Passion is an understatement when it comes to Daniel Wilson. The soulful singer is gearing up for the release of his new EP, Sinner of the Week (out August 16th), so I caught up with him via a long, but earnest phone call. We discuss his early roots in religious music, singers that inspire him, and the fruitful debate of structure and non-structure when it comes to composing a song.

So let's start from the beginning. What was it like growing up as a youngster in Michigan?

I grew up in Detroit for about six years. So, I guess I didn't completely grow up all the way there. But, it was sort of just an every-day neighborhood. We didn't really have a whole lot in those days, me and my family. But my parents made it so me and my siblings could feel as comfortable as possible. And then we eventually moved out to a different part of Michigan, about 45 minutes away from where I grew up. And I guess it was just about making us feel comfortable. Letting us know that we could- I don't know- sort of just reach our dreams. My mom and dad's whole plan was to kind of keep evolving- going to better schools, getting a wider education, and just feeling like we weren't tied down to one city; that we could kind of do whatever we needed to do to be successful.

That's great! And so what are some of your earliest memories of music during this time? What was being played around the house?

A lot of gospel, a lot of contemporary Christian music. My dad always used to listen to the radio. He used to listen to a lot more contemporary Christian music. My listened to pretty much exclusively gospel, even though my dad listened to gospel, too. But I just always remember him with the contemporary stuff. He would listen to Michael W. Smith, or - there's a few names that escape me now- but he would listen to a lot more of like your Amy Grant. Those types of people. And so, for really a lack of putting it better, I heard a lot more white-based Christian music from my dad and black-based gospel music form my mom. But that's kind of how it always came off to me when I was younger. But, I value both of those, even know. I don't really listen to those anymore. I think their best days are sort of behind them.

But, I also listened to your usual '90s teen stuff. You know, MTV, VH1, countdowns, pop countdowns, staying up to late to listen to more countdowns, award shows. So, it was kind of just your basic introduction to pop music.

So, I read that you grew up singing in your family's church choir. Is that where you realized music was what you wanted to do?

(Laughs) Well, I actually didn't. I don't think- yeah no- I never performed in my church's choir. I think I wanted to at one point and I was very close to doing so. But for one reason or another, it just didn't happen. I don't know. I guess I never really felt close to... I guess I never really felt as close as I wanted to the church community. There was just always something sort of just blocking my way there. Now my mom, she did a lot of things in the choir. My dad, I think when he was younger he was in the choir for a little bit... so, I was always inspired by that, listening to it at church every Sunday. But, I was never in the choir. I wanted to be though. For a short time I definitely wanted to be, though.

I totally get it. So, what was it about that music that still drew you in?

Well, it's free. I think a lot of people- when you look at singing competitions and soul-people- they see it as simple as an ad lib part. I think that gives it a bad name. The thing about soul music and gospel music is it's the complete opposite often the structure. It's the opposite of structure. I mean, there needs to be a structure to it; because I think with soul music- or with anything in life- if you feel something enough inside of you, you sort of release. It binds you to some sort of path. It seems like it's not bound by anything. Basically, it was free. And I think that's why people are drawn to gospel music and R&B. It's that idea that it's so free and you can do anything you want with it. It's just directly connected to what you're feeling.

I feel like pop gives off the idea that you have to plan every single note that you sing and it can feel artificial because of that. But, gospel always felt like when you don't have the words for something, you can always kind of cry out and it's not purposeless, it's full of purpose. There's no fillers. I think that's what gospel music at its best, provides. It provides meaning. You know, whether you're a person who believes in Christianity or religion at all. It always comes off as having meaning. And that's something that resonates with me. Whatever I do, I try to make it have a meaning. I try and make it have a purpose; I don't want to have a line that's just a throwaway line. I don't want to sing or write a song that's a throwaway song so it doesn't mean anything to me. You know, growing up in the church, everything had a meaning. Everything had a reason. And I think that gospel music at its best- you know, when I was growing up- teaches you that everything you sing has a reason. There has to be something behind.

You don't know how happy I am to hear that. So, on your upcoming EP, you got to work with some vets in the industry- one's worked with Madonna, another with Sia. And with regards to structure versus non-structure and pop music, those two artists are definitely in that pop realm. What was it like finding that balance with pop-producer vets and needing that freedom to express what you were wanting to?

