Photo by Emmy Sherman
Dan Wilson On Semisonic's Return, Why Preachy Songs Suck & The "Capitalist Insanity" Of Cashing In On COVID-19
The power-pop mind behind "Closing Time" has mostly been co-writing with GRAMMY-winning greats—on 'You’re Not Alone,' he's a bandleader again
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.
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 fk do I need more than that?
Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images
Living Legends: Seven Decades Into His Career, Swamp Dogg Wants To Give Audiences "Every Last Drop"
Swamp Dogg has been an antimatter hero of American music since his 1970 debut and is riding a wave of popular resurgence. Ahead of a summer tour, he discusses his live show, Chuck Berry, John Prine, and more.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Swamp Dogg, the eccentric soul and R&B titan still actively writing, recording and performing more than half a century after his debut album.
Swamp Dogg is about to play a major concert in New York City, and he has a few commitments to keep.
There will be no medleys. He won't talk down to the audience. When he hits a bad note — which he calls a "guaranteed" prospect — he'll pause, reassess and fix it.
"When they leave, they're not thinking much about the bad note, because we all talked about it in this conversation," the artist born Jerry Williams, Jr. tells GRAMMY.com. "I do have a conversation with my audience, and it's good."
That gig, at Knockdown Center in Queens on July 28, should serve as a reminder that Swamp Dogg has been in a strange, wonderful dialogue with the planet from the jump. This dates back to when he made his first recording, "HTD Blues (Hardsick Troublesome Downout Blues)," in 1954 — an awfully pessimistic dispatch from a 12-year-old.
His 1970 debut under the moniker, Total Destruction To Your Mind, is a fantastic slice of left-field psychedelic soul — filled with fried, occasionally conspiratorial, frequently profound insights that framed him as something of a modern prophet. ("Why wasn't I born with orange skin/ And green hair/ Like the rest of the people in the world?" remains an excellent question.)
In the ensuing decades, Swamp Dogg (he spelled with a double g before Snoop Dogg was born) has released numerous albums; naturally, his career has ebbed and flowed.
But at 81, he's found indie stars like Justin Vernon and Jenny Lewis in his corner, and released inspired late-period albums like 2020's Sorry You Couldn't Make It and 2022's I Need a Job… So I Can Buy More Auto-Tune.
Ahead of the Knockdown Center show, read on for an interview with Swamp Dogg about his live philosophy, upcoming music, profound relationship with John Prine, and decidedly so-so relationship with… the state of Rhode Island.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What can people expect from your upcoming Knockdown Center gig?
To be honest with you, I don't know, other than I always try to give the last drop of whatever I'm doing. I don't do medleys and that bulls—. They can expect to get it all, and I usually try to get in as many songs as I can without trying to get the audience out of the way.
You feed off the energy of the crowd like a consummate performer should. You're not rushing through it or phoning it in.
Right. Plus, usually, I talk to my audience. Not just to hear myself talk. I get the audience involved. Not a lot of mundane s—. I talk to them like we live together. If you had somebody else in your house, the way you would talk.
When you launched your career all those decades ago, which performers galvanized you to give your all?
It's funny: one of the artists that inspired me the most — and kind of encouraged me, without knowing me, to give everything — was Chuck Berry. Chuck didn't have to do anything but be Chuck, and, damn: that's all you wanted.
Chuck did his singular thing as long as he could possibly do it. Every performance was pure, uncut Chuck. I see that quality in you as well.
Right. If I'm doing a song and we hit a bad note — sometimes a note that's haunting, it's so f—ing bad — I'll stop my band, and talk to my band. I'll take three or four minutes and give the audience what I want.
What can you tell me about the musicians who will accompany you at Knockdown Center?
I've got some great musicians right now, for the gigs I'm doing over the next six weeks. They've been with me for a while.
My keyboard man plays loop stuff. He plays just about every instrument there is. He'll cover for me, because I will hit a bad note. I guarantee I'll hit a bad note. But I'll make up for it. And it's not going to be bad notes all night long. [Laughs]
Human error is how I look at it. But I work real hard to make sure that my audience is happy. I'll stay out on stage as long as the house itself is fine with what I'm doing.
And you have some shows after Knockdown Center on the books, too.
