Dan Wilson: The Story Behind Adele’s “Someone Like You”

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Dan Wilson is well known for being the guy who crafted the hit song “Closing Time” while fronting the band Semisonic. He’s also quietly joined the ranks of great, contemporary songwriters. For the last 20 years the Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist has written songs with The Dixie Chicks, Weezer, Dierks Bentley, James Morrison, Carole King and Josh Groban, to name a few. Last year, British pop and soul icon Adele released her universally acclaimed album 21, featuring the song “Someone Like You,” a gorgeous anthem to heartbreak co-written and produced by Wilson. He spoke with us from California.

Weeping Elvis: How did you come to work with Adele?

Dan Wilson: She had been working on tracks with Rick Rubin and he and I had done a bunch of work together with the Dixie Chicks and Josh Groban and my own album so he introduced us and we got together to write a song together in a small studio in West Hollywood.

WE: How did you go from writing songs for Semisonic to writing for other people?

DW: It was actually a conscious decision, although I didn’t know how it would turn out. In 1998, Semisonic was just starting to have a couple of big hits. I had always been interested in co-writing with people, I wrote songs with my brother Matt in our band Trip Shakespeare.  When I was a kid I had seen Carole King’s songs on other people’s albums and my parents were super into her music and I had seen “Take it Easy” by the Eagles was written by Jackson Browne and guys from the Eagles and I vaguely knew that he wasn’t in the Eagles, so from early on I had an awareness that when I read the credits of records I would see these collaborative combinations of names. So when Semisonic started to get hits, I decided I wanted to do that myself and I put the word out among my friends in Minneapolis. And for some weird reason no one wanted to write songs with me—it was very uncomfortable for people.

WE: Why was that?

DW: No one was comfortable with the idea of sitting down and writing songs together. I think a lot of people feel their method is this home-cooked thing no one else would understand and it’s kind of a private moment for them to write a song. Nobody in my community in Minneapolis was interested so I put the word to my publisher and my manager and anyone I could think of, I wanted to write some songs with people that weren’t in Semisonic. One of the first things that happened in response to that was my publisher said : “How about Carole King? I just talked to her and she’s looking for someone to write  a song with.”  She was an awesome collaborator, pumping out ideas really fast and really loose and really comfortable. She was totally an icon in my mind and she put me at ease in a really awesome way, that I’ve taken as a model at how to be relaxed and have a good time and be creative but make sure that nobody’s worried or uptight in a session. Once we were writing the song it was like we were batting it back and forth in a really natural way. It was a really great learning experience that really got me hooked. It took me awhile to get that kind of rhythm with other people—it was convenient that she’s a genius.

WE: Do you write only collaboratively now or is it more like, I’m going to write a song for Adele now?

DW: With Adele, it didn’t occur to me that I was going to write a song for her. I think I could have but I already had known that she was very collaborative and had a very strong vision. One time we got together and she had an idea, which was the first lines of a verse and some melody, and another time we got together she knew what she wanted to write about but she didn’t know how she wanted to do it. When we wrote “Don’t You Remember” she knew that she wanted a more positive, sad-but-loving vibe. She didn’t want the whole record to be angry and bitter. In the story she wanted to show the tenderness and the depth of emotion almost to make it make more sense in why she was so sad to lose this guy. She needed a song that showed the depth of emotion and connection. So when we wrote “Don’t You Remember,” she didn’t know what the words or melody were going to be like but she knew what the message was going to be.

I don’t only collaborate. If no one else is around, I just write a song.

WE: When you’re writing songs by yourself for someone else, are you thinking of their voice?

DW: That’s a good question, because I used to try to think about that but I don’t know if that worked. What I decided a couple years ago was to write songs that I would feel comfortable and connected to singing myself on stage, then you just have to take your chances with the phrasing or the way the lines hold together works for someone else’s voice. If it’s a great interpreter and the song is awesome, you’re pretty much in good shape.

WE: How did “Someone Like You” come about?

DW: Adele had the first several lines of the verse. She never told me this directly, but I think she felt she could do something less metaphorical with me, less about word play and more about telling the story and being emotional in a strong and vulnerable way. I think she had that sense that we could accomplish that. The first day we got about two-thirds of the song done. We knocked off at 6pm, with the rough mixes of it with complete blank areas.  After the first day we knew what the melodies were going to be and I had recorded the piano.

