3 Highly Personal Songs Dan Wilson Co-Wrote with Other Artists

Many of us became familiar with Dan Wilson when his band Semisonic released one of the most popular rock tracks of the late ‘90s, “Closing Time.” While generally understood as a song about having to leave a bar that’s about to close for the night, Wilson has said it was also a metaphor for birth—as in getting “bounced from the womb.” Childbirth was very much on Wilson’s mind when he wrote “Closing Time,” as he and his wife’s first child was born not long after he penned the song.

Videos by American Songwriter

While Semisonic has not had another hit of the magnitude of “Closing Time,” Wilson has gone on to be an extremely prolific writer of hit songs for other artists. Among the better-known songs Wilson has co-written are “Treacherous” from Taylor Swift’s 2012 album Red, Chris Stapleton’s 2023 hit “White Horse,” and Adele’s 2011 No. 1 smash “Someone like You.” The latter of these songs, much like “Closing Time,” had a personal meaning for its singer.

In a previous piece for American Songwriter, Wilson explained how Adele wanted him to help her write a song about the heartbreak she was feeling over a relationship that had recently ended. In an interview for the San Francisco Examiner, Adele said Wilson “had me on my hands and knees, crying my eyes out—there’s just something about him that made me completely open up as a composer.”

Wilson has also helped several other artists to open up and create some of their best work. That certainly was the case for the three esteemed artists listed below.

Dixie Chicks, “Not Ready to Make Nice”

“Not Ready to Make Nice” is about the band’s reluctance to forgive radio stations for blacklisting them after lead vocalist Natalie Maines was critical of the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Wilson worked with The Dixie Chicks on nearly half of their 2006 album Taking the Long Way—their first studio recording since getting blacklisted and their last under the name Dixie Chicks (they became The Chicks). During one of their sessions, Wilson asked about their experience of having their music taken off the airwaves.

Prior to a solo performance in Los Angeles in 2012, Wilson explained the process of writing the song began with him recalling Maines saying, “I’m not ready to make nice” the morning after they had discussed the band getting blacklisted. Excited and caffeinated, Wilson arrived at the studio with his idea for the song’s title, and by the end of the day, “Not Ready to Make Nice” was written. In explaining the role that caffeine played in the song’s composition, Wilson remarked that mathematician Richard Feynman once said, “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” He then added, “It’s possible that a songwriter is a machine for turning caffeine—or wine—into songs.”

Taking the Long Way became The Dixie Chicks’ third No. 1 album, and as the lead single, “Not Ready to Make Nice” made it to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100—the highest peak achieved by any of their singles. It also reached No. 36 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Mitski, “The Only Heartbreaker”

Across Mitski’s seven album’s, “The Only Heartbreaker” is the only track for which she had a co-writer. She explained to Apple Music she worked with Wilson on the song because it “was this puzzle that I couldn’t solve. … And so I brought the song to him, and it turned out he’s really good. He helped me solve so many of the problems and kind of lead me out of the labyrinth of it.” In “The Only Heartbreaker,” Mitski bemoans a relationship where she is the only one making mistakes, but she is also the only one who cares enough to take risks. Through the song, she was trying to convey her awareness of her own imperfections and, at the same time, recognize that being imperfect is not the same as being bad.

Mitski’s second single from her 2022 album Laurel Hell became her first (and, so far, only) No. 1 song on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Airplay chart. To date, Laurel Hell is Mitski’s only Top 10 entry on the Billboard 200, peaking at No. 5.

Jon Batiste, “It Never Went Away”

Wilson’s ability to connect with his songwriting partners was particularly critical for his collaboration with Batiste. He was charged with helping Batiste write the closing number to his 2023 documentary American Symphony. The documentary details the coinciding of Batiste’s rise as an award-winning composer/musician and imminent Carnegie Hall premiere of his orchestral work American Symphony with the return of his wife Suleika Jaouad’s leukemia. In “It Never Went Away,” Batiste sings of his never-ending love for Joauad and their adventures together, even when God laughs at the plans they make together.

Batiste wrote “It Never Went Away” in the same musical style as lullabies he wrote for Jaouad to paint and fall asleep to. He said Wilson encouraged him to write the lyrics directly, avoiding metaphors. Wilson’s recollection of the songwriting process was of the co-writers “kind of trading lines in the verses.” In an interview for Minneapolis TV station KARE, he said, “It’s hard for me to sometimes remember which part who made up; I almost would trust the other person more.”

“It Never Went Away” was nominated for Best Original Song at the 2024 Academy Awards. Batiste performed the song at the awards ceremony.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

The Meaning Behind “Blow Away” by George Harrison and How It Helped Revitalize His Solo Career