I know we're playing in Rhode Island and some other things coming up. I don't know anybody who ever played in Rhode Island. Nobody ever says, "Hey, let's go to Rhode Island!" It's like, f— Rhode Island.
Don't get me wrong; that doesn't mean Rhode Island is a bad place. It's just musically, you never hear of anybody going there.
I'm looking forward to it, because how many chances do you get to go to Rhode Island? But there are more memorable states for sure. You don't hear it on quiz shows. I guess if you did, it would be [the result of] the most complicated f—ing question you ever heard.
Swamp Dogg. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images
What are you working on lately? Can we expect new music coming up?
I've got an album that's finished. It's a country album, and it's great. It's just that I've got to get the liner notes together, because it's got a lot of s— in it as far as information.
I'm not using a drummer at all, but you're not going to miss it. Because if you listen back to the old, old stuff, they didn't have a set of drums. So, I left the drums; I'm trying to go back to the beginning.
On a different note, it was bittersweet to hear John Prine on Sorry You Couldn't Make It. That had to be one of his final recordings. What was it like working with him?
He was a very real person. He and I had planned to go to Ireland together, because he had a house in Ireland. We were going [to go] there for about a week and just write our asses off.
I miss him. I'd known him since sometime in the '60s. We had a lot of stuff we wanted to track lyric-wise, but I guess music-wise also. Good guy, filled with talent.
Which Prine song means the most to you?
Yeah, I know you covered it.
I do it every show. There's a different ending every time I do it, because it's one of those songs that gives me a chance to talk to my audience about how things are, what's going on, what I feel we could do for the country, and to make people more comfortable.
Like giving away clothes. Some people forget that if you put a bunch of clothes away a few years, and moths haven't eaten the s— [out of them], you could give it to these people. And don't be ashamed of the money you can't give — just be happy about what you can give.
I see all the problems that we have, that are unnecessary. That's what makes me really get into "Sam Stone." Usually, 90 percent of the time, I am with Sam Stone.
It's like a preacher on Sunday morning. He preaches and it is basically the same s—, but delivered in a different way. So, that's what I'm doing.
What did you think when Johnny Cash covered "Sam Stone" and controversially changed the lyric "Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose" to "Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose"? Some say that carved out the meaning of the song.
I've never heard it. I like Johnny Cash. But there are about 10 country artists that I like better.
Photo: PA Images via Getty Images
7 LGBTQ+ Connections In The Beatles' Story
As "Another Kind of Mind" podcasters Daphne Mitchell and Phoebe Lorde revealed in a recent episode, the Beatles' world had many LGBTQ+ people in it — not just their manager, Brian Epstein.
After 2,000 books and counting, is there much more to uncover about the Beatles' story? Apparently so, because two queer women who run a Beatles podcast — and a nonbinary singer/songwriter who made a queer Beatles rock opera — constellated something that even diehard fans may not know.
In a 2022 episode of their podcast "Another Kind of Mind" titled "Queering the Beatles," hosts Daphne Mitchell and Phoebe Lorde, interviewed Caleb Nichols about his eccentric and radiant 2022 album, Ramon — which explores his queer identity through the lens of Beatles fandom.
Of course, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were not gay, or otherwise. But through the academic lens of "queering" — that is, viewing something through a LGBTQ+ and/or queer theory lens — the three dug deep into their philosophical connections to LGBTQ+ identity, from their leather-bound early days in seedy bars, to their cultivation of an androgynous group look, to their rainbow-hued Sgt. Pepper suits.
Naturally, their transformative manager, Brian Epstein is a link to LGBTQ+ identity in Beatles lore — he was a closeted gay man, and tortured about it. Plus, there's that did-they-or-didn't-they holiday to Barcelona that Epstein took with Lennon — still a point of debate among diehards.
But aside from speculation and extrapolation, there is one core truth: LGBTQ+ people other than Epstein were around the Beatles throughout their history, and after they broke up. Some of these people were pivotal to their very existence — and a world without them would have resulted in a very different Beatles, or none at all.
As Pride Month winds down, read on for a list of queer figures in the Beatles' universe — compiled thanks to "Another Kind of Mind."
