Dan Wilson

You know Dan Wilson. You may not think you know Dan Wilson, but you know Dan Wilson. How do I know that you know Dan Wilson? Because it's closing time somewhere in the world as I'm typing this and as you're reading this, and there is no way in hell you haven't heard that song. Which I still love.

You also know Dan Wilson because you know Adele and the Dixie Chicks. He co-wrote Adele's "Someone Like You" and the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice." He won two Grammys in 2007: Song of the Year as co-writer on "Not Ready to Make Nice" and Album of the Year for the Dixie Chicks' album Taking the Long Way. He again won an Album of the Year Grammy in 2012 for Adele's album 21. The list of artists he's either written with or produced is dizzying:  Taylor Swift, Nas, Pink, Weezer, John Legend, Josh Groban, Chris Stapleton, Spoon, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, My Morning Jacket, to name a very small few. He's even got indie cred: he worked extensively on Phantogram's 2016 album Three, including a co-writing credit on every song except one.

How can one man possibly do all these things? Wilson, as you can probably guess, has a busy schedule.  He's able to maintain this pace in large part because of his other passion: visual art. Wilson graduated from Harvard with a visual arts degree and is an outstanding visual artist in his own right.  Through his training as a visual artist in college, he learned one behavior that has served him well as a songwriter: discipline. He has a regimented work schedule when it comes to songwriting. In our interview, he lamented that songwriters don't get the training that visual artists like him get in school. He told me, "Art school training involves repetition, a daily routine, process, and getting down to it whether you are inspired or not. It involves research into other artists. It involves shaking up your method, like drawing with your non-dominant hand for the day. Or drawing while looking at the piece in the mirror, or maybe even not looking at it at all. Musicians don't really get that." Wilson has been able to take the discipline from the visual art world and apply it to his songwriting process. The result? Well, I already gave you the names. 

All this is to say is that Dan Wilson is a phenomenal songwriter.  His new album Re-Covered is a collection of re-interpretations of songs he's written for other artists, people like Taylor Swift, John Legend, and Adele, among others. Read my thoughtful interview with Wilson after the video.

With your background, I know you are a visual artist as well. Is there any intersection between visual arts and songwriting for you?

I'm going to back up a step. When creative kids are young, they often have a bunch of creative endeavors. They try to be in the school play, they try to be in the school band, they write stories, they write poems. There's an omnivorous quality to a lot of creative kids. And when people look for their paths in life, they look a couple of different ways. A lot of those activities are linked because these people are creative people.

In my life, it's not where the output is concerned. If my music is a laser beam, it's pointed in one direction, and my visual art is pointed in another. The two do not intersect. But the training in art school--the visual arts training--is beautiful for artists. Art school training involves repetition, a daily routine, process, and getting down to it whether you are inspired or not. It involves research into other artists. It involves shaking up your method, like drawing with your non-dominant hand for the day. Or drawing while looking at the piece in the mirror, or maybe even not looking at it at all. Musicians don't really get that. They are trained in a fantasy world where you do most of your training in the lifestyle and only a small portion in the art. So that's why I think art school training can be super important to a musician.

I assume that training has made you a disciplined songwriter. 

That's what I mean. The repetition, the process, hitting it whether you are inspired or not, deadlines: all those things are art school ideas. That training just slid into the music part of my life.

I ask songwriters all the time if they would call themselves disciplined, and overwhelmingly the answer is no.

Yeah, but is that a sense of self-hatred? I wonder if the same compulsiveness that leads people to create art in the first place leads them to assess themselves wrong. An undisciplined writer is someone who writes one song a year and it's still not finished. Once you get over 15 or 20 songs a year, you're disciplined. You just don't know it.

I guess what I hear, to paraphrase, is "I would love to be able to sit down every day and write."

That's so interesting to me, but maybe it's just the people I interact with. Those people write quite consistently. If not every day, then three or four days a week. But if you examine songwriters who say they are undisciplined as writers, it's because they spend a lot of time doing gigs or in a van. So you have to count those days. I'm interested in what you say because there are people in Nashville writing 200 songs a year, and no one thinks it's a miracle. I just don't think that "I wish I could write more songs" is the same as not having discipline.

