Sound of success
Dan Wilson. Picture: Supplied

You may not have heard of Dan Wilson but you've definitely heard Dan Wilson. The Minneapolis-born, Harvard- educated painter-turned-musician enjoyed success with his band Semisonic in the late 90s before writing and producing hits for the likes of Taylor Swift, Pink, Keith Urban, Dixie Chicks, Nas, Josh Groban and - most notably - Adele.

In 2010, the American helped the English songstress complete her heartbreaking ballad, Someone Like You, and played piano on the ubiquitous mega-hit.

"Adele told me later that she knew that it was going to change her life," Wilson says from New York City, where he is promoting latest solo album Love Without Fear.

The Los Angeles-based 52-year-old adds that he wasn't so sure but definitely believed that Adele was something very special.

"That's why I do this - to work with somebody so brilliant, somebody so full of life and inspiration," he says.

However, Wilson started to believe that Adele could be right when friends within the music industry started emailing to say the song had made them cry.

"All these insiders that are really jaded were writing and saying they were weeping hearing my song," he chuckles. "I started to suspect something big was going to happen."

Someone Like You is one of the biggest hits of the past decade, perhaps the past few decades. The song helped earn Wilson his second Grammy Award as one of the producers of Adele's 21, which was named album of the year in 2012.

However, he says, the hit didn't change his life but rather "reinforced" his status as a go-to guy for big-name artists. Someone Like You's success also engendered jealousy among his peers: "In a way, it was just like 'F…, look at what Dan Wilson's done - I'm so mad at him'."

Wilson earned his first Grammy for co-writing Dixie Chicks' defiant hit Not Ready to Make Nice, which won song of the year in 2007 (plus two other gongs for which he was not eligible).

The master songwriter says that out of all his hits he's most proud of Not Ready to Make Nice, which tapped into the country trio's anger in being told to "shut up and sing" after criticising the US President George W. Bush's actions in the Middle East.

"I wanted to make something that would help them speak their mind," Wilson says. "We completely succeeded and people really liked it."

Another favourite is Secret Smile, which was a sleeper hit for Semisonic in 1999 on two fronts - the song, which slowly climbed up the charts in the UK and Europe, came to Wilson in a dream.

"I probably dreamt two-thirds of the song," he says. "I woke up, wrote it down and then I woke up a few hours later and checked it out.

"Sure enough, it was really great and I went around asking my friends 'Is this something I've stolen' and they would say 'No, that's a new song'."

Wilson also mentions Home, from country star Dierks Bentley's 2012 album of the same name, as another favourite. "We wanted to write an inclusive, patriotic song."

The married father of two likes to work to a brief and enjoys collaborating. Wilson recently wrote with English singer Birdy for the soundtrack of upcoming film, The Fault in Our Stars.

He says they both saw an unfinished version of the romantic comedy-drama and were "super- inspired".

"That was easy to do," Wilson says. "We got together for three days, we wrote three songs and all three of them, I think, are fantastic. We could've written three more if we had three more days, we were so into that film."

Right before this interview, Wilson walked past a Manhattan bar playing Set Me on Fire, one of two songs he co-wrote with Australia's own Missy Higgins for her 2012 album, The Ol' Razzle Dazzle. The other is the single, Everyone's Waiting. Higgins returns the favour by singing on Even the Stars Are Sleeping, the lovely conclusion to Love Without Fear.

Wilson says he enjoys hanging out with the Melbourne singer-songwriter and predicts they'll work together again.

After earning a living as a painter and fronting Semisonic for three albums, Wilson spent the past decade working behind the scenes. He says it feels "normal" to have his name (and face) on the cover of the album, rather than in the sleeve notes, which he designed.

But he is doubtful that he'll ever match the success of that heartbroken ballad written with a then-unknown English diva.

"Someone Like You is going to be on karaoke for years to come and I love the song," Wilson says.

"There was a skit on Saturday Night Live about that song and how everybody used it if they wanted to have a good cry. They put it on and they'd instantly start weeping. It was so fun to be mocked in that way, or gently teased - it was great."

The West Australian

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