Saturday Conversation: Dan Wilson On New Semisonic Music, Adele And More

In the 22 years since Semisonic, best known for the enduring anthem “Closing Time,” last released a full-length album frontman Dan Wilson became one of the biggest songwriters in pop music, working with the likes of Taylor Swift (“Treacherous” and “Come Back…Be Here”), The Chicks (“Not Ready To Make Nice”), Chris Stapleton (“White Horse”), John Legend (“You & I (Nobody In The World)”), Halsey (“Alone”), Niall Horan (“Since We’re Alone”) and most famously, his frequent collaborations with Adele, including the Grammy-winning “Someone Like You.”

It was, at least in part, because of Wilson’s stratospheric rise in the songwriting world, Semisonic ended up taking a more than two-decade break between albums. But the Minneapolis trio of Wilson, drummer Jacob Schlister and bassist John Munson always remained on good terms, paving the way for their new album, the very aptly named Little Bit Of Sun.

A warm and inviting collection of pop joy, Little Bit Of Sun is a superb mix of pop/rock jangle and nostalgia. I spoke with Wilson about the new album, his joy at having new Semisonic music out, writing “Someone Like You” with Adele and much more.

Steve Baltin: The idea of a release date has changed so much. But does it still hold a sense of excitement for you?

Dan Wilson: Oh yeah. I’m really excited about it. I’ve been waiting for a long time for people to be able to hear this batch of songs. And it’s just pretty crazy that my band has another album out.

Baltin: It’s been 22 years since the last record. That qualifies as a long time. How many of these songs date back 20 years?

Wilson: None of them, they’re all new. I wrote the first one at the very end of 2020, and then I wrote about 30, maybe like 33 or 34 songs over the next two years, and re-recorded like 15 or 18 of them.

Baltin: I just did an interview with Dogstar maybe a month or so ago, who are also 20 something years between releases. It was very interesting talking to them because when they got on the road, they were shocked to find how many people were actually waiting for them to come back. Are you noticing that as well?

Wilson: I guess last summer, I had that sense when we were doing shows that it didn’t really occur to me that people would be waiting for us to make a new record or to come to town or play shows or anything like that. And I think the band’s experience of that time was not really exactly waiting. We were all doing a lot of different things.

Baltin: The only other band I can think of that I’ve interviewed that took 20 years between records was when I got to sit down together with Iggy Pop, Ron and Scott Ashton of the Stooges. And Iggy said something very interesting about why they got back together. “After 29 years, everything just falls by the wayside and you remember all the good stuff you did.” And I know that from reading an interview with you, you guys were on good terms, but I do think as time passes, you appreciate things more.

Wilson: Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. I guess that’s almost one of the themes of the lyrics of our album, a sense of being in the present moment and enjoying life as it is. And I think when the band was trying to make it and become and exceed and whatever the hell we were doing, a lot of that kind of driven intensity, I feel like it probably blinded me to a lot of the more delightful, beautiful experiences that were happening all around me.

Baltin: Are you also able to enjoy it more now because with all your other success there is less pressure?

Wilson: Maybe it’s my own pressure, but I always want to try to make something that’s at the very limits of my ability, and I always want to make something really great. And so with getting together with the band and trying to make a new record I certainly felt the usual urgency of making something really great and not settling for anything but the best I could do. And I think we all felt that way. But that’s compatible, I think, to also being just more appreciative of the experience as it’s happening. Semisonic was mostly happening in my 30s, and when in the full heat of it, in the wildest, most intense part of it, I was intense, and I wanted everything to go the band’s way, and I wanted everything to fall our way, and I wanted to. I just was very intent on us being as successful as we could get. Maybe I’m less kind of furious about it now than I was before.

Baltin: Do you feel like now that you’re enjoying it more?

Wilson: Oh, totally. Semisonic went on tour this summer and we played at Red Rocks. We had played at Red Rocks 22 years before, and the first time we were at Red Rocks, I was so intent on a whole bunch of things that had nothing to do with Red Rocks, I was like doing an interviews on the phone, and I was probably trying to write songs on that tour in all of my spare time. And I literally did not notice that Red Rocks is the most beautiful musical natural amphitheater I would ever see in my life. I just didn’t even look around me, I did the show, stomped back to the bus, continued working on some lyrics or something like that. This time around, part of what has changed is my ability to get a second shot at looking around at Red Rocks and saying, “Oh my God, this is the most beautiful natural amphitheater I could ever want to be in.”