Well, it was wonderful working with them; I got to work with some really talented people. Jimmy Harry who's worked with Madonna. Jimmy Hogart- they are all very talented. It becomes more so a struggle for me after the music has been made. Because, working with them, it's such a natural flow. They're so talented and they're so much fun to work with. It's just that personally, for me, I always get sort of paranoid just making sure that I'm completely getting my idea of a song fully realized. And I think I'm still working with that. You know, it's really nothing that they've- I'm proud of what I've done on this EP- and they're wonderful to work with. But, I think no matter who I'm working with currently, I'm still trying to find that balance. I'm still trying to kind of bind this idea of structure and non-structure. And thankfully, I've had help with people like Jimmy Harry, and who I was around at that time, just sort of let me go off occasionally on the songs.

So, songs like 'Sinner of the Week' can have structure; and there's times where I'm allowed to just sort of scream into a microphone for a while until I get what I need out of it. Until they get what they need out of it. So, it's still a work in progress in for me. Like I said, I'm very proud of what happened for this EP. But, I feel like I'm still finding what I feel like I need to do in my sound. But, I'm very happy with the results that came this time around. And I hope to build on it.

So, growing up and as you've trained your voice, who are some singers that you've looked to for inspiration? Who are some singers you think anyone who wants to get into singing should listen to?

When I was growing up, my family had me listen to the Winans Family, as famous gospel group. We listened to a lot of just versatile singers who could just zig zag in all kinds of ways and still come back to some sort of source. Because, you know, they had a clue with what they were doing. Just these really- just these really versatile singers that could take their voice anywhere they needed to take it. So, that was kind of what defined me early on. And I think you know with, with- and once again, I hate putting it this way but I don't know another way to put it- a lot of white Christian singers as well. Just being able to hear both of those sounds, I think that was very important for me to sort of hear that. You know when you're expressing yourself and feel you don't need to do the longest in the world. Or, when you feel like you need a little less power and more- I think I've always associated my dad with a lot of white Christian music and worship music. And worship music was always very soft, kind of slow building. So, you know, when I was younger, I always kind of separated between black music was where you always wanted to hear the power vocally. And then white Christian music was where you that build, that emotional build where it kind of suggests that you don't need to completely go all out to show that you're emotionally connected to something.

When I got older, I was listening to some pop-punk stuff (chuckles). That was- but it was Christian pop-punk. So, I think that was me trying- that was my version of branching out at that time. Because, up to that point, I had never bought any music that wasn't Christian related. Now, we listened to MTV and stuff like that a lot when we were kids, but it still felt very off limits to me until I became a teenager. And then I started to listen to more pop-punk, rock, and pop acts in the Christian world. And that moved into things like the Beatles, and so on and so on. You know, other secular acts like your Whitney Houstons, your Beatles, those type of sounds. And then, vocally, I would say the Beatles. You know, Paul McCartney; John Lennon's ability to completely sound off but right at the same time. Just the beauty of that. You know, it really just introduced me to a world where- which also once again gives a disservice to a lot of people that approach this when they have music competitions- it allowed me to see this world where you didn't have to "song". You didn't have to be a soul singer. Every pitch didn't have to be on. Listening to Janis Joplin, you know, every pitch may not be on, but it's perfect. David Bowie, with his weird, absolutely strange futuristic voice is absolutely perfect. Bob Dylan. You know, his voice is still perfect. It's definitely seen its time, but there's still something just magic about it.

So when, kind of combining my earlier influences of a lot of gospel acts and a lot of contemporary Christian acts, you know, how they express their way of singing. I kind of combined that with hearing your Freddie Mercurys. I would say that people should always listen to a person like Whitney Houston; your Janis Joplins, David Bowies, Freddie Mercurys, Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick. People who can show you that you can be any type of voice. Even your Ozzy Osbourne type. And of course Prince. Just these people to me that have represented how versatile and how different a voice can be. And how people for me- like Aretha Franklin- they gave me the idea that you can always be good as long as it means something. Now, I can look at a competition on a television show- I hate bringing this up so much- but you know, I can look at and have this thing in me and go, 'Oh, that singer isn't that good.' But also, I like to try and take that completely off of my brain when I listen to people sing. Because I think it's unfair to the music; I think it's unfair to meaning. Does that make sense? So, growing up, I think I would pick Nina Simone, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, and then Bob Dylan. Listen to those. And if I can add on another person, Janis Joplin. Because I think it just shows you how far the voice can go and how many good stories have gotten to be told by any kind of voice.

That's great! And it's funny, because next I was going to ask if there were any artists or musicians you feel people might be surprised you listen to. And you answered that in reference to those pop-punk acts.

