How close did you come to releasing four EPs this year?
I’m not really at that speed of making albums and doing that. I’ve got other stuff going on in my life. But that would be rad if I could do that, just keep putting out music and keep touring and not make everything be such a big deal.
Had you already started working on these songs when you entered the studio for these quick recording sessions?
No, actually I didn’t this time. I write all the time and I have so many songs that are either done or finished or not even started that I’ve put aside. And these EPs that are out now were written in a completely different way from anything I’ve ever done. I went into the studio with nothing. That studio is at Dan Wilson’s house, who’s an awesome songwriter and producer and artist—I would just go over to his home studio, and we’d sit down and talk, and I’d say, “I wanna have a song about this.” We’d just pull out guitars and, together, he and I would write and lay down tracks and then call musicians in to redo or improve the things we’d done before. Everything was inspired, created, produced and finished in that way. It was pretty cool, because it’s something I’ve never done before, and it opened up a lot of doors.
You’ve touched on the energy one needs to go in and create a piece of work like an album or an EP. Before some of your past albums, you purposefully took some time to escape the realities of being a working musician and decompress before trying to stoke your creative fire. Did you find that jumping right back into recording between EPs directly changed your lyrical and creative process?
It’s interesting because, on my last album, [2016’s] Por Favor, I had just finished touring for it and then I disappeared into the mountains for a few months and just wrote a bunch of songs and, at that point, I didn’t have a label. So, it was months of trying to find a new home for myself and my music. Once we got that sorted, then the conversation of how I was going to make this next record started happening. That’s when the idea of EPs came up, and then the idea of who I would collaborate with came up. Dan Wilson is a friend I’ve known for a while, and I have wanted to work with him in some capacity, but we haven’t been able to find the time to do it. He was available and I was available, so we decided to just do it. So, all through that period of going away and decompressing and reflecting, I was writing, but those songs aren’t on these EPs. [Laughter.] They are going to come out, I just don’t know when.
It will be interesting to look back on your headspace at the time you wrote those tunes with some distance when you are able to finally record them.
[Laugher.] Yeah, and they’ll definitely be re-imagined.
In terms of the two EPs that you did release, did you group the songs thematically as you were writing them and then decide which record to include them on?
It’s the former. It’s chronologically. The first song that we wrote is the first song on the first EP. We just made songs and recorded them and, once we got five, we had an EP. And I took a little break from that and went on the road, and then we did it again.
It’s weird talking about it, because it’s something I’d never really done before. I’ve always just written by myself in a room and worked on songs, and worked them over and mulled them over, then gone into the studio with a plan. Which is the complete opposite.
While both EPs still feel really in line with your catalog, you’ve cited some unexpected influences, like Post Malone, during your recent interviews. How did he shape these songs?
Well, I heard his music on the radio before but didn’t know who he was—I didn’t have a name for the songs. But then, when I sort of discovered who he was, it was that he had this song “Better Now” on his new album; it’s a great song, and it’s very vulnerable and honest. But the thing that struck me most about it was that I could hear the reggae influence and I could hear a long history of upbeat, pop ballads that dates back to old Doo-Wop.
Certainly, the reggae aspect that I heard in the song was [akin to] something I’ve always tried to do—whether or not you can hear it. I’ve always found inspiration in reggae music. So I was moved by the song, not only because the lyrics are great and it’s vulnerable, but also because of the sounds that were coming out of it. I thought, “Oh, this is really cool. This is something I’ve always tried to do, but maybe not in that way.” I just heard where that song was coming from, and I dove into it and I dove into his music. I like him a lot as an artist. He’s totally unique.
Hearing that song makes me think to myself, “I need to go back to just having fun and playing around.” And what ended up happening is that we wrote “Be Somebody,” and at first it was a lot more like that Post Malone song, but that’s just not where I’m at—that’s not the kind of music I make, and it really wasn’t working. Somebody at my label said, “There’s nothing I can do with this song. It’s kind of boring.” So we just sped it up—we just played it faster and re-tracked everything, and all of a sudden it was way more emotional, and the lyrics just sounded much better when I sang it at a faster tempo with some harmony to it. And now I’m really proud of it.