The second day we got together and she said, “I played the song for my manager and me mum.” I said, “It’s not finished, why did you do that?” It scared me.  I asked her, “What did they say?” She said “My manager loved it and me mum cried.” That was with big blank areas and no lyrics in the second verse and the bridge wasn’t written. It was almost more craft working on the second day. I was intent on making sure that every line was great and that the singing was as great as it could be. The choruses were already great, but she had an improvement she wanted to make. We discovered on the second day that her voice had this kind of desperate edge to it that it didn’t have on the first day. So after we wrote the bridge and we got the lyrics down to where she and I thought it was all great, then we went back and re-recorded a bunch of the vocal because her voice had that desperate quality the second day.

WE: So you were actually recording as you were writing?

DW: I had told her in advance; let’s just write with a piano and guitar. Let’s not do any orchestration or other instruments, let’s just keep it like an old school piano/vocal demo where you have to use your imagination as to if there will be drums or a gospel choir. We had originally intended for it to be a demo but once it started to sound earth shattering I just made sure it was a great recording. We made sure the piano was beautiful and dynamic and we made sure the vocal performance was really moving. I think by the time we were done we knew we were on to something great, but I think we both thought of it as essentially as the demo.

WE: Who would you like to work with that you haven’t already?

DW: There’s a bunch of artists that I think I’m going to cross paths with at some point or another. I’d love to do something with Questlove someday. Elvis Costello is an icon of mine and he seems like a born collaborator and I think it would be really interesting to write a song with him. There’s a band called First Aid Kit from Sweden.  Sometimes my motivation is to just be in a room with a great voice and a great spirit. I’m going to do a session later this month with a duo from Alabama called The Secret Sisters. When they harmonize it’s almost hair raising. They have a beautiful spirit as human beings. It’s kind of what I live for—to hear great singing and to be with someone with a huge imagination and a big dream. I make these mental lists. It would be great to write a song with Jackson Browne someday.

WE: What did you think of the use of “Closing Time” in the romantic comedy Friends With Benefits?

DW: I was overjoyed. If someone makes fun of something for being so familiar and part of the landscape you’ve gotta feel good about that. They gave that song so much love and respect in that movie. It was so over the top and silly. Justin Timberlake was singing one of my songs in a joking way, but you have to feel good about that. I felt really honored by it.

It was like the Saturday Night Live skit about “Someone Like You” where the main joke is that everybody cries when they hear that song. When I was watching it I was screaming with laughter and amazement. They weren’t just using that song because everyone knows it. It was in that skit because it has this trait that makes everyone cry, and that’s not true of every one song. That felt significant and amazing to me. It was level deeper than it’s just a hit song everyone knows and we’ll use it in the skit, it has a personality.

WE: It’s no small cultural achievement to have your work featured on Saturday Night Live.

DW: I know, I mean, yeah. I know. It’s funny but I try not to look for validation in external things, because most of the time those external things don’t really have an internal experience. If you have a song on the chart you can see those numbers, but you don’t really feel anything, hearing my songs on the radio is exciting and fun, there’s a kind of directness about that, but having your song on a chart is kind of super abstract. Having a song on SNL, which I watch and enjoy as a fan, (being referenced) is really direct, because I’m laughing and enjoying it and I’m a fan and it’s also kind of honoring me. That’s one of those moments where I actually felt I really do feel very honored right now. It wasn’t abstract; it was not at a distance, it was right where I live.

Thanks to Dan Wilson for spending time with us at Weeping Elvis.

(Randy Scope and Sir Duke assisted with this interview)

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Pat Ferrise grew up loving ”the punk rock” and “new wave.” His years at one of the nation’s top college radio stations ultimately led him to a 15-year run as music director of alternative music icon WHFS Washington/Baltimore. Rolling Stone magazine named him of the most influential programmers of the 90s. He’s recorded two albums under the moniker Trampoline for the now defunct SpinArt label. He lives in Baltimore and takes no credit for writing this bio.