Photo by Emmy Sherman
Dan Wilson On Semisonic's Return, Why Preachy Songs Suck & The "Capitalist Insanity" Of Cashing In On COVID-19
The ever-cogent Dan Wilson has no shortage of advice for fellow musicians. In fact, his Instagram page is literally full of it. “Repetition is good for practice, but it also provides fertile ground for… luck,” one fortune-cookie-style maxim goes. “Have trouble picking a single from your batch of songs?” another image asks. “Does one of them make you really uncomfortable and embarrassed? That’s the one. Most embarrassing track = hit.”
If the 59-year-old gave himself some advice, it might go something like this: “Don’t be afraid, Dan! Your old one-hit-wonder band will love those tunes you’ve been kicking around!” Because when he approached Semisonic’s bassist John Munson and drummer Jacob Slichter — with whom he hadn’t released music in almost two decades — he was, by his own admission, a nervous wreck. “I was scared to show them to the guys,” Wilson admits to GRAMMY.com. "But I was so excited."
Those songs comprise Semisonic’s new EP You’re Not Alone, which is due Sept. 18 via Pleasuresonic Recordings/Megaforce Records. Songs like the title track, “All It Would Take” and “Don’t Make Up Your Mind” fit snugly with their GRAMMY-winning 1998 hit “Closing Time” — both in their quality and 1990s time-warp aesthetic. Given that Semisonic never technically broke up and have consistently played together since they publicly went quiet, what took Wilson so long to write new Semisonic jams?
Simply put, the singer-songwriter evolved into a different kind of artist. In the years since Semisonic’s last 2001 album You’re Not Alone, he’s flown solo while writing chart-toppers for GRAMMY-centric greats — The Chicks, John Legend, Adele. (The former’s co-write with Wilson, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” won Song of the Year in 2006; the latter’s 2001 album 21, for which Wilson co-wrote “Don’t You Remember,” “One and Only” and “Someone Like You,” won Album of the Year the year of its release.)
Wilson returns to his old band as a power-pop philosopher, a songwriting sage. If you only know his hits — or his popular “Words & Music in Six Seconds” Instagram series — it’s a pleasure to absorb his observations in long form. GRAMMY.com gave Wilson a ring about You’re Not Alone, his aversion to self-righteous music and why he’s not making “lemonade out of lemons” during lockdown.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Give me your take on band reunions as a whole. Is there a correct reason to reunite versus an incorrect one?
The band wants to do it again. What other reason could there be? The band wants to do more music. That’s a perfectly good reason. I’m totally into it. What are some other possible reasons? I’ll weigh in. The band needs to make payments for medical issues? I mean, we don’t have that, but if someone had that I think it’d be perfectly legit. The band wants money, I guess? What else is there?
I guess that’s it. Creative need, financial need or both. Either way, one returns to their old job.
You know, for Semisonic, I had wanted to do this for years. We’ve always put a show together every year just to be together, because we love being together. The catch has always been that I haven’t been able to write songs that sound right for the band for a long time. This is the first batch of songs that I’ve written for the band that sound right.
I had reasons that were more like: I love this group, I love the music we make, I love these songs, I want to play them, I like playing live, and I can’t think of any new songs for the band at the moment. It was frustrating.
Why the mental block all these years? What made it difficult to write Semisonic songs?
Well, first of all, I did a solo record, [2007’s] Free Life with Rick Rubin, and I underwent a kind of mentorship process with him that was amazing. I learned so much about making records and I learned a whole kind of ethic and sonic approach from Rick that was so great.
Then I also learned how to write songs for other people to sing and I wrote songs for Jason Mraz [such as 2018’s “Love is Still the Answer”), the Chicks, John Legend — incredible people! — during those first six or eight years after Semisonic stopped touring. In a way, I temporarily trained myself out of being the guy in Semisonic. It was kind of like a musical acid. I lost track of that guy in the band.
I’m more self-aware about it now than I was then, so at that time, it was more like I would try to write a couple of songs for Semisonic and they would either not be good enough or they wouldn’t sound like the band. I just had to find my way back to it. I wasn’t desperate about it. I just kept thinking “It’ll come back. It’ll be fine.”
