Having endured record-label purgatory with his bands Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare, Dan Wilson knew better than to sit around waiting for his first solo album to come out after finishing it in 2005. So he kept working.
And that's why this week's release of "Free Life" might be semi-perfect timing.
"I would've been happy if this record came out 2 ½ years ago, because at the time I thought I had done everything possible to make it a great record," the Minneapolis music vet said. "But thanks to a tangle of unintended consequences, that didn't happen. Now, it looks great if the plan all along had been to wait. It makes it a pretty special year for me."
Out on the label of the industry's most in-demand producer, Rick Rubin, the 13-track collection provides a fitting bookend to Wilson's 2007.
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It started at the Grammy Awards as he shared the podium with the Dixie Chicks in February, thanking his wife and daughter on national TV. He won the song-of-the-year trophy for co-writing "Not Ready to Make Nice," the unapologetic political track that didn't win back the Chicks' conservative fan base, but did win them more respect from critics and peers.
Wilson himself has never been short on respect within the industry. Trip Shakespeare earned favorable press and a cult following in its seven-year run (1986-93). Semisonic fared even better, selling more than a million copies of its 1998 album, "Feeling Strangely Fine," on the back of the Grammy-nominated No. 1 modern-rock single "Closing Time."
Anybody who has followed the music industry over the past decade knows that 1998 is practically a lifetime ago. Instead of trying to court today's radio programmers and hip audiences with "Free Life," the 46-year-old singer aimed to make it something else: timeless.
Drummer Eric Fawcett, one of Wilson's chief collaborators throughout the album's five-year spawning, saw the distinction right away.
"I came into this project thinking it'd be a really high-pressure, professional situation," Fawcett recalled. "Here was the then-Grammy-nominated singer from Semisonic trying to capitalize on that success to catapult his solo career. But it was almost the exact opposite: Just a bunch of super-relaxed sessions at Dan's house."
Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare bassist John Munson, who also plays on "Free Life," said, "With this album, there was no question who was in charge and what he had in mind."
Since Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner also lives in the neighborhood, it's fair to say that writing a hit rock song will get you a house like the one Wilson and his wife, Diane, own.
A four-story Victorian built in 1903 near the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis, the home boasts giraffe-high ceilings, big windows that beg the sunlight, and golden wood floors that seem to ooze the ambience soaked up over a century. Dan, Diane and Coco, now 10, moved in just after the 9-11 attacks in 2001 - and just as the songs on "Free Life" were coming to life.
As touring wound down for Semisonic's last album, 2001's "All About Chemistry," Wilson began writing songs that he said he knew "were for a gentler, folkier album."
Munson recalled, "He told us he wanted to do a solo record for his next project, and in a way we were like, `What!' But in another way, we knew it's in Dan's nature to push himself somewhere else."
Semisonic never officially disbanded. The band got put on hold when its label, MCA, folded, a collapse that also forced Wilson to record his solo album without any label involvement. Talk about a blessing in disguise.
He opted to record right there in his house, taking inspiration from a collection of turn-of-the-century sheet music he assembled to match the home's era.
"I was trying to get the vibe of some family in 1910 sitting around singing while Sis plays piano," he recalled, pointing to "Bicycle Built for Two" as an example. "I dug up songs that were simple enough for amateur family hour. And I fell in love with that simplicity."
Another big influence was the 2002 Neil Young biography "Shakey," in which author Jimmy McDonough magically recounts Young's inspired communal recording techniques. Said Wilson, "He always sang the vocals on the basic track, with everybody around him playing at the same time. It's all about the experience. And if it's not good, you put the song away for a while. You don't try to perfect it too much."
Both those scenarios - simple songs and roomy, in-the-moment recordings - are the defining traits of "Free Life."
All at once, the album manages to sound raw but pristine, low-key but hi-fi, lonesome but warm. The tracks are heavy on piano and acoustic guitar and light on the electric fuzz that was a Semisonic trademark, from the swooning opener "All Kinds" to the unabashedly philosophical title track to the politics-weary gem "Hand on My Heart."
An utterly tender collection that's perfectly complemented by Wilson's gentle voice, it's more like something from Patty Griffin or Shawn Colvin than any male tunesmith. Just try to hang on to any cynicism in "Cry" when he sings, "Don't you wanna make me feel like I'll never fail, never die," or in "All Kinds," with the opening line, "You've got the kind of beautiful/That makes the boys want to give up running around."
The most telling (and best) tune is "Sugar," a lilting and lovelorn ballad with Sheryl Crow on guest vocals. Wilson said it's "exactly the kind of beautiful simplicity I wanted."
"I got the idea that if I wrote really simple songs, people could learn the song minutes before recording it. And that really excited me. So I intentionally took out all the twists and quirks and idiosyncrasies that I thought were important. And as I removed them, I think the songs got better."
In the end, "Free Life" lived through countless sessions over five years. Wilson took advantage of the various delays to fine-tune the album. Munson recalled getting "three or four `final' copies of it."
Musicians on the album include name-brand players like Crow, the Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench, Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks (who also wound up writing with the Dixie Chicks). Mostly, though, Wilson stuck with a group of old friends and local conspirators, including Munson and Fawcett, Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter (who mainly played keyboards) and Mason and Amy Jennings.
"I focused on making sure I was surrounded by people I loved and admired," Wilson said. "I wanted to create a cozy vibe for myself, almost a fireplace-like coziness."
The album didn't leave that comfort zone until it got into the hands of Rick Rubin, thanks to Crow. Rubin, who's putting out "Free Life" on his own label, American Recordings, has worked with everyone from the Chicks and Johnny Cash to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Slayer.
"There exists a purity and an honesty in (Wilson's) work that is few and far between in today's music," Rubin said in a statement. "When I listen, I feel like I'm witnessing a special moment in time."
Pointing to Rubin's work with Cash, Wilson said, "Rick only adds the most necessary things to a recording, and then maybe he'll even try taking them out."
The producer and artist were on the same musical page, but not the same timetable.
Rubin's troubled dealings with the corporate backers for American Recordings - first he signed with Warner Bros., then Columbia Records, where he's now co-chairman - caused most of the delays behind "Free Life."
There was another stop in the action when Wilson underwent surgery to remove a tumor on his lung (he's OK now). Other than that, he said with a shrug, "Two years in the life of this album were literally eaten up by just the business and its travails."
It obviously wasn't a waste of time, though. Rubin sent copies of the "Free Life" tracks to the Chicks, and they were so impressed, they wanted "Sugar" for themselves. Instead, they got Wilson to co-write six tracks with them.
The Chicks disc was not the only outside project Wilson took on while waiting for "Free Life." He also co-wrote with young radio stars Jason Mraz and Rachael Yamagata. And he produced several albums, including this year's Storyhill CD and a couple with former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty (one's in the can, awaiting release).
None of these projects, though, has added momentum to "Free Life" like the Dixie Chicks collaboration. Seizing on its success, Wilson and Rubin decided recently to add one last song to the album: "Easy Silence," Dan's glistening version of a track he created with the Chicks.
`The song helps bring the album full circle,' Wilson said, pondering the Chicks' effect on his album. "Half this record comprises the songs that made the Chicks want to work with me in the first place. Hopefully, people won't think it's the other way around, and I'm chasing their record with my own.
"That's OK if they do, but it just seems very funny to me," he added, not laughing in the slightest, "after how long it's been, waiting to get this record out."