills, who played guitar on several things. The twang partly comes from having Natalie Maines [of the Dixie Chicks] sing harmony on a couple songs. There’s more twang and more mournful probably because I was thinking about Hank Williams and Bill Monroe and what do they do to get that lonesome, contemplative, soulful feeling. I was in that mood in life. Maybe if I made that record now, I’d be more celebratory and make something noisier.”
His voice is still distinctively high, sweet and pretty, but some songs — including “Disappearing” and the punch line of “A Song Can Be About Anything” — have major unhappy moments.
“People who know me keep saying: ‘Are you OK?’ I say, ‘Yeah. I’m just living life.’ It has ups and downs.”
He explained that the relationships discussed on “Love Without Fear” can be about parent/child, spouses or just friendships. A mysterious distance appears in a relationship and you don’t know where it came from, he said, but you try to deal with it before it looms large.
“In ‘We Belong Together,’ every tragic line is also a little funny. ‘We’re getting older but a lot less wise.’ It’s about the tragicomedy of relationships, but we belong together in the end. The same with ‘I Can Never Stay Mad at You.’ To me, it’s a funny song. It’s not a lost cause. There’s definitely hope, and it partly comes from being able to laugh.”
He wrote many of the “saddest, loneliest songs” before he met Adele. “I turned myself into the expert in mournful, sad songs and then she came to me with this really sad story. I said, ‘I’m your boy. I know how to do that.’ Luckily, some sunshine came out in the writing, too. There’s some clouds and some sun on my album.”
Wilson won a Grammy in 2012 for producing and writing “Someone Like You” and two other tracks on Adele’s “21” album. He also earned a song-of-the-year Grammy in 2007 for co-writing the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice.” He had a No. 1 country hit in 2012 with “Home,” which he co-wrote with singer Dierks Bentley. Recently, he’s written with vocal powerhouse Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine, U.K. soul singer Alex Clare, Matthew Caws of Nada Surf and British singer Rae Morris, among others.
Despite his lofty credentials, Wilson decided to use a crowd-sourcing campaign to finance “Love Without Fear” instead of working with a major label. Among the incentives he offered fans were lyric sheets calligraphed by him.
Wilson, who earned a degree in visual art at Harvard, taught himself calligraphy last year while his older daughter had an extended stay in the hospital. One day while he was practicing calligraphy at a North Hollywood bakery/coffee shop, a couple approached him to ask if he’d do their wedding invitations. He was flattered but declined.
He’s got a solo career to deal with. At least this year.