Q&A: Dan Wilson of Semisonic

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Semisonic fans get ready as Grammy-award-winning musician Dan Wilson is set to headline the 15th annual “Notes & Words” benefit at Oakland’s iconic Fox Theater on Saturday, May 11, 2024. Joining him on stage are literary luminaries like Nicholas D. Kristof and rising literary star C Pam Zhang, whose words are sure to enchant and inspire. From Dan’s soul-stirring renditions of modern-day classics to Zhang’s thought-provoking narratives, this promises to be an unforgettable night.

But it’s more than just a night of talent; it’s a beacon of hope. 100% of the proceeds from the event will directly benefit UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, providing vital support to children and families in need. Since its inception in 2010, Notes & Words has raised an impressive $16 million, showcasing the power of music and literature in making a difference.

As we eagerly anticipate this memorable event, we wanted to delve into the stories behind the artists so we reached out to Dan, who graciously shared with us insights into his music, his commitment to philanthropy, and the healing power of art.

Semisonic’s song “Closing Time” has become an anthem for many. What inspired the song, and did you anticipate its enduring popularity?

“Closing Time” started out as a request from my Semisonic bandmates, John Munson and Jacob Slichter. We had been playing the same song at the end of our set for a couple of years, and they wanted me to write a new closer for our shows. So I did it. The title came first, then a few of the phrases I’d heard from Minneapolis bouncers over time, then I realized that it had some other personal metaphorical meanings, and in a short time the song was done. 

You’ve also had a successful solo career, collaborating with artists like Adele and Taylor Swift. How does your approach to songwriting differ when working with others versus creating music for Semisonic?

The main difference is that I write most of the Semisonic songs alone – just me and a guitar and a piano. So it’s a completely different experience from a collaboration, which tends to be fun, funny, lots of laughs, lots of storytelling and digressions. I like both approaches.

 After a significant hiatus, Semisonic returned with “You’re Not Alone” in 2019. What inspired the band to reunite, and how did the creative process involve Liam Gallagher? 

Semisonic stopped seriously touring probably in 2002, and that’s when I started making solo records and writing for other artists. But we three remained close friends, and we’d cook up some reason to play about once a year – a benefit or a political fundraiser, etc – any excuse to hang out and have the joy of music together. During that time I would occasionally dip my toe in the water of writing for Semisonic, but somehow none of the songs I wrote in those 15 years or so really sounded like the band. Then in 2016 or 2017 I had a meeting with Oasis singer Liam Gallagher. It was a hilarious conversation, not least because I’m a huge fan. And afterwards I wrote about five songs and sent them to Liam. They were too late for his album, but when I listened back to them I realized that they weren’t really Liam Gallagher songs – they were Semisonic songs. That’s what led to me writing the batch that became “You’re Not Alone.”

Dan, your involvement with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals for the “Notes & Words” benefit showcases your commitment to philanthropy. What inspired you to partner with this organization, and what does this cause mean to you personally?

I’m not sure I’m unusually philanthropic. Like many people I give a certain proportion of my income to various causes that I believe in. But in addition, I have a skill (doing gigs) that is useful for charitable fundraisers, so I do those pretty regularly. My daughter Coco was in the ICU in Minneapolis for 8 months after she was born and in the pediatric care unit there for 4 further months, not to mention a few long stays in the years after. So I have a special gratitude for children’s health providers and hospitals. Also my wife Diane and I have spent several years living in the Bay Area over time. So when I learned that they have a regular “Notes & Words” benefit, and I’ve been doing a show called “Words + Music by Dan Wilson,” it seemed like a great fit.

This benefit combines the healing power of music with support for children’s hospitals. How do you believe music can contribute to healing, especially for children facing health challenges?

On a personal level, I have a family member who is barely verbal, but who “speaks” the language of music fluently. So music is our best way of accessing her inner life, which is a huge blessing. And I’ve heard many times that music has a healing effect on people, and I completely believe it. I’m a member of a community choir in LA, and very few recording sessions are as joyful and reviving as one of our choir rehearsals. Singing with people seems more than natural for humans – more like necessary. We’re like wolves, we need to howl in a pack together to fully be our mammal selves.

As a musician, preparing for a benefit concert like this must be a unique experience. How do you approach crafting a performance that entertains and resonates with the audience’s sense of empathy and support for the cause?

I’m not really there to whip up people’s support for the cause – everyone there is already a supporter. I feel like my role is to give everyone a taste of what it’s like to write songs at a high level and create music that brings people together. The biggest challenge at charitable events is if it’s a dinner – the clinging of glasses and cutlery can be louder than some of my songs. 

Your participation in events like “Notes & Words” helps raise awareness for children’s healthcare initiatives. How do you believe musicians and artists can use their platform to advocate for important causes on and off stage?

I guess I hope that everyone uses whatever means they can to help others and advocate for a better world. This can go  from helping a neighbor to raising money to speaking out about social and political issues. I think we’re better off when everyone is engaged in the community in whatever way is available to them. 

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals 15th Annual “Notes & Words” Benefit featuring Dan Wilson of Semisonic will take place May 11 at the Fox Theater in Oakland

Having released albums under Digital Nations, a label founded by Steve Vai, music critic Louis Raphael has remained deeply connected to the pulse of the San Francisco music scene. Following his tenure as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he embarked on creating Music in SF® to authentically highlight the vibrant offerings of the city's music scene.

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