It's not that they don't want to, but they have trouble sitting for long periods or time to write. Or maybe it's a question of waiting until they ready to write or waiting for inspiration, whey instead they should be writing whether they are ready to or not. 

I find that so interesting, because I wish I could say, "I'm such a genius that I only need to sporadically sit down and be an artist, and it would all work out for me." I am the kind of person who needs to write lots and lots of songs before one good one comes out. I need daily practice to make things happen. But I think even those people who can sit down sporadically and write a great song went through a period in their 20s when they could not stop obsessively writing songs or poetry. It was a daily thing because it was a life saving, do or die, cathartic and necessary process. Even they had times where they spent hours and hours jamming on the guitar.

I'm very interested in the question of lyric writing. Most people who are prolific do some middling work, a lot of bad work, and then the occasional amazing work. Lyric writing is the hardest part. It requires some life to have been lived. You can't write a great song every day for the rest of your life, because you need to have life in between the songs. You have to have the drama and the thrills and the sadness in real time so that it informs your heart later.

So many of the great songs are written in response to some cataclysmic event. You can't make that happen; it just happens. So you wait for life to happen, and it informs your art. And when life catches you by surprise, that can lead to the best art.

Well, Chris Difford of Squeeze told me that he wrote "Tempted" in the back of a taxi in a couple of minutes on the way to Heathrow.

Really? Ooooh, that's awesome. I love that. I'm thinking about the words now. "Baggage carousel, carpark." He's actually getting on the plane in the song. He's packing to leave, he gets on the plane. That's amazing.

photo by Devin Pedde

photo by Devin Pedde

Let's talk about your process. Do you write every day?

My typical week would be about two days in formal sessions with other artists, either in production or writing. Then three days of working on my own songs or drawings or calligraphy or research. During those three days, I might also work more on the tracks I worked on with the other artists in those other days. It's pretty regimented because I'm a parent. Before you have kids, scheduling creativity is an absurdity. But once you have kids, scheduling it becomes a necessity. I schedule aspects of my life almost as a way to say, "Well, this is my job," since I don't have a proper job the way most people do. It has to happen during those hours or it ain't gonna happen.

Does your journal writing ever lead to song ideas?

Rarely. My journal writing is pretty mundane. It's about how I'm doing and the events of the day. What my parents are going through, stuff like that. Sometimes there are rants, but other times I might write about what I want my week or month or year to look like. If I have a song idea while I'm writing in my journal, it's completely unrelated to what I'm writing. When that happens, I write it in the bottom margin of my journal, then I go through the journal later and look at all the bottom margins. That's where all the ideas are.

Do you have a separate journal just for lyrics?

I wouldn't call my lyrics books "journals." I just fill them with ideas until they are done. If I take the ideas on the page and want to refine them, I move them to a better place on another page and cross out the original idea with a pencil or a pen. That way I know that, when I go back, I don't need to look at those crossed out ideas anymore.

I like that. It's very efficient. 

I think so too. Years ago someone told me that data storage is the easy part. It's data retrieval that's hard. So I want to be able to easily go back in my journal book and find that page of words that was so promising. Sometimes in my journal there will be six pages in a row that are essentially the same idea that might be organized differently or improved upon with each page. If I didn't cross out the older ones, I'd have to go back through the book and look again at all the ideas I no longer care out. Crossing them out means I don't have to look at them again.

Do you have a favorite writing utensil? I've found that songwriters can be very loyal to a particular brand.

Laughs. Oh, I'm just as compulsive about pens as anybody. They are very important to me. I like the rolling ball pens best, and I don't like pens where the ink is almost like a goo. It's gotta be ink, not that glue-like substance that some pens have. That drives me crazy because the ink from those pens leaves a blob on the opposite page. I don't like it when a pen gets sketchy. It has to flow consistently. I'm ridiculous about it. I used to use rapidographs, but I found that those are better artist pens than lyric writing pens. Ballpoint pens seem a little more informal, which I like. Rapidographs seem awfully formal for a lyric.

