Dan Wilson is a singer/guitarist/songwriter from Minneapolis who is renowned for the elegance of his melodies, the intelligence of his lyrics and the purity of his voice. The onetime member of storied cult band Trip Shakespeare and the critically acclaimed Semisonic is now working as a solo artist, making music with a collective of musicians from the Twin Cities and elsewhere, as well as collaborating on songs with the Dixie Chicks (including the memorable “Not Ready to Make Nice”), Mike Doughty, Rachael Yamagata, Jason Mraz and others. Wilson’s first solo album, Free Life (American/Reprise) began as a self-produced project in Minneapolis, and was finished in Los Angeles by Wilson and executive producer and label chief Rick Rubin.
Free Life features contributions from, among others, Sheryl Crow, who provides the harmony vocal on “Sugar”; Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek), who plays the finger picked acoustic guitar on “Free Life;” and Gary Louris (the Jayhawks), who contributes a guitar solo on “Cry.” Eric Fawcett (N.E.R.D.) plays drums on many of the tracks, and Benmont Tench (Heartbreakers), provides piano on “Against History” and several others.
“The best thing about my album, in my opinion, is the incredibly intimate feeling it evokes,” says Wilson. “These songs sound like they already existed, but at the same time, they project the feeling that they’re about somebody’s life.” While he was writing the songs for what would become Free Life, Wilson was living in a house built in 1903, and the place served both as a subtle influence on the writing and a perfect setting for the recording. “I found a few books of sheet music from that era at antique stores and spent lots of time singing the songs at the piano: chords and melodies the house probably hadn’t heard for a hundred years,” he says. “‘Sugar’ and ‘Honey Please’ both seem to have that spirit, as though they were written by the house as much as by me. When the batch became big enough, I hatched a plan to borrow a recording studio and set it up in the living room and ballroom of the place.
“I’d learned a lot about digital recording over the couple of previous years, but I was determined to use very little of what I’d learned,” Wilson explains. “I had just finished reading the book Shakey, a biography of Neil Young, and his insistence on live recording, capturing the moment, starting with the vocal, avoiding overdubs…all these things inspired the hell out of me.” “For the sessions, I called about 10 musicians whose playing and personalities I love,” Wilson, recalls. “We ended up playing about 20 songs live, vocals were all cut live with the band, and most of the songs on the album stayed that way. I had met with the musicians separately over the weeks before the sessions—taught them the songs, ran through them one-on-one, but never brought the band together until the first day of recording. This made for a great vibe, because the songs were very familiar, but the musicians’ ideas were new to each other. And I think that led to a certain sound of the album—the songs are really about an experience of a bunch of people together in a room. I think that communicates on a more soulful level.”
After hearing what Wilson had done on his own, Rick Rubin enthusiastically agreed to help him complete the project. “When Rick and I started working together, eight of the songs were already recorded, and several of them needed only a little thing here or there,” Wilson recalls. “Some of his prescriptions were really subtle and helpful. On the other hand, several songs that had puzzled me—‘Cry,’ ‘Free Life,’ ‘Come Home Angel’ and a few others—were either re-recorded with Rick or completely revamped with his help.”
When asked about his favorite songs on Free Life, Wilson immediately names “Sugar.” "Writing 'Sugar' was everything I love about songwriting - making something profound and emotionally affecting out of almost nothing," he explains. "That song was the starting point, the song that told me I had to let go of all my assumptions and methods from my bands and do something completely unfamiliar." Opening with mournful and wide-open chords from Wilson's piano and guitarist Bleu's rolling acoustic, the recorded version of the song slowly rises to a glorious bridge. The performance defines a loose, intuitively American sound that is somehow not Americana. It's a far cry from the tightly structured pop-rock that Wilson has been known for in the past.
The recording of the song "All Kinds" exemplified the change to an open and unpredictable recording process. "That track happened so fast, I didn't know what hit me. One night, after a long day in the ballroom, I told the remaining three musicians that tomorrow first thing we’d record ‘All Kinds,’ and I sang them the song. Bleu, who’d played guitar that day, got a wild-eyed look and announced that we were going to record the song right now. It was late, but we ran back upstairs and put on our headphones. Ken Chastain, our percussionist, picked up a Fender bass. We did three takes of the song, everyone ran out to their cars and the day was done. I didn’t know that anything special had happened until the next morning when I listened back and discovered we’d nailed the perfect version. And we’d done it with the spontaneous, free methods I’d read about in Shakey.”
While Free Life is in some ways a departure from Wilson’s previous work, it also perpetuates certain of his tendencies—the elevated, chill-inducing melodies, the thoughtful yet straightforward lyrics, the striving for honesty of expression. “I’ve always loved songwriting that sounded like truth,” says Wilson, “like first-person confessions, like confidences whispered in your ear. Even if I’m willing to tinker with reality and my own history, I want the song to feel true.” More than ever before, Wilson has achieved this goal on Free Life, which serves to culminate one stage of his career and initiate the next, as if he were living out the memorable payoff of his song “Closing Time” - “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” There’s no doubting the truth of that.