One Of Their Essential Cavern-Era Movers Was Gay
A larger-than-life figure in the Merseybeat scene and driving force behind the Carvern Club's success, Bob Wooler is crucial to the Beatles' early story; he played a pivotal role in introducing them to Brian Epstein.
Unfortunately, this connection took a dark turn at McCartney's 21st birthday party, in 1963 when Wooler made a reference to Lennon's Barcelona trip with Epstein, calling it a "honeymoon." A drunken Lennon proceeded to attack Wooler, landing him in the hospital.
A Gay Man Aided In Their Hair Evolution
Near the top of Martin Scorcese's must-see 2011 documentary on George Harrison, Living in the Material World, you'll see a teenaged George Harrison with an impressive coiff.
That photo — and hair — were by Jürgen Vollmer, a German student who befriended the future Fabs during their Hamburg days.
While Vollmer's sexuality isn't a public matter, it's established that he had a crush on Harrison; he even altered an I LIKE IKE badge to read I LIKE GEORGE.
"It was chemical," Vollmer once said. "I liked George the most. He was very quiet and shy, like me, and also a dreamer."
Paul McCartney Was Mentored By This Gay Art Dealer
Three hours into episode two of Peter Jackson's Get Back documentary, a suave gentleman, dressed to the nines, saunters into the studio. "Ah, here's to Robert Fraser," Lennon sings; the caption reads "Art dealer Robert Fraser."
Robert Fraser sold art to McCartney, but he was a whole lot more than that; he was a flamboyant, hard-partying dynamo, and a pivotal figure in the London art scene. His artists also worked on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and White Album covers; a Magritte painting he turned McCartney onto acted as inspiration for the Apple Records logo.
Fraser moved to India in the 1970s, and returned to the London scene in the early 1980s. Sadly, his life was cut short; he died of AIDS in 1986, at just 48.
The "TV Director" From A Hard Day's Night Was Played By A Gay Man
Remember the TV director in the fuzzy sweater A Hard Day's Night that the Beatles give a hard time? That's Victor Spinetti, the only non-Beatle appear in three Beatles films — Help! and Magical Mystery Tour included.
"George Harrison said, 'You've got to be in all our films,'" Spinetti later recalled. "I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Well, if you're not in 'em, me mum won't come and see 'em 'cause she fancies you.'"
"Polythene Pam" Was Partly Inspired By A Bisexual Man
It's long been Beatles lore that Lennon's Abbey Road medley snippet "Polythene Pam" is about a strange character from the Beatles' Cavern days.
Pat Dawson (née Hodgett), a fan from their Liverpool days, used to consume the titular material.
"I used to eat polythene all the time. I'd tie it in knots and then eat it," she said in an interview — and that's how she became known as "Polythene Pat," which became "Pam."
"That was me, remembering a little event with a woman in Jersey, and a man who was England's answer to Allen Ginsberg," Lennon recalled in 1980. "I met him when we were on tour and he took me back to his apartment and I had a girl and he had one he wanted me to meet."
Who was said man? None other than Royston Ellis, a bisexual beat poet who often wrote homoerotic yarns.
He met the Beatles when they were the Silver Beetles, in the early 1960s. He once claimed to the four Beatles that "one in four men were queer"; as McCartney put it, "We looked at each other and wondered which one it was."
For that — and his debatable claim that he convinced them to drop the second 'e' in their name — Ellis's place in Fabs lore was set in stone. He passed a few months ago, in 2023.
A Gay Man Connected John Lennon And Elton John
"The first time I met John Lennon, he was dancing with Tony King." John later wrote in his 2019 memoir Me. "Nothing unusual in that, other than the fact that they weren't in a nightclub, there was no music playing and Tony was in full drag as Queen Elizabeth II." (This was for a TV advertisement for Lennon's then-new-album, Mind Games.)
Lennon and John went on to spend plenty of time together in what's known as Lennon's "Lost Weekend" period in the mid-'70s; they recorded a hit song together, "Whatever Gets You Through the Night." If that song resonates with you, thank King, who was gay.
Billy Preston, Who Helped Them Forge Ahead At The End, Was Gay
With the Get Back documentary in the rearview, the story of Billy Preston and the Beatles is etched in stone.
As the band seemed to reach its most threadbare, Preston came in and supercharged them with a newfound sense of jubilation. ("You're giving us a lift, Bill!" Lennon crowed at one point.)
