‘I’m not going to get embarrassed or feel awkward if someone begins weeping when they start talking about a story that becomes a song. If they start to cry, I don’t try to stop that.’

Picture: Shervin Lainez

MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. Here we meet the multi-Grammy-winning, genre-hopping Dan Wilson, co-writer of Adele‘s global smash who has also written with Taylor Swift, Chris Stapleton, Jason Mraz, Pink and many more. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.

Sometimes less is more. Reflecting on the music he listened to as a kid, Dan Wilson says that his parents owned precisely 10 albums. He doesn’t list them all, but he does mention Carole King’s Tapestry, The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Sgt Pepper as well as Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel.

He absorbed and learned from each of them. Many years later he would go on to co-write with one of them, the one who had first helped him understand that there was such a thing as a songwriter, and who would then, face-to-face over a Casio keyboard, provide him with one more very specific and valuable lesson.

By then, Wilson was known as the lead singer and main writer for Semisonic who, in turn, were known mainly as the band that had enjoyed a sizeable (and, it turned out, extremely enduring) hit with Closing Time in 1998 (Wilson had previously enjoyed smaller scale success as part of Minneapolis psych-band, Trip Shakespeare).

As well as becoming a radio staple, Closing Time also earned Walsh his first Grammy nomination. He has subsequently been nominated for his work with Taylor Swift (on Red) and for Butterfly (up for Song of the Year in 2023), which he co-wrote with Jon Batiste.

He has won three times, most recently this year with White Horse, co-written with Chris Stapleton, in the Best Country Song category. Prior to that he had taken home the prize for his work with Adele (he co-wrote Someone Like You and Don’t You Remember on 21, released in 2011) and The Chicks’ Not Ready To Make Nice, Song of the Year in 2007.

That hattrick of triumphs were, significantly, for songs recorded by other artists, part of Wilson’s second (and very much ongoing) career as a more behind-the-scenes songwriter which has also seen him work with Celine Dion, Florence + The Machine, Mitski, My Morning Jacket, Leon Bridges, Tom Morello, Pink, Halsey, Weezer, Panic! at the Disco, John Legend and many others.

Here, he discusses the transition from center stage to writers’ room, the personal and professional impact of mega-hits, being ‘old-school’ and the curse of social media…

When did you first start writing songs and what do you remember about those early efforts?

My parents gifted my brother and me an acoustic guitar to share when I was 13 and he was 11. The first thing we did was he wrote a song and played it to me, then I wrote a song and played it for him.

It’s funny, whenever I went to restaurants with my family, I always would look at everyone else’s food and think that what they ordered must taste so much nicer. It was the same with songs; I remember thinking his song was awesome – and mine sounded like a lame George Harrison knock-off. But I guess the good thing was it made me want to get better.

How do you look back on the peak of Semisonic’s success? Was it something you were able to enjoy at the time?

The beginnings of Semisonic were kind of idyllic. John [Munson] and Jake [Slichter] and I would go to each other’s houses and I would play them songs I was writing for this trio we were planning to become, and it seemed like no one was wondering about what we did. No one was like, ‘What are Dan and John from Trip Shakespeare going to do next?’

There was no pressure or anxiety, internally or externally – not just about what music we would make, but just whether we’d make music or not. No one really cared!

It was almost dreamlike. I would write a song, I would play it to the guys and they would say whether they liked it or not, but in a really no-big-deal way. Then, when we became medium successful, I was full of a kind of ambitious, frustrated rage a lot of the time. I didn’t take it on my guys, but I was very intense. I was trying to bend the course of events to my will.

And then later, when we got really successful, it was just…  it was fun!

I have to ask you about writing Closing Time. What was the process and can you remember how you felt about it after you’d written it but before it had been released?

John, Jake and I were getting together to make demos of songs that I was writing, really simple demos; we would cook up the band arrangements later.

I was coming up with a lot of ideas, but I had also been given this mission from John and Jake to write a new closer for our shows. They were bored with the one that I always put at the end of the set.

I was like, ‘Ok, I’ll write a new closer, what could that be called?’ Then I remember writing it on my couch in about 20 minutes and immediately thinking, well at the very least, bartenders are gonna love this.

I certainly didn’t think it was going to be a smash at all. Jake, on the other hand, says that he knew right away that it was going to change our lives.

