More than two decades later, Dan Wilson can still remember the conversation he had with then MCA promotion executive Nancy Levin on the eve of the release of “Closing Time.” The song turned out to be the breakthrough single for his band, Semisonic, and subsequently launched Wilson’s career as an in-demand songwriter and a solo artist.
“She said, ‘Are you excited?’ and I said, ‘No, why?’ And she goes, ‘Because this song is going to be huge.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know that. How do we know that?’ She was really annoyed with me, not because I was being a killjoy, but she thought it was plainly obvious that this record was going to be huge and I was just assuming it would be just like the last one.”
“Closing Time” was the big hit on Semisonic’s second album, 1998’s Feeling Strangely Fine, which is being celebrated again with a recently released 20th anniversary reissue. The album, expanded for the CD and digital release with four B-sides, is also being released on vinyl, marking the first time one of the band’s releases has been issued on vinyl.
Levin, who died in a dirt-biking accident in 2010, was correct. “Closing Time” went on to top the Alternative Songs chart and garner a Grammy nomination for best rock song. It subsequently helped push Feeling Strangely Fine to platinum sales. It also put Wilson on the map as a noted songwriter. All About Chemistry, the band’s 2001 follow-up album, failed to reach the commercial heights of its predecessor, but it notably contained “One True Love,” a song Wilson co-wrote with legendary singer/songwriter Carole King.
“You can’t really decide what kind of lottery you’re going to win,” Wilson says. “Mostly I think of ‘Closing Time’ as the lightning of good luck that struck me. The good luck of the song was much bigger than the good luck of the band, but the band was also very, very lucky.”
Semisonic, which also includes bassist John Munson and drummer Jacob Slichter, never officially broke up. Following the release of All About Chemistry they went on an extended hiatus, but still occasionally reunite for charity gigs in their hometown of Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, “Closing Time” continues to have a life of its own. It’s appeared in several films and TV shows, including How I Met Your Mother, and has become a “last call” anthem of sorts.
A decade ago, Wilson revealed that the song also has a meaning that runs a bit deeper. It’s partially inspired by the birth of his daughter, Coco. “The guys wanted a new song to close our sets with,” Wilson says. “I thought ‘Closing Time’ would be a good title. We had spent seven years of our lives at that point, four nights a week entertaining people. That was our life. Some bouncers yelling things, closing time coming, all that imagery, literally, that’s how the song started and then when I was halfway done, I started realizing the whole thing was a pun about being born, so I just made sure that the rest of the thing could ride with that double meaning, but nobody got the joke and I didn’t bother to explain. I thought everyone would get it.”
Some might perceive Semisonic as a one-hit wonder, but that isn’t the case. “I think there was a time that I was defensive” because of that perception, Wilson adds. Feeling Strangely Fine also included “Singing in My Sleep,” which reached No. 11 on the Alternative Songs chart, as well as “Secret Smile,” which reached No. 13 in the U.K. and 21 on Alternative Songs. “For a while, I would sort of irritatedly cite that we had another huge hit everywhere else, but then that was just me saying I was a two-hit wonder,” he adds. “You gotta move on at some point, and do other things.”
Still, Wilson acknowledges it was “Closing Time” that opened the door to those other things. “Because all the people that I co-wrote with, or the producers that I worked with, had all happily listened to that song 100 times. So it made me seem like a person who could somehow magically cause lightning to strike,” he says. “I also think it was the kind of thing that the artists who worked with me all liked as a song. It wasn’t like I wrote the biggest guilty pleasure for the artists that I worked with. It actually was a song they dug, so that creates some level of trust and comfort. After a while, I had written a bunch of other things, and those were the things that paved the way, but for a while, ‘Closing Time’ surely did that.”
Aside from working as a songwriter and producer, Wilson also continues to work as a recording artist. His 2017 album, Re-Covered, offers the best overview of both of those worlds. It features Wilson’s versions of co-writes originally made famous by other artists, including Adele’s Grammy-winning chart-topper “Someone Like You,” the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Taylor Swift’s “Treacherous” and others.
Since the release of that set, Wilson is continuing on both fronts. In September, he released “We Ain’t Telling,” the first of a series of songs he plans to put out on a regularly basis, instead of releasing a new album. Today Billboard is exclusively premiering Wilson’s next new tune, “Uncanny Valley,” which he says, as the title suggests, is about living in the Los Angeles suburbs. “I moved with my family to the San Fernando Valley in L.A. in 2011, and I’m still getting used to it,” he says. “I find L.A. to be warm, welcoming, impersonal, weird, and scary at the same time. ‘Uncanny Valley’ is about what it’s like for me to be a songwriter living in the Valley in 2018.”
On the songwriting front, more than a half-dozen songs Wilson has co-written have been released this year, including Steve Perry’s “No More Cryin'” from the former Journey singer’s comeback album, Traces, as well as songs by a diverse roster of artists including Mike Posner, Jason Mraz, Brett Dennen, Missy Higgins, Leon Bridges and Halsey.
Working with Perry was a particular thrill for Wilson. “I’m a total Journey fan,” he confesses. “Steve still sounds like Steve, so when you’re trying out ideas and you have an amazing singer testing out those ideas with you, it’s just incredible. Creatively, Steve is a real-deal songwriter with an insanely, credible and amazing songbook, so that was totally cool.”
Though their collaboration stayed in the vault for months, Wilson says, the soulful ballad was a late addition to the album, and ended up as the second single to be released from the album.
And he’s not only working with veteran artists. “It’s fun for me because basically the same week that [Perry track] came out, one of my songs that I did with Mike Posner and Ricky Reed came out as a single, ‘Song About You,’ and it’s getting played on KROQ. It’s sort of a very current event, a brand-new song, very freshly written. The one I wrote with Steve I wrote a while ago. There’s something really beautiful to exist in both of those ways as a songwriter.”