How about the type of paper? Hayes Carll told me that he only likes to use the legal pads from Office Depot.

Oh yeah, I can understand that. It's a little bit bigger. A yellow lined legal pad is good for me because the wide lines on regular paper never allow a whole song to fit on the page. Songs are all longer than a wide-lined piece of paper, but they are often the right length for a narrow lined piece of paper.

This brings up the idea of writing rituals. Do you have one? Anthony Doerr, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2015, told me that he wears "chainsaw grade" ear protection when he writes, even though he lives in the relative quiet of Idaho. It's a holdover from his days writing in New York City, where it was too loud for him to concentrate.

Our animal side needs those rituals as much as anything. If you've written a book with those ear protectors, then your body doesn't feel right trying to write a book without them. It might be that you need a certain type of light or a certain height in a chair. You're not being a jerk; instead, your body has gotten accustomed to associating creativity with a posture, a place, or a light. It's better not to fight that but instead accept that it's what your body requires.

Isn't it also about confidence? When I write, I feel like I'm more likely to be productive if I'm in that certain place or if I have those certain things.

See, I don't associate the word "confidence" with creating very much. I don't think I'd ever say that word. I did a show last night and a fan asked me I'd ever worked with this one artist. This person said, "It seems like that would be a cakewalk for you." Who knows? I found myself backpedaling from saying anything confident. I think I'm a pretty good songwriter, but in any given context on any given day, I don't know if I'm particularly good in that moment. So I don't even associate confidence with songwriting. It's more like having my body in a certain posture or my guitar positioned a certain way. I just need the physical reminders of being creative, and then I can be creative again. Artists are compulsive like that.

So what would be your ideal writing environment?

In my ideal writing environment, I'd be surrounded by nice visual art in a room with a window and high ceilings. The window would have to give me natural light. I would have a piano and an acoustic guitar. I'd have a couple of comfortable places to sit so I could move around. There would be no buzzing or hissing. No machines and no computers. No fans. I can handle an amp buzzing, just not a computer making noise.

As far as time of day, all of the rock and roll people would come over and start jamming with me at 8:15am. But of course that never happens. So I've accommodating myself to doing all non-creative things before noon and all my creative things after noon.

Why the high ceilings? Is it because of acoustics or is it because you don't want to feel confined?

It's because I like music that rises up. I don't like music that feels confined or oppressed, and it can feel that way if I'm in a place with a low ceiling. I probably feel that way because it reminds me of all those times I spent in basements with pipes and no windows, where the ceiling is just above your head. Having a real piano and a high ceiling leads to music that rises up. I don't mind music that goes down; I just don't like to make it. I'm not taking about 15 foot ceilings, but if I'm in a room with even 8 foot ceilings, it feels very luxurious.

Why is the visual art important? Does it make you feel inspired?

Yeah, I guess it does. I want to be part of an ongoing effort by humanity.

I imagine you read a lot. Who are you reading now and who do you like?

I read a ton. My favorite authors are Jorge Luis Borges and Tolkien. I reread them probably every five years or do. I recently read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. And every once in a while I'll go on an author binge and read everything he or she wrote. My recent was a Charles Dickens binge. I took probably a year of my reading time and read every one of his novels. It was an amazing experience. It's really hard to do that with all the distractions in my life, and there were certainly some moments where I'd think, "Oh, now I have to read Bleak House."

Why Dickens?

Because he's one of the fucking greats. It was also partly because of what I know about him. He's an interesting character. Back then, when people were less hung up on their personal quirks, people were wildly quirky without having to explain why. And his life was extremely colorful. He was also very devoted to the poor and to orphans and was always trying to find a way to make his like more valuable to others. Plus, his storytelling is so hilarious and so generous. Even the villains are three dimensional. The plots twits are absurd, and you do so much eye-rolling while you read. That's what makes it so great.