And how much did it change your lives?

In terms of how busy we were, how much travelling we did, how much we were recognized, all the sort of trappings of fame, life changed a lot, and very quickly. Plus we were getting paid!

Longer-term, in fact fast-forward five years, I think the reason Rick Rubin was able to convince The Dixie Chicks to write songs with me is because they loved Closing Time. So there were those ripple effects as well as the more instant ones.

And then the fact that I still hear it on the radio in LA more than 25 years later… I’m filled with disbelief every time.

How helpful has that experience as a successful artist been in your more behind-the-scenes role as a songwriter with and for other artists?

Oh it’s been really helpful. Because I’ve gone through the excitement and the bullshit and the overwhelmingness of both failure and success. And I’ve tried and tried, throughout it all, to be an artist as opposed to a business.

“When I’m writing with an artist, they know that I’ve been through all that stuff. They know that I’m not monetizing them.”

When I’m writing with an artist, they know that I’ve been through all that stuff. They know that I’m not monetizing them, and I think that really influences the immediate context of a session.

Sidebar question before we leave the Semisonic years behind, and harking back to your parents’ small but impeccable record collection: how did you come to write with Carole King and what was that like?

Oh my God… So, Carole King was a luminous name from my childhood. Also, she was a big part of me realising that songwriting was a thing. She had a song called You’ve Got A Friend on Tapestry, and then one day I heard a man singing it on the radio – a man I later realized was James Taylor.

I knew she had written it, because I’d read it on the album sleeve, and that’s when it became apparent to me that you could write a song that other people might sing. That kind of blew my mind!

Much later on, in 1998 or ’99, I got a call from my manager, Jim [Grant]. He had called my publisher to complain about the particulars of some deal or other, my publisher put Jim on hold, and when he got back he said, ‘Sorry to change the subject, but would Dan be interested in writing a song with Carole King? I have her on the other line and she loves Closing Time.’ Of course, in an instant, forget about the details of that deal, all is forgiven!

How was it? Were you nervous?

I was really nervous. I met her at her place, and I was sort of expecting, I don’t know, like a rhinestone-studded piano in the most state-of-the-art studio, but we just walked into this kind of converted garage and started jamming on a Casio keyboard.

One thing that blew me away was that I played her the chorus for the song that became One True Love, and she said, ‘How about this for a verse?’ She sang it and, somehow, I said, ‘I’m not totally sure about that’. Straight away, she said, ‘Ok, how about this?’ And she played a whole other verse, the one that ended up on the record.

In retrospect, what blew my mind about that, of course, was, who am I compared to Carole King? Who is pretty much anyone compared to Carole King? But look how she reacted…

In so many sessions I’ve been in since then, if I say, ‘I’m not so into that, what about something else?’, the person begins advocating. But what Carol did was move on straight away, and have a whole other thing, another completely brilliant idea, straight away. I know not everyone can do that, but as an attitude and as a way of working with another songwriter, especially one who so looks up to you, it was mind-blowing and really enlightening for me. There was such a looseness and lightness of touch about her.

When, why and how did you start to develop this parallel career as a more behind-the-scenes songwriter?

A bunch of things feed into that. One is that I kind of became the lead singer in a band because it was a way for people to hear my songs. I didn’t want to be Elton John when I was a teenager listening to Elton John. Or rather I did, of course I did, but I only wanted to be the Elton John that was in the studio playing the piano and writing songs.

But I sort of had to be the singer of my songs just so I could have a platform for people to hear them. My focus has always been more on the songs than on being a star or being a performer.

And then when I was first trying to write songs with people, I discovered that everyone felt really uneasy and embarrassed about their method of writing a song. Like, they didn’t want anyone to know how they made the sausage.

Then, as I learned more, and I wrote with more and more different people, I realised Oh, everyone has a variation of the same embarrassing process – and that felt almost like an invitation. If I can just be present at these sessions, be non-judgmental about the embarrassing process and have good ideas, ego-free, like Carole King, then I could probably do this.

Lastly, when my older daughter was born with a lot of quite serious medical issues, I realised I couldn’t tour 200 nights a year anymore. That’s when I tried to scale back on the artist side and try focusing on writing, because it was more sustainable.

What were the key projects and collaborations in those early days, that sort of moved you up through the levels?

