Having co-written songs with the likes of Adele, Weezer, Nas, Pink and more, Dan Wilson steps into the spotlight himself this week having released album Love Without Fear yesterday (14 April). In an exclusive guest column he explains how time spent collaborating in the music industry’s shadows has transformed his own songs, plus listen to a stream of his new record below.
I think co-writing has made me a better writer in general. It’s partly because no matter what style of music you play, or what origin point you come from, everybody’s trying to climb the same mountain. Everybody might be heading up and up the mountain of songwriting from different directions, but you’re all trying to converge at the same place.
So the lessons I’ve learned from my collaborators, whether we’re working on pop or rock or country or jazz or hip hop songs, all seem to make me better at climbing that one mountain.
One of the things that co-writing has taught me is to finish the songs I work on in a few days at most. My time with a collaborator is usually really limited. I have two or three days of their busy calendar (and mine) to write one or two songs. And when that time is over, we have to be done with the song, every note, every single word.
Before, I might have been happy to let a song kind of sit around for months, unfinished. Now I cut to the chase and I get the thing done faster. And that’s good because I believe that the more songs you finish, the better songwriter you become.
There’ve been times when I’ve kind of worried about how working in every different style would affect my own recordings. In the past couple of years, I’ve written with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Nas, Adele, Pink, John Legend, Weezer, widely disparate styles of artists. When I’m working, say, with Dierks Bentley on a country song, I want it to be a great song and I want it to be timeless, but it also has to work as a country song. I doesn’t have to fit all the rules of country music, but it has to fit with what he’s doing musically now. And so one thing I am getting better at doing is focusing on the mission at hand and having a clear, specific sound in mind.
When I made this album, Love Without Fear, I definitely wanted it to be an extension of the sound of my previous album Free Life. I wanted the new record to be sadder and more mournful, but I want it to have that same acoustic-instruments-playing-rock-music vibe. So it helped that I’ve gotten good at knowing what vibe I need to be writing in.
I have a private test I use in songwriting sessions, to determine if the song we’re working on is a good song. I imagine I’m singing the song we’re working on in front of my own audience. And if it feels good imagining singing it to my own crowd, then I know it’s going to be a reallly good song. So when I’m co-writing, I’m constantly picturing me singing the song to an audience of my fans. I think this keeps my co-writing and my solo work connected somehow.
I play Someone Like You, Easy Silence, Treacherous, All Will be Well in my own sets, and they’re all co-writes I did originally for other artists.
One of the unexpected benefits of doing demos and master recordings of all these songs that I co-write, is that I’ve found a small and awesome community of players who I hire for those recordings. When the time came for me to record my new album, I ended up asking this same crew, “Will you play on my songs?” So the musical community that I developed from the co-writing has turned into the community that I use on my own recordings.
Almost all of the songs on Love Without Fear started out as brief notes on three-inch x five-inch notecards, usually just a few lines of lyrics or a title or a riff written out. I keep a stack of these on my piano, usually about 100 or 200 cards. And when I started writing songs for Love Without Fear, I had been doing so much co-writing that it gave me the idea to pretend I was my own co-writer and “help” myself finish the ideas on the stack of note cards. So I would look through the pile until I found an idea that inspired me, then I’d go into co-writer mode and help myself turn that raw idea into a song.
For more head to Danwilsonmusic.com.