Someone like you is a simple song. In an age producers obsess over compression ratios and songwriters spend years on a track, it’s a reminder to get the basics right. Written and recorded in two days, featuring piano and a vocal, it earned Adele a billboard #1, made her an unlikely superstar, and won her and songwriting partner Dan Wilson a Grammy.

In interviews with American songwriter , The Star Tribune, IFC, And the Sanfrancisco Examiner, Dan Wilson talks about the elements he and Adele used to capture the track. There were six things that stood out for me:

Collaboration and Trust

Choose your collaborators wisely – in this instance it was Rick Rubin who chose Dan Wilson to work with the relatively new Columbia signing. Dan has a diverse background – he crafted ‘Closing time’ with his band Semisonic but has worked with Taylor Swift, The Dixie Chicks (another Grammy), Missy Higgins, Pink, Faith Hill, Ben Folds, Keith Urban, and Carole King.

Still, it’s clear they trusted and respected one another:

Once we were into the song, it was a partnership. I probably worked more on the music and Adele focused on lyrics, but we each pushed really hard for both the music and the lyrics to be great.

Say what you need to say
Work out what you want to say with the song, then how you will get there. This is something techno producer Mike Monday emphasises. What you have to say is more important than the how. Once your intention is clear, changing the ‘how’ can reveal things you overlooked…

We didn’t have any arguments or tussles. There may have been some points where I said, “I think that line can be better,”… but at this one, Adele knew exactly what she wanted to say… Once we decided on the melody, she very quickly came up with that amazing line, “I hate to turn up out of the blue, uninvited.” Once you have a line that great, the rest of the section is easy to finish.

She was playing it on the guitar, and she taught me the part, but when I switched to piano, she lit up. “That’s way more inspiring!” she said. So I played piano for the rest of the session.

Shifting the context – and instrument of execution, opened up new possibilities for the song.

Use simple tools

Wilson works with no distractions in the room, only a piano and guitar.

Forums about compression, EQ, bass sounds, and techniques testify that it will not be technique that gets you there. If you are seriously worried about getting the technique right, hire someone who can do it, and get on with making the music you want to make…

Of course there are complicated forms of music and complicated things that need to be done. However, knowing your tools well and how to use them to get fast results gives you the freedom to say what you want to say. Time and again, producers talk about getting the song to work with the barest of accompaniment.

Work quickly

Deadlines help. Even self-imposed deadlines. In this case the ‘demo’ for Rick Rubin ended up becoming the keeper. I’m not saying you shouldn’t worry, or work hard or give yourself enough time… In fact Someone like you illustrates effective production by doing just that – they could keep the demo because they had already lined up one of the all time great producers to work on the same track.

Getting your ideas down first and nailing the vibe is king.

Adele and I worked on “Someone Like You” there over two days. At the end of the second day we finished the recording, which ended up on the album. She couldn’t stay late, as I remember, because she had a meeting in Malibu to play Rick and other people from her label the song. So we finished it in the late afternoon and she took it to them.

 Think outside

After we listened to a bunch of Wanda Jackson songs on YouTube…

Wanda Jackson? Interesting – reminding Adele she is both in a tradition and responding to it. Completely different artists – but nice to know she wasn’t afraid to draw the vibe or the feeling from someone else’s work and translate it across. Breaking up your own work, forcing yourself to look wider, to look around, can be helpful – even if, as in this case, it turns out to be pretty unrelated to the end product.

 Remember your audience

Many artists say they don’t care about the audience, but if that were true, they wouldn’t show anyone their work. Sure you can’t simply play to please everyone, but knowing your audience and how you want them to feel or what questions you want them to have when they hear your work is a helpful tool.

 And second, whenever I’m writing a song for somebody, I just have to imagine how it would feel, singing it myself in front of an audience,” he says. “And if it feels really good, then I know we’re on to something great.

The recording on the album was intended as a demo… Adele came to the studio the next day and said, “I played it for my manager and me Mum.” I was a little nervous about this because I don’t like people to hear works-in-progress. I asked her what they thought of the song. “My manager loves it and me Mum cried.”

 Follow your intention

The mix was suitably simple – despite being mixed by Tom Elmhirst, he didn’t do more than was necessary. A little bit of EQ, some compression and riding some nicely chosen reverbs…

Obviously I wanted to retain the experience of Adele singing to a piano. I had three de‑essers on the lead vocal in this case, working at 4185, 7413 and 7712 Hz, and I did some notching on the [Waves] Q10, taking out 537, 2973, and 10899 Hz, with maximum Q in all cases. The [Sonnox] Oxford EQ simply takes out everything below 100Hz, and it adds a little around 8k… I also set up two Trillium Lane Labs reverb plug‑ins, the TL Spring and the TL Orban, which came up on the console on channels 43 and 44, like an outboard effect. This gave me more manual control. 

 

All the way along – from the demo, to the production and to the mix, Adele and her team kept the simplicity and intention clear. And in the modern world – with the myriad of tools at our disposal and the temptation to overwork and over-complicate, this is indeed, a stroke of mastery.