By Bill Kopp
Minneapolis rock trio Semisonic scored big with “Closing Time,” the hit single from their second album, Feeling Strangely Fine. The song – and all of Semisonic’s music – may have been out of step with the prevailing grunge scene, but listeners across the globe instantly warmed to the melodic sounds of the group. “Closing Time” hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s alternative chart, reached the Top 40 in four other countries, and earned a Grammy nomination (Best Rock Song) in 1999. Buoyed by the hit single, Feeling Strangely Fine went Platinum in the U.S., and Semisonic was catapulted to the big time.
But it wouldn’t last. While the band’s third album, 2001’s All About Chemistry, scored positive reviews, sales didn’t approach that of the group’s previous record. The band soon went inactive, and all three members went on to other projects.
Most prominently, songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Dan Wilson pursued a highly successful career as a songwriter and producer. He co-wrote six of the songs on The Dixie Chicks’ (now The Chicks’) 2006 album Taking the Long Way, and the Grammy-winning single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the group’s biggest hit. In 2011, British vocalist Adele scored her biggest success to date with the album 21; Wilson co-wrote three of the record’s songs. One of those was “Someone Like You,” a worldwide hit single and another Grammy win for the songwriter. He’s also produced artists as diverse as Pink, Engelbert Humperdinck, Céline Dion and Taylor Swift.
After Semisonic went on hiatus, Drummer/keyboardist Jacob Slichter penned a lively memoir, 2004’s So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, a volume that expanded on his popular road diaries posted online during the height of Semisonic’s fame. Bassist John Munson – whose friendship and musical association with Wilson goes back to the 1980s when both were members of Trip Shakespeare – teamed up with Dan’s brother Matt (also formerly of Trip Shakespeare) in The Twilight Hours; that group released two superb (if little-known) albums, Stereo Night (2009) and 2016’s Black Beauty.
There had been no ugly falling out nor messy musical divorce among the members of Semisonic; the three remained in regular contact, even as Dan Wilson moved to Los Angeles and Slichter relocated to New York City. “I think all of us always expected we would make another record,” Slichter says. “We just didn't know when.”
Semisonic reconvened briefly in 2017 for a short run of Minneapolis shows commemorating the 20 anniversary of their debut album, Great Divide. They got together again soon to play dates celebrating the 25 anniversary of Feeling Strangely Fine, and again in 2019 for another handful of shows in their native city.
During those 2019 shows, Semisonic debuted at least three new songs, demonstrating that Wilson could still write music that captured the optimistic and catchy vibe of vintage-era Semisonic. Those three tunes – along with two others – appear on You’re Not Alone, the latest EP that represents the first new Semisonic studio release in more than 19 years.
On earlier Semisonic releases, the group’s approach was to write far more songs than would be needed, and then to select the very best for the album. And they approached You’re Not Alone in a similar fashion. “We recorded many more songs than actually ended up on the EP,” says Slichter. “But that always means that what we end up with is something we really love.”
Dan Wilson says that realism a guiding principle when he’s writing with or for another artist. “I'm likely to think, ‘Is this a real song? Does this feel like a real point of view? Is it bullshit, or is it real emotions and ideas?’” he explains. “And once I'm happy with that, that's what fuels me to finish an idea.”
He applies that same thinking to Semisonic’s music, but that presented a problem. “Over the years I would dip my toe in the water and try to write a Semisonic song,” he says. “But when I finished the song, it would always sound like either a Dan solo record or something that someone else entirely would sing. And it was only in late 2017 that I got a feeling of Semisonic in a song that just felt like the real deal.”
Then the floodgates opened. “Once I hit my stride,” Wilson says, “I did my usual thing of writing too many songs!” He ended up with at least 20.
Having written for so many other artists, Wilson has given a great deal of thought to what characteristics make one of his songs right for Semisonic. “I realize that when I’m writing for somebody, I’m really writing for the rhythm section,” he says. And Semisonic’s rhythm section of John Munson and Jacob Slichter has long possessed a style that stands apart from much of what was popular when it began.
Wilson chuckles as he summarizes the defining characteristics of grunge, the rock style du jour at the time Semisonic debuted. “That father-hating, lonely vengeance, dreams of glory vibe,” he says. “Semisonic never did that; we never sounded like that.” Instead, he suggests, his band displayed “a hopeful quality and kind of an openness. We never were portraying someone who was cooped up in their basement, full of anger. We were much more like flower children,” he admits with a laugh.
“And when I was writing [these new] songs for Semisonic, I realized that I didn't really have to work too hard at that,” he says. “I realized that it's okay to do that.”
