Free at Last
Dan Wilson is not the type to ignore a parent's advice. "My mother once told me, long ago, never to hurry in public," he says apologetically. He's at the airport, catching a flight out of San Francisco, and has to cut short our phone conversation if he doesn't want to find himself making an unsuitable, motherly advice-defying dash for the gate.
Most of America boasts of busyness, using hustle and tension as accessories that say, "Here is a Life Lived Fully!" Wilson—of Trip Shakespeare, of Semisonic, of the stage that held the Dixie Chicks last February as they accepted a "Song of the Year" Grammy for the Wilson-cowritten "Not Ready to Make Nice"—does not buy into this. He still lives in Minnesota. He recently endured a 54,000-year wait for his solo debut album's release. And he uses the title cut of that record, Free Life, to ask, "Whatcha gonna spend your free life on?," reminding us all that it's too important a decision to be made by merely falling in with national habit.
Wilson has chosen to spend his free life making perfect pop songs—gorgeous four-minute expressions that often start out steeped in melancholy before shifting into more exuberant gears at the chorus. And for this record, hirsute superproducer Rick Rubin—the man who taught Rivers Cuomo to meditate—served as Wilson's mentor.
"[Rubin's] notes are really interesting, because they're either really specific or very open-ended," Wilson reflects when I call him back later that night. "One of the best ones was about the song 'Cry.' He said, 'The chorus needs a very small-sounding shaker. Try a sugar packet from a restaurant.' I tried the sugar packet, but it sounded too big, and being the kind of person who takes things too far, I took 6 or 7 coriander seeds and folded them into a piece of paper and used that."
While Wilson says he learned a lot about "the craft of songwriting" from Rubin, his commitment to Rubin's American Recordings imprint ended up prolonging the record-making process. The last Semisonic album, All About Chemistry, came out in 2001. Wilson started writing the tracks for Free Life "in 2002, and recorded a few of them near the end of that year, and a few of them in 2003. Rick Rubin heard a few of those rough mixes and called me.... We worked on various tracks through 2003, and mixed it at the end of 2004. Then his label started moving from Universal to Warner, and I basically agreed to wait...and a year after that, he told me he was going to move from Warner to Columbia, and asked me if I was willing to wait for that to happen."
Wilson said yes, of course, but one can guess that seeing six years pass between releases must have been a bit heartbreaking. "Near the end of this project I was really wondering, 'Is it ever going to come out?'" he admits.
But as his own work sat on the back burner, Wilson became a songsmith-for-hire. "I did more and more writing for other people's records; I turned myself into a really helpful person." This doesn't seem so tragic a path, once you realize it ends at the Grammys. He wound up with co-author credits for six of the songs on Taking the Long Way Home, the Dixie Chicks' Album of the Year-winning record.
Wilson is now in even more demand as a collaborator, but he and his family remain firmly planted in Minnesota. "Once a musician moves to L.A., it's very easy to be utterly defined by your music and your success," he warns. "As a human being, you start to define yourself and your self-worth by how hot your stock price is."
I suspect Wilson of being chronically level-headed, but he says otherwise.
"I can imagine bounding up and down like a yo-yo in L.A.," he says. "I really love Minneapolis. I feel like I benefited enormously from the music. I was able to see the Replacements here, I was able to see the Suburbs here, I had all these influences from Prince to the Twin/Tone bands—it was such an incredible place to come up as a musician."
While many national recording artists are willing to fly in to work with him, Wilson has reached out to the local scene as well. "I was not in touch with what people were doing," he says. "Then maybe a year and a half ago I decided I was gonna go out and see people make music." One of his discoveries was lo-fi songwriter Jeremy Messersmith. "I saw [Messersmith] at a show, I introduced myself afterwards—I was so blown away by the songs. Basically, I said, 'Is there anything I can do?'"
He also produced an album for folk duo Storyhill. The first time he saw them, he says, "They made me cry like three or four times during a gig. I was a little shocked. Then I went again, to see if it was just a fluke, and they completely moved me with their songs."
Despite his mastery of his art—Free Life is rich with beautiful longing, and light with soaring heart—he remains mystified by the creative process. "If I sit down at the piano or guitar [intending] to write a song, I think, 'I can't do this, how could I possibly do this?'" he says. "But if I sneak up on it, it comes like an explosion."
DAN WILSON performs at CD-release parties on TUESDAY, OCTOBER 16, and WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 17, at Bryant-Lake Bowl; 612.825.8949
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