Minneapolis band Semisonic are quintessential one-hit wonders. Their 1998 song "Closing Time" cracked the top ten, and lives on through movies and TV, and everyone seems to know the words when it plays. The group never topped the song; never really came very close, in fact. But the act's lead singer Dan Wilson didn't just disappear and get a job in construction; now living in the Hollywood Hills, he's found new life as a behind-the-scenes hitmaker.
He's collaborated with everyone from Katy Perry to Keith Urban, and won the 2007 Song of the Year Grammy for co-writing the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice." This year he's again nominated again co-writing Adele's "Someone Like You." In fact, he seems to prefer things this way, helping other artists find the missing piece in their music. "I would rather feel like I am a big, giant magnifying glass and I am sort of magnifying what the artist already has," he says. "I am trying to figure out how to make the song feel more personal, more close up, and more vulnerable--or at least emotional."
He says he felt confined and censored as the lead singer of Semisonic.
"The record company would try to make sure that the band didn't talk about certain things or didn't speak in certain ways."
With Adele, however, it came easily. "She had at least the first four lines when we already got together," he explains. "While we worked on it together, what became more clear was this idea that it is about somebody who, years had gone by and she still couldn't let go of this love that she felt. She was still going to be ringing his doorbell and be bothering him years later. I think that is the darkest and saddest part of the song."
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The track features just a haunting piano and Adele's soulful voice; in fact, it was never meant to be released, only recorded as a demo meant only to inspire the next phase in the process. "Whenever I work on a demo I try to just make it as beautiful a piece of music as I can," he says. "With 'Someone Like You,' I guess we did it so well that Adele just decided to use that recording on her album."
It wasn't always this easy, and Wilson remembers how difficult it was starting out as a collaborative songwriter, even after his success with Semisonic. "It was funny," he says, "because for a while I asked everyone in Minneapolis--"Closing Time" was already out, we were already big and we were doing really well--and I kept asking all these people, 'do you want to write a song with me?' and they kept saying no. They kept turning me down. And I wasn't sure why." Finally, he was given an opportunity to collaborate with one of his childhood idols, Carole King. It went well, inspiring his confidence.
He's also worked as a visual artist, something which is close to his heart as well. "Visual art is really for decorating castles," he explains. "If you are a successful artist you make one painting and sell it for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and one rich family is going to look at it every day. If you're a musician and you make something beautiful, then hundreds of thousands of people are going to buy it for a dollar and they are going to listen to it every day."
The choice was clear. "In the end, that seems more appealing to me than decorating museums and castles. Music is much more for the people and for everyday life and it's for a much broader audience, and it can have a really good affect of people's lives."