But with 20 songs written – and at least 14 of those recorded – why isn’t Semisonic releasing a full album instead of an EP? Wilson offers multiple reasons. “The 10, 11 and 12 tracks [we recorded] are good,” he says, but “they didn't hang together the way the central five did.” And some of the other songs lacked another qualitry common to many of Semisonic’s best tunes. “They’re songs that I love and I think are really, really special,” Wilson says, “but they just didn't rock the way these songs do.”
When listeners hear new songs like the soaring title track and the riffing “Basement Tapes,” they may find themselves thinking that Semisonic has picked up right where it left off in 2001. And that idea hung over Wilson and his bandmates as they contemplated the group’s reactivation. Wilson says that as he discussed the future with Slichter and Munson, “there was an unanswered question floating over us: ‘How are we going to update our sound?’”
But they didn’t labor too long over the idea. “I feel like I'm as updated as I want to be,” Wilson says. “So I didn't have any hunger for updating Semisonic. I didn't need to feel like I want to prove anything.” He says that when he and his bandmates get together to play, that’s what Semisonic sounds like. “That’s unique,” he says. “Nobody else sounds like that.”
When the three got together to record You’re Not Alone, they kept that in mind. And Wilson recalls thinking, “We don't need to work hard to recapture anything, either. We're just gonna have to hear these songs, pick our first impressions and see what it sounds like when we play them with spirit and joy.” And that, he says, is what they did.
Slichter observes that for Semisonic, the process of recording music for release seems less forced that it did in the old days. “One thing that all of us realized – something that all artists get to – is that sometimes simpler is better,” he says. “Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, when we were making music, we would really try every single idea.”
But at the end of the process, they often found that their original, unadorned ideas worked best. “And now, we’ve sort of internalized that for ourselves,” he says. “Because we don't live in the same place, when we get together we have to make the best use of our time. And that further inspired us to say, ‘Okay, let's just take the straightest line we can from point A to point B. And we’ll see what happens.”
While Semisonic enlisted outside producers for its first two albums – Paul Fox and Nick Launay, respectively – they self-produced All About Chemistry. And they handled their own production duties once again for the EP. For his part, Wilson says that he has learned a lot from other producers. His 2007 solo debut Free Life was produced by Rick Rubin. He calls that experience “the craziest several-year-long masterclass you would ever want to have.” And Mike Viola – best known as the vocalist on the theme song from That Thing You Do! – co-produced Wilson’s third album, 2017’s Re-Covered.
“I learned a ton of things from Mike,” Wilson says. One lesson was knowing when you’ve got it right, when to stop trying. “It's so precious to have somebody in your corner, saying, ‘No, we're not gonna beat that. That's got the vibe; let's stick with that.’”
Producing yourself affords freedom, but Slichter emphasizes that it involves a great deal of work, some of which isn’t musical at all. “When you're in the band, you sort of think of the producer as the guy with the sort of authority,” he says. Slichter paints a word picture: “He's sort of sitting in a chair with a big star on it. He's got a megaphone in his hand, and he's saying, ‘Lights, camera, action!’ But that's not really it.”
Slichter says that the trio’s collective experience prepared them for handling production on You’re Not Alone. “Dan and John especially have experience as producers,” he points out. Munson co-produced both albums by The Twilight Hours and some of the releases from his jazz trio, The New Standards. “And Dan is, in fact, a Grammy-winning producer,” Slichter adds. “All of us are more experienced makers of art now, and I think that all of that shows up in our EP.”
“Being in a band is a very collaborative experience,” Wilson says. “And it's like living in a bubble, especially if you have success. Your bubble flies around the world, but you still live in a bubble.” He notes that inside of that bubble, there’s a potential – if not a necessity – to develop a deep level of trust.
“From that experience, I really learned how to be a collaborator,” he says. Going forward to work with others outside of Semisonic, he sharpened his own sense of what kinds of songs would excite them. “And having kind of flown that craft during the intervening time when Semisonic wasn't recording, now I go back into my band with that similar mentality,” he explains. “Now we're collaborators. What do you think? How does it sound to you? What have we missed? Is there any idea that we forgot to have?” He says that it’s all about “artistic thoroughness, passion and trusting the other person to have the right idea.”
Even though Semisonic was – albeit for a brief moment – one of the biggest bands in the world, Slichter doesn’t hold unrealistic aspirations for You’re Not Alone to repeat the success of “Closing Time.” “I don't think any of us expects any huge financial windfall from our EP,” he says. “I just want it to be something that we're really proud of. And we are; We’re really excited about it.”
Looking to the future, Slichter says, “The closest thing I have to a concrete goal is that enough people like the EP [so] that we can go around and play some shows. That won't happen until after the pandemic, but I'm still hopeful.”
Dan Wilson shares that guarded optimism. “I hope we're back to a world someday where a live performance makes sense,” he says. “There's gonna be a lot of creativity and intense thought put into how to have musical experiences, gatherings that respect the environment we're in. I'd love to play these songs for people, and I'm pretty sure that we will.”