Catching up with the Semisonic frontman on the heels of a new solo EP
The case can certainly be made that Dan Wilson is one of the most accomplished songwriters and producers in modern times.
If you were alive in 1998, you will likely remember “Closing Time,” the Grammy nominated hit song by his band Semisonic. He also co-wrote “Not Ready to Make Nice” (2006) with The Chicks, winning a Grammy award for “Song of the Year.” He won another Grammy as a producer for Adele’s 2011 album 21, for which he also co-wrote the track “Someone Like You.” He’s written and/or produced work for Taylor Swift, Vance Joy, Noah Cyrus, Leon Bridges, Halsey, Tom Morello, John Legend, Keith Urban, Nas, and many, many more.
Though he’s been remarkably successful working with others, Wilson has been equally interesting on his own. His debut solo album, Free Life, came out in 2007; since then, he’s released two more full-length albums, one EP, and more than a dozen standalone singles. On September 28, he’ll add to this catalog when he puts out another EP, Dancing on the Moon.
The EP’s title track “is about two people super connected, super into each other, but feeling almost marooned together and feeling like the world has disappeared,” Wilson says, during a recent call from his Los Angeles home. “But it really didn’t feel like it was about isolation or loneliness or problems. It felt more like it was about wanting to double down on, ‘I’m feeling connected to somebody,’ and what to do in the face of the crazy world.”
The rest of the tracks on the six-song EP expand on this theme. “The thing that kept coming up in the songs is, ‘Let’s just make peace with each other and stick it out,’ as opposed to focusing on what’s gone wrong in the outside world,” Wilson says. This approach gives Dancing on the Moon an optimistic vibe that seems fitting, now that pandemic-related restrictions are being relaxed.
Still, despite seeming relevant to what’s happening in the world, Wilson can’t predict how fans will receive these new songs. “This EP is me embracing my guitar experimentation side a lot, and kind of setting aside the more busker, acoustic band vibes that I’ve always favored. Who knows if people are going to be mad at it being different, or happy – it’s very difficult to predict. It’s simpler to say, ‘Well, this is what I’m obsessed with now, and I hope people can dig it,’” he says.
He believes that his previous work history might help in this regard, at least: “I think there’s maybe something about the way my voice sounds and my melodies, that they’re recognizable,” he says. “So once I had a couple of hits, my next melody that I write gets a strange kind of evolutionary advantage because it sounds a little bit like the other stuff that I did. I feel like I made a little area in the culture that makes my newer work a little more familiar sounding.”
In a way, Wilson’s successful music career seemed like something he was destined to do. As he was growing up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, it became obvious to his family that he was a natural musician.
“When I was a kid, there was no stopping the outgoing musical content that just kept coming off me,” Wilson says. “My parents knew I was coming home because I would sing all the way down the block.” (He remembers doing this same thing when he was in his twenties, living in San Francisco. “I’m sure the neighbors thought I was a nut,” he says with a laugh).
VIDEO: Trip Shakespeare Live at First Avenue 1988
His younger brother Matt (who currently fronts the Minneapolis based band Matt Wilson and His Orchestra) was also musically inclined. “Matt’s such a good lyricist, and one of the funniest people you would ever meet,” Wilson says. “He’s so witty and quick. He’s funny in a way that almost everybody gets the jokes, but also, none of them would have said that joke. That’s how his lyrics are.”
Both Wilson brothers earned degrees from Harvard University, then returned to Minneapolis and fronted the alternative rock band Trip Shakespeare. Though they earned effusive critical praise for their highly melodic, slightly off-kilter and often whimsical songs, they never achieved widespread success. After releasing four full-length albums and one EP, they finally called it quits in 1992. With hindsight, it seems clear that Trip Shakespeare were probably the victims of unfortunate timing, as that era’s grunge revolution effectively sidelined other musical styles.
“I feel like timing is an interesting thing,” Wilson says. “Some people are really, really good at guessing what the public is going to think. But most artists, I think, are less focused on that and more focused on doing whatever their weird obsessional project is. And I think in that case, you just have to be lucky with timing or hang in there for a long time.”
Wilson did persevere, forming the band Semisonic in 1995 along with another ex-Trip Shakespeare member, bassist John Munson. Semisonic’s single “Closing Time” (written by Wilson) became a massive hit, charting in seven countries (including reaching the #1 spot on the Billboard Alternative Airplay chart in the U.S.).
“The songs that I’ve made that connected the most with people feel very much like I just wandered into the right room at the right time on the right day with the right attitude, and something happened musically that was incredible,” Wilson says. “I don’t really think, ‘I was really awesome on that day.’ I don’t think of it that way because I know how a great song can just appear in front of your eyes. I often have a hard time really taking credit for something even if I wrote it alone.”
VIDEO: Semisonic “Closing Time”
Despite his modesty, “Closing Time” has arguably become one of the most memorable hits from the past quarter century. The song’s lyrics are cleverly constructed so that they can be interpreted in a number of ways. This, he says, is deliberate: “The lyricists I like the best are the ones where I feel like they are not messing around. There might be light-hearted jokes here and there, but you’re supposed to be impacted by their lyrics. I got encouraged in that direction by reading a lot of great poetry. In my mid-twenties, I discovered the poets Sharon Olds and Elizabeth Bishop, and went back and rediscovered Robert Frost.”
Wilson says that he and his Semisonic bandmates are currently gathering tracks for a fourth full-length album. When it comes out, it will be their first full-length album in more than 20 years (though they did put out an EP in 2020, You’re Not Alone).
In the meantime, Wilson hopes his fans will enjoy Dancing on the Moon – even though he reiterates that he intends to keep following his own path, whether other people like what he’s doing or not. “When I’m working on new stuff, I don’t really think about, ‘How can I match some great thing that I did in the past?’” he says. “I just keep doing what I do.”