If it’s true that there are no second acts in American life, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once suggested, then singer-songwriter Dan Wilson never got the memo.
Two decades after his success as the leader of Semisonic, the popular ’90s pop-rock band, Wilson has found even more fortune and regard as a Grammy-winning songwriter of some of the biggest pop hits of the last decade. His long resume features “Someone Like You” by Adele, “Treacherous” from Taylor Swift, the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and Chris Stapleton’s “When the Stars Come Out,” all of which he co-wrote.
The go-to songwriter for a wide array of artists, from John Legend to Weezer to Nas, has not entirely disappeared behind the scenes, though. When he hasn’t been crafting chart-toppers, Wilson has carved out a solid career as a solo artist with two critically acclaimed albums. On Friday, he’ll perform some of his songs and tell the stories behind them at the Red Room at Café 939 in Boston.
For his recently released third studio record, “Re-Covered,” Wilson reinterpreted some of the more memorable songs he wrote with and for others (an acoustic take of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” is also included).
The collection, produced by Mike Viola with a light touch, is a sterling showcase for Wilson’s superb songcraft, accentuating his keen melodic sensibility and emotionally true lyrics. While the indelible hits are here — a highlight is a more melancholy take on “Someone Like You,” augmented by the Kronos Quartet — Wilson also reclaims less familiar songs.
“I’ve always believed great songs should be portable, open to interpretation, and re-interpretable,” the amiable and thoughtful Wilson says via phone from Los Angeles. “In making the record, nothing had to do with me fixing what was broken or getting a second shot. In fact, I loved the original versions so much, I found recording them intimidating. During the process at times, I thought I’d taken on a crazy task.”
He says he understood how difficult it would be to reinterpret some songs that are now permanently ingrained in the collective pop consciousness. “I felt like the biggest challenge was to not imitate the original singers. These are people I know and admire. In some strange way, it would have been easy for me to just cop their phrasing and just do what they had done. But I really liked the idea of making it a sonic statement while finding my own way into the songs.”
On Viola’s advice, Wilson decided to record the album live to 2-inch tape with a stellar group of musicians (including drummer Pete Thomas) in a compressed period. “We ended up doing it in two weeks. The idea was to do it fast and furious instead of tinkering over months and months. It gave the songs the kind of immediacy I prefer.”
Wilson’s success as a songwriter-for-hire should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the Minneapolis native’s past work with the psychedelic pop group Trip Shakespeare and the much-lauded Semisonic.
Even though he was already an accomplished songwriter in the ’90s, Wilson says he still had a lot to learn. It took a writing session with Carole King during the end of Semisonic’s run to help him master his craft.
“That was a turning point for me, a transitional moment. I came up in a very DIY atmosphere in Minneapolis. Punk rock had ruled before us and the next thing was a post-punk kind of wave and then Prince. It was all so do it yourself.
He hesitates before explaining some of the unwritten rules of songwriting that had eluded him previously. “If your partner doesn’t like something, just pump out a different idea. Be lightly attached to your idea. Listen, tell stories. Don’t fight for an idea.
“What Carole did with me was second nature to her, but it was a whole new world for me. I’d walked into a temple of songwriting and saw how the priests and priestesses actually did it.”
In the hardcover book accompanying the deluxe version of “Re-Covered,” Wilson, a Harvard University graduate, offers behind-the-scenes stories of many of the songs on the album. He writes that “Someone Like You” came quickly in his sessions with Adele for the album “21,” and she ended up using their initial piano-voice demo.
He laughs and says magic like that rarely happens. He says collaborating with other artists is a delicate process, often involving much more than writing notes and lyrics. “I end up focusing on the interpersonal elements, getting lunch and getting to know the person. A lot of times artists have wild notions about life or what it means to be an artist.
“It often can be so interesting to hear people go off about their pet theories or philosophies. I’m often very comfortable with that taking up the bulk of the time. I’m OK with that because it’s better than just sitting down and churning something uninspired out. My measure of whether it went well is saying, ‘OK that was so fun’ instead of ‘I think we have a smash here.’ That sometimes seems a secondary consideration.”
The 56-year-old has been writing with a mix of artists over the past year, including Leon Bridges, Bishop Briggs, Brett Dennen, and Halsey, among others. No doubt a hit will emerge out of those sessions, but he admits he’s not always the best judge of what will capture the public’s fancy.
“I don’t have a meter for that, which I shouldn’t admit given what I do. But after I finish a song with someone or by myself, if I get this urge to play for someone or send someone an MP3, or if I have this powerful impulse for others to hear it, then it must be a pretty good song. That doesn’t mean it will be a smash, but it means it’s probably pretty special.”
At the Red Room at Café 939, Berklee College of Music, Boston, Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets $22, 617-747-6038, www.cafe939.comKen Capobianco can be reached at email@example.com.