Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with musician Dan Wilson. If you haven’t already read Part One, be sure to check it out to hear about the summer day Wilson wrote his first song, the key role titles play in his songwriting process, and why art is a volume business.
I’d heard Semisonic’s song “DND” several times before learning that “DND” referred to the “Do Not Disturb” signs in hotels. I wondered what your thoughts were on how much you want to let your listeners in on the particulars behind your lyrics?
This is an important question. I’m torn about it. On the one hand, I’m a talkative guy who has a lot of ideas and they naturally come out in my lyrics. So I often am tempted to explain my songs, or at least tempted to lay out for interviewers (and through them, listeners) the thoughts or ideas or stories behind my songs.
But on the other hand, I have a vivid memory of being a kid and reading an interview with Paul McCartney wherein he said that his song “Jet” was about a dog. Not only that one, but “Martha My Dear,” that one was about a dog, too. These were two songs of his that I loved, and I was just deflated by the revelation — I had had my own mental images of the people in both those songs, not that they were visually detailed, but a kind of “songish” vision of the people and the stories. And to learn that these people were dogs was such a letdown.
Now, Sir Paul has every right to write songs about his dogs, I’ve got no problem with that. But in learning that those particular songs were about dogs, I was suddenly deprived of my own pleasant illusion that they were about people. And somehow they shrank in my mind as a result of being explained.
Another factor in all this is that I often don’t know what the songs are about until long after I’ve written them. This makes it tempting to share the interpretation — since in my mind, my explanation is as good as a listener’s. But on the other hand, once I’ve given my interpretation of my own song, it has the quality of being “the last word.” And sometimes, the fans come up with the coolest interpretations of their meanings – way cooler than the interpretation or intention I might have had.
So I try to curb my impulse to explain my songs, lest I shrink them in the ears of fans.
Is there any aspect of the creative process that still intimidates you?
It’s the writing. That’s the most intimidating part. Every time I finish a song, I get the feeling that it’s the last one I’ll ever write. It’s like suffering from a creative hangover. One of the things I’ve had to keep learning is the art of starting over. I’ve had to tell myself, “There will always be another song.” Which is hard to believe during that post-writing hangover.
In the actual writing process, the most challenging part is the lyrics. It’s as though the lyrics are the hard and laborious process that allows me to have the fun of working on the melodies. My guess is that lyrics are the hardest part for most songwriters. In the world of unfinished songs, I bet there are ten wordless tunes for every tuneless lyric. They’re just hard to get right. Bad lyrics distract so much from the melody. I keep trying to tell myself that the only requirement of lyrics is that they not be bad — “First, do no harm.” But I can’t help it, for whatever reason I have to keep working on them until I believe they’re great. And getting to that point is challenging.
Sometimes I feel that people are too tempted to take half-baked song ideas and start recording them…. Songs are better if they stay flexible longer — if the clay stays wet for awhile.
Creatively, what was the most challenging aspect of making your new record?
On Free Life, I actually found the mixing of the album to be almost as challenging as any other aspect. Rick Rubin had loved my demo and rough mixes (done at home, some by my engineer Brad Kern, and some by just me) so much that he insisted I try mixing the album myself. I mixed about a third of the songs with Brad Kern, several with engineer Greg Fidelman (one of Rick’s favorite engineers), and five of them alone. I couldn’t have done those last five without the training process of the others — we mixed at Rick’s house and he would come into the studio in the morning and evening and give lots of detailed and sometimes scathing notes until each song was sounding great. This really gave me a lot of insight into the art of mixing. It’s funny, I’ve become very good at it, but I don’t want to spend too much of my time doing it, I think because I feel that in the end I’m best at writing songs and I shouldn’t take too much time away from that.
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.
What role does the work you do in the studio play in your creative process? And what do you do to keep yourself fresh and engaged in the studio?
I find that the main task is to prevent the studio from becoming the main component of the creative process. It’s great to have tape or hard drive rolling, to “always be making records,” but I’ve had better luck writing songs with no recording gear in the room — or just the old kind, pencil and paper. Sometimes I feel that people are too tempted to take half-baked song ideas and start recording them. I’m good in the studio and I can make a mediocre song idea sound pretty great, but then once it’s on tape or drive, it loses the will-o-the-wispy sense of potential that a song has when it’s still unfinished and only exists on a scrap of paper and in my head. Songs are better if they stay flexible longer — if the clay stays wet for awhile.
So I keep the writing and the studio pretty separate.
On the other hand, being creative in the recording process is a big source of fun for me and I think I’m pretty good at it. I have learned that attacking ideas directly isn’t always the way to go — it’s often better to approach them sideways. I learned a ton from reading and briefly using Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies concept cards. I think everyone should use them for at least one session. Each card offers a very brief and sometimes cryptic piece of direction or advice. You consult the deck when you’re stuck in the creative process, picking a card, which might say, for example, “emphasize differences” or “question the heroic approach” — whereupon you are obliged to find some way to use that command in the art you’re making. There are a lot of sites online which have made virtual versions of the deck of Oblique Strategies cards — you click a button and one of the cards comes up on the screen. I can’t say enough about how great they are, and what a fun game it can become to use them with a group and try to interpret their strange messages.
I think the other thing which I’ve tried to do in the studio is to tailor the experience to the people in the room at the time. When in doubt, ask someone unlikely if they play. I got some amazing flute and horns on my album from Dana Neilson, an engineer I was working with, just by randomly mentioning that flutes would sound good on “Rising.”
One last question – is there any advice you’ve received over the years about the creative process that’s really stuck with you?
Yes, I can think of a couple of things. I was at a talk by Frank Stella, the painter (in my painting days), and I asked him in the Q&A about all the bad painting that was in the museums. I was outraged by a show I’d seen recently and wanted to know how he felt when he saw art in museums that he thought wasn’t worthy of attention. He said, “You shouldn’t worry about art that you don’t like. Ignore it. Your job is to seek out art that you love, enjoy it, and learn from it. The rest doesn’t matter.”
I thought that was pretty great.
The other one that springs to mind was something that a mentor of mine, Steve Senter, said to me one day. I was working for him on some carpentry and refinishing at his house. We were having lunch together and I told him that I was thinking about writing a string quartet. I was a little worried that this might seem like a silly idea to him. But he said, “Well, if you’re going to write a string quartet, you better start now.”
I have thought about that many, many times. I never wrote a string quartet, but I think I’ve put the advice into action nonetheless. It was a very simple response, but so wise and respectful. I hope I am always that respectful of artists I know.