And I had so many other interesting things to do — I wasn’t sitting around doing nothing, you know what I mean? But when I finally did write a couple of songs that sounded like the band — I was kind of scared to show them to the guys, but I was so excited.
I think the average listener would find this EP to be a ‘90s throwback, which makes a certain amount of sense — that’s when you guys formed. Are you comfortable with being pigeonholed to a decade? Do you reject it?
[Long laugh] That makes perfect sense to me! I wasn’t thinking “Let’s make a ‘90s throwback” at all, but I always have these manifestos in my brain that I do when I’m launching into some project.
One of the manifestos, in this case, was “We’re going to spend zero energy renewing our sound, modernizing ourselves or updating. We’re just going to play like ourselves and sound like ourselves and see if people like that.”
Just selfishly speaking, I get to play, write and sometimes produce on records that are very much a part of the current musical world. I’m playing guitar on the most recent Leon Bridges song [“Sweeter”] — I’m so proud of that. I co-wrote a new song with JoJo [“Sabotage”] that just came out. She’s interesting because she’s another person who’s had a longer career. I recently had a song come out [“Six Feet Apart”] with Alec Benjamin.
I don’t need any validation to the level of whether I’m a current practitioner. So in a way, I can say selfishly that we don’t need to update our sound, but I thought it would just get that whole question out of our hair and we wouldn’t have to worry about it. I found it to be very useful to not think “Is this permanent enough? Is it modern enough? Is it different enough from our thing before?” [Instead] it was “Does this sound like us?”
No need to sweat being too retro when you do so much in the now.
I have very little to prove in that area. I really want to make great music and I really want people to dig it and I really want it to resonate in a way that feels true and honest to people. But I really don’t care whether someone thinks it sounds like a band from the ‘90s because that’s what we are.
In “You’re Not Alone,” you sing “What would even be the point if we knew what comes next?” This could be taken several ways — existentially, spiritually, politically — which, in my opinion, is the highest honor assignable to a lyric.
Aw, that’s fantastic! I love that. I liked it when I wrote it. But it was literally one of those things that I would say over drinks. It’s not like it was some great bit of lyric-writing. It sounds just like a typical Dan thing to say. I’m glad that you like the line, and it’s just something I would say as a human being rather than a crafter of songs. It’s just me talking.
I also like this line in “All It Would Take”: “Changing the world within me and around me.” Do you believe we need to get our houses in order before we attempt to clean others’?
There is no cleaning someone else’s house. You can only do your own. Change and growth and learning, for me, is my choice. I can’t say “You need to learn a bunch of stuff.” I can’t say that to someone else.
Everyone is saying this to someone else on social media.
[Another long laugh] Well, social media is totally not real! First of all, it’s not a good use of your own time to try to teach someone else how to live their life. You’re going to fail and you’ll have just wasted that portion of your own life.
Changing the world within me — that’s where everything has to start. The people that I find the most inspiring in the world are ones that have gone through incredible internal change and learning and growth. It just makes me want to be better.
Regarding modern activism, I fear some young people haven’t done the internal work before they attempt the external work.
Not to be that guy, but that work can happen in any order. Whatever’s in front of your nose, you’ve got to do that. I’ll say this: I feel like “All It Would Take” is as close as I could ever stand to writing a preachy song. Because I really dislike preachy songs. I probably dislike preachy people as well — who think they’re better and need to fix everyone else.
I definitely don’t want to hear a song that says it knows better than I do and that I need to learn a thing or two. But that song captures the feeling of when I’ve encountered people who are deeply inspiring and seem to have learned things that I badly want to learn myself. Maybe that’s the key to that song feeling true and real — because it’s about how I’ve felt in my life a bunch of times.
I wrote it after I saw that movie about Malala [Yousafzai, 2015’s He Named Me Malala]. The crusader for girls’ education and womens’ rights.
She’s incredible. And she doesn’t contain an atom of moral superiority.
Completely. I 100% agree.