The whole EP is kind of like that. I’m always listening to music, and whether it’s current stuff or whether it’s music that I’ve always listened to, it ends up influencing me. I try not to think about it too much or go, “Is this the right thing for me to make?” We just started writing and recording and if it worked, it worked. If it didn’t, it didn’t. There are a couple that we wrote that didn’t make the EP, and that’s fine. It’s the way it always is when making a record. But, it all just feels very current, very immediate.
Over the years your music has pivoted between more introspective, singer-songwriter music and more kaleidoscopic sounds designed for big festival stages. At this point, do you feel like you’re writing with either approach in mind?
I think that’s just probably my personality. I like it all, and I see myself as—first and foremost—someone with an acoustic guitar that can play in a small setting, but I love the thrill of playing music with energy to it, especially onstage.
The music video for “Already Gone” stars an 80-year-old old woman named Vera, and you help her check off the bucket-list items she was always too busy living life to complete. The video is also part of your year-long campaign to spread positivity during these divisive times. What inspired that video?
The message behind everything is that I’m at a place now where I’m trying to make songs that are positive and come from a good place. I mean, I get sad and depressed just like everybody else—I’m a human like everybody else is—but I can’t bring myself to put out angry or sad music anymore. And even when I’ve tried to do it in the past, it never really, fully went there. So, by just understanding who I am and who I want to be and what I want to contribute to the world, I just wanted to do things for good and put something positive out there. And I’m so thankful to have such a great team—from my label to my management and everybody that I work with. We hired an outside consultant company to help us put that message out there, and we just came up with a real simple concept of just doing things for good. And when it came to making a music video, we thought, “Let’s just do something good for somebody.” We tricked a lady into thinking she was auditioning for just a regular old music video, but when she told us what she wanted to do on a perfect day, we pulled the money together and fulfilled all her wishes. That video has traction because it’s real, because she’s a total star and she’s totally having fun doing all those things. She’s going to the beach and eating ice cream in a bowl with sprinkles.
You can’t script that. I feel like I’m a part of it, but I’m also not really a part of it. It’s the music that I’ve made or co-created or put out there that created an opportunity for her. But, when everybody gets on board with somebody or something, and the goal is to make something happy, it’s so cool. I’m just lucky to be a part of that.
You spent the summer on the road with Jason Mraz. What were your takeaways from the tour?
Oh, it’s great. He’s doing the same thing as I am, but on a much bigger level. The whole concept for his album, Know, which is really great, is all about love and positivity. [Wilson also worked on Know.] It’s all bright colors, and his tour is just one big, happy family, and the name of the tour is “Good Vibes.” It’s perfect for me, because that’s the best way to describe everything I’m trying to do and doing it with a much bigger audience. I’ve known him for probably twelve years, and I haven’t seen him in a while, so it’s nice to reconnect with him. I know a ton of people in his band, and some of them have been in my band in the past. So, it definitely doesn’t feel like work.
What are your immediate plans for when the “Good Vibes” tour winds down in mid-September?
Well, I have lots more touring to do in the fall and winter. Then, I’ve got more songs I’m trying to finish, and I suppose in the earlier part of next year myself and all the awesome people that I work with, we’re gonna regroup and figure out what to do next. Right now, I’m loving this EP thing, I’m hoping we can keep it going, but you never know.
Dan Wilson has an incredibly diverse resume and has worked on some of the biggest albums of the past few years. In addition to his own band Semisonic, that list includes the Dixie Chicks, Adele, Leon Bridges, Florence + The Machine, Weezer, Josh Groban, Keith Urban, Nicole Atkins, Harry Connick Jr., Spoon, My Morning Jacket, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Chris Stapleton. What lessons did you take from your time with him that you hope to apply to this next round of writing and recording sessions?
Well, as a songwriter, I’ve learned from him—or at least been reminded—that a song can be anything. A good song can be about anything, and it can be anything. But he’s just such a patient, happy person to work with. He’s always in a good place, always in a good mood, and that’s probably the biggest impact he’s had on me—just who he is naturally as a person. When you’re sitting in the room with him, whether you’re writing music or just talking, he’s just a pleasure to be around. And all of his music that he’s ever made, I assume, comes from that place. So, that’s a nice charge that I got from that whole experience. I would love to continue to work with him, but the nice thing about what I do is I get to meet lots of people, and I get to find myself in lots of different inspirational places and places of creativity, So, who knows? It’s a big world.