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Dan Wilson on songwriting — and how he comes up with his online tips

Dan Wilson: “I have this philosophy about song ideas that not everyone agrees with, but I’m right and they’re wrong. Which is: I try to record every idea I have that I think is really good.”

Semisonic, 2019
Dan Wilson, far right, and Semisonic rock the 2019 Basilica Block Party.
Photo by Jim Walsh

Dan Wilson is a husband, father, and Grammy-winning songwriter for the likes of Adele, the Dixie Chicks and Celine Dion, and co-founder of Minneapolis music legends Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic — all of which keeps him busy.

What’s more, over the last couple of years, Wilson has taken to Twitter and Instagram to offer tips, straight from the heart and mind of one of the most engaged and experienced songwriters working today, to a growing online community of songwriters and artists.

Almost weekly under the hashtag #wordsandmusicinsixseconds, Wilson posts short tips or friendly prompts to get the creative juices going (some of which originally appeared in his 2017 book and album “Re-Covered”), all toward an extremely helpful, funny, and wise dose of mini-inspiration that works not unlike a social media incarnation of Julia Cameron‘s still amazing “The Artist’s Way” or Paul Zollo’s essential “Songwriters On Songwriting.”

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MinnPost got Wilson on the phone from his home in Los Angeles to talk songwriting and teaching:   

MinnPost: I want to talk about your sort of online songwriting class that you’ve assembled. I feel a real community with that. How did this start? When was the first time you tweeted your songwriting tips?

Dan Wilson: When I first [got on] Twitter, I didn’t think it was for me. I didn’t know how powerful it was going to be, and I didn’t know how central to our activity and politics it was going to be to, but I really liked it. The first time I really got interested in it was when Patrick Wilson, the drummer from Weezer, started doing it and he was hilarious.

I just started making comments at first, and then from the business side of things I started getting ‘Advice For Dan’ kind of thing; people started saying, ‘You should get on Twitter more often; you should tweet more often.’ And personally, I respond to sentences with the word ‘should’ in them with a kind of reflexive naysaying. I didn’t want to do it, which seems even stupider now.

At one point, my manager [Jim Grant] told me to go on Vine and check out the scriptwriter Brian Koppelman, who every day for 100 days was going to tell aspiring scriptwriters some piece of wisdom he was going to lay on them. And it was great. I really, really liked it. It was kind of impatient and at the same time inspiring, and a lot of his position was very similar to mine: Start doing the work right away and stop complaining about not having access [to the show business industry] because you haven’t even done the work.

So I put up about a half dozen little remarks on Vine, and I had some personal crises around that time, so this must have been around 2013 when there were some emergencies with my family and I ended up waiting around in hospitals a lot and I taught myself calligraphy and started thinking about putting these Vine comments up. I put up these six-second remarks up about songwriting, trying to inspire people and trying to boil down my advice to six seconds, which was not easy for me to do.

It developed its own momentum for me, and pretty soon I had a small following and people were very appreciative. Then, without thinking about it too much, I started doing the same thing on Twitter in text form, and then I discovered I could do longer ones on Instagram — which is like playing with fire for me — and then Vine disappeared and I transferred the whole thing over to Twitter and Instagram, and I’ve been doing it for several years.

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Some of my earlier ones are up there with the best ones, but I’m definitely trying to keep it going. I feel like there is a community around it. A lot of times when I write with people, I tell them about this project I’m doing on Instagram and Twitter, and they’re like, “Oh yeah. I know all about that; I’ve seen them all,” and once in while they’ll quote back their favorites to me, which really tickles me. It feels nice; it feels like I’m helpful, you know?

MP: Well, I was just going to used that word “helpful.” Many mornings you wake up to a note from Dan, and here is a nugget from the real nuts-and-bolts inner workings of a great songwriter. You pay attention to that; it has weight. I like it because it feels very much like it’s in your flow, part of your creative flow. You don’t put anything up unless you have something to say — about songwriting in particular; it’s not like you’re commenting on everything that’s going on in the world, and therefore they really ring with helpful advice on how to navigate the artist’s way. It feels like you tweet about it after songwriting sessions, and they can be real nuts-and-bolts advice about a chorus or verse or something, or more esoteric, bigger-idea stuff. How does it work for you?

