You might not immediately know the name Dan Wilson, but you won’t have been able to escape his music. Especially if you’re among the one million people who bought a copy of the biggest selling UK single of 2011, the multi-award winning, record-breaking, tear-jerking, heart-shattering, mascara-dripping masterpiece called “Someone Like You”, one of three songs Wilson co-wrote with Adele for her invincible 21 album.
Or possibly you’ll recognise him in a late 90s flashback as lead singer of Semisonic and their UK hits “Closing Time” and “Secret Smile”. Or, more subtly perhaps, as a co-composer credit sitting modestly in the brackets on the inlays of recent albums by a diverse range of artists including Nas, Birdy and Paloma Faith to name only a few.
Having cemented his reputation as one of the most successful and in-demand songwriters of our time, in 2014 Wilson steps out of the backroom and back into the spotlight with a new solo album. As you’d expect from a man with his Grammy-winning pedigree, Love Without Fear carries the reassuring kite-mark of “classic songwriter” from start to finish. Eleven tracks traversing the spectrum of human relationships from the darkest blues of loss and heartache to the brightest reds of love and happiness, as carefully crafted as they are spontaneously touching. “I really wanted to make a record that felt singer-songwriter in its DNA,” says Dan. “I like things that are, basically, folk music with that Americana twang, but I’m too influenced by Broadway or urban pop sounds from the 60s to make a proper country-sounding record. With this album, I wanted to make something that sits at the intersection between twangy Americana and The Beatles.”
Born in Minneapolis, Dan spent his childhood “walking through the neighbourhood singing very loudly, imagining I was Elton John”. His parents both worked in medicine, though his father had once been in a doo-wop vocal group. “They made just one single but as a kid I used to play it in the house all the time.” By his teens, Dan was hanging out with Prince’s keyboard player, Dr Fink, and sneaking into local bars underage to soak up Minnesota’s burgeoning post-punk scene, a breeding ground for the likes of The Replacements and Husker Du. After studying printmaking at Harvard, for many years he balanced life as a travelling musician in his brother’s band, Trip Shakespeare, with a career as a visual artist, until committing himself to Semisonic, and due success.
“It was really exciting for Semisonic to be so strongly embraced by UK audiences,” reflects Dan. “Partly because so much of our favourite music comes from there, from Beatles to Led Zeppelin to Cat Stevens to Van Morrison to New Order to Elvis Costello to Radiohead to Oasis and on. I think there’s always been a strain of rock music in the UK which is way more emphatic about great lyrics, songs that have interesting and beautiful words, and that’s why Semisonic did better there than in the US.”
After ten years on the road, with the break-up of Semisonic Dan decided to dedicate time to his family and “teach myself how to be a songwriter for other people”. An immediate crash course masterclass came in the shape of one of his first co-writers – the legendary Carole King. “I was so nervous,” says Dan. “Carole King’s Tapestrywas my mom’s favourite album when I was a kid. So when I knew I was going to be working with her, the first thing I did was email my mom. She emailed straight back saying, ‘If you’re gonna work with Carole King, make sure next time you spell her first name properly with an ‘e’ on the end.’ But Carol was amazing. I couldn’t have had a better teacher.”
Love Without Fear is indebted to the same spirit of King’s Tapestry and the classic 70s singer-songwriter sound of Don McLean, James Taylor and Laurel Canyon country-rock. Dan began writing the album while still living in Minneapolis, spending a winter in deliberate isolation, barely seeing his family and eating lunch alone at the same café every day. “I tried to be like a monk or something,” he laughs. “So a lot of the songs are super lonely and sad, about losing somebody. And it was kismet that I was already writing this stuff when I took a break to go and write with Adele in LA. So when she showed me her idea for ‘Someone Like You’, I was already totally in that zone.”
After spending so many years writing with others, Dan found a strange yet effective new working method. “This sounds weird, but I had to learn how to write songs with myself,” he explains. “In my room I keep a pile of 3 x 5 inch note cards, the kind people keep recipes on. Over the years, whenever I have an idea for a lyric, or a title, I’ll write it on one of these cards and add it to the pile. A stack of unfinished, elemental ideas, maybe a hundred of them by now. I realised that as a co-writer, where my strength lies is finishing off other people’s songs. Like, they have the verse but can’t think of a chorus, which I’ll add. That’s easy second nature for me. So I decided to treat these note cards the same. I’d pick one up at random, read a sketch of an incomplete song and force myself to finish it. It was great fun, like having another person there to bounce off, even if I was writing with myself.”
As Dan intended, Love Without Fear takes the listener on a journey from dark to light. “The title says it all,” he notes, “it’s a phrase which has a little bit of shadow in it and a little bit of sun also. I started the album in Minneapolis but I finished it after moving to Los Angeles. So you can almost hear that transition, from the dark winter into the summer.” That lovelorn first winter brings us the power pop of “A Song Can Be About Anything”, the smooth 70s gold of “When It Pleases You”, the stunning baroque ballad “However Long” and the similarly fragile “Disappearing”. “I’m not good at creating characters,” says Dan. “Any song I write, I feel it has to be me talking. A lot of these songs, looking back, are about losing important people in my life. There are a few about my adopted daughter, who we had a pretty rocky road with for the first year. A lot of unexpected pain. Ultimately, it has to come from the heart.”
After the introspective act one, the sweet romance of “We Belong Together”, the soaring sentiment of “Your Brighter Days” and the brilliantly simple “I Can Never Stay Mad At You” conspire towards the album’s apt Hollywood ending. “I didn’t want it to be a total bummer,” laughs Dan. “Also, it was great to start a new life in Los Angeles and work with all the musician friends I’d made. They add a unique sound to this record. Hell, after the start of the record, eating lunch alone, it was nice to have some company!”
Says the man whose music has already touched millions. On Love Without Fear you’ll hear every reason why.
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