With his Grammy for co-writing the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice" sitting at home, safe and sound, former Semisonic singer Dan Wilson is now turning his attention to his solo debut — and none other than Rick Rubin, this year's Grammy-winning Producer of the Year, says it's one of the best he's ever worked on.
"It's mind-blowing," said Rubin of Wilson's Free Life, which is slated for a summer release. "It's my favorite album. He's just great."
Wilson, who is signed to Rubin's American label, said he began recording Life with a bunch of his friends from Minneapolis five years ago, not knowing what he was going to do with the songs at that point. At those early sessions, Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter played keyboards and bassist John Munson chipped in as well, during a period when the band best known for the late-'90s hit "Closing Time" was taking a break from recording and touring.
"I had two ideals in mind when I was writing it," said Wilson. "One was the book 'Shakey,' [Jimmy McDonough's Neil Young biography] that was on the table the whole time we were recording. Neil talks about how to get the vocal and the band [recorded] first, and then you can add something later. Mainly it was about singing with the band live, and I found it really inspiring to try and capture something live in the recording."
The second thing that Wilson kept close at hand was a copy of Tom Petty's 1994 Wildflowers album, produced by Rubin, of course, which Wilson said was an inspiration for its purity of sound and songwriting. (Rubin has said of the LP, "It took us two years to make it sound like we made it in a weekend.")
After completing his first set of demos, Wilson sent them to his pal Sheryl Crow, who forwarded them to Rubin. "He called and said, 'Hey man, let's talk about music,' " Wilson said of the reaction from Rubin, whom he had never met before. The unlikely pair made a "natural connection," and Wilson ended up recording more tracks in Rubin's Los Angeles mansion/studio in late 2004 and early 2005 (see "Rubin Turns To Linkin Park, Weezer After Winning Buckets Of Grammys").
Wilson noted that the delay in finishing the album was partly due to a now-healed lung disease that took him out of commission for much of 2005.
"The idea was to capture this candlelit moment of this connection between people, as opposed to layering something together in a fastidious way and trying to make it perfect," Wilson said. He described the songs as vulnerable and emotional, with a classic, timeless sound. Among the guests who played on the sessions are Nickel Creek guitarist Sean Watkins, and long-time Tom Petty bandmate Benmont Tench and Wilson's brother, Matt, on keyboards. Crow also laid down some background vocals.
"It's that classic solo album where you get all 25 of your friends together to play on it," he said. "It's a lot of acoustic instruments, but it's definitely a rock record. What it has in common with Semisonic are the melodies, but the lyrics are more personal and philosophical."
Wilson is keeping busy as he awaits a release date later this year for Free Life. He's writing for British diva Lucie Silvas and has production duties on the upcoming solo album from former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty and the Columbia Records debut from Chicago rock band AbsentStar.