In a recent issue of Music Week, Dan Wilson reflected on his career so far, not only as the singer/guitarist for beloved Minneapolis rock band Semisonic but also as an elite, Grammy-winning songwriter for the likes of Adele, The Chicks and many more.
In the late 90s and early 00s, the group were a chart force to be reckoned with, their 1998 album going platinum in the UK, boasting hits like Secret Smile and Closing Time, the latter an enduring anthem thanks to a host of prominent TV and film placements over the years.
Today (September 17), the reunited Semisonic return with their excellent new EP You’re Not Alone – their first release in 19 years.
Here, Wilson takes us inside how they reunited and why they have Liam Gallagher to thank for it…
It’s been 19 years since last Semisonic outing – can you put into words what it means to you for this band to be back in your life?
“I'm super-happy that we’ve been able to make new music together. John [Munson, bass] and Jacob [Slichter, drums] and I have been friends and close this whole time, we hung out and we've done shows – we try to do a benefit or something every year, almost as an excuse to hang out. That's always been a positive part of my life, even when we haven't been making music. But there was a long stretch when I couldn't really write any songs that sounded right for the band. I wasn’t super-bummed about that, but I definitely was disappointed when I tried to write something, and it might even be a good song, but it just didn't sound like Semisonic…”
Why was that? What was what was missing?
“Being in a band is like being the sum of all the things in that space and time, with your own weird filter pulled over it. If you let a few years pass, your filter changes, your sense of what's cool might change, your sense of who you are and where you're at might change, but also the context changes so much. I think between those two things and my very gratifying, satisfying work writing and producing things for other people and doing my solo records, I guess I wasn't in the right mental space. My filter was off – I just wasn't making Semisonic music. Sometime in 2017, I finally wrote a bunch of songs that sounded like Semisonic and I was really excited and the guys were really excited to try to record it and. It was a great experience to record them. It wasn't easy, but it never is. But on a personal level? It was really easy.”
You’ve spent the intervening years writing music with some incredible artists like Adele and The Chicks, but what do you get out of working with the Semisonic guys? What did they bring out in you?
“It’s interesting because I have made some discoveries about that since we've done this music again. I have never been able to do a thing which some songwriters can do, which is pretend I was somebody else and write a song for that person. I can only really be myself and sound like myself when I'm singing. I imagine it would make writing songs for other people easier if I could pretend to be them, or mimic them, but I can't. With the guys, it’s part of my DNA by now – just the groove when we play together. That is something I had to rediscover – how to get into that groove again. That’s something that's unique and special, and reminds me of good times and fills me with appreciation and gratitude.”
As we understand it, Liam Gallagher had an indirect role in your return – you wrote songs for him that he ended up not using, but that nevertheless flexed your Semisonic muscle. So, would this EP have happened without him?
“That's a really interesting question. I had this great meeting with Liam. I've always been a huge admirer of his, and his band. We had this really interesting meeting, we talked about music, we talked about the possibility of me writing some songs and to see what it would be like for him to sing a song that I wrote. I was pretty inspired by the talk. And so I gave it a shot. Two weeks later I sent a bunch of songs to him and his manager and they wrote back and said, 'Oh, whoops, the album's actually done, sorry, but next time!’ and that was, cool. That was fine. But then one of the songs in particular, which Semisonic didn't end up using, but I kept thinking, ‘This doesn't sound like Liam Gallagher at all, this sounds like Semisonic…” I think it was like a kickstart or kind of a cheat sheet. It probably put me back in a mindset I was in in 1998, like, ‘Oh, that’s the flavor – that's what the band was like. That's what it felt like to play rock with a band!’"
It's funny because normally people are disappointed when a songwriter passes on a song, but this has actually been a wonderful gift….
“The greatest part was that even though even though none of those songs that I wrote with Liam Gallagher in mind made the cut with Semisonic, it basically gave me confidence. I knew that I was going to write songs that sounded partly like then, and partly like now, because I've been writing songs for so long with very current artists and I can't help but be influenced by what's happening in the world, and also what's happening in music now. I got that spark of like, ‘Oh, yeah, this sounds like the band that I remember, that's so exciting!’ Part of that was nice for me because I just didn't want to update our sound. I didn't want to do some sort of grafting. I just wanted to sound like a trio playing music.”
You once said that you have more of a talking-singing voice – what is the virtue of that voice?
“I think part of what I meant about my voice sounding like talking more than singing, is not because I can't carry a tune, obviously, but when I when I sing, it sounds like I'm saying the words to you. It doesn't sound like pure sound. I mean on Secret Smile, it's definitely singing, it's not like spoken word or anything like that, but there's something about it that reads as if somebody talking to you. I’m not a belter – I can’t get up to heights of emotion in my singing…”
Are Semisonic 100% back now, or is this EP more a toe in the water?
“Oh, no, we were definitely all really psyched about making more music. We have a bunch of other songs that are partly or completely done. It's going to depend on me writing a couple of new things, or a flow of new things for the band. But I feel confident about that, I want to do this as much as we can. Life is so demonstrably unpredictable. Here we are not being able to tour, cancelling all of our shows, the future is so uncertain, but it makes me want to make Semisonic music.”
Given all your achievements as a songwriter for the stars, it would be impossible to look at the last 19 years as a waste of time – but is there is there a sadness in the fact that Semisonic has been absent for so long?
“Well, we couldn't maintain the sort of grueling, frantic and boring pace of being on tour all the time. So much of it is boring and yet you’re still exhausted. One of the reasons that we couldn't maintain that routine in our lives is that I had a child who has special needs and, at the ending time of Semisonic, my daughter's medical issues were all-consuming and really, really took all of my time and energy whenever I wasn't on tour. I realised I couldn't be on tour anymore, and that definitely made me sad because I would have been happy to continue pumping out the jams with the band. But it just wasn't going to work. On the other hand, I think it might have been challenging in its own way, because, of course, life is challenging. I can't guarantee that we would have ever written a song that would become as evergreen as Closing Time. As an artist, you're always compared, and comparing yourself, to your best or most impactful work, and I think if we hadn't written another Closing Time, which beat all the other songs of its era of that style, why wouldn't it have beat us too? And if we hadn't done that, that might have been sad in its own way. As an artist, I'm always looking for a new way to try something new aesthetically or artistically, and have that thrill and maybe win on a new premise. I wasn’t going to be beating my head against Closing Time for years on end.”
So how comfortable are you with Closing Time being Semisonic’s calling card?
“I think we have better songs, but John Munson and I had been in Trip Shakespeare before Semisonic and we had been on tour in the Midwest for seven or eight years. With that previous band, we played all the bars, and not the big bars either! We had done the bar/ nightclub circuit pretty thoroughly, and it got to the point where there were some days where I would be off tour, and yet I’d get this imaginary whiff of stale beer in the carpet on the dressing room, I was so steeped in that vibe because I was an entertainer in bars. So for Closing Time to be the calling card for the band? I like it because it speaks to a huge stretch of my adult life and I enjoyed being an entertainer in bars. And there's nothing cringey about Closing Time, it doesn’t bum me out in any way, which makes me happy!”
Some artists do get fed up with their signature anthem…
“Here's the thing, I think Semisonic got lucky with our hits, because [often] hits have to be a little simpler, have some kind of everydayness, and maybe some silliness, but all the songs that we have that that did really well still, to me, they speak truly and sound like us and my point of view – they don't sound like me trying to trying to write a hit, that's for sure.”
You're Not Alone is out now via Pleasuresonic Recordings/Megaforce Records
Subscribers can read Dan Wilson's recent Aftershow feature here.