As is well known in his native Twin Cities music scene, Dan Wilson is a smart guy. So he, of all people, knew how dumb it might seem to try record his own version of “Someone Like You,” the 2011 megahit he co-wrote with Adele.
“Her version is untouchable,” he said. “There’s no way I could contend with that.”
Finding a way to come out from some of his biggest hits’ giant shadows was the challenge Wilson faced with admirable results on his latest solo album, “Re-Covered,” which he’s promoting with a “words and music” performance Friday night at the Fitzgerald Theater.
As is also common knowledge back home in Minnesota, the Semisonic frontman has become semifamous over the past decade as a songwriting partner for some of the biggest names in pop, country and rock music. One problem with this type of success, though, is the fact that all those big tunes he helped write were recorded by his collaborators, and never by him.
“These songs obviously mean a lot to me, too,” explained Wilson, who still regularly performs. When he does, he often drops in some of these chart-ascending collaborations, usually to a great response from fans.
With the Adele hit at the forefront, Wilson came up with the game plan for “Re-Covered,” a collection that also includes tracks he co-wrote with Taylor Swift, the Dixie Chicks, Josh Groban, Chris Stapleton, John Legend, Dierks Bentley, Mike Doughty and LeeAnn Rimes.
“I absolutely didn’t want to just make them lazy busker, acoustic, unplugged versions,” he said. “I needed an actual sonic idea, and they had to be unique ideas — something new and meaningful to make them my own.”
From his new home in Los Angeles, Wilson set off with L.A. producer Mike Viola (Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis) to craft more acoustic-sounding, organic versions of the songs, ones that sharply contrast the often very heavily produced, radio-oriented versions recorded by his counterparts. The recordings on “Re-Covered” can’t be called raw or unrefined. In fact, the new version of “Someone Like You” features one of the world’s most famous string quartets. But they do sound beautifully stripped down and natural, more like something out of a living room than a hi-fi recording studio.
Since he revisited them on the record, I thought it a good excuse to ask Wilson to recall what originally went into writing these songs.
John Legend, “You and I”
I started off asking about Legend because he’s well known to be a gifted songwriter all on his own, and he has even co-written hits for other artists much like Wilson. So why did he need help with this love song from 2013’s “Love in the Future” album?
Wilson: “One of my guiding principles for co-writing with people is knowing they’ve already written a great song. I don’t like the idea of helping them do something they can’t do. I want to combine my powers with their superpowers and see what we can come up with.”
“John Legend is the ultimate example of that. He can do whatever he wants to do when he sits down at a piano. So for he and I to get together to write something, it’s like, ‘Where can we go that we couldn’t go on our own?’ I think that song is a great example of he and I combining our own sensibilities and complementing each other.”
The Dixie Chicks, “Not Ready to Make Nice”
This was Wilson’s first big breakthrough as a co-writer, winning him a Grammy for song of the year in 2007. He and the trio famously/infamously crafted it as a response to the uproar over Chicks singer Natalie Maines’ comments against President George W. Bush at the start of the second Iraq war. Lo and behold, the song’s popularity has now been rekindled amid the current U.S. political climate.
Wilson: “Once I established with them we were going to try to write a song that addressed everything they had gone through, then we were very much taken over by the sense of purpose and the quest to make it a meaningful mission. That was very exciting, and very cathartic. It was a relief to write it. But when we were done, I didn’t think, ‘Oh, that’s going to be a huge hit for sure.’ I didn’t see it as a commercial endeavor at all [laughs]. All I really thought was, ‘I’m glad we did that.’
“The song totally seems pertinent again. I wish we lived in a more peaceful world where justice and equal rights for all is a foregone conclusion. That’s not the way the world is, though. A song like ‘Not Ready to Make Nice,’ if it had a purpose and flash point at one time, it’s going to have that again.”
Dierks Bentley, “Home”
This single went to No. 1 on Billboard’s country singles chart in 2012, giving Wilson his mainstream Nashville credentials. However, it also gained attention when alt-country star Jason Isbell publicly accused its writers of plagiarizing it from one of his songs, “In a Razor Town.”
Wilson: “I quickly learned that the country writers in Nashville don’t want somebody from Minnesota to come down and write a stone-cold country hit. They want you to bring your own vibe to the party. Once I learned that, I learned I could just be myself in those country sessions. I was able to do that with Dierks, where I could be myself and just write a rock song, and he could be himself in between styles. I was very attracted to working with Dierks because of his hybridized styles.”
“I was really bummed Jason thought we plagiarized him. I think we might’ve plagiarized the same old folk songs that Jason also plagiarized. If you think about all the songs that have similar melodies, it would be a very big list. I had never listened to Jason at that time, and I’m pretty sure my collaborators had never listened to him, either. It really tainted my ability to appreciate Jason Isbell for quite a while, which was also a drag, because I was really into his next couple albums.”
Taylor Swift, “Treacherous”
Although it wasn’t a radio hit, this track from the 2012 “Red” album helped mark Swift’s crossover from a country act to a pop singer.
Wilson: “I had been thinking about writing with Taylor for several years, and then when ‘Someone Like You’ happened, it started to make certain things that were just an idea more and more inevitable. I just had a notion it would happen, and when it did, it made sense on several levels.”
“The ‘Red’ album — as fans like me all know now — was a real conscious transition on her part from being the country ingénue and child prodigy to the adult who’s calling the shots. Her transition from country music to pop music went hand in hand with that, too, and I think this song reflects all that. Even without that subtext, though, I love the song. I’m fascinated by the way it turned out.
Adele, “Someone Like You”
Wilson: “I had been hanging out with the Kronos Quartet backstage at a show we did together, a tribute to Big Star. We performed ‘Give Me Another Chance,’ and we had such a great time together we started talking about what else we could do. I quickly thought of this. Doing it with them would be the perfect way to make the song so different and special from Adele’s version, and to not have to compete. Thanks to Kronos, this version is very different, but still something very special.”
Matt Wilson, “Landing”
OK, so this one didn’t win any Grammys or top any charts. But the nugget from “Burnt, White & Blue,” the first solo album from Wilson’s brother and former Trip Shakespeare bandmate, helped pave the way for Dan becoming a songwriting collaborator.
Wilson: “When I was finalizing the song choices for ‘Re-Covered,’ it hit me: Of course, I have to have a song with Matt, because Matt is such a huge part of my journey as a songwriter. He was there from the earliest days. He figured out how to write songs in Trip Shakespeare before I had really cracked the code.
“In the end, I think it’s one of the highlights of the record. It happens to cover a lot of the things I think a great song should have: The metaphor in the song is haunting, an airplane that refuses to land; the melody is super simple; and there aren’t a lot of words, almost like a haiku. It’s boiled down to just the essence of a great song.”
Semisonic, “Closing Time”
He had to do it. No really, the folks around Wilson pretty much insisted that he recut his own band’s 1998 hit for the new album.
Wilson: “I really thought it wasn’t part of the story. The rest of the songs are ones I wrote with other people for their albums. This didn’t fit that idea. But when I sent early versions of ‘Re-Covered’ to the handful of my friends I play stuff for, I always heard, ‘Why not “Closing Time?” ’ I tried to explain why not, but they all said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but it’s really going to seem weird if you don’t do it.’
“They were totally right. But I also liked the idea of doing it because, after all this time, the song is sort of talked about with a double meaning and seen as a sort of lullaby. I thought it really made sense to play it as a lullaby on piano. It fulfilled that new meaning of the song.”