Give me a famous song that you feel is preachy in an unbecoming way.
[Another long laugh] Oh my god! A long time ago, I had a conversation with the painter Frank Stella. I was at a Q&A. I asked him why there was so much bad art in the museums. He said “It’s not your job to think about the bad art. You need to go out and find art that you love and learn from that.”
So I literally can’t think of any song that’s too preachy for my taste, but I can think of songs that are incredibly inspiring. Like “A Change is Gonna Come.” Sam Cooke is incredibly inspiring and incredibly morally admirable and resonant, and it doesn’t feel preachy at all. It’s completely not preachy. It’s vulnerable and real and inspiring.
No judgement in that song. It’s beautifully nonjudgmental.
One more line I liked, from “Basement Tapes” — “Still just living the Big Star dream live with each other.” Which connects the Semisonic story with one of my favorite bands.
We’re up on the stage, we’re friends, we’re brothers, we’re living this dream — and then to say “We’re doing it live!” is so goofy and funny.
I know Jody [Stephens], the drummer from Big Star. We’ve hung out a lot. I feel like he’s one of my music heroes come to life in front of my eyes, which is so incredible. I mentioned that band because for quite a while, they were my favorite group. I’m still trying to live that Big Star dream and it’s funny that I am.
What does Big Star mean to you? To me, they’re about resilience and failing beautifully.
I think of them as though they were the biggest band in history. I have kind of a twisted vision of them, like everybody knows they’re the best. When, no, not everyone does know. There are definitely things about that band that quote-unquote didn’t work. But the things about that band that worked — that’s all I can see about it. My perspective on Big Star is pretty nearsighted. I’m so close to it.
Right now, I’m scanning every Big Star song in my head and I can’t think of a bad one.
No, agreed! All I mean is — I read this book about another band I admire a lot, Crowded House. The whole theme of the book was that they should have been as big as the Beatles but something went wrong.
I always feel like that’s such a terrible burden for a band to have: you didn’t become as big as the Beatles and therefore you failed. That’s such a joke. No one’s going to be as big as the Beatles. That means every artist is a failure, which is silly.
Whenever I talk to people about Big Star, they’re like “Ah, it’s too bad more people didn’t hear them.” In my mind, all I can think is “They are the best. They’re so good!”
What’s the state of your songwriting during COVID-19? Are you in more of a growth spurt or a holding pattern?
Well, I’ve been writing songs throughout — with friends and colleagues on Zoom and also alone. Early on in the lockdown, I briefly thought: Well, this is an opportunity for me to really amp it up and write a lot of songs and be very, very intense and productive.”
But then I quickly experienced how exhausting the lockdown is. I really let go of that idea of trying to be productive or trying to make lemonade out of lemons. I’ve gone back to my usual thing: making music because I enjoy it and it feels meaningful to me. I’ve let go of any sense of this being a golden opportunity or a terrible burden and I’m just doing music.
Some people are inclined to surge ahead while the world is on pause.
Yeah, I think a lot of people have that sense, like “If we do this right, we’ll emerge with an empire.” Which I think is madness. The person who can be in lockdown from a pandemic and deal with the peril of it, the existential dread of it and the shattering change of it and treat it truly as a business opportunity is insane.
To look at this as a golden goose whose eggs need to be collected immediately is a peculiar American capitalist insanity.
With You’re Not Alone on the way, what do you feel the world doesn’t understand about Semisonic that you want to correct?
[Long pause] I’m usually not facetious and a whole bunch of facetious remarks just came to my mind. That’s so weird. I don’t feel any need to correct anybody’s perception of Semisonic at all. Maybe my ego would like more people to think that the band is awesome, but that’s basically “I would like another dessert, please. Can I have more dessert?”
I’ve got a trio and I love both of the other members of the trio. And they love me. We’re friends whether or not we’re making music together. We’ve traveled the world together and had experiences that John calls “bonkers,” which I would agree with.
One of our singles being played on the radio 20 years after one of our other singles became a perennial, evergreen cultural touchstone, a punchline, a goal for musicians everywhere — what the f**k do I need more than that?