Baltin: People always think life on the road is glamorous, and there is nothing glamorous about life on the road.

Wilson: Yes, it’s very un-glamorous. Jacob Slichter, the drummer of Semisonic, wrote this great book called, So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star. And one of the great themes of the book is how different the reality is then the dream, and it’s a very funny, beautiful book. But it really does capture that dissonance between what a person might imagine it’s like to be on tour and what it really is like. Let’s say that the afternoon is dull, and let’s say that waiting around in the venue for sound check is slow, and let’s say that sitting in the bench of a bus at 2:00 AM watching re-runs of a television show, or like DVDS of a Scorsese movie is over-familiar. On the other hand, when you get up on the stage and you play for the people, it just makes the rest of the day vanish, you’re just so happy and into it and intense in the moment. It would be as my friend Mike says, “It would be churlish to complain.”

Baltin: I did the Adele sessions for AOL for 21, and I always love this. This was one of the first performances, and she said that “Someone Like You” was such a difficult song to sing, she wasn’t going to do it live very often. Years later she’s done the song 8000 times, but she’s like, “I’m not doing it often, it’s too emotional to sing.”

Wilson: I love that she said that. I love that she felt like the song was too close to home and too emotionally raw and she didn’t want to sing it in front of people, and I also love that she has just the kind of hutzpah to go ahead and just do that frightening thing anyway as many times as she has. I have to admire that. The song was interesting. We had a very fun time, I was very light-hearted. We laughed a lot, took a lot of cigarette breaks and went back to work a lot of different times on the song for those two days, and I just feel like part of my role was to like feel like we hadn’t quite gotten it perfect. And then she did a lot of that too. There was one point where it seems like it might be done, except there was this really weird second verse that was very asymmetrical and kind of unpleasant, and overnight between the two days, I realized that second verse was the bridge. It wasn’t the second verse at all, and when she and I tried it as the bridge, everything fell into place it was as though we were way closer to completion than we thought. So there were easy things and hard things about that song.

Baltin: Were there songs on this record that really surprised you?

Wilson: Well, “A Little Bit of Sun” is one of those that mostly came out in a very short time, I probably had most of it done in 20 minutes, and I didn’t really know what to do with it, and I waited until I got together next time with Amy Allen, and she said, “It sounds finished to me.” And I said, “No, I don’t think so.” So she indulged me and helped me with a whole bunch of improvements and lyrical, she helped me basically complete the lyrics, but she was also open to the thought that the thing was finished. So that song was fast, “The Rope” was a pretty fast one. Amy and Yves Rothman and I wrote that in just a couple of hours at the most, maybe 90 minutes. “Beautiful Sky,” I spent an afternoon with Jim James, and I think it took us all afternoon ’cause we were just having a great time. Sometimes you’re not in a hurry ’cause you’re just really enjoying yourself. “Don’t Fade Away” surprised me, ’cause I wasn’t really thinking about writing that kind of a song. It’s so melancholy and it’s so reflective, and it’s so much about nature, it’s so much about being alone in the woods in Northern Minnesota. And I didn’t set out to write that song. It just happened in a real short time. And I think the record or the version that we made of it is beautiful. But that song surprises me the most when I hear it ’cause it’s like, “Wow, I did not plan to write that, but it’s great.”

Baltin: So now you toured this summer. Are there upcoming tour plans?

Wilson: I don’t know what’s in the works. But I know that we’re going to be doing shows. I hope a lot of them. But I know we’ll be playing in 2024.

Baltin: I mentioned Dogstar also doing 20 years later. Who would be the dream band to co-headline with?

Wilson: I hadn’t thought about that. The people that I really love kind of scare me. Like, I’d love to do a tour with The Verve, but a little scared of them. There’s something about English people with really good taste. I just find it very intimidating.

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