One of the most influential early ones was with Rachael Yamagata. We wrote maybe three songs in a weekend, and one of them was I Want You, which she ended up making as a duet with her friend, Jason Mraz. Because of that Jason contacted me and asked if we could write a song.

So Jason and I wrote a bunch of songs together, and I ended up with tracks on Mr. A-Z [2005, US No. 5] and We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things [2008, US No. 3]. Things kind of flowed from there, like one person tells another person…

Eventually it led to Rick Rubing hearing about me through Cheryl Crow and him realizing that, although he’d never actually heard of me, he was suddenly in love with my songs. And that ultimately led to me writing six tracks on the Dixie Chicks’ Taking The Long Way album [2006, produced by Rubin, US No. 1 and winner of five Grammys].

How did you come to meet and work with Adele?

I had really loved 19, and in particular Hometown Glory. Then somebody in my world said, ‘Would you ever want to write a song with Adele, because we’re talking with her about various collaborators’, Of course the answer was, ‘Yes, yes yes’.

Then it kind of just went away; that happens sometimes – you learn to go with the flow. Then when Rick and I befriended each other, he tried a couple of times to get us together. Again, it didn’t happen, there were a couple of cancellations or whatever, but he kept insisting – ‘I think this would be a really good idea’. It definitely helps when someone as brilliant as that is vouching for you.

So where and when did it eventually happen?

The first time Adele and I got together was in a studio of my choice, a very small place called Harmony in West Hollywood – and she just made me laugh so much! She is sooo funny.

She also played me a lot of Wanda Jackson songs, she was obsessed with her at the time. We listened to a couple of her demos, including one that became Rolling In The Deep.

After about an hour of that, listening and – mostly – laughing, we launched into writing the song that became Someone Like You.

She had a bass riff for it, which is funny because we ended up not using bass on the record at all. But that’s what we started writing around, and the DNA of the eventual song was in there, but it wasn’t quite working. Then she finally said, ‘Maybe it’d be more inspiring if you played the piano’.

So that’s what I did, with almost like a variation of the bass riff, in that same world – and we were off to the races; we got about two-thirds of the song done by the end of the first day, but the second verse was terrible and there was no bridge.

The next day, Adele was having a smoke break on the porch and I said, ‘What do you want to do today? Shall we carry on with that song from yesterday or move on to something else?’ She said, ‘Oh we have to work on the song from yesterday. I played it for me manager and me mum; me manager loved it and me mum cried.’

To be honest, I was kind of disappointed, because I hate sharing works in progress with anyone outside the room, but she was right, and it was the first hint of what it was going to become. Funnily enough, I talked to her about it later and to her it was more than that. She said that she knew at the end of the first day writing that it would be the song that would change her life. I had no idea!

By the end of the second day it was done. Her voice was rougher on the second day, and it sounded awesome. On the first day it was a little too smooth. So that was the demo, and I knew that it was the template for a great record.

I didn’t hear a word about it for six months, then suddenly, her management is calling and saying they need the parts for the demo right away. It turned out that they had tried a couple of different versions of it and none of it was as affecting as the piano that I played and her vocal, so that was what was released.

Adele has described pretty much sobbing on the floor during the process of writing that very personal song. How do you make sure that there’s an environment in which an artist feels secure enough to let go like that – and what’s it like being in the room for moments as intense as that?

Well, I mean, artists are my people. We’re very volatile, very emotional, very heart on sleeve; that’s just what my people are like.

So I’m not going to get embarrassed or feel awkward if someone begins weeping when they start talking about a story that becomes a song. If they start to cry, I don’t try to stop that.

In that case, with Adele, it was a very cathartic writing session because she was experiencing that time in her life pretty intensely.

Adele ALSO said it was a song that changed her life, I guess the same was true for you as a writer?

For Adele, Someone Like You is her Closing Time. I’d already had that moment. And it’s not like everything else is a disappointment, far from it, it’s more like I had gone through that once-in-a-lifetime track.

I asked a friend of mine who had won an Oscar for a film he made what that was like, because we were up for a Grammy that year, and he said a couple of things happened: ‘One, the people who already thought I was cool, still thought I was cool; two, I got offered a whole bunch of work that seemed smart to do but was really wrong for me – and I did a bunch of that.’