Preston continued on as a Fabs associate post-breakup, especially with Harrison — although he performed on solo records by Lennon and Starr as well.
Although Preston remained vital through the '70s, his career took a downturn in the '80s. He had a string of drug, legal and personal issues in the ensuing decades, although he turned in a stunning performance during the Concert for George, as well as other noteworthy moments.
It wasn't widely known until after his 2005 death that Preston struggled with his homosexuality, through the lens of his Christianity and devotion to the church.
This recontextualizes the triumphal highs and desperate lows of Preston's story — and renders it a lesson in allowing people to be who they are. There are few more Beatlesque messages than that.
Photo: John Shearer/MTV VMAs 2021/Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS
10 Albums On Divorce & Heartache, From Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' To Kelly Clarkson's 'Chemistry'
Divorce albums have been a staple of the music industry for decades. Take a look at some of the most notable musings on a breaking heart, from Kacey Musgraves, Kanye West and more.
Divorce can be complicated, messy, and heartbreaking. But those feelings are prime fodder for songwriting — and it's something that artists of all genres have harnessed for decades.
Writing through the pain can serve many benefits for an artist. Marvin Gaye used Here, My Dear as a way to find closure in the aftermath of his divorce. Adele told Vogue that her recording process gave her somewhere to feel safe while recording 30, a raw account of the aftermath of her marriage ending. And Kelly Clarkson's new album, chemistry, finds her reclaiming herself, while fully taking stock of everything that happened in her marriage, good and bad.
As fans dive into chemistry, GRAMMY.com has compiled a list of 10 divorce albums from all walks of music. Whether you need to cry, vent, or maybe even laugh, there's a divorce album that has what you need.
Tammy Wynette, D-I-V-O-R-C-E (1968)
During her life, Tammy Wynette was a prolific country songwriter and singer, releasing numerous albums exploring all aspects of love. She was also deeply familiar with divorce, with five marriages throughout her adulthood.
The most intimate album on the topic is her bluntly titled 1968 project D-I-V-O-R-C-E, which explores how sensitive the topic was to speak about. The title track is a mournful tune about hiding a separation from her children, but also conveys the general difficulty of discussing the topic with anyone. Elsewhere on the album, "Kiss Away" is a longing ballad about wishing for a more tender resolution when words have failed.
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977)
After recording 10 albums together, Fleetwood Mac were in disarray. During the recording of their eleventh record, the members of the band were going through affairs, divorces, and breakups, even some with each other. Against all odds, they created Rumours — and it became the band's most successful and iconic album.
The spectrum of emotions and sounds on the album is wide. "The Chain" is all fire and bombast, while the laidback acceptance of "Dreams" seeks to find peace in the storm. Fleetwood Mac sorted out their issues and are still going strong to this day, but their heartbreak created something special in Rumours.
Beck, Sea Change (2002)
Beck has had a prolific career, with 14 studio albums to his name. One of his most affecting is 2002's Sea Change, written in the aftermath of his engagement and nine-year relationship ending.
It's a deeply insular album, even by Beck's standards. Tracks like "Already Dead" are slow and mournful, while standout "It's All In Your Mind" finds him burrowing deep into his own thoughts to parse out how exactly he's feeling with his new life.
Open Mike Eagle, Anime, Trauma, and Divorce (2020)
Divorce isn't a topic that immediately brings laughter, but rapper Open Mike Eagle seemed to find humor in his personal story with his album Anime, Trauma, and Divorce. The album title gives a pretty good rundown of what inspired the project, and Mike's laidback rapping sells how silly the aftermath of pain can be.
"Sweatpants Spiderman" finds him trying to become a functional adult again, and discovering the various ailments of his aging body and thinner wallet that are getting in the way. The fed-up delivery on standout track "Wtf is Self Care" is a hilarious lesson on how learning to be kind to yourself post-breakup is harder than it sounds.
Carly Pearce, 29: Written In Stone (2021)
Heartbreak is a common topic in all genres, but country has some of the most profound narratives of sorrow. Carly Pearce added to that legacy with 29: Written in Stone, her 2021 album centered around her 29th year — a year that included both a marriage and a subsequent divorce.
