When the Trip Shakespeare/Semisonic savant and songwriter-to-the-stars started planning his latest solo album, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration—he could tap his own songbook.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Dan Wilson is probably best known by most as the frontman for Semisonic, and Trip Shakespeare before that. He’s been anything but dormant, however, since Semisonic stopped recording and touring in 2001.
Over the years, he’s put out a handful of widely-praised solo albums and managed to morph into a song-writing wunderkind of sorts, lending his talents to singers and bands across a slew of varied genres. For nearly two decades now, Wilson has written or co-written songs for a who’s-who of musicians across the spectrum—a list of A-listers that includes Adele, The Dixie Chicks, Weezer, Taylor Swift, Pink and Nas, among dozens more.
So when he decided to finally cover his own work—all songs of his that had been performed by other artists over the years, but not by him—he had plenty to choose from. The result is Re-Covered, out this week on August 4 via Big Deal Music, a beautiful re-imagining of songs, many you’ve heard plenty of times before, but never like this. (The one exception to that theme being Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” sang and played here with near-reverence.)
Wilson will also release a deluxe edition hardcover book and CD that contains 56 pages of drawings, essays, lyrics, and songwriting observations. The book contains illustrations and stories by Wilson about each Re-Covered song, in addition to each song’s lyrics. This deluxe hardcover book/album will be released on August 25 and includes a physical CD (pre-order via Amazon).
Wilson, who is prepping a solo tour behind the album, spoke with BLURT recently about the project, his ability to easily let go of his songs and the future of Semisonic.
BLURT: Let’s start with how the idea for Re-Covered came about. Obviously, you’ve got a lot of songs out there that you’ve written for others over the years.
DAN WILSON: About seven years ago a friend of mine had the idea and she said, “Dan, you need to make an album of your best songs that you’ve written for other people and you can’t just do it on acoustic guitar and be lazy about it.” I liked that idea, it sounded like a great concept. In 2010, I thought about it some more and came to the conclusion that I just didn’t have the right songs at that time; I felt like I needed a couple of more songs that were big songs in the culture and a couple more songs that expressed my ideals about songwriting. So, I waited for a while until I realized I finally had what I wanted.
Was it tough deciding which ones to include and which to leave off?
I liked the idea of having a clear concept of songs that were written for others and that made deciding easier in a way. I did demos of a whole bunch of songs and I made a list of about 40 or 50 songs that could be potentials and I knew that there were 25 that I really liked. So, I did guitar/vocal demos of those just to see if they sounded good. A bunch of the songs just didn’t sound good; my voice sounded too innocent and too bright when it needed to sound darker and bluer on some. They just didn’t sound right. And others were surprisingly perfect. It was the process of elimination.
You recorded most of these in just over a week, right?
Yeah, we did 12 tracks in a week and we mixed them all on a Saturday. A couple months passed and I told Mike Viola (his long-time collaborator and producer of Re-Covered) that we needed a couple more songs. We did a whole bunch more and chose four or five.
Recording in a week, was that out of necessity given schedules?
That was Mike’s idea. When I asked Mike if he would produce this album he said he would but only if we did it live to tape, with live vocals, have everyone in the same room, do it in a short span of time and mix it all in one day. And I thought, ok, that sounds amazing, but why? Here were his reasons: First, you will all have one specific sound because you will all be in the same place at the same time that week. Secondly, we’ll be recording to tapes on old school materials so you won’t be able to tinker with it or do anything to it digitally. It’s going to just leave things as they are if they’re great and you’re going to be so happy because you won’t have to spend months on a record. And I loved those ideas.
You’ve written with and for a lot of other people over the years. Have you ever felt it was difficult to give away a song or hear someone else sing it differently than you intended it to sound?
Well no, for two reasons. The first is sort of philosophical. I feel like hanging on to a song, like hoarding it for yourself, is sort of like betting against yourself. What you’re saying is I will never write a song this good again; I will never write anything this precious again, so I have to hang onto it. But if you give it to someone, it’s almost like saying I will give this song to someone else and then I’ll write another great one. There’s almost a karmic element to letting things go that is positive.
I’ve never thought of it like that.
Yeah and the second thing is I’m fine with recording something someone else has already recorded. The only risk is if someone does a complete heart-stopping incredible version. Even then you can recut it.
How did you get the Kronos Quartet involved in the song “Someone Like You”?
I met the Kronos Quartet at a concert I did that was a tribute to Big Star’s Third album. We did “Give Me Another Chance” and after rehearsal in the basement of that theater the Quartet and I were standing around talking and David (Harrington), the first violinist said “we should collaborate on something. We all love the way your voice sounds with us.” I said, “Oh, man. I’d be honored.” Basically, that was an open invitation and months went by and I was thinking about how I could do a version of “Someone Like You,” that would be different from Adele’s, but wouldn’t be R&B and drums and the typical thing to do. We tried it like that and it didn’t work. I suddenly thought, “Maybe I should do this with The Kronos Quartet.”
“Closing Time” is on here as well and obviously that song is probably most associated with you and Semisonic. It’s a beautiful version; it’s very subdued and almost solemn. Was this how you had originally meant the song to sound when you first wrote it or was this just something different you were trying?
When I first wrote the song, I wrote it on acoustic guitar and everything I had been writing for Semisonic seemed to be played very loudly. So, I just generally assumed everything I wrote for the band would be played loudly, but I wrote them quietly. It was just me on a couch with an acoustic guitar so it was almost like a folk song, but I knew we were going to play it loud. When I decided to record it for this record I just went back to the original vibe which was almost kind of wistful.
Are there plans to do anything new with Semisonic?
We did some shows last month and we’ll certainly do more. I wrote a bunch of songs last year that for the first time in a long time I felt could be great for Semisonic. I’m pretty excited about the prospect. The way things work for me is I have an idea and then turn the idea upside down a few times and then come to a decision. That’s what happened with Re-Covered. I love those guys and I love the sound we make.
Photo Credits: (top) Devin Pedde; (middle) Noah Lamberth