Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sometimes It Hurts Instead

"Someone Like You" (Adele) - Dan Wilson, co-writer/co-producer

What is the greatest post-Y2K pop song?  And, by the way, doesn't the term "Y2K" sound completely archaic now?

Yes, trying to crown a song as "greatest" in any way is a silly endeavor.  It's completely subjective.  The alternative is to use numbers: most sales/radio play, for instance.  And what does that really tell us?  

But people love to rank things.  College football teams, hamburgers, or sitcoms, the question of which is best cannot be resolved - but it can lead to endless hours of argument which, when done right, is entertaining and enlightening.

So let me ask again: what is the greatest pop song since 1/1/2000?

To me, to truly achieve greatness a song must become ubiquitous, so much so that even people who never intentionally listen to music know it.  After all, "pop" is short for "popular."

The trick is to create such a song without making it so vanilla that everyone finds it listenable but few find it essential.  And the biggest challenge of all is that even the most brilliant songs can become grating after a while, when you've heard it for the zillionth time in the last month.

So, off the top of my head, my short list of mega-hits this century would include songs like "Poker Face" by Lady Gaga; "F*** You" by Cee Lo Green; "Hey Ya" by Outkast; "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepson; "Put a Ring on it" by Beyonce; "I Kissed a Girl" by Kate Perry; "Gagnam Style" by Psy; "Viva la Vida" by Coldplay; "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk; and "You Belong to Me," by Taylor Swift.

There are certainly other songs that merit mention with those above. When I think of the last decade or so, this is the music that jumps out at me.  But one song that rises above them all: Adele's "Someone Like You."  

Like all timeless performances, it sounds fresh yet familiar.  The arrangement is elegant. Adele's vocal is so powerful that it feels like it's coming from your heart, not hers.  And love lost is perhaps the most universal of themes. 

Dan Wilson co-wrote and co-produced "SLY" with Adele.  He is a popular artist in his own right, from his days with Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic ("Closing Time," speaking of ubiquitous songs) to his current solo work.  He's a talented painted, has won Grammy Awards, and has co-written songs with everyone from Keith Urban to Weezer, Josh Groban to Nicole Atkins, John Legend to the Dixie Chicks ("Not Ready to Make Nice," anyone?).

You can read more about him at his excellent website.  Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for his mailing list and get free songs.

Dan kindly took time to answer my questions about his work on "Someone Like You."

1 - The song was inspired by Adele's ex's engagement.  How developed were the lyrics and music when you started co-writing and what did you bring to her process?

Dan Wilson: What Adele showed me at the beginning of our session was four lines of the first verse along with a cool single-note guitar part. It may be that she had some other ideas in her back pocket, because when we wrote the music for the chorus, she ran to the other room and came back very quickly withe the first half of the chorus. The rest of the song was hard work, she took the lead a lot with lyrics and I mostly helped with music and the structure of the song. I think I occasionally suggested better ways to phrase the lyrics.

2 - I read recently that the record label wanted to re-record SLY because it was too sparse and slow.  That blows my mind, as the utter simplicity of voice and piano is the perfect setting for a song as intimate and raw as this one.  How did you and Adele decided on this arrangement?

DW: I guess they did two alternate versions. I heard one, it had a beautiful string arrangement. They tried other versions partly because the recording you hear was thought of as the "songwriting demo." Everyone loved it the minute they heard it, but the team took some pains trying to beat it with a more complete version.

3 - I was going to ask if you worry about using a title that's been used before, thinking that Rod Stewart had a hit with "Someone Like You," before it dawned on me that this is simply a phrase used in his song titled "Reason to Believe" (which, ironically, is a title Bruce Springsteen later recycled).  If that makes sense.   So the actual question is: did you sweat the title for SLY much or was it fairly obvious all along what it would be?

DW: Actually, I didn't know what the title should be when we finished the song, and I asked Adele what she thought. "Someone Like You" was her best guess at the time and it just stuck. I'm not picky about song titles, I don't think you need to be original in naming children, nor in naming songs.

4 - Not many songs become iconic enough to inspire a Saturday Night Live sketch. Assuming you've seen it, how did it make you feel to see the ribbing of SLY's ability to jerk tears?

DW: That was one of the greatest honors of my musical life!

5 - You have been successful writing and co-writing for numerous artists in disparate genres, from country to rock to pop.  What is it you think Adele was looking for from you, specifically?

DW: I think Adele wasn't sure what I would bring to the session. Rick Rubin had been urging her to write with me, and she loved the Dixie Chicks songs I'd written with the band, so maybe she thought she'd get a little more American twang into whatever we did together.

6 - You play the piano on the song.  Did you record live to vocal or as a separate track?

DW: We recorded the piano first, I played to a click track and every time it seemed like it should slow down or speed up, I had the engineer, Phil Allen, create a little accelerando or rallentando in the click track, then played over that. Then we worked on the vocals second.

7 - SLY was voted the 3rd most popular single in the UK in the last 60 years, trailing only MJ's "Billie Jean" at #2 and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" at #1.  Which of those two songs do you prefer?

DW: I love "Bohemian Rhapsody" and listen to it a lot. I'm indifferent to "Billie Jean," I don't like the self-pitying vibe of that song. MJ did a lot better songs than that.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic interview about one of the best pop songs of the last 10 years. Cool.