February 26, 2014
As part of this week's Current Presents special on the Best-Selling Minnesota Artists of All Time, I had the chance to talk to songwriter Dan Wilson about his single "Closing Time"—whose success propelled Semisonic's Feeling Strangely Fine to platinum status—and his thoughts on the music industry at large.
In addition to his work in Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare, Dan Wilson has gone on to co-write with high-profile musicians like Taylor Swift, the Dixie Chicks, Dierks Bentley, and Adele, whose Wilson-penned "Someone Like You" has gone five-times multi-platinum. To date, the combined albums and singles he's contributed to have easily sold over 10 million copies.
Part of my conversation with Dan aired this past Sunday night on the Current Presents, but there were also a lot of questions and answers that didn't quite fit into the show but were nonetheless fascinating.
Dan Wilson has a new solo album, Love Without Fear, due out April 14.
Local Current: Take me back to pre-"Closing Time" Semisonic. What was happening with the band, and how long had you been together at that point?
Dan Wilson: If I’m remembering it right, could it have been late winter of ‘96? Early winter of ‘97? Semisonic had been on tour for a lot of the year before, because we had this album Great Divide that came out. We were basically just living in nightclubs all the time. Now the winter found us back home in Minneapolis, kind of woodshedding, talking about what we wanted to do next. I felt like our album, Great Divide—I had intended it to be like a huge greatest hits collection of singles, but it was received very much like an art piece, and I thought, well, maybe I don’t need to worry about commercial success; I’ll just make an art piece.
So I was writing songs on acoustic guitar, showing them to John [Munson] and Jake [Slichter], and I remember I was just in the mode of writing a song a day for a month. And one of those days I wrote "Closing Time," partly just to give the guys a different song to finish our shows with. I didn’t really think of it as anything that special at the time. I mean, I knew it was a good song, but I didn’t think it was anything commercial.
So there was literally a song written 24 hours before that and a song after that, and nothing stood out to you about that one?
Yeah, right. Nothing stood out at all. I would go over to John’s house and we’d go down in the basement and he had an 8-track recorder and we would just—basically I would make them listen to me play it on acoustic guitar and then they would add a few little tiny things, like a keyboard or a tambourine. We were making the simplest possible demos.
When the album was recorded, did you have a role in choosing that as the single?
Yeah. We had an interesting conversation with Nick Launay, our producer. Nick felt like the first single should be a song called “Never You Mind,” and I said, “Why not 'Closing Time’? ‘Closing Time’ feels like a single to me.” And Nick said, “Yeah, but it’s too much for the punters.” Meaning, normal people are going to like it too much, and we would lose our indie cred. That was his mindset. Like, don’t pick that song because it will be too big. And when he said that part of me went, oh, I’m going to choose that song for sure now. It sounds like an interesting experience to have. So we basically chose the most broadly appealing song on the record to be the first single.
Do you remember hearing it on the radio for the first time?
When you hear something that you’ve written in that context, does it change it for you?
Well the radio does a funny thing. When I first heard "Closing Time" on the radio it was in Minneapolis and I immediately called the label people and said “We need to remix the song. It’s just not loud enough.” It just didn’t come off as loud on the radio.
What did they say?
Ok. So we did another mix that was louder on the radio.
When did you realize that something different was happening with "Closing Time" than anything that had happened with your music before?
A couple different things happened. The band went down to San Diego and played this radio festival for a lot of radio programmer people, and our new head of radio promotion at MCA was this very brash woman named Nancy Levin. Her finger was on the pulse of what was happening with the song, and mine totally wasn’t at all, and I had no idea that people were liking it or anything. This was early days. And she came back to the dressing room and said, “So, how does it feel?” And I said, “What?” And she said, “The song is going to be huge. Are you excited?” And I said, "I have no idea, what are you talking about?" And she said, "Oh, it’s plainly obvious, it’s going to be huge." She knew. And I didn’t. And she was right about a lot of things, and that was one of the things that she was excited about. She never forgave me. Years later, she would pester me that I wasn’t excited at the time.
And the second thing was, I got an email from a fan who heard the song on the radio. First time he heard the song on the radio. And the title of the email was “It’s over.” And he said, “Dear Dan, I just heard your song ‘Closing Time’ on the radio for the first time, I’m really looking forward to hearing the record, but when that song ended on the radio I thought to myself, it’s over. I’m never going to be able to see you at the 400 Bar again, I’m never going to be able to enjoy you as my special band that my friends and I only know about and nobody knows about. I’m never going to be able to have that direct contact with you anymore. It’s over. But, congratulations.”
Wow. What did you say to that?
I was stunned. I was completely stunned. I can’t even remember what my response was. I thought it was very compassionate and great, it was a great email to get. But it was sad, too.
