After 19 years of waiting, John Munson says the question of whether or not Semisonic should finally release new music in 2020 was answered by a sign. A cardboard sign.
“I was driving around St. Paul on what felt like one of the darkest days of this entirely dark year, and it was just sitting there,” the bassist remembered. “It had obviously been hand-drawn by somebody who’d been standing on the corner.”
The message written on it: “You Are Not Alone.”
“We gotta get this EP out tomorrow!” Munson thought.
“You’re Not Alone” was already the chosen title of Semisonic’s new five-song collection. Initially stalled by the pandemic, the EP arrives in stores and online Friday.
Although a very long time coming — the “Closing Time” hitmakers’ last new recording was the 2001 album “All About Chemistry” — the arrival of “You’re Not Alone” this week feels strangely fine. The collection sounds as timeless musically as it does right-on-time lyrically.
Not only do the title track and several other songs evoke some desperately needed unity and comfort, so does the warmth of singer/guitarist Dan Wilson’s voice.
As does the story of the band itself. Twenty-two years after releasing “Closing Time,” Semisonic — like its trademark song — has endured and maybe even grown in stature.
The trio never actually broke up. They didn’t milk any farewell or reunion tour hoopla. They didn’t take jabs at each other in a “Behind the Music” episode. They didn’t let the incremental ruination of the music business in the 21st century ruin their love for playing music together.
The three members stayed good friends even after ending up in different parts of the country. They still played a show or two every year or so. They just didn’t get around to recording new songs.
In a Zoom interview last month from three different time zones, their bond was as tangible as ever in a way that underscores the spirit of the new EP; the message of “You’re Not Alone” rings truer when you hear these fellas talk so fondly about sticking together.
“The three of us know very intimately that we don’t need a business arrangement or a contract to stay in touch as friends,” Wilson said from his home in Los Angeles.
New Yorker Jacob Slichter remembered their initial decision to stop touring in 2001: “I certainly would not have guessed it would be 16 to 17 years before we started recording again.
“But the trust was there, and it was important,” added the drummer, who became an author and writing professor during the hiatus. “That trust allowed John and I to view Dan’s success in the interim with not only joy for Dan, but also greedily with pride in our band.”
There was a lot to be proud of: Grammy trophies and platinum record plaques for co-writing Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice”; other songwriting credits on records by Taylor Swift, Celine Dion, Weezer, John Legend, Pink, Josh Groban, Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Halsey, Phantogram and dozens more known names; three albums under his own name, and a bunch of randomly released solo singles.
Wilson, 59, quit touring more for personal than professional reasons. He wanted to be home with the first of his two daughters, Coco, who was born premature with complex and ongoing medical needs.
“A lot of the most glorious times of Semisonic were, on a personal level, pretty fraught for me,” the singer said.
But he also admitted, “I just couldn’t get as motivated as I should’ve been to continue doing it.
“People would ask, ‘Why didn’t you just keep doing what you were doing?’ And part of me thought, ‘Why? We already did that. We put out a lot of music, and it was good.’ ”
‘Not quite there yet’
Foremost among those people asking was Munson.
The bassist stayed in Minneapolis and was plenty active in the meantime. He led the house band for the public radio series “Wits,” formed the cool cabaret-style cover group the New Standards with the Suburbs’ Chan Poling, and continued to rock with Dan’s brother and fellow Trip Shakespeare bandmate Matt Wilson in the Twilight Hours.
His latest project is the “Munson-Hicks Party Supplies” album with songwriter/author Dylan Hicks (out now, with a virtual release party scheduled Oct. 2).
Even still, he admitted, “Every two or three years for 15 years or so I would mention to Dan, ‘You know, it might be about time to make a new record or do something new again.’ ”
Wilson’s response was usually along the lines of, “I’m just not quite there yet.”
Finally, though, the singer told the bassist: “Yeah, I think I might actually have something.”
“And that was the last time I asked him,” Munson cracked.
As Wilson revealed in an interview last year before Semisonic’s return to the Basilica Block Party, it was none other than Liam Gallagher who sent him back into the comfort zone of writing for his old trio.
In 2017, the Oasis singer had tapped Wilson to co-write songs for his album but instead “I totally accidentally wrote some Semisonic songs instead,” Wilson recalled.
“Something about it just put me in the right mood. It opened the door. It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, now I remember how to do this.’ ”
Soon thereafter, Slichter and Munson flew out to Wilson’s studio-equipped home in the hills of Los Angeles and began hammering out the five songs that wound up on “You’re Not Alone” — plus around 10 more.
“It was the usual Dan Wilson math,” Slichter explained. “Most Semisonic albums started with like 60 songs, we’d learn 30, record 20, and release 12. So for this EP, we started with about 15.”
One of the earliest and most clear-cut of them was “Basement Tapes,” a blazingly catchy and colorful rocker that could be about the nascent days of any rock band.
“We get loaded in the van and drive through the suburbs,” Wilson sings. “And we set out on Highway 35 to discover/ What’s the plan?/ Sliding through the dark in all kinds of weather.”
The title track has a similar personal-yet-universal tone. Turns out, though, that one was inspired by a very precise moment: the Women’s March of January 2017.
“When I say, ‘Make a little poem you can sing in the street,’ I meant a chant that you’d do at a march,” said Wilson, who also had a hand in writing the Chicks’ new fight song “March March.”
“I was thinking about bigger things, the world at large, but I was specifically thinking about those protests, too.”
‘Part of the medicine’
Three years later, with America embroiled in a pandemic, racial justice protests and a divisive election, the song’s lyrics certainly reverberate with a broader scope:
“Gaze in my eyes and tell me I’ll be alright/ Even if I don’t get what I need tonight/ Sometimes the complexity gets a little complex/ But other times it’s easy as baking a pie/ Falling off a log and living till you die/ What would even be the point if we knew what comes next?”
One other song on the EP, “All It Would Take,” also speaks to the desperation of the moment with lyrics about “one voice, one light, one hand” that can send us in a more positive direction.
Munson praised his bandmate for writing these songs at a time they’re needed most, even though he didn’t know it.
“Dan was right to think we need to hear that: ‘You’re not alone,’ ” he said. “It’s a powerful statement for the moment we’re in. But those songs will be powerful at any time. We always need to hear that.”
Another bright new song, “Lightning,” also seems to raise a timely question in regard to Semisonic itself: “Am I asking for too much for lightning to strike me a second time?” Wilson asks in the EP’s closing moments.
Could Semisonic ever again achieve the success it enjoyed in 1998? Maybe.
The title track from the EP has quickly climbed up the adult-alternative radio charts. “CBS This Morning” is bringing the band back to national television on Saturday. Interest in the EP on music blogs and streaming sites has also been strong.
In a cruel twist, though, the guys said their main objective with the EP was to simply get back out on the road and play shows this year. That, of course, won’t happen until the pandemic fades — but it will happen, Munson insists.
“I truly feel like the lack of live music and the way it brings people together is implicated in the breakdown of our culture that we’re experiencing,” he said. “I long for us to be a part of the medicine.”
Regardless of when the band can tour, Wilson still believes the timing for the EP is right.
“I’m glad we waited,” he said, “not because of everything going on now, but because I think we’ve found the right kind of inspiration that Semisonic requires.”
And that requirement, he conceded, is partly why it took so long.
“I’m kind of haunted by how really, really good a lot of the Semisonic songs are,” he said. “These had to be very good. It was a lot of pressure.
“It had to have the right vibe, the right kind of spirit to it — that sort of hopeful, we’re-in-this-together thing that went against the grunge sound of the era we were in.”
It has that, all right, and in a much more fitting era.