What’s the first song you remember writing?
I can’t remember the title of the first song I wrote, but I do remember the day. My family was up in northern Minnesota on vacation on this particular clear, hot, summer day. I think I was twelve years old. My parents had bought me a guitar, maybe for my birthday in May.
My parents listened to The Beatles the whole time I was growing up: Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. So the first book of sheet music they bought me was Beatles Complete. I think my brother Matt and I had been figuring out the chords in the book all summer. I believe that it was Matt’s idea to write songs — so he wrote one and I wrote one. We did the songs bit by bit over the course of the afternoon on our parents’ bed. In between “songwriting” we’d run out to the ditch by the road and play war with our plastic army men.
When we were done with the songs, we wrote out the lyrics on typing paper, with the titles boldly written on the top of the sheets. Very official. I’m trying to remember them but I can’t. I liked Matt’s more. The lyrics of mine seemed not so great to me. But the melody was satisfying — I remember thinking it sounded like a George Harrison song. Which I guess tells us which Beatle is mine.
I think the impulse came partly from just wanting something to do on a summer day. But also, once you have a bunch of the chords under your hands, you start to realize that “I can do this too.”
I told a painter friend of mine once that the reason I made paintings was often that I’d seen someone else’s painting that I liked, and I wanted to have one for my own. My friend replied that Picasso said the same thing: He’d see a masterpiece in the Louvre and say to himself, “I can do that! I want one of those.”
…every visual artist I love seems to have had a huge breakthrough in their career when they suddenly figured out how to make art that looks easy…. I had a breakthrough like that when I was about thirty…. And I came to the conclusion that art is a ‘volume business’ — whatever art form you’re doing, you have to do a lot of it.
Did you generally write songs on your own back then, or collaboratively with your brother? And what was your creative process like?
Through junior high and high school I made music — I really didn’t write songs for a long time after that first one. I took piano lessons from second grade until I was a senior in high school, very strict and structured classical music lessons. But when I was thirteen or so, I somehow figured out how to improvise on the piano. I don’t know who got me started. After my hour of piano lesson practice I would put the sheet music away and just free-flow. In seventh grade I entered a talent show for the school. I completely improvised my performance. I can hardly believe it now — it would take a lot of guts for me to do that now!
In high school I started to write a lot of music, but it was all instrumental music to be played with my jazz-musician friends. I had gotten very into The Real Book, which had the chords and melodies to a large number of jazz standards, as well as some of the contemporary jazz pieces that Pat Metheny and Chick Corea and Dave Holland and Herbie Hancock and people like that were writing. I learned to read those jazz lead sheets on the piano. And once again, I think I started thinking, “I can make one of those, I want one of those for my own.” So at the time I was trying to write jazz standards.
I only realized later on that most of the great jazz standards were pop songs with lyrics, show tunes and pop songs from earlier eras.
All through junior high and high school I harbored fantasies of being a famous singer — I’d sing through the neighborhood while I walked our dog. But strangely, it hadn’t yet entered my mind to write hit songs for me to sing. I was still kind of fixated on being a jazz musician of some kind. This all changed when I heard “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello. I was in a clothing store in New York City and that song was playing and I suddenly had that feeling again: “I want to do that!”
As far as the creative process goes, I don’t think I really “clicked” as a songwriter until I was about thirty. I spent a lot of time on stage, singing and playing, and I wrote a lot of songs with my brother and on my own. I think I was helpful in the collaboration with my brother, but when I wrote on my own, there was a sense that it wasn’t really my voice, wasn’t really me speaking through the songs.
Dan Wilson first made his mark with Trip Shakespeare, a Minneapolis-based band featuring Wilson, his brother Matt, bassist John Munson, and drummer Elaine Harris. The four produced a catalog of songs noted for soaring harmonies and a quirky sense of humor that was often matched with an unusual slice of hyper-drama. After Trip Shakespeare, Wilson and Munson teamed up with drummer Jake Slichter to form Semisonic. Throughout the late ’90s and into 2001, Semisonic produced shimmering pop, including the hit song “Closing Time,” nominated for Best Rock Song by the 1999 Grammys.
Since Semisonic, Wilson has worked with musicians ranging from Nickel Creek to Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing). In 2007, he shared the Song of the Year Grammy Award with the Dixie Chicks for their hit tune “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Most recently, American Recordings/Columbia released his long-anticipated solo record, Free Life.