The emotional whiplash of such a quick change can be felt all over the project, from an upbeat diss track like "Next Girl" to more poignant pieces like the title track, which finds Pearce reflecting on her tumultuous year. Her vulnerability resonated, as single "Never Wanted To Be That Girl" won Pearce her first GRAMMY, and her latest single, "What He Didn't Do," scored the singer her fourth No. 1 at country radio.
Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
Kanye West's fourth album 808s & Heartbreak came from a deep well of pain. Besides the end of his relationship, West was also in turmoil from the death of his mother, Donda. The result is one of the bleakest sounding records on this list — but also one of West's most impactful.
808s & Heartbreak is minimalistic, dark, and brooding, with a focus on somber strings and 808 drum loops (hence the album's title). West delivers most of his lyrics in a monotone drone through a thick layer of autotune, a stylistic choice that heightens the sense of loss. Besides being a testament to West's pain, the electronic sound pioneered on 808s & Heartbreak would serve as a foundational inspiration for the next several years of hip-hop.
Toni Braxton & Babyface, Love, Marriage, & Divorce (2014)
Toni Braxton and Babyface are two stalwarts of R&B in their own rights, and in 2014, the pair connected over their shared experiences going through divorce. Their bond sparked Love, Marriage, & Divorce, a GRAMMY-winning album that intended to capture the more universal feelings the life of a relationship conjures up.
Each artist has solo tracks on the record — Babyface wishing the best for his ex on "I Hope That You're Okay" and Braxton sharing her justified anger on "I Wish" and "I'd Rather Be Broke" — but where they shine is on their collaborations. The agonizing "Where Did We Go Wrong?" is heartbreaking, and the album ends with painful what-ifs in the soulful "The D Word."
Adele, 30 (2021)
Divorce is hard no matter the circumstances, but it gets even more complicated when children are involved. That was the reality for Adele, and it served as major inspiration for her fourth album, 30.
Like every album on this list, there's plenty of sorrow on the record, but what really sets it apart is just how honestly Adele grapples with the guilt of putting her son Angelo through turmoil as well. The album's GRAMMY-winning lead single "Easy On Me" addresses it in relation to her son, and standout track "I Drink Wine" is a full examination of the messy feelings she went through during her divorce.
Kacey Musgraves, star-crossed (2021)
As many of these albums prove, divorce triggers a hoard of emotions, from anger to sadness to eventual happiness. On star-crossed, Kacey Musgraves goes through it all.
There's the anthemic "breadwinner" about being better on her own, "camera roll" looking back on happier times with sorrow, and "hookup scene" about the confusion of adjusting back to single life. Star-crossed sees Musgraves continue to evolve sonically — incorporating more electronic sounds into her country roots — but ultimately, she comes out the other side at a place of renewed acceptance and growth.
Kelly Clarkson, chemistry (2023)
Kelly Clarkson's tenth album chemistry was born out of her 2020 divorce. In true Kelly fashion, she addresses the subject with thoughtful songwriting and a pop-rock vibe fans have adored for 20 years on.
Chemistry focuses not just on the pain of divorce, but on the tender feelings that many couples still have for each other even after the end. Tracks like "favorite kind of high" mirror the euphoria of love, juxtaposed with ballads like "me," in which Clarkson finds comfort in herself and her inner strength — an inspiring sentiment for anyone who has had their heart broken.
Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images
On His Debut LP, 'This Far South,' Tommy Prine Found His Unique Voice: "I'm Just Tommy, I'm Not John Prine, Jr."
Growing up, Tommy Prine looked for music that differed from his parents’— one of whom was the late John Prine. On his new album, 'This Far South,' the singer/songwriter reflects on his varied musical tastes, his father's influence, and finding meaning.
Singer/songwriter Tommy Prine’s debut album is joyful, introspective and angry — just the emotional mix you might expect from someone who’s lost his father and best friend, toured internationally, and released an album, all before turning 30.
Losing a parent is a profound, painful experience, doubly so when your dad is the musical inspiration John Prine. Filling those shoes would be impossible, and Prine doesn’t want to. Instead, he’s written a deeply personal, decidedly individual album, which in no uncertain terms tells the world that he is not riding his father’s coattails.
