Someone Like Dan Wilson: An Interview with the Former Semisonic Leader + Adele Collaborator

From Popmatters:

As the co-producer of Adele’s Grammy winning, multi-platinum (and still climbing) album 21, Dan Wilson is in high demand these days. He also co-wrote three songs with the singing sensation including the hit single, “Someone Like You”, which spent five weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, becoming the first strictly voice-and-piano ballad ever to reach the top spot. The album track is actually the original demo cut with Wilson on piano, as it was wisely left untouched by producer Rick Rubin. Adele recently commented in Vogue how she can feel the connection to her fans with this raw, emotionally charged song and it owes to the stripped-down production.

Wilson is in such demand out in Los Angeles now that he has posted an open letter to songwriters looking for some introduction to the star on his website. He tells them to look for the next Adele or someone else, because who knows what Adele will want to do next. The thing is that Wilson takes the “co” in co-writing seriously, whether it’s collaborating with Josh Groban, Weezer, KT Turnstall, Engelbert Humperdinck or the Dixie Chicks (another Album of the Year win in the 2006). Other country music acts such as Dierks Bentley and Keith Urban have written songs with Wilson, along with the Band Perry, Mike Doughty and the Ben Folds Five.

Rubin provides the link to this line of work, also serving as the executive producer for Wilson’s solo album, Free Life, in 2007. The ability to select projects close to home suits Wilson’s family life, especially during the time when one of his daughters was being treated for serious health complications. Before that, Wilson was on the road often as frontman for the alt rock band, Semisonic, which scored big in the ‘90s with the hits “Closing Time” and “Secret Smile”. Wilson was also part of the early jam band scene in his brother’s outfit Trip Shakespeare—so together, Wilson accumulated 15 years on the road playing approximately a thousand gigs. A Harvard graduate with a visual arts degree, Wilson also pursued a career in painting for a time. Yet in the music world today, there’s a hunger for authenticity and raw emotion that seems to be Wilson’s specialty. His iTunes bio calls him a “cult hero of American smart pop music”. But as his Midwestern upbringing taught him, it only looks effortless.

Congrats on your recent Grammy wins—how was it working with Adele on her songs for 21? You knew you had a huge voice to work with plus an emotionally powerful artist, how did you approach the collaboration?

I went into it as a fan already. I had “Hometown Glory” and “Chasing Pavements” [off of Adele’s first release 19] on my most played list from the year before. And when Rick Rubin put us together, I asked him “What kind of thing are you looking for? What are you trying to do?” He just said, “We’re just looking for a great song.” So I didn’t really have any preconceptions. When Adele and I got together, we hadn’t met before. We met in a studio called Harmony in West Hollywood and essentially she played me Wanda Jackson clips on YouTube for about 45 minutes. She was just so excited at that time about Wanda Jackson and also about a kind of down and dirty American musical vibe.

We spent about another hour of trading things back and forth online while talking about stuff. Then we went into the room that had a piano and she had a guitar. Adele had two starts of songs—she had the first couple of lines to what turned out to be “Rumor Has It” and several lines of what turned out to be “Someone Like You”. I just gravitated right away to the super sad one. So we launched into working on that one for about two days. It was a pretty continuous effort the whole time. It was intense, because I think we knew we were on to something good. We pushed each other in both the musical and the lyrical type.

“Someone Like You” won for Best Pop Solo Performance in the original demo version with you on piano—how was this decision reached at the time?

You know what happened? It was interesting because by the end of the first day, we were maybe two-thirds of the way done with the song. She came with the guitar, vocal and the beginning of the verse, so I started playing it on piano. And she immediately said, “Well, that’s a lot more inspiring.”

Then we made it through the first verse and we wrote the pre-chorus that goes, “I hate to turn up out of the blue.” By the end of the day we had most of the piano and I tried to make it most like a performance as possible, so it would be inspiring for her to sing to. We left the studio with maybe two-thirds of the song. Adele had to run, so we both left with a rough mix to listen to in our cars. I remember it didn’t have the bridge, it was missing some if not all of the second verse, and the choruses were a little bit different. But when we came back the next morning I said to her very openly, “What do you think of our song?” She said, “I played it for my manager and me Mum.”

I was a little worried, because I really hate playing works in progress for people. It’s kind of unfair—people don’t really get the picture and they end up forming opinions before it’s created almost. I said, “Oh wow, well what did they think of it?” And she said, “Well my manager loved it and me Mum cried.” So I thought how we might be onto something. The second day was almost grueling. Adele had a deadline: she had to drive up to Malibu to play some songs to Rick Rubin and the rest of her label team. We just hauled ass to get the thing done and beautifully recorded. I had to rerecord a couple of the choruses because her voice was even more raw and emotional sounding on the second day. So we went back and redid a bunch of that. Every minute was spent either recording or pounding away to make sure the melody or the lyrics were really great.

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She told a friend of mine afterwards that it was the hardest she ever worked in a writing session. Then she laughed and joked to the friend, “Don’t write a song with Dan, he’ll wear you out! He made me work harder than I ever worked before.” But I think we both knew we were onto something and we knew we had to get something done before she went to this song listening session. It was a wonderful deadline—it was perfect. To be perfectly honest, part of my mindset was since Rick was going to produce these songs that Adele and I wrote, I was trying to make the demo as good as possible. We did it totally audiophile, we made sure the piano was recorded great and the vocal was too. My engineer Phil Allen’s hair was standing on end during the whole thing. I was just thinking, I’m making a demo that’s going to blow Rick Rubin’s mind.