I’ve been thinking lately that every visual artist I love seems to have had a huge breakthrough in their career when they suddenly figured out how to make art that looks easy. It’s like they have to get to the point where they can just be themselves and do art that they can make a lot of.
I think I had a breakthrough like that when I was about thirty. I started writing songs that sounded really easy to write. And I came to the conclusion that art is a “volume business” — whatever art form you’re doing, you have to do a lot of it.
Have you noticed or developed any habits that help you with that volume side of things — techniques that get you working, focused, and productive?
I wish I had something surefire to keep myself focused and productive. I am capable of intense focus and I know I’m relatively productive, but both of those qualities seem to come and go in waves, lasting maybe a month or two. I think the intense focus can last for a few months for me and then I need to look elsewhere — read books, undertake little household projects, travel — and then it comes back. There’s a point of diminishing returns, or maybe just diminishing happiness, if I stay in intense work mode for more than a few months without a break.
One thing that really helped me in songwriting was to realize that it’s okay, in fact it’s necessary, to write bad songs as well as good ones. I think a lot of writers get hung up on only writing good songs, and it’s just impossible to do. My experience is it takes about six to eight bad or okay songs before I write a great one. So I just have to get into the mindset of writing a song every day for a week or so, without worrying about whether it’s good. Then eventually, good stuff will come.
It’s very liberating to realize that your output doesn’t have to be good.
Another thing I’ve learned but have to continually relearn is that the first thing in the morning is the best time for me to write. I have a little breakfast and espresso, and the next hour or so is the most precious time of the day. It’s strange that I keep forgetting it — I’ll make doctors’ appointments, phone calls, schedule repair visits, all kinds of stuff, for the first thing in the morning, not remembering that those are the best times for me to write.
I know lots of people have this experience, that is, forgetting what routine or way of life makes them most happy or productive — people can go an entire lifetime having to constantly remind themselves to exercise, for example. I’m that way with my work. I always have to relearn the balance that works for me. It’s kind of frustrating. I’m someone who forever imagines that he’s coming up on a period of “coasting” — “I’ve pushed hard enough, now I can just sit back and cruise.” But that’s not how life works, at least not for me.
Is there a particular way you tend to approach songwriting?
I know “lyrics first” writers, “music first” writers. I’m neither. I’m either a “title first” writer, or “all at once.” If I can do both “title first” and “all at once” at the same time, I’m very happy.
The way titles occur to me is through singing at the piano or guitar. I’ll sit at the piano or with a guitar and wander around the notes — playing repeated riffs, humming old songs I half-remember. It’s almost a process of going into a trance. If I get some very nice sounds happening, sometimes a phrase of lyrics will pop into my head along with a melody. I’ll write it down on a 3″ x 5″ card or in a notebook. This continues until I come up with something that seems really brilliant. In the moment, I’m not always right about what is great, but it somehow has to excite my imagination. I try to relate what I’ve said to where I am in my life at the time. Usually during this process, a couple of related phrases will come into my mind. Maybe one of them will start to look like a title to me.
I have no idea how those ideas are generated, but I know that I need to be in an undisturbed place with no telephone ringing, nobody passing through the room.
The strange thing is that in a way I feel like a part of me is singing and another part is listening. The singing part is just creating lyric ideas and melodies, and the listening part is saying, “Hmmm, pretty good,” or, “Clever, but I don’t relate to it,” or, “Whoah! That’s exactly my life right now!” The last one is when I start to feel like I’m onto something.
Sometimes at this point, with an idea starting to look promising, I’ll take a walk or drive out for coffee. On the way I think about the idea or hum it to myself. If I go to the coffee shop, I’ll order an espresso and get out my notebook. I’ve always loved the quote from Paul Erdős: “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” Well, I’m a machine for turning coffee into songs.
At the coffee shop, I write down lots of lines of lyrics, without thinking about whether they’re any good. Background music, distractions, cute girls nearby: these are all good. I’m looking for a kind of cloud of lyric ideas that I can play with when I go back to my guitar.
Now at this point, sometimes I can’t remember the original idea, and usually I take that as a sign that it wasn’t good enough. But it almost doesn’t matter because I’ve got a start, a little constellation of lyric phrases with music to go with them. When I get back from coffee, I start to put it all together.
Sometimes it takes several weeks to wrap up a song that starts this way, sometimes it happens very quickly.
The interview continues in Part Two.