DW: I have this philosophy about song ideas that not everyone agrees with, but I’m right and they’re wrong. Which is: I try to record every idea I have that I think is really good. Like if I think of something and “Oh, man I love this,” but I’m having dinner with my family or in a doctor’s office, I quickly run aside and record it because I really don’t have faith in myself that I’m going to remember it a day later. Too many times I’ve had the experience of having a cool idea and then later I won’t for the life of me remember what it was. I just don’t believe my memory will save me; I’m an artist, I never remember stuff.

MP: The other thing is that a song idea does disappear because it’s all in your head for that one precious moment, and then the world encroaches.

DW: The noise of the world is always there. So I do the same thing with these songwriting clips: If I think of one at dinner or during a session, I’ll write it down in my notebook or email it to myself if I’m at a loud party, and then later on if I’m in a pleasant green area, or I have a half an hour, I’ll do five or six in a row and wait for a good time to post ’em.

MP: What are some of more memorable reactions to your tips?

DM: I guess the most gratifying thing has been people getting back to me with their favorite ones, and I always like when someone DMs me or replies in the comments, “OMG Dan Wilson you have no idea how much I needed this advice at this very moment. Thank you very much.” That feels good.

MP: Did you ever take a songwriting class; I mean, what would be the equivalent of …?

DW [laughing]: Oh, now we’re talking. No, I’ve never taken a songwriting class and I was very resistant to songwriting advice for a long time. But I did write songs with my brother Matt, who’s a brilliant songwriter, and that was a huge learning experience. And I did shoot the breeze and compare notes with a lot of other songwriters on the road with Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic, and got a lot of tips and ideas from practitioners. I didn’t ever take any formal classes of any kind. To be fair and a little bit of a jerk, I don’t think I met a songwriting teacher who’s as good a songwriter as I was for a long time. But when I got into a learning relationship with [producer] Rick Rubin, I got a lot of crazy great wisdom from him.

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MP: The reason I ask is because I teach a writing class in personal essay, and I often say no one can teach you how to write, or how to write from your heart or your experience, but there are ways to access that and, like you say, to get you to sit down and do the work first. I think people take writing classes, and are drawn to your tweets, because writing and songwriting can be solitary pursuits, and people like to be in a classroom, if only for support and community. But do you think you can teach someone how to write songs? Or, if you were talking to people who’ve never written a song, what would you say? How do they start?

DW: Personally, I think the area people need the most help as artists is the practice of being an artist. We are taught a lot of bullshit about inspiration and being struck by artistic lightning as an invited muse. We’re taught a lot of bullshit about waiting around for that to happen, and when I was studying printmaking at Harvard with Tina Stack, and Dimitri Hadzi and Will Reimann — wonderful artists, and they were all very practical and also wildly inspired and inspiring people — one of the things Stack told me is that “You need to be in your studio every day.” And I said, “Why? What if the inspiration isn’t striking me? Why shouldn’t I just go out for drinks with my friends instead?” And Tina said, “If the muse visits you while you’re at the bar with your friends, it’s not going to do you any good. You have to be in the studio when the muse [hits],” and that idea of working coming before inspiration was almost insane to me. I was thunderstruck by that.

I don’t want tell people, like, “Every verse has to be 16 bars long and a 12 bar verse is going to strike people as weird, and you need a pre-chorus before your chorus, and the [chorus] note has to be higher than the verse, and don’t repeat a word more than one time in the verses”—all those rules are utterly pointless, because you could just take all those rules and make a little project of breaking them all and making an amazing song.

But I do think that the process, the practice of being an artist, and how the rubber hits the road in your life as an artist — what are the frictions you’re going to run up against, how can you get yourself to do work when you’re not feeling good about yourself, how can get yourself to help other people and not worry that you should be giving yourself a hand? I think a lot of things have to do with the practice of having a community, the practice of getting in there and working, the practice of finishing things even if you’re not quote-unquote feeling it.

