Dan Wilson can pretty much pinpoint the moment when his songwriter-for-hire aspirations fully aligned with reality. “One of my first co-writes was with Carole King, and that was obviously pretty affirming and made it seem like it was all going to work out,” says Wilson from his home in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley.
“One True Love,” his collaboration with King, found its way onto 2001’s All About Chemistry, the final album by Wilson’s insistently melodic ’90s band, Semisonic. He’s since gone on to pen tunes with a stunningly diverse list of artists that includes Mike Doughty, Weezer, Pink, Taylor Swift, My Morning Jacket, John Legend, LeAnn Rimes, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jason Mraz and Josh Groban. Most notably, he’s won a pair of Grammys for his work with the Dixie Chicks and Adele. He was also nominated for his work on Swift’s 2014 release, Red.
“For me, the impetus was having a lot of extra songs after finishing a record and wondering what people do about that,” says Wilson. “It was also about finding other ways to use all that excess musical energy. Then, it became about me being the über-helpful guy. Sometimes, my muse can be a hit-or-miss relationship, but that’s OK.”
On his third solo release, Re-Covered (Ballroom Music/Big Deal Media), Wilson puts his spin on 12 songs he wrote either for or with other artists, capping off the eclectic set with a spare, beautiful take on Semisonic’s Grammy-nominated hit “Closing Time.” A book-and-CD version of Re-Covered offers 56 pages of drawings, essays and lyrics, along with personal stories about each number.
A prime motivator behind the album was Wilson’s close friend Karen Glauber, president of Hits magazine. “I threw out Re-Covered as a possible title because of its many potential meanings,” says Glauber. “Dan is one of the few artists I know who seems to have full control and command of both sides of his brain. He’s one of the most brilliant and empathetic people I know, and his success as songwriter and collaborator is no fluke.”
With significant input from co-producer Mike Viola (Candy Butchers, Ryan Adams), Wilson began hashing out fresh arrangements of well-known songs like the Dixie Chicks’ “Home” and “Not Ready To Make Nice,” Swift’s “Treacherous” and Adele’s monster hit “Someone Like You”—his version featuring the Kronos Quartet. He also recruited keyboardist Daniel Clarke (k.d. lang, Ryan Adams), multi-instrumentalist Brad Gordon (Magnetic Fields, Butch Walker) and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas. Jake Sinclair (Weezer, Panic! At The Disco) engineered and played bass. “I put together an ‘obvious’ list—the songs that were well enough known that the record would have a kind of gravity,” says Wilson. “Then I went on a hunt for some songs I felt not enough people had heard—like Cory Chisel’s ‘Never Meant To Love You.’ Some of the things are full-on rock, but I also wanted to make sure there were some tracks that reflected that I do a lot of shows as a busker.”
Though Wilson has lived in California for seven years now, his cell phone still has its Minneapolis area code. It was there that he co-founded post-punk art-rock outfit Trip Shakespeare in the mid-’80s with bassist Jon Munson and Wilson’s younger brother, Matt. After the group struggled to emerge from the considerable shadow of edgier Twin City innovators like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, Wilson retained Munson and snatched up fellow Harvard grad Jacob Slichter to form Pleasure, later rebranded as Semisonic.
Hardly your typical one-hit wonder, Semisonic was embraced by critics and had a solid 10-year run. “For an ego-driven operation like a band, Jon, Jake and I got along great, but by the end of the Chemistry touring cycle, our lives were pulling us in different directions more than they had before,” Wilson says of the group’s amicable demise.
By then, Wilson was ready to take a break from the road, though he really had no choice. “I was contending with the fact that I had a child who’d spent a year in the hospital and had a long stretch with home nursing,” says Wilson of daughter Coco, who was born prematurely in 1997. “It was apparent I needed to stay home more.”
Of late, Wilson has achieved a nice balance of writing with others, releasing solo albums every few years and sporadically touring. All the better if a few more gold gramophones come his way in the process. “Musicians are very similar to one another in some ways,” says Wilson. “We’ve all spent endless boring hours on tour buses; everybody has been asked to do a show with a dancing bear; and everybody has been awakened at 5 a.m. to sing on the radio. There are so many shared experiences. You find that your tribal affinity is far greater than your differences.”