What effect did that success have on Semisonic, and on you as a person?
Well, I mean truthfully, it changes a lot of things. Success changes a lot of things. It makes your previously questionable ideas seem kind of genius after the fact. It makes people behave differently and strangely around you. Internally, I’ve always had a big ego, and I think it made my ego bigger.
At the same time, it’s interesting because it’s not what I expected it to be. Like, one of the great things about Jacob Slichter’s book, So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, [is that] Jacob had very, very specific dreams and notions of what it was going to be like to be a rock star. And then nothing was the way he thought it was going to be. For me, it was a little different because I didn’t really have a specific version of what it was going to be like.
I honestly saw it as, each new album or song was a way to get somebody to pony up money for me to make another song. It was all just going from piece of music to piece of music. Not at all about a lifestyle. And the lifestyle is actually kind of grubby: you’re running from place to place, waking up super early in the morning, talking with people all day, confused, don’t know what city you’re in. It’s strange.
Waiting around a lot.
Waiting. A lot of waiting. I mean, on the plus side, suddenly the people that I looked upon as my heroes or idols, people that I respected a lot, thought of me as a peer. So I could go to a show of Ben Folds’, for example, and then go back stage afterwards and tell him what a huge fan I was at the time, and he would say, "Oh man, my producer and I just spent three days trying to make one of my songs sound just like your song." It’s a different feeling. It’s a little bit surreal, but there’s also something proportional about it. There’s a reason I like his music so much, so it sort of stands to reason that he would like mine.
I want to talk more about your ego.
Rick Rubin has been quoted as saying you’re one of the most ego-less people he’d come across in music. When you go into the studio to co-write, is there some compartmentalizing involved? Is there something that you have to do mentally to set the fact that you know that you are a Grammy-winning, chart-topping songwriter? Or is that in the room with you as you’re creating?
I think what Rick Rubin meant when he said that I was ego-less, I think he meant that I don’t let my ego dictate musical decisions. There’s this thing called the “Ikea Effect,” where Ikea has discovered that if they make you screw in one screw on one of their side tables, you’re going to like that side table more. So they want you to make it yourself, because then you’re going to think it’s awesome, because you made it. And I don’t have as much of that as most people. When I’m working on a piece of music that’s my own—it’s not like I’m just going ‘Oh, this sucks’ the whole time, I’m enthused—but I can kind of tell where I stand. And I don’t let my ego get in the way of that. And I’m super picky, so I can’t stop changing or fixing things until it’s perfect. So in that way also, my ego might be wanting to say I’m awesome, it’s done, but my picky side is saying no, I’ve got to make it better.
Do you think you have to have an ego, though, to create something and put it out into the world?
I think you do. I think just to get up in front of people and sing them a bunch of your own songs is very egotistical. And it’s assuming that they have nothing better to do than listen to you. It does take a certain kind of ego.
When I look at your entire body of work, all the songs that you’ve written alone and with other people, one common thread that I see is that your songs are both personal but also very open-ended. You could be writing about a specific person, but we have no way of knowing who that person is, what they look like, even if it’s a man or a woman or if you’re a man or a woman. Do you feel like that quality has helped you connect with larger audiences?
That’s interesting. I remember reading something you wrote about a song of mine and you described that quality, where the songs feel like they’re about something in particular but you actually couldn’t put your finger on it, it’s actually very open-ended and abstract. I think that at least for me, that open-endedness is where the participation of the audience can happen, in what I do. It’s not the same for every artist. Some artists might have very specific lyrics that are not open-ended at all, not even metaphorical, just totally a story that happened. But if they’re a great artist, there’s some other angle that the audience can get into the music. Some other openness.
I think, with my stuff, it’s so much about this sort of raw emotion of the story that I’m telling, that I sometimes let the story evaporate away and just leave the emotion in, as much as I can. It’s a little bit like abstracting. I don’t think I could just start with raw emotion and do a song, but if I start with a story that’s really specific and then slowly remove things from it or change things and make it ambiguous, I feel like the emotion is still there but it’s not about me anymore. It’s about something that someone else can understand, too.
Do you work with other songwriters to try to achieve that, to draw out the emotions but leave it open?
When I collaborate I want to create something that’s, first of all, very emotional for that person. But there’s another element to that, where part of what I’m doing is I’m thinking what, as a fan, do I want to hear them say or feel? I often feel like there’s something particular about that artist that I and all the other fans know about, and I just want them to write a song about that. And even if it’s not right on the nose exactly addressing that thing about them, if I get something where it feels like they’re touching emotionally on this thing that we all are interested in about them, then I feel like I’ve helped them.