(Laughs) Well, I started off very late. I always feel like I'm sorting lying to the interviewer when I have these conversations because it gives off this idea that I know what I'm talking about. But, even saying that, I feel like it reveals how much I don't know. But, I started off very late. I heard a lot of different sounds when I was younger but I didn't really engage with these sounds until I was in my mid-teens. There's so many people that I've ran into that just know so much about music- just an unlimited amount. So, I'm always jealous. I feel like I'm always in this system of trying to listen to more people. I just listened to- oh, who are they- there was a record that just recently completely threw me in a loop. What was the band that Henry Rollins was in?

Ah, Black Flag.

That's right! And I can't remember what album it is though. But that's how I approach music. I just, look at an album and go, 'Alright. Let's see what this is all about.' And I love the energy. I may not necessarily care for all of its elements, but I love hearing that new energy. It's just another thing to put in my head of what people are capable of. How everything doesn't need to be by the book all the time and how that just hurts music in the long run.

That's great. So you know, looking ahead, are there any musicians or artists you'd love to collaborate with in the future?

I never know. (Laughs) I never- 'cause I don't consider myself beyond what I can do. I like to think of myself as a decent singer. And I like to think of myself as someone who maybe is getting better bit by bit, songwriting wise. But I'm still trying to find a lot. It's hard for me to be able to completely wrap myself around a collaborator because I'm still trying to find my approach to something. I'm always co-producing, but I'm not the best at computers. I'm not the best with putting music together, even though I try as hard as I can. And I get pretty much what I need to get done in this moment. But, it's always hard to try and focus on what I want out of a collaborator because I'm trying to get what I want across to myself. And then, get that down in a demo, and then maybe try and talk my way into explaining to someone, 'I want this and I want that.' It's difficult sometimes. But, you know, for some reason I've always wanted to collaborate with a band like MGMT. I love the production in a lot of Kendrick's music, especially with To Pimp a Butterfly- with that fusion of jazz and these live instruments and all these digital instruments. I love that combination.

But let's see, who else recently has been great that I'd like to collaborate with? I like the production on Rhianna's recent album. I don't have many specific names and I never seem to. But, I just love the idea of working with someone who just says, 'Let's see how and if we can kind of combine structure and no structure at all.' I like people who go about it that way. I get turned off sometimes by a song that seems like it's- when you can tell right out of the gate what it's going to be. Even though I love pop music; I love good pop music. But, I like the idea of combining something that's very loose with something that everyone can sort of understand. I think that's always been a hard balance. And what makes the greatest musicians the greatest is that they can give you something that's a little bit complicated but you still feel so close to it. You listen to something like Purple Rain- or Prince's albums before and after that- there's a lot of sort of difficult things to process at times. But, it's also connects so well with audiences. Which shows me people are open to things that have less structure- things that are less formulaic. People are open to that. There just has to be a balance. And I think it's a hard balance at times, but it's what I try and reach for. You know, where you can be David Bowie and capture the world.

And with pop music it's something that sounds like it needs to be heard. And that's what pop music is at the end of the day, something that sounds like it needs to be heard, whether structured or non-structured. And I'd like to be along the line of a little less structured, but also something that people feel they need to hear more than once.

It's interesting because I do a lot of these interviews, especially with emerging bands and artists. And the "collaborate" question is a go-to. And I think you're the first one to state that you're really trying to focus on you. Sure, everyone has those crazy dreams of someone they'd want to work with. But you took a second to think and not just say some famous singer like Beyoncé because you felt you should say that.

You know, I've never been too stingy about pop. I've never been that way. I don't want to rob myself or the person I'm collaborating with by not having a complete idea. Or, not having a strong idea of where I want to take something. I really don't like wasting people's time, musically. I just feel like it's sort of disrespectful to sort of speed up that process. I think that there is something definitely positive about just going with an idea. I think that you can get a lot of good ideas that way. And sometimes, you have such a good relationship with whomever you're collaborating with that maybe it only takes a few minutes to come up with something. But, I think that when it comes to setting up collaborations, it can be such a difficult thing with travelling and setting up a session and then you have nothing to offer that person. Or the communication is off because you said, 'Oh, I got to collaborate with them because they're the biggest name.' And I feel like that just doesn't do anyone any good. I feel like you have to have some sort of motivation beyond that. At the end of the day, I don't like the process of just making music just to make it. I have to feel connected to it.