Semisonic’s Dan Wilson on Closing Time and a new album: ‘I’m just a really earnest person’ | Music

In 1998, the US rock band Semisonic released a song, Closing Time, that has barely left the airwaves since. A smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the song matched a peerless melody to a strikingly positive sentiment – one that posited the “last call” at a bar not as the end of something but as the start of a whole new life. After the song hit, a trio of other smart Semisonic singles cracked the British top 40. But less than three years after their initial success, the band decided to break up. “We always knew that the time would be right at one point for us to get back together,” said the band’s leader Dan Wilson. “But I can’t account for the fact that the right time turned out to be so much later than we thought.”

In fact, 22 years have elapsed between the last Semisonic album, All About Chemistry, and the new one, Little Bit of Sun, which will make its debut Friday. A key part of the great delay had to do with what’s been on Wilson’s plate in the time between. Over the last two decades, he has emerged as one of the most successful, and least likely, songwriting and producing collaborators in modern pop. Though significantly older than many of the stars he has worked with, the now 62-year-old Wilson has scored hits with artists as hot as Taylor Swift (on songs like Treacherous), the Dixie Chicks (with their biggest chart-makers, including Not Ready to Make Nice) and Adele (for her ultimate bravura number, Someone Like You). The list of artists Wilson has worked with is staggering in number – at well over 100 so far – as well as in scope, from Nas to Josh Groban to Chris Stapleton. “I feel lucky and definitely surprised that it has worked out so well for me,” he said.

It wasn’t just his success as a collaborator that kept Wilson away from Semisonic for so long. Another factor was the disparity between writing with others and writing for the band. “I didn’t have an easy time remembering how to write a Semisonic song,” Wilson said. “I was getting deeper and deeper into being a facilitator for other artists’ dreams and lost track of that guy, Dan.”

At the same time, the need to get away from his former identity, as a hyper-driven front man of a hot rock band, was a main motivator for the group’s breakup all those years ago. He, and the other members – bassist John Munson and drummer Jacob Slichter – felt burnt out after eight years on the road. Another important factor concerned the birth of Wilson’s first child, who has major disabilities requiring significant attention.

While the band leader said there wasn’t much friction or disagreement over the decision to split, he, as their main songwriter, had a major advantage over the others in finding new work opportunities. In fact, Wilson had already road-tested his skills as a writing collaborator while the band was still going. His first outside job was writing with the New Zealand artist Bic Runga back in 1999. Then, on Semisonic’s 2001 album, All About Chemistry, he had the opportunity to write a song with an absolute master of the form – Carole King – for the song One True Love. King had heard Closing Time and was impressed enough to seek Wilson out, a dream job for him since she had been his songwriting role model since childhood. “My parents used to play Tapestry all the time,” he said. “Once I discovered that Carole King had written all of these songs for other artists, I had it in my mind that this could be a thing I could do.”

He began to realize that dream in the 1980s, when he was in his twenties. At the time, there was a major rock scene building in his home city of Minneapolis, featuring bands like The Replacements, Soul Asylum and Husker Du. Wilson joined that scene with his first significant group Trip Shakespeare, who put out four albums starting in 1986. He formed Semisonic in 1995, along with John Munson, who was also part of the earlier band. Though Wilson wrote the vast majority of the band’s songs, in a rare move he elected to split the royalties evenly with the other members. “I wanted to be recognized for writing those songs,” he said, “but I didn’t think it was fair for me to get all the money.”

That decision likely helped the group members maintain their friendship after their split. (In the intervening years, Muson played with a variety of lower profile bands, while Schlicter became a college professor and wrote a book about the music industry, titled So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘n Roll Star.) Still, every few years the other members would ask Wilson if he could come up with new Semisonic songs. Thirteen years ago, he tried to but, it turned out: “The songs I wrote just didn’t sound good. None of us got excited.”

Periodically, the band would reunite for one-off concerts, but only three years ago was Wilson able to create new pieces that truly suited the band’s character. The result was a five-song EP in 2020 titled You’re Not Alone, setting the scene for a full album. Musically, the new songs conform to the band’s original power pop sound, while lyrically they reflect the passing of time by focusing on appreciation, a clear reflection of the members’ ages. The lyrics also acknowledge the musicians’ deep connection with each other, especially in the song If You Say So, which posits our oldest friends as our best witnesses. There’s a bit of nostalgia in the song Grow Your Own, which covers the band’s early days, while referencing some encouraging words they received from other musicians, including someone identified as “the bassist from ‘Til Tuesday”. That was Wilson’s cheeky way of alluding to Aimee Mann, a description he thought would amuse her. The song also includes the line “I never believed it was dead and gone,” which refers to their chosen genre of rock. “The last couple of years have been very interesting in that regard,” Wilson said. “Olivia Rodrigo’s new album is a rock record. So are the ones by Boygenius and Chris Stapleton. Rock seems like this zombie that won’t go away.”

At the same time, the version of rock that Wilson plays with Semisonic taps little of the genre’s potential for brutality or cataclysm. Instead, it stresses its more sensitive side, as do nearly all of his collaborations. There’s a depth of empathy in Wilson’s songs that may help explain why many of his greatest successes have come when writing with female artists. “Very few of my musical expressions have a strongly masculine flavor,” he said.

Likewise, few of his songs dwell long in the dark, and never do they go for the snarky. “I’m just a really earnest person,” Wilson said. “When I was in college, my friends would call me ‘Mr Literal’ because when people would say sarcastic things, I would think they were being sincere. I was tone-deaf to factiousness or cynicism.”

At the same time, he’s able to infuse his wide-eyed view with a wise perspective. He’s in rare company in that regard, sharing that ability with other smart positivists like Ron Sexsmith and Taylor Goldsmith, of Dawes. Writers of that stripe have to walk a fine line to make sure they don’t fall into corniness or cliche, something Wilson is well aware of. “I once had a funny exchange with Rivers Cuomo [of Weezer],” he said. “I don’t remember who said what to whom, but we were working on an idea and one of us said to the other: ‘I’m not sure if this is cheesy or not.’ The other said: “You’re asking the wrong person, because I think my cheese meter is broken.’ Then the other person said: ‘I don’t even have a cheese meter.’”

Clearly, Wilson did have one when he wrote a song like Closing Time, which finely balances two tones. “It’s both melancholy and triumphant,” Wilson said. “To me, that’s a magical balance. I’m always looking for something like that – something that just sounds true.”

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