Dan Wilson is loving California but feeling Minnesotan as his old band Semisonic returns
The twinkling lights of the San Fernando Valley made up for the smog-shrouded stars as Dan Wilson and his daughter Coco ushered a Minnesota guest out to their patio to show off their hillside home’s quintessential Southern California view.
“You could see the wildfires up that way last year,” Wilson said with a nonchalant flatness he once might’ve used to point to a 10-foot snowdrift near his old house in Minneapolis.
It’s been nearly a decade since one of Minnesota’s most decorated songwriters shoved off for the Los Angeles area. From the looks of our visit in late April, he and his family have long since settled in.
Dan’s wife, Diane Wilson, who works as a consultant for nonprofits and arts groups, had just returned home from soccer practice with their youngest daughter, Lily, around the same time Dad wrapped up a writing and demo session at a nearby North Hollywood studio with members of Phantogram.
Just as Coco was happy to point out the view from their Spanish Colonial-style house, Dan was eager to show off his cozy, living-room-like home studio — and the new songs he recorded there with his old band from Minnesota, Semisonic.
“It took us so long to finally make another record,” the 58-year-old tunesmith said as he plugged a new iPhone into his vintage recording console to preview the material.
“Now that it’s done we can’t wait for people to hear it. It’s actually driving us a little bit crazy waiting.”
The album’s release got put off until next year for reasons Wilson explained in diplomatic L.A. music-biz speak as “outside circumstances, but not unpleasant ones.”
Ironically, Wilson’s new surroundings may have helped his old band find its mojo again.
Granted, moving West did become another geographical hindrance to Semisonic finally ramping up again. It’s literally a cross-continent band now, with drummer Jacob Slichter in New York and bassist John Munson holding things down here in the middle.
What’s more, Wilson has become even more in demand as a songwriting and production collaborator. He moved just before his Adele collaboration “Someone Like You” became the biggest single of 2011.
Since then, his writing partners have included Weezer, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Halsey, Leon Bridges, Josh Groban, Spoon and Cold War Kids, plus he worked again with the Dixie Chicks (who brought him his first Grammy for “Not Ready to Make Nice” in 2007) and Dierks Bentley.
He’s been as prolific as ever as a solo artist, too — though you might not know it if you’re still an old-school music fan who waits around for albums.
“I fell in love with the idea of just letting songs out into the world when they happen,” he said, referring to the almost monthly series of singles he has released via Spotify and other streaming sites over the past year.
The series has ranged from last month’s sweetly pragmatic marriage ode, “A Modest Proposal,” to the snow-missing holiday ballad “Christmassy” and the U2-ish L.A. scene-setter “Uncanny Valley.” The latter two tunes show a clear California influence in Wilson’s lyrics, which he said was a long time coming.
“I was actually kind of disappointed in myself, like, ‘You’re supposed to write different songs out here in L.A.,’ but it didn’t happen,” he said. “What I realized was L.A. wasn’t going to change my style, it was just changing my life on the whole, and that shows in the lyrics.”
Another example of that transformation came in the song “California Kids” from Weezer’s 2016 “White Album.”
“Rivers Cuomo and I wrote that one about how each of us is not from L.A., but our kids are from L.A.,” Wilson said. “Kind of a startling notion.”
AN OASIS-DRIVEN FLOOD
It was after an otherwise unrequited 2017 meeting with another big-name rocker, ex-Oasis singer Liam Gallagher, when Wilson said the dam finally broke and Semisonic songs started pouring out of him.
“For a long time, I just couldn’t think up songs that sounded like Semisonic to me,” he explained, settling onto the couch opposite the baby-grand piano in his studio.
“It was not for lack of desire. I’ve had this long ritual where a couple times a year I would sit down with an electric guitar and see if I could write a Semisonic song. And it just really eluded me for a long time.”
Wilson and Gallagher shared bragging rights for bringing Beatles-heavy, melodic guitar-rock back to the FM radio in the mid-’90s after the burst of grunge, punk and metallic bands. “I admire him so much, and we had a really nice talk,” Wilson said. In the end, though, they didn’t wind up working together.
“I set out to write some Liam Gallagher songs, but I totally accidentally wrote some Semisonic songs instead,” Wilson explained — or tried to, anyway.
“Something about it just put me in the right mood. It opened the door. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, now I remember how to do this.’?”
Soon thereafter, Munson and Slichter spent a week in Los Angeles and recorded most of their new material right there at Wilson’s house, a process that the bassist described as “just super-comfortable.”
“Not only does Dan have a very nice setup to work in there,” Munson recounted earlier this week, “but we also got to be at the house and reconnect with Diane and their beautiful daughters, and reinforce that family bond between us.”
As for the recording sessions, Munson said simply, “For better or worse, we were always a band that didn’t get too precious or overthink things. We mostly went with our initial instincts. And that’s still how we roll.”
Even more than the trio’s songs that cut through the trendier sounds of the late ’90s, the three new tunes Wilson previewed in his home that night sounded timeless and youthfully earnest. They were unmistakably Semisonic, but if a band of tight-jeaned 20-year-olds from the U.K. or Australia dropped these tracks next year, the music industry would freak out over them.
The anthemic rocker “Basement Tapes” doesn’t just boast a classic Semisonic sound, but it also harks back to the band’s early days lyrically. “You’re Not Alone” — which the trio debuted live last weekend in Milwaukee — had more of paisley-pop hue and a guitar riff reminiscent of “F.N.T.” And then there was “All It Would Take,” which started out soft on piano and built into a hard, crescendoing guitar whir; yes, like “Closing Time” but maybe even better.
Even after going so long between records — the band actually never broke up and still performed sporadically, mostly in Minnesota — Wilson said the recording sessions came surprisingly easy once the songs were written.
“It was a very happy reminder of what a great collaborative team we are,” he said.
Surprisingly, Wilson said he even misses touring (“at least in small doses”) and foresees the band going that route again once the album finally lands. As much as he misses his old band and his old hometown, though, Wilson said he has no regrets about making the move.
“Strangely, I think if we had tried to move out here five years earlier or so, it would’ve really been a drag,” he said.
“The awful contraction of the music business led to all these brilliant people moving to L.A. at the same time that Diane and I moved here, and suddenly it became a very fertile time and place. I found a great community of like 30 astonishing musicians I can populate my sessions with, and they’re the best I’ve found anywhere.”
He stopped and corrected himself: “Well, almost anywhere.”