The Grammy-winning songwriter and lead vocalist for Semisonic has just ordered a triple espresso at Spyhouse on Nicollet and claimed a booth in the back. He reminisces about frequenting the coffeeshop when smoking was allowed indoors; now, all he can do is appreciate the aroma of cigarettes wafting in through the open windows.
Not that Wilson spends as much time around here as he used to. He lives in Los Angeles, where he writes songs with superstars like John Legend and Taylor Swift. Adele’s huge hit “Somebody Like You” is partly his work. Wilson’s new solo album, Re-Covered, is a collection of those collaborations, recorded with his voice and fresh instrumental arrangements, and he’s back in Minnesota to share the revamped tunes at the Fitzgerald Theater on Friday.
Though Wilson’s feathery, strawberry blond hair and sideburns are beginning to gray, he’s energetic for a 56-year-old. His skin is California tan, his frame gangly. A thin beaded necklace rests above his collarbones. He peers through black-rimmed glasses with an intense, unwavering gaze. He pauses thoughtfully before answering each question with media-savvy confidence.
Re-Covered could be a risky prospect given that on his own, Wilson hasn’t exactly made chart-soaring singles—though he is quick to point out that Semisonic’s “Closing Time” became a “ubiquitous touchstone” and “Secret Smile” was an “inescapable” song in Europe and parts of Asia. Still, if his name is known outside of Minnesota, it’s more likely due to other artists’ hits than his own, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother him.
“I like that I’m helping someone else have a giant song,” he says. “I know people that write songs and they’re sad that they gave them away and let somebody else sing them, and I could never understand it.”
Wilson came up in bands where songs were just as likely to be written during rehearsal or soundcheck as they were to be written alone, and he’s never felt any preciousness about the process. “If you’re a songwriter, you’re not going to go for too long before a song happens to you almost as though it just fell from the sky-—and quite often, those are going to be your best songs,” he says. “You might even have a career where the best things you ever do are things that just seem to fall from the sky. Then you might get a different attitude about who gets the credit for what you’ve done.”
That doesn’t mean the process always feels magical. “It’s a lot of laying bricks,” he admits. “I’m a really picky person and I’m not always easy to work with and I demand a lot from people and I can be blunt sometimes with people, but it’s not intentionally mean.”
Wilson says he demands honesty from his collaborators. “Things can be truthful and resentful or truthful and angry or truthful and vengeful. I find those all to be fine. But if it sounds like resentful and vengeful and it’s also made-up, I just can’t like that,” he says. “I feel like part of my role in a writing session is to say, ‘This isn’t striking me as that true or real—is there a way we can ground this in reality more or can we base this on somebody that we know so that this doesn’t feel so pointlessly negative?’”
Here’s how Wilson describes the songwriting process: Two musicians with guitars go into a room where gold records adorn the walls. A fax machine and a printer hum. Screen savers undulate on computer monitors. Small talk and minor ego-stroking ensue. Then one of the songwriters says, “What should we write a song about? What’s going on?” and the other will say, “Well, I just filed for divorce and found out that I have terminal cancer.”
“They go all the way to whatever it might be that’s paramount in their life,” Wilson says. “It would be a very uncomfortable business or artistic practice to be a songwriter if you had any normal set of boundaries about your life. You need to be transparent as a person and willing to spill your guts in a way that most people would find uncomfortable and awkward and painful but we don’t.”
Wilson calls this “The Nashville Way,” which he learned in 2000 while studying songwriting in that city, an experience he compares to wizard school: “You get the lore and you get the methods and you hang with people who are better than you.” It was there that he learned a form of songwriting consisting of an instrument, a voice, and a song, with no expectation of how it will be recorded or released. It’s a philosophy that came into play during the recording of Re-Covered.
“As a writer, he really trusts the first idea,” says Mike Viola, the album’s producer. “It’s miraculous how he does that.” When Wilson asked him to work on the album, Viola insisted on the following conditions: a trusted group of talented musicians, a week-long stint at United Studios in Los Angeles, and recording live to tape so the final product couldn’t be messed with. This lent continuity to a disparate batch of songs written in different times, places, and for diverse voices.
“We didn’t want to make something that was a big commercial vehicle for him,” Viola says. “This is a quieter record.”
The beauty of Re-Covered is that even if you’re not a Josh Groban or a Leann Rimes fan, you might dig Wilson’s versions of their songs. While Wilson claims his voice “isn’t good at righteous indignation and it’s not necessarily the voice I would go to for super-seductive sexiness,” there are songs that fit both those categories on the album: the Dixie Chicks hit “Not Ready to Make Nice” and the Taylor Swift collaboration “Treacherous.” When called on this, Wilson smiles and says, “I had to stretch a little bit.”
The last of the 13 tracks on Re-Covered is “Closing Time.” After almost 20 years, isn’t Wilson sick of it? “I do know people who feel haunted and kind of burdened by their hits, but that sounds ridiculous to me,” he says.
If you’re looking for dirty secrets or petty complaints, you won’t find them in conversation with Wilson, a longtime married father of two. “I have a very skewed version of what life is because I’ve been so lucky,” he says. “I have a healthy ego but I don’t have a sense of credit for my good fortune.”
As for his professional aspirations, he does still have a few big names he’d love to collaborate with: Patti Griffin, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello.
“I’m in an unusual position with my bucket list of songwriters,” he says. “Because I keep crossing them off.”
Words & Music by Dan Wilson
With: Her Crooked Heart
Where: Fitzgerald Theater
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Sept. 22
Tickets: $45.50-$50.50; more info here