Most people don’t know what’s interesting about themselves. Most people, you say “What’s happening in your life?” And they’re like, "Well, you know, it’s pretty mundane, I kind of came out of the closet last week, and all my friends are in an uproar." At that moment I’d be like, "Well, dude, there’s our song right there." And they’d be like, "No, it’s boring! I don’t want to sing about that." But to me, it’s like, "No, no, no! This is totally the thing to write about, come on." It’s so plain that that’s the main thing that’s going on. But we can’t see it in our lives. We just think, oh, I’ve got these mundane problems that everybody has.
That’s kind of intense, when you’re talking about having only four hours with someone, or a day. It’s almost like a quick therapy session before you dive in.
I was joking with a friend that when I was in junior high and high school I remember going to these overnights with my church group, and we would play these trust games where you would fall backwards into other people’s arms, you know, and you would have to really let go. And writing songs with somebody is totally like that. I once did a session with a lady who is a very good songwriter and a really well-known writer, and she said, “Well, what’s going on in your life?” And I told her this really sad thing that happened in my life that week. And she goes, “Well, that’s a downer.” And I was completely crushed. It was so horrible. I just had completely played the trust game and she let me fall on the ground. But I guess when it works, you’re meeting this stranger that you know is a like-minded member of your tribe, and you spill your guts and you write a great song and then, probably, you’re friends.
I want to go back to the success of "Closing Time" and compare it to where we’re at today. Obviously the music industry is quite different now than when Semisonic was on the charts. You hear the phrase “one-hit-wonder” used a lot to describe bands in the late ‘90s, because it was so monocultural, it was so saturated with these singles. Do you think it’s possible for a single song to be released now and achieve that kind saturation?
It feels like the state of the art now, at least if you’re thinking about the big commercial enterprises, labels and stuff like that—what they’re putting together is a campaign. So the “hit” is the campaign, and there’s five songs that go into the campaign, and two of the songs are in commercials and one of the songs is going on the radio now, and another one is going on the radio in a month. It’s almost like this battle plan. And so what we’re seeing competing, duking it out on this large scale is these long campaigns of one artist or another artist. Much less about one song than it might have been before. It’s almost like they just believe it’s not possible to make the kind of headway that they need to with just one song. They won’t go into anything without five hit singles and a definite Gap ad and a definite Target ad and a definite Super Bowl spot, blah blah blah. I think, in a way, when Semisonic was active and "Closing Time" came out, I think we were just really lucky. We were really lucky.
Do you think that’s better for the artist, to have more of their songs out there?
I think it’s interesting. But I don’t know if it’s great for the artists to have to have the campaign approach. Partly because it makes it actually less likely for a particular song to become so iconic, to become so part of the culture. We almost unconsciously think of every song by big pop artists as widgets in a larger scheme. We don’t think of them as important in particular to them, as much as we might have before.
It seems like in the ‘90s, and in the ‘60s when songs were sold on 45s and you could market the singles, it was pretty easy to measure someone’s commercial success in terms of album sales. But now that things are shifting toward licensing music and that can be a big part of a band’s career, are musicians making the same money as they were in the ‘90s? More? Less? Is it just coming from a lot of different places?
My guess, given—I’ve got no math or science behind this at all, but given what I know of the way people talk, music is like a lot of businesses that have been hollowed out by the internet. The top people are still making the same unbelievable amount of money. And the very bottom people are making nothing. But I think 15 years ago there was a middle, and you could sort of be helped along by the business in a way that allowed you to quit your day job and really apply yourself to your art, and live a kind of medium-income life. Not quite middle class, but not super poverty either.
And I think what the internet has done is make people in every realm—I mean, eventually it’s going to be everybody—but the middle people are all losing their paychecks. And I think that’s happened in music a lot. So I see a lot of people at what I would think of as a pretty high level of success making surprisingly little money, because they just haven’t achieved the Bruno Mars level, or the Katy Perry level, or even the Christina Perri level. The whole music business now is structured to have you do it speculatively so that you might win the lottery someday, completely. That may not be that hard because musicians will do what they do anyway. But I think it’s harder to be a professional musician now and make, like, what a librarian would earn. It doesn’t happen. Whereas it kind of used to.
The Current Presents: Minnesota's Best-Selling Artists. A one-hour special on the most commercially successful music to come out of our state.
The best-selling Minnesota albums of all time. Yes, Bob Dylan and Prince dominate this list, but plenty of other albums from Minnesota have sold over 500,000 copies.
The best-selling Minnesota singles of all time. The highest-selling Prince single is "Batdance"? And surprisingly, "Funkytown" is no longer at the top.
What does it take for a musician to “sell out” in 2014? Artists from Communist Daughter and Dark Dark Dark weigh in on the brave new world of licensing music for use in advertising and film.
40 years of album sales in two handy charts. Take a close-up look at sales data gathered by the RIAA, which shows the rise and fall of singles vs. album sales over the past four decades.