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He was a hit with Chicks, but now he’s on his own

Special to The Times

Dan Wilson knows that some headlines for articles about his new album, “Free Life,” may fall into a pattern. Perhaps something like “Dan Wilson Makes Nice,” or “Dan Wilson: Not Just Whistlin’ Dixie.”

See, Wilson -- after a long run fronting the cult band Trip Shakespeare and the beyond-cult Semisonic -- hit the big time last year with the six songs he co-wrote for the Dixie Chicks’ “Taking the Long Way” album. Among them: “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the notorious response to the firestorm following the group’s critical comments about President Bush, which earned Wilson and the Chicks the 2006 song of the year Grammy Award.

Asked what headline he’d like to see, even Wilson can’t resist.

“I’m not sure exactly how I’d say it, but I sent the Chicks an e-mail recently that said, ‘When it comes to taking the long way, I’ve got you guys beat!’ ” he says with a laugh, speaking from his Minneapolis home. “This album’s taken a while to make.”

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Indeed, when he started work on it more than five years ago, he’d come off 12 years of nonstop touring and recording, with Semisonic’s yearning 1998 single “Closing Time” his one hit (it reached No. 11). The hiatus was largely due to problems with his voice, a sweet, powerful instrument that was arguably his groups’ signature as much as the Harvard grad’s literate, emotive songwriting.

“It was scary,” says Wilson, 38. “I actually think of myself as a singer first. I think I write songs because I want something to sing for people. I love the experience of singing to my family and friends.”

When his voice returned after a few months, he became infatuated with turn-of-the-20th-century songs (he’d just moved into a 100-year-old house) and was further inspired by reading the Neil Young biography “Shakey.” He set up a studio in his living room and invited friends to play.

One friend, Sheryl Crow (who sang on the song “Sugar”), passed a tape of those sessions to music executive and producer Rick Rubin, who loved the affecting, intelligent pop and signed Wilson to his American Recordings label. But when Rubin started producing the Dixie Chicks, he had another job for Wilson.

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And with that, perhaps the best headlines for Wilson would involve what he chose for his album’s title. He’s achieved a true sense of freedom, both creatively and financially, thanks to his Dixie work and Rubin’s support.

The full magnitude of that struck him during a recent flight home following a West Coast mini-tour highlighted by a performance at Los Angeles’ Largo for which he was supported by an all-star band (the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench, Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins among the players) on a brand-new batch of what he calls very “arty” songs.

“I wasn’t even thinking about it and wrote in my journal, ‘I am an artist!’ ” he says. “And it is liberating. It’s scary, too. It’s like the song ‘Free Life,’ because moments like that feel very open-ended and the world doesn’t really expect anything of you and you can give it anything you come up with.”


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