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Dan Wilson

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Dan Wilson’s Words and Music mini-tours have been something of an underground phenomenon. The acclaimed singer-songwriter has been breaking down his songs and his process for audiences stateside and in Europe over the past couple of years, performing some of his best tunes live, and then explaining how they were written in a fascinating (and often funny) peek behind the scenes.  Speaking of which, he’s spending much of his summer working on what will be yet another Dan Wilson solo album – but in the autumn, the road beckons again, and Wilson will be returning to his Words and Music shows, including stops at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (10.16) and the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago (10.17.)

We caught one of his sets at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theatre in New York City, where the Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter sang his songs, told his tales, and helped motivate an audience made up in large part of fellow musicians (including Wilson’s Semisonic bandmate, Jacob Slichter), geeks (the majority of the audience actually “got” Wilson’s obscure references, which included Shakespeare, physics, and ancient archaeology) and one older gentleman who was decked out in a suit and sunglasses like Roy Orbison’s long-lost brother.

Semisonic – you’ll know them from their one big – no, make that massive – hit single “Closing Time” – haven’t put an album out since 2001’s All About Chemistry. But Wilson has most definitely not been sitting around in the meantime.

If you’ve heard Adele’s “Someone Like You,” The Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” and “Easy Silence,” or Taylor Swift’s “Treacherous,” just to name a few, then you’ve heard Wilson’s work. One music career with Semisonic led to a second as a solo artist (Free Life being his first great studio effort, Love Without Fear being his current, and even better, offering), and now he’s in the midst of a third career as a co-writer and collaborator with a wide range of artists.

Wilson opened his show with the perfect song to aim at fellow music nerds – “A Song Can Be About Anything,” in which he explains (tunefully, of course) how everything from minor details to major life events can become a song.

Accompanied by the excellent Brad Gordon on piano and Longwave’s Steve Schlitz on guitar, the tales he told about his songwriting process were nearly as compelling as the songs themselves, told smoothly and with obvious practise.

A stack of 3×5 note cards, he explained to the audience, sits on his piano with song ideas jotted down on them, so on days when he wants to write but nothing’s happening, he’ll cut the cards and choose a random idea.

His time spent songwriting with the Dixie Chicks, Adele, and Swift was full of surprises – Adele didn’t even know how Wilson was the first time they met up to write, and Swift, he says, is much more savvy than people expect.

And in a story about his first experience writing with the legendary Carole King, he explained how he got to King’s house, expecting a sweeping spiral staircase and white grand piano, and instead found her waiting imperiously for him in a little cottage with a Casio keyboard sitting in the middle of the room.

As he probably shares these same stories at many Words and Music shows, it must be tricky to keep the tale-telling fresh. We sat down with Wilson to ask how he does it.

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“I’ve been working on the Words and Music set almost like a play I’m putting on,” he explains. “Even though the talking is mostly improvisational, I have certain stories that I have to tell to make the whole thing work.”

If it were a play, he pointed out, people wouldn’t be surprised if the set list or talking were the same from night to night.

“There is an overall ‘shape’ that has to happen for it all to feel like one thing for the audience, rather than just me rambling about my illustrious career,” he laughs. “But at the same time, I’m aware that some shows are so close to each other geographically. So on those nights, I try to switch out three or four songs, and tell a few different stories from one show to another. And in any case, I try to keep Brad entertained, too.”

One of the other interesting things about the show is Wilson’s arrangements. With only Gordon and the occasional guest (like the aforementioned Schlitz), it’s like being treated to a behind-the-scenes listen of each song, where you can actually learn about the “scaffolding” supporting the harmonies and patterns.

“My recordings are usually more elaborately arranged than my live performances,” Wilson explains. “This was true in my bands Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic, too. So I’m accustomed to the idea of peeling a few layers of arrangement away to reveal more of the song in a live show.”

As his solo setlist continued at Joe’s Pub, it showcased Wilson’s impressive ability to morph his songwriting skills to suit not only a diverse range of artists, but also his own singing. Wilson’s often said that as he’s writing songs, he keeps in mind the fact that he wants to be able to sing them himself later, and his performance of Adele’s “Someone Like You” proved to be a real stunner in his own voice. It’s much different than Adele’s version, but with equal levels of emotion plus Wilson’s added life experience: the same song translated through two wholly different audio “eyes.”

“Disappearing” is another highlight, Wilson’s own solo track with the melancholy and immediately catchy chorus “Some nights…/I feel like I’m watching your red tail lights/disappearing.” Two Semisonic numbers, the buoyant “Singing in My Sleep” and of course “Closing Time,” round out the night, the latter pulling the audience into a whole-room singalong, complete with amateur harmony parts ringing through the air. Wilson closed the set with a left-field cover of an old Everly Brothers’ song (“Don’t Forget to Cry”), and then spent a good portion of time out in the Joe’s Pub lobby talking to fans.

It was pretty obvious that he had just as much fun as his audience did.

“I think these Words and Music shows would be a cool thing to do for a couple of years yet… at least,” he grins.   – Kristi Kates


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