Out June 23, This Far South opens with an unapologetically fiery, soul-searching disquisition. The 27-year-old Prine encourages the listener to consider the meaning and existence of God, and to sit with the confusion and frustration inherent to processing pain. From there, Prine takes off on a personal and professional artistic journey.
He’s both sweet and thoughtful on This Far South, slowly releasing his anger as he probes rock bottom, ruminates on a panic attack and the hazy malaise of the pandemic. Mid-album, Prine takes a goofy trip with the punk-rock infused "Mirror and a Kitchen Sink," and longs for bygone mundane moments in "Boyhood" and "By the Way," his ode to his father. Prine ends the album triumphant in his independence on "Cash Carter Hill" and with a love letter to his wife, Savannah: "I Love You Always."
Becoming an artist wasn’t a given for Prine, who didn’t consider the career path strongly until late in 2019 when he played an impromptu solo set at All the Best Fest in the Dominican Republic. During the pandemic and after losing his dad in April 2020, Prine began writing more; in November of 2020, singer/songwriter Ruston Kelly and sound engineer Gina Johnson talked Prine into cutting an album.
"It was the most excited I've ever been in my entire life," Prine told GRAMMY.com. "I think I needed that from someone outside of my family that I loved and trusted; I needed that validation."
Growing up, like most teenagers, Prine looked for music that was different than his parents’. He listened to a variety of artists including Jason Isbell, System of a Down, ATLiens, Outkast and Gorillaz, dabbled in EDM, and fondly recalls driving to school with his big brother in the family’s ’85 Ford Bronco blasting Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP. Reflecting his varied musical tastes, This Far South samples auditory flavors from punk rock, pop, and folk and Americana.
Prine spoke with GRAMMY.com after wrapping up a tour, which included sold-out shows opening for Tyler Childers, and his first residency at The Basement in Nashville (with special guests including Amanda Shires and Katie Pruit). He detailed finding inspiration and humor in life’s seemingly insignificant moments, his struggles to process loss, how he took control of his artistic image, and why his music is different than that of his father.
I imagine music was quite present in your household growing up. What are your early memories of listening to music?
Music was just always in the household. My dad was a firm believer in A.M. radio; he'd just have that playing 24/7. And he'd be telling me about all these old country songs.
And me and my brothers, we were all given the space to make our own relationship with music. There wasn't a certain type or a certain record or anything that my parents would be like, "Oh, you guys should only listen to this" or whatever. And I think that was really beneficial.
Growing up, I was listening to so much random stuff. I'd have a couple of months where I would violently switch between genres: like metal, and then classic rock, and then I listened to EDM for a couple of years. I’d say the record that that made the biggest impact on me in terms of what I'm doing now was Southeastern, Jason Isbell's record. It ripped my heart open and put it back together in an hour or so.
Tell me about starting to play music yourself.
I was a really little kid when I picked up the guitar, I think I was just kind of mimicking my father. And family friends that would come over and play music. A majority of how I took in the adult world was adults playing music. I thought that's what everyone did. So I was like well, I better start now.
So I picked up a guitar and would hit it and make noise. And then I just instantly fell in love with it. So I've been playing guitar really my whole life. I started writing my own songs, probably at 16 or 17. But I wouldn't dare show them to anybody until 19 or 20. That's when I started making my own music.
I've read elsewhere that you didn't really write music to share with people until after you lost your dad.
There were like a very select few of my buddies that I would play my songs for when they came over. I was pretty shy about it, as most people are. It's a pretty vulnerable thing to be writing a song and then showing somebody, let alone my parents. I would never show them really much until just the last few years.
So then what changed for you?
I don't know what it was. A majority of my life [now] is sharing my heart and my mind and putting it on display for the world.
I think that every artist would probably say the same thing: it's almost out of necessity. It's just so much going on inside that it has to come out and I have to play it. And I have to show other people to make a connection with it or else I'll just go crazy. I think it was just bursting at the seams with all the things that I wanted to say. And I've always found it easier to tell my story through a song rather than actually talk about it.
I think that was late 2019 when I started seriously thinking about [sharing my music]. I played an impromptu set at All the Best Fest in the Dominican Republic. And I played like a 40-45 minutes set and most of it was originals. As nerve wracking as it was, I was like, wait, I really thoroughly enjoyed that. And I remember walking off the stage, and I had this weird feeling of being more comfortable in my skin than I ever had been.
