Music Interviews
11:15 am
Tue April 15, 2014

Perennial Co-Writer Returns With An Album Of His Own

Originally published on Mon April 21, 2014 3:25 am

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

And we're going to talk now with Dan Wilson. You may think you don't know him, but you do. He's your favorite songwriter's favorite co-writer. For instance, power ballads with Adele? Check.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEONE LIKE YOU")

ADELE: (Singing) Never mind, I'll find someone like you.

CORNISH: Hooks for hip hop royalty like Nas? Check.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSES")

NAS: (Rapping) Heard you tear a rose from the roots, the rose screams.

NIKKI FLORES: (Singing) Just like a rose.

CORNISH: Pop country stadium swooners for Taylor Swift? Check.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREACHEROUS")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) This slope is treacherous.

CORNISH: Charm-laden ditties for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band? Yep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I THINK I LOVE YOU")

PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND: (Singing) I think I love you.

CORNISH: Dan Wilson writes seriously catchy songs for himself as well. On his latest solo work, he croons "A Song Can Be About Anything."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SONG CAN BE ABOUT ANYTHING")

DAN WILSON: (Singing) About the second grade or the TV news or how the world turns around with or without you or how we first met in the strangest way.

CORNISH: Dan Wilson, welcome to the program.

WILSON: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: So this song is a lot of fun because it - it's like a little window into songwriting as a job.

WILSON: Yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: Can you talk about what actually inspired it?

WILSON: I think partly what inspired it is - a song can be about anything, that phrase is probably something I've said almost as a dare with songwriting friends, you know, over time. Like, that's how you talk when people ask you what can a song be about. You just say it can be about anything. And then when I started writing the song, by the end, it was a song about connection and love and the main thing that songs are about all the time.

CORNISH: Maybe you can tell us kind of how a song like this comes together. I don't know if you're the kind of person who is sitting down with a guitar first or if you've got scraps of paper with writing everywhere.

WILSON: So I'm pretty sure the way this one started was I have a pile of three-by-five note cards and each one is pretty well thumbed and worn out if it's been around for a while. And it has a title of a song on it that hasn't been written yet, or it has a couple of lines that I think are cool or promising. And so I'm pretty sure I had a three-by-five card on my little stack that said a song can be about anything. And what I do is when I'm writing, I just turn over cards until I find one that seems promising, and then I finish that song.

CORNISH: Now in your career, especially in recent years, you've co-written with just a like enormous range of singers. When you sit down with them, what is that like versus crafting a song for yourself?

WILSON: Well, there's a mood difference, because I find - when I'm writing a song alone - I read this quote from a poet, I think her name is Ann Richardson, and she said to write a poem, she needed to get into a melancholy frame of mind. And that really hits it for me. That's really true for writing a song alone. But when I'm writing a song with somebody else, it's usually a lot of laughing and drinking espresso or whatever else and then sort of getting down to business once in a while and working on the song at hand.

I used to have this thing where I'd - if we were working on a song that I didn't dig, I'd kind of go, well, maybe their fans like this type of bad song.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: But then nothing ever happened good with those songs. If it didn't seem good to me at the time, that's because it just wasn't good.

CORNISH: And that must be easy to do with a big star, right, where they're playing something and you're kind of like, yeah, sure.

WILSON: You're caught up in - and you're like, yeah. You're like, well, if she likes it, or he likes it, it must be cool. But it turns out everybody has good and bad ideas.

CORNISH: One trap of writing for others I could imagine is that you might be afraid of running out of ideas.

WILSON: Oh, no.

CORNISH: I think of songwriters as - right, like maybe thinking like, this one's for me, or this maybe my only good idea of the day.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: OK. Well, I - my philosophy - and I do this wholeheartedly, is to use the great idea right now and finish it, because I feel it's a way to tell your own mind, oh, yeah, you're going to have another good one. It's going to be cool.

CORNISH: I want to talk about another song on your album called "We Belong Together."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE BELONG TOGETHER")

CORNISH: And this has a feel of just old-fashioned romance, I think.

WILSON: Yeah. It's romantic. It's kind of comical and really loving. And it's got '70s style horn section by a friend of mine named Brad Gordon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE BELONG TOGETHER")

CORNISH: I can feel that sort of '70s vibe a little bit...

WILSON: Totally.

CORNISH: ...bouncing along.

Now, I talked about your songs sticking, being catchy. And when you're writing them, does that happen to you? I mean, do you get one that is just stuck in your head?

WILSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. But it's not really fair because when I'm working on a song, especially if I'm mixing or producing something, you know, I'll hear it probably 50 times in a day, at least. So, of course, I'm going to remember it. You know, it's going to stick in my mind. But sometimes a little fragmentary idea occurs to me and then it keeps kind of distracting me throughout the day, like I'll try to have a conversation with someone and I'll have this little series of phrases that are going through my mind during the conversation, but they only have to do with this little song that's forming itself.

CORNISH: It's asking to be written.

WILSON: It's like pre-hooky. It's like hooky in advance of even existing.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Now, one of those catchy songs that I have to ask about that you've written was written 15 years ago, while you were the frontman for the band Semisonic. I think you know the song I'm going to ask about.

WILSON: I imagine I do.

CORNISH: I'm going to play just the first few bars because I'm so confident people will know this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSING TIME")

WILSON: (Singing) Closing time...

CORNISH: OK. Stop it. Cut it out. Everyone knows. This is "Closing Time."

WILSON: Yep.

CORNISH: Now, the thing about this song, I always assumed this song was about leaving the bar.

WILSON: Yeah.

CORNISH: That's what the lyrics sort of allude to.

WILSON: Sure. Yeah.

CORNISH: I heard a rumor that this song is actually about your child being born? Is...

WILSON: Well, I - it's - yeah, it is. It's both. It was like a big pun that I made.

CORNISH: Help me work that out. That is...

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: OK. OK. Closing time, open all the doors and let you out into the world, like you're being, you know, born, you're being letting out into the world. Turn all of the lights on over every boy and every girl, you know, like the bright operating room where the baby comes out is brightly lit. You know, this is a bit of a stretch. But, like, one last call for alcohol, so finish your whiskey or beer, it's kind of like being cut off, you know, your umbilical cord is going to get cut off and, you know, you're done here. You don't have to go home but you can't stay here in the womb.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: I thought everyone would get it. I thought it was like really clever. When I wrote it, I was like, oh, man. And like, it even goes this room won't be open till your brothers or your sisters come. Well, what room could that even be? That's definitely the uterus, you know? But...

CORNISH: I did always wonder about that line.

WILSON: That line. And so - but no one got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSING TIME")

WILSON: (Singing) I know who I want to take to me home.

And take me home. Take me home from the hospital, mom and dad, you know? Take me home. I used to have this philosophy that every line in a song needed to be about two things. And so "Closing Time" is like the ultimate example of that theory, like, every line has a double meaning.

CORNISH: Well, Dan Wilson, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing some stories behind your songs.

WILSON: A pleasure. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

CORNISH: Dan Wilson. His new album, solo album, is called "Love Without Fear."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSING TIME")

WILSON: (Singing) So gather up your jackets, move it to the exits. I hope you have found a friend. Closing time. Every new beginning comes from some other...

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.