There’s all these things that are crucial, and much more important than “don’t repeat a word in the verse” or “never have an antagonist in the song, only have the protaganist.” For me, the rules have more to do with how to get up in the morning and do it even when you’re feeling bad. How to get out of the studio and help your friends move a new amplifier to a new studio, or help your friend move to a new apartment, or how to reach out to someone and say, “Hey, I need a good word. Can we go out and hang? I need someone to talk to.” Those are all super important to being an artist and they get neglected in all the rules.

MP: I remember reading years ago in a songwriting book about Randy Newman, who talked about how he goes to the office every day, eight hours a day, just like his dad went to a 9-5 job, and he just demystified it. And Peter Himmelman writes well about it in his book about creativity, “Let Me Out,” about how the first act of creativity is just making one step towards it, a phone call, or just the intentional act of sitting down to write. I always have loved the scene in “Crazy Heart” when Jeff Bridges’ manager says to him, “Just write some songs.” That’s at the heart of everything: Take the time to do it, take the time to write some tunes you care about and the rest will take care of itself.

DW: It’s interesting, because it is important to do other things and move your music out into the world, and that does take hustling and politicking and a lot of stuff that we’re impatient with, but it’s usually more pressing to get a new track or song or painting moving forward.

MP: But there’s a whole inspiration in having new songs to play for people, too. That’s the wind in your sails above everything else, where you’re excited to show the world your new creations.

DW: It’s thrilling! I totally remember in Minneapolis, my realization that a lot of what I was doing was just trying to make cool things to show my friends. It really was. It was so exciting, like if someone was coming over and I could blow their mind with a new song. So exciting. It’s like a delightful and completely unacknowledged perk to the gig.

MP: These days, what is your daily or weekly routine as a songwriter? How much time do you dedicate to writing?

DW: I’m pretty obsessed, so I probably do music 50 hours a week. I try to have a life, so I don’t do certain weeks or months. … I’ll be working a lot more than that and it gets to the point where I want to cry all the time, just because it’s too much physically to deal with. But I work every day except maybe one day a weekend. When everything is settled down at home, I work on lyrics. Lyrics are what scare me the most, and also it’s the thing that takes the most silence and the most concentration and no phone calls or family obligations for a couple hours. So I need to pick my spots pretty aggressively to make that happen.

I’ll do co-writing sessions three days a week, and there’s always a certain crunch for me doing co-writing and production, which makes it a little harder to just do pure loose songs that have no definable purpose, but I love doing those songs and so I try to do one every week or two, just to see where it goes. And I like to make purposes for myself. For example, I do a series of lullabies on Instagram and that’s a songwriting outlet for me and I have Ambient Alaska-inspired video pieces I’ve been working on. It’s like I’m hiring myself with this, or when I’m writing for Semisonic it’s like I’m hiring myself. I’m the client and, “It needs to be great, needs to sound new, also needs to sound like the band, it’s kind of complicated, go for it.” I sometimes commission myself.

MP: Artists have a variety ways of harnessing their spirit, and you do it in all these ways. All great artists are self-contained and self-inspired, but you need a mechanism within yourself to pep talk yourself, to inspire yourself, and to throw up completely new canvases.

DW: It’s good to have a purpose, aesthetically. Once I got to know a bunch of painters, I realized a lot of their artwork that they did was not because the muse attacked them when they were out dancing with friends and they had to run to the studio; a lot of the artwork happened because their gallery scheduled a show next February and they’re just freaking out for six months trying to make enough work to fill that room. It’s so pragmatic. It goes so against the myths that people see in movies. The reason a movie can’t be interesting about an artist is because most of our process is so deadly dull.

MP: Whenever I read one of your tips, I’m always hoping it will land in a book you’re writing on songwriting. Any chance of that?

DW: I don’t know. I have a friend, Teddy Geiger, a fantastic artist and songwriter, and she sends me a note on one of these platforms once a month, basically, “When are you going to make this into a book?” Brian Fallon from the Gaslight Anthem is often, “We need a book!” I don’t know. I think it’s a nice idea. Part of me also wants to do a deck of cards, like Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies For Studio Recording,” except it would be for songwriters. I think that would be pretty fun.