It sounds as though you were understandably a little bit reluctant to choose a career as a musician. Can you talk about that hesitation and getting over the hump?
I think most people will probably look at it and be like, oh, of course he was because of who his father was and how big of a career he had. It wasn't that, it was really just the ins and outs of the day-to-day life that I knew artists went through. It's a hard job — you're traveling a lot; it's pretty taxing on your mind and your emotions, your body. And I saw what that did to my dad and…it just felt like this big, massive, insurmountable mountain that I didn't even want to start.
I kind of always just gave myself a reason to be like that's not you. The negative self talk which, surprise, surprise doesn't go away, even when you become an artist, is still thriving. But I think being able to look into the face of that version of yourself telling you that you can't do it is pretty empowering.
You don't want to be seen as John Prine Jr. obviously, but also, your dad is an inspiration to you as well. How do you hold space for both those ways of relating to him?
I've always made the distinction, even when I was a kid. There's John Prine and then there's dad. Of course, they're one in the same, but when my father would go out on the road, it was kind of like a switch. He would flip and go into his John Prine personae and go out there and play shows for the world and be who he was, an amazing songwriter, singer/songwriter and artist. And then when he was home, he'd be like, "Hey, buddy, you want pancakes?" And we'd sit down and talk about movies and stuff.
One thing that I hear a lot of artists struggle with is that there isn't ever going to be that many people in your life that can fully understand what you're going through and what you're doing. And it does kind of suck because I have a million questions that I'd like to ask him. And he would be the greatest source of information on this kind of thing. But I'm really lucky that I get to listen to his songs, watch interviews, and learn from that.
I don't know if there's really a way for me to put into words the inspiration that my father has given me. I mean, I'm 50 percent of him. I share DNA. So he's inspired more than just my songwriting and my singing and artistry, he's inspired me to be a good human and he helped raise me.
They say people end up turning into their parents, the older you get. So I think I'm answering that question just by being alive and figuring things out about myself.
I'm curious about the very first single that you released, "Ships in the Harbor," which isn’t on the album. How did that song come to be?
Well, it was after I recorded the record, so that's why it's not on the album. I had only been on the road for just a couple of months at that point. And I was home and it was really pretty outside. So me and my wife and my dog were just kind of chillin’ in the backyard. And I just started picking around and that melody was floating around my head. It was near my birthday. And whenever it's near my birthday, I always get super pensive, introspective, thinking about time and all that fun shit.
And I had this thought that we as humans have the capacity to feel all these crazy, strong emotions and loving people, and missing people, and fear. And I had a thought that the only reason that we're able to feel as deeply in those emotions is because everything that we experience is finite, including our own lives. If the things we loved, the things that we experienced in our life, were around forever, I don't think we'd be able to feel as strongly as we do about them.
We always look at cardinals and blue jays, blue birds because it's a big thing in my family – if we see one it’s someone looking after us. And that's where the second line came from. So I just kept going.
I was getting really emotional towards the end of the song, and I didn't understand why. And then that last verse came out, and I was like, okay, this is what I'm getting at here. So, that one was a tough one to write but I'm glad I did.
It's a beautiful song. Why cardinals and bluejays?
My grandma on my dad's side, his mom, when she was passing away she said if I see a cardinal or a blue jay, it’s her looking after me. And she had pictures of them all over our house. So I ended up getting a big blue jay tattoo on my right arm for my dad's side of the family. And then I have one for my mom's side. It's an ogham, it's an ancient Celtic scripture. It's love in Gaelic. So I have something for my mom and for my dad.
And speaking of powerful moments, when did you perform for people first?
The first time I ever performed on stage was at a sold out Ryman Auditorium show with my dad, I think it was [with] Jason Isbell, when I was a junior or senior in high school, and I just fell in love with it. So I started doing the encores with my dad and then I would sell merch before and during the shows. I just loved it.
It was a lot of really amazing experiences and I got to play some really cool venues with him. And now I have this thing in my head where I'm like alright, I gotta get back there and do my own songs.
I'm curious about the opening track of the album, "Elohim," which is profound and angry. And it's an interesting place to start off an album. Why start there?
