Interview with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson

Hey FFTB family,
Big time interview today!  For this episode of the interview series we have Dan Wilson.  Dan Wilson is a Grammy-winning songwriter and producer.  He’s the front man of Semisonic, writes songs for little artists such as the Dixie Chicks, Adele, Josh Groban.  Go to Dan’s Website and then go listen to the Dixie Chicks “Taking the Long Way” which only one the album of the year in 2006.
FFTB: Does Semisonic have any plans to record in the future?

Dan: I’m not sure what Semisonic is going to release, but I’ve got a batch of songs that I think could make a great Semisonic album. I’d be really happy if we could make a record, or at least some tracks to release in some way. We’ve done sessions of various kinds together over the past few years and some of it sure sounds like Semisonic. I know that’s not quite an answer, but from the start the band was based
on doing music when it felt right, so that’s how we do it.

FFTB: What are your non-musical influences?

Dan: I am very influenced by the values of my family. My parents were devoted to me and my brother and sister.We always knew they were there for us, and although I didn’t like it at the time, they were pretty strict about household rules and a code of conduct outside the house. My siblings and I got in trouble with them a lot, put it that way, but we ended up okay.

Also, they put in a lot of time fostering an artistic and creative life for us. My parents forced me to take piano lessons for years even though I complained and tried to give them up. I’m so glad they prevailed. My mother in particular was constantly doing little creative projects with my siblings and I when we were growing up.

Two other big non-musical influences on me are visual art and neuroscience. I studied art in college, and was convinced for a long time that I was going to be a painter, rather than a musician. My visual art studies were both art history, and the classic, practical art school approach to making art. This approach focusses on the
basics of art, like figure drawing, color theory, etc. But more importantly, in art school you learn ways to create and keep inspiration. So where lots of songwriters have to wait for inspiration to come to them, I have my art-school training which takes the mystery out of inspiration and makes it available from day to day.

My interest in neuroscience leads me to read a lot of amazing books, from more technical brain studies books like “Phantoms in the Brain,” by VS Ramachandran, to more spiritual works like “The Snow Leopard,” by Peter Mathiesson. I’m convinced that science and spirituality are on a wonderful collision course, and that in a hundred years, the “opposition” of religion and science will seem like a relic of a lost
time.

FFTB: Think of the last song your wrote; what were the steps taken to complete that song?

Dan: The last song I finished is called, “Too Much.” I recorded it recently and it’ll probably appear on my next album. I thought of the melody about three years ago, but I forgot all about it for a long time. I would play the melody on the piano over and over, not being able to think of words for it. The “step” I took to finish the song was to realize that the piano melody was too symmetrical and classical-sounging for voice. That melody was only for the piano, and once I realized that I decided to write a different vocal melody and lyrics to intertwine with the piano melody. I’m really happy with how it turned out.

FFTB: Is it better to be great at 1 instrument or decent at many?

Dan: I’m decent at many instruments and it’s worked fine for me. The secret is maybe to use your limitations to your own advantage. My piano playing is very simple, but I’ve learned how to create almost a sense of breathing and emotion for a song using just a few simple chords.

Semisonic recently played a few gigs in Minneapolis and Denver, and I was amazed at how easy my guitar parts are to play! That was a good reminder to me – you don’t need to do anything particularly fancy to make something great.

FFTB: As a band with a distinct lyrical style, do you use lyrics to write music, or music with lyrics to follow?

Dan: I usually need to have the lyrics and melody come at the same time. If the melody is too “finished” sounding, I can never squeeze words into it. On the other hand, if I have just a few good lines of lyrics for a melody, then I have a way in, a key to the song. Once I have those couple of lines I’m always confident I can come up with more.

FFTB: What is the primary instrument you use to write music with?

Dan: Piano and acoustic guitar. Sometimes no instrument, walking down the street or driving.

FFTB:  How do you approach playing songs live when the recording have extra tracks?

Dan: I like to treat the live performance as a different animal than the recording. It’s nice when the live version can seem like the recording, but I’ve decided you don’t need to include everything from the record to make a great live version. That makes it fun to do very different versions, like when I play concerts with just Brad Gordon on piano and me on guitar. I can re-arrange my band songs and my solo
songs into a whole new vibe just for those shows.

FFTB: What guitar pedal(s) can’t you live without?

Dan: Z. Vex “Box of Rock” is by far my most used pedal. It’s a great way to make amps sound bigger and more rocking, but it’s subtle – it sounds like amp overdrive rather than pedal distortion. Z. Vex “Fuzz Factory” is really important for Semisonic shows – that pedal is the buzzy, fuzzy distortion on the guitar solo of “Closing Time,” and I love it.
MXR Super Comp (a Dyna Comp with one more knob) is really valuable in the studio, it makes clean sounds sound more bell-like and somehow cleaner. Those three for sure.

FFTB:  Who are your top three favorite songwriters?

Joni Mitchell, The Sherman Brothers, Paul McCartney.

FFTB: Any advice for young aspiring musicians and songwriters?

Songwriters: finish a lot of songs. A bad finished song is infinitely more valuable than ten great unfinished songs. Musicians and songwriters: play shows, lots of shows. Get your stuff out in front of people even before it’s ready. Just jump up onstage and play.

Musicians: make sure your songs are great, and do whatever it takes to have a great repertoire of songs. That, a great voice, and a great drummer are the factors that make or break bands. Drums are still key.

FFTB:  You write amazing catchy melodies and since I tend to favor melodic music, I’m wondering how you continue to find great melody lines as much of the music gets more and more experimental?

Dan: I have no idea how I continue to find melodies. I look for them a lot, maybe that’s the only thing you have to do, is look for them all the time.

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