“I realized, no, I actually don’t need to change my stripes very much. I can go back to doing my thing and being who I am.”

That happened to me for a while. Someone Like You became a huge hit, I moved to LA, I started doing sessions with people who were more like TV stars than artists. I did about two years of things that were sort of dumb, just because they came my way. And then I realized, no, I actually don’t need to change my stripes very much. I can go back to doing my thing and being who I am.

So, in a way, Someone Like You bought me a kind of uber-credibility with the artist community that I had not had before. But at the same time, it also led me down a little bit of a path where did I dumb stuff and I had to course-correct.

MOVING From one icon to another, what was it like writing with Taylor Swift and what are her unique skills as a writer?

I’d define Taylor as extremely considerate, quick-witted, and just a joy. As far as her skills are concerned… [laughs] I think they’re now part of the historical record!

She never shies away from testing herself or re-inventing herself as an artist; she’s Bowie-esque in that way. She’s relentlessly able to say small, granular, detailed things about her experiences in her lyrics and have them resonate outward with a sense of universal connection. She’s like a historical event now, there are no secrets about how great she is.

Pink described you as ‘an old-school songwriter’ – what do you understand from that description and is it one you’re happy with?

I guess it is in the sense that I’d rather write a song in the old-school busker way: no computer, only instruments. You’re not necessarily sure what kind of track it’s even going to be. It could be soft, it could be loud, it could be slow, it could be fast. Once the computer gets involved, you’re locked into a tempo and it develops a momentum of its own. You can’t say, ‘Shall we see what it sounds like as a waltz?!’

So yeah, I do like to do it the old Nashville way, with friends around a coffee table, everyone has an instrument and you’re just throwing out ideas.

Talking of Nashville, and bringing things up to date, how did you come to work with Chris Stapleton – and what’s the story behind White Horse?

Chris and I met at a Writers in the Round event put on by ASCAP. There were four of us, we each took turns playing a song, then went round again a few times in front of an audience of a few hundred or something.

It’s no joke, because the person right before you is probably doing to play something earth-shattering. Of course, Chris was before me and that’s exactly what he did. He played Whisky And You and while he was performing, the room was pin-drop silent, then when he finished it just exploded. And then I had to sing my song. He did that to me four times!

By the end, I’d basically fallen in love with him as a writer and I asked him to come down to New Orleans to write with me for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. We came up with a bunch of really good songs, we were in this beautiful city with these amazing jazz musicians having this unusual experience and we became friends.

A couple of years later we wrote a song called When The Stars Come Out, which was on his first album [Traveller, 2015, US No. 1].

A few years after that, I had heard that a Lone Ranger film was being made. I said to Chris, if we weren’t coming up with anything, we could always write something specifically for that. And immediately he said, ‘Yeah, we should call it White Horse’. And that’s what we did, we wrote that song.

This was quite some time ago. And to be honest I have lots of songs that never go anywhere – hundreds! Then last year we got a call from Chris’s management asking what my publishing credit line was for this song…

No one explained it or mentioned it was going on an album, let alone was going to be the lead single. And I sure didn’t know it was going to be such a huge record and go on to win a Grammy!

Bringing things even more up to date you recently signed a publishing deal with Universal [UMPG Executive Vice President and Co-Head of A&R Jennifer Knoepfle pictured with Wilson, below]. How did that come about and what do you think defines a good relationship between writer and publisher?

I think for me, you know, I’m not always shaking the tree for sessions to do or people to meet. So one of the best things a publisher can do is to kind of stir that up and introduce me to somebody who, yes, I certainly would like to write a song with.

Picture: Yazz Alali

That’s already been going really well with this new relationship. You know, I guess they want to make sure that I’m a good investment so they have a lot of a lot of incentive to help me work with the best people – and I’m definitely fine with that [laughs]

Finally, what single thing would you change about the music industry if you could?

I would like to unshackle artists from the day job of making endless content for social media platforms. I think that somehow everything has been twisted around. It used to be that artists worked for the label making music, now they work for Instagram making short movies. And Instagram doesn’t give a shit about the songs that person is doing, just so long as there’s engagement.

So, if I could change anything I would loosen the bonds that tie the younger artists to the social media content machine. It’s grueling for them – and absolutely soul-sucking.

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