I wrote it from a place when I was still really struggling with the loss of my father, and I lost my best friend to an overdose in 2017. And that obviously had a very profound impact on me, and the way that I saw the world.
I struggled for several years with my own personal faith, and why things happen. There was a long time where I thought that we were all just kind of living in this state of limbo. And I wrote that song from a very angry space — just questioning whatever is the omnipotent force that is looking over us, like, Why did I have to go through these things? It doesn't seem like I'm learning anything. It's just like I'm in pain.
And I wanted to start the record that way because the album is a story of me. It's the introduction of Tommy Prine to the world and my formative years and why I am the way I am. And it starts with "Elohim," this big, loud, angry song of me not really even interested in figuring things out. I think that that's a really powerful thing that everyone should know: that it's okay to just
be angry and not have answers. You're doing the good work by letting yourself feel those things.The record kind of moves through from there to me talking about how I don't want to go back to the person I was when I was partying all the time and needing to grow up. And then I start talking about my anxieties and panic attacks. And then I start talking about my family and I'm kind of coming back to my roots a little bit and getting closer with them and talking to them about my life experiences. And then the album ends with a song about my wife. We got married last year, so it's my story of basically entering manhood.
"I Love You Always," the album’s final track, is pretty far from "Elohim." There's also these sweeter and lighter moments on the album, like "Boyhood." I'm particularly curious about "Mirror and a Kitchen Sink"; it’s been stuck in my head for days.
So funny enough, that was actually the first song that I wrote after my dad died. It was literally within the next 72 hours that I picked up the guitar. I was like, why am I writing this goofy sort of punk rock song?
The song is about how I find myself arguing with myself a lot of the time. I’ll be thinking of these people that don't exist, and then a conversation that I would have with these people and …how to win an argument that I'll never have. And then I realized I'm literally just arguing with myself. And the only thing that's in the room is me, a mirror and the kitchen sink.
The album also covers a lot of musical territory, can you describe that variety a bit?
To me, there's three distinct vibes on the album: There's the loud rock songs, anthemic, big songs, where I'm kind of getting a lot off my chest. There's the alternative folk/Americana [songs] where I'm getting really introspective. After getting things off my chest, it's like the questions that I come up with, I kind of dive into those and work some of that out. And then there's the dedication songs — like the one for my dad, the one for my wife, "Letter to my Brother," for my friends that are going through hard times and I'm just telling them that I'm there for them.
I had such eclectic music tastes growing up that there is never one overruling genre that I would ever listen to. But to me it all made sense and was a cohesive thing. And that’s really hats off to Gena and Ruston and that they were able to take all my insane ideas and put it into something that I love. I'm happy that I did it that way with the first record. Because I feel like I can go wherever I want to go now with record two.
Is record two on the horizon?
I probably have enough to make record two right now in terms of songs. I'm taking my time with it, just because the first one isn't even released and I'm trying not to get ahead of myself. I've been thinking about record two for a while, it'll happen whenever it's time.
Can you lay that out, how you would like people to understand you as an independent artist and as your dad's son?
Well, honestly, I really think that the music speaks for itself in that regard. I think that there's some pretty obvious parallels and some times where it intersects, just in my turns of phrase and the way I go about explaining things, or sometimes the in simplicity of the lyrics where people can be like, ‘oh, yeah, like, that sounds like something John Prine's kid would do.’ And I honor that and I fully take that on. I'm never not going to be his son.
But also I grew up in a very different world than he did, I have very different experiences than he did. And when you're making music and you're writing your own songs, that is also going to come through. One big difference is my father was a really amazing character writer.. And through the stories that he would form with these characters were little bits and pieces of him in it. And I think that was something that people had to figure out.
Whereas I'm just straight up talking from my perspective and I'm talking about my life and things that have happened to me and how I felt about it. I think if you come to a show or you listen to the music, you'll see that I'm just Tommy, I'm not John Prine jr. I care about the people that like the song "Elohim," and like "This Far South," because it makes them feel less alone because of my story, rather than like, oh, John Prine’s kid also makes music, this is cool.
And I had to get over that day one starting block before I even did this. I'm just me being me, and if people find similarities, cool, if they don't, good, you're listening.