Singer-songwriter Dan Wilson enjoys sharing the stories behind his songs so much that the former Semisonic frontman crafted a show to do just that: “Words & Music by Dan Wilson,” which he brings to a sold-out Cafe 939 on Friday.
“It’s still mostly music, but I allow myself a little extra time to spin some yarns,” he says. Wilson certainly has some yarns to spin: not only about his own songs, but also the dozens he’s co-written with other artists across multiple genres, including big hits such as “Not Ready to Make Nice” with the Dixie Chicks, “Someone Like You” with Adele, and “Home” with Dierks Bentley.
Wilson, who released the splendid solo effort “Love Without Fear” in 2014, is currently at work on an album he’s tentatively calling “Re-Covered,” in which he will record some of the songs he’s written with other artists. In addition to his performance, Wilson will participate in a free master class and Q&A at the venue at 2 p.m. We caught up with the Minneapolis native by phone recently from Los Angeles.
Q. During the tour for your first solo album, “Free Life,” you broke down how you wrote the Semisonic hit “Closing Time.” Was that the seed for “Words & Music”?
A. It was partly that. But funnily, even in full-on Semisonic days I used to talk a lot on the stage, and I noticed over time that when John Munson would start making a thumping sound on his bass with his hand and Jacob Slichter would start rolling on his snare drum a little bit, I would start to sense that maybe I had gone on too long. (Laughs.) But the real way it started actually was two things. One was I get so much e-mail from people asking me how to be a better songwriter, how can they do what I do, are there any paths that would make their music career easier? And two, a lot of people ask me about where songs came from, or what was it like working with so-and-so. I had started to do smaller gigs that were not quite question-and-answer, but me talking about what I believe in musically and why I think songwriting is important. And then I did one particularly loquacious show and it kind of tipped. I started to try and make it something that I could formally get good at. It turns out that you can’t just ramble for hours. (Laughs). You have to have a road map.
Q. Strictly in songwriter mode, you’ve worked with a wide array of people, from Josh Groban to John Legend to Carole King to Spoon to Taylor Swift. Are people just calling out of the blue now? If Iron Maiden calls, are you game?
A. Yeah, actually. It’s funny, when I first got into making records, I was very aware in my own listening that it was important for an artist to have a particular point of view, a specific sound in mind, a mission. And I would try to do that with my records. I’d get it done, and I’d feel like it was a very specific, unified listening experience, and then everyone would say, “Oh this is so eclectic!” And that wasn’t my intention at all and it almost sounds like an insult to me. But over time I’ve embraced that, once I realized that if you stripped away the sonic tribal identifiers, it’s sometimes hard to tell which style of a song you’re even talking about. When I was 18 or so I saw an Elvis Costello concert where he recast all of his song as horn jams, even the ones where the record had no horns. And I was thunderstruck, because I realized you could take songs and rethink them and put them into different settings and they wouldn’t be any worse. If I’m writing a song with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, maybe I get to use a diminished chord here or there, but it’s not that far removed from writing something with Taylor Swift or My Morning Jacket or John Legend or Pink. If you really boil it down to the essentials, it’s really about brilliant lyrical ideas and the way the melody dances with the lyrics. I think a lot of the artists I just listed could sing each other’s songs in their own style and they’d be great, because there’s something about the bare abstraction about a great song that I love a lot.
Q. Who are your dream co-writers?
A. Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello. I don’t think Joni Mitchell is in the cards.
Q. You still perform but on a level that’s more intimate than that of many of the people with whom you write. Can that be difficult to reconcile?
A. It’s funny: In modern middle-class life, people always talk about finding a balance, and there ain’t no balance, that’s just a fact. And for me, it’s like these competing passions. Really early on, I had this notion of songwriting being a separate thing to do from performing. I love performing but, strangely, I mostly love performing as a way to bond with people over the songs. I don’t really love performing as a way to be famous. I don’t live for the roar of the crowd and the adulation that some people live for. But I do get a huge amount of inspiration and nourishment from playing my songs live for people. I sometimes talk to professional songwriters who have never done a show and I find it incredibly perplexing. I can’t even picture that. What does that even mean? If you write a great song and you never perform it for an audience does it even exist?