At first, Dan Wilson's success seemed to be relegated to the realm of the one-hit wonder: his band Semisonic had just released a song called "Closing Time" and it had become one of the most defining anthems of the mid-late 90s. Though its parent album, Feeling Strangely Fine, sold well, "Closing Time" wasn't even that disc's best moment (in Evcat's eyes, it's a three-way tie between "Singing In My Sleep", "Secret Smile", and "Gone to the Movies"), but it was treated as the band's only accomplishment. Though their follow-up album All About Chemistry would go on to achieve a perfect rating from Q Magazine, the sales didn't materialize, and -- amidst a flurry of solo activity -- the band amicably split ways.

Then, strange things began happening.

"F.N.T." -- from Semisonic's first album The Great Divide -- was suddenly in TV ads, and Dan found himself under the nuturing wing of Rick Rubin. Dan honed in his songwriting talent (producing both solo discs for former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty), and soon he was working with Rubin's latest clients: the Dixie Chicks. Yes, Dan helped write "Not Ready to Make Nice" and a good portion of its parent album, Taking the Long Way -- which would then go on to win a slew of Grammy awards, including one for Dan. With renewed confidence and new industry acclaim, it wasn't long before Free Life materialized, Dan's first true solo album (not counting his Sugar EP and post-Semisonic digital releases, of course). With a career as accomplished as his, there is no shortage of stories to tell, and, thankfully, Dan is now sitting down with Globecat to tell a few of them ...


>>I remember when the editors at AMG began blogging about American Idol, discussing how it'd be much better if they began bringing in actual songwriters to pen the lead singles for the winning contestants, deftly dropping the name "Dan Wilson" into the pool of those who would serve well. Since winning a Grammy and having your profile as visible as ever, has your approach for songwriting changed at all? If so, how?

Sometimes I wonder if I even have a songwriting approach. It seems like instead of honing and perfecting my songwriting method, I am obliged to start over from scratch every time I finish a new song. This is not what I would have expected, but I guess it makes sense - I can't go back and be the person I was last year any more than I can go back and be the writer I was last year. So I have reconciled myself to always feeling like I have to start over.

The one thing that has changed most in the past 10 years is my approach to collaboration. I think when I first started writing songs with other people, I was looking for a "meeting of equals" - if I were writing with someone I would envision the song to be 1/2 me and 1/2 them - like a hybrid character was singing the song. Since then, I figured out that I prefer to have the other person's voice be the "character" of the song. So for me, a co-write is less about "saying what I want to say" and more about saying what my collaborator wants to say.

Of course, like everything else, that's probably going to be different next year!

>>The one thing that surprised me about Free Life is despite being signed to Rick Rubin's label, you handled all the production work yourself. What made you decide to try working behind the boards this time 'round? What experiences did you gain from helming this project yourself?

I feel like Rick Rubin was incredibly generous to have me produce it myself, with his encouragement and oversight. I think he ended up putting a lot of energy into what was in the end a mentoring relationship. I produced the album but I asked him a ton of questions and whenever I was in a jam he was always ready with a lifesaving (or at least game-changing) idea.

Rick also suggested that I mix the album myself, which at first I was not ready for. But in the end I mixed about 6 of the tracks myself, and through that process - with Rick coming to the studio every day and offering gently scathing feedback - I think I actually learned how to mix.

I really think I got the best of both worlds, and part of this was because of the musicians I worked with - almost everyone on the record is a bandleader! So the supply of ideas and opinions was pretty rich. Which meant that I was always free to sit back and let them decide what to do. Very fun way to record, in my opinion.

>>With that said, I'm find it profoundly fascinating that you're able to produce beautiful tracks like "Golden Girl" and then work an electronic traffic-jam of a song like "More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle" for Mike Doughty's Golden Delicious LP. When it comes to writing or producing with/for other artists, what are the goals you're trying to push them towards? Has there been any particular collaborative experiences that have proven to be incredibly rich or, conversely, incredibly frustrating for you?

When I'm producing, I'm really trying to be in that mindset of "what do YOU want to say right now?" Not "What would Dan Wilson say right now?" So, I think the fact that Mike's Golden Delicious is so different from, say, Storyhill, is a reflection of me trying to be more like a really beautiful and clean lens which the artist can use to magnify their music. The result is like me in that the things I like get magnified more, but what you're seeing is them, not me.

>>Before going solo, you were obviously noted as being a part of both Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare. What did these groups share in common for you? What were the biggest lessons you learned from each band?

Trip Shakespeare was the hardest working group I've ever been in. We rehearsed 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. It was like a job, an amazing, silly, creative job, but definitely a job. We solved problems by diligent and dogged application of effort. Nothing was more important than the music, it didn't matter if we all hated each other by the end of the day, as long as the music was great and uncompromising. When that band came to a halt and John Munson and Jacob Slichter and I got together to form what would become Semisonic, we tried the opposite approach. The agreement was that life was more important than music, and that if we ran into a roadblock in rehearsal we would all go out for a glass of wine. This approach was a lot more fun, and the world liked the results a lot more, too.

>>Do you feel haunted by "Closing Time" at all?

I really like "Closing Time" - not only for what it has done for my life, but also because I think it is a great song, true to itself, lyrically beautiful, simple, uplifting ... even because I think it has a sadness which is hard to explain but definitely there. The only way "Closing Time" might have haunted me would have been if I could never beat it as a song. But I think I've done that several times since then, so I get to have a very positive relationship to it. I've been playing it at all my gigs and telling a funny story about its origins (all true, by the way). I'll tell that story until the end of the year and then retire it for a while.

>>So far in your storied career, you've worked with the likes of Carole King, Rick Rubin, Natalie Maines, Mike Doughty, etc. etc. Are there still any dream collaborations that you have left?

Elvis Costello, Yusuf Islam, Brian Eno, Emmylou Harris, Conor Oberst, Joanna Newsom, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Rick Wakeman, Sufjan Stevens - I'm sure I could come up with a completely different list on another day.

>>Lastly: so far in your career, what's been your biggest regret and, conversely, what's been your proudest accomplishment?

Okay, I don't usually get into regrets, but I wish that more people had gotten a chance to hear All About Chemistry, the third Semisonic album. I feel like there are musical moments on that CD which I will have a very hard time topping, and it makes me sad that the album is relatively obscure.

And as for pride, there was a moment after the release of the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way when the title of my and the Chicks' song "Not Ready to Make Nice" was being used all over the headlines of the papers and in people's blogs. And during that time my brother Matt, who is a much more politically active and interested person than I am, and who follows the political blogs and news very closely, called me up to tell me that that song had become a rallying cry for people who were against the war in Iraq and who felt like they were not being represented by their government and who wanted a change. That was a very proud moment.

I was excited and later proud singing "Sugar" (from Free Life) with Sheryl Crow - her vocal genius is impossible to overstate - she starts to sing and the whole thing suddenly goes from demo to record.

Also, when Carole King came to the studio with Semisonic while we were mixing All About Chemistry and we listened to the playback of "One True Love," the Semisonic song I wrote with her. That was just about as good as I expect it to get.