For Jeff Tweedy, A New Book Holds Old Truths
In "How to Write One Song," the Wilco front man offers some life lessons
The writer George Saunders has described Jeff Tweedy as “our great, wry, American consolation poet.”
It’s an apt description for an artist who has spent the better part of three decades crafting the kinds of soul-baring, emotionally layered songs that seem to transcend their time.
Though Tweedy gained notoriety in the alt-country music scene of the 1990’s, he and his band, Wilco, pushed the genre forward with ambitious albums like “Being There” and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” records that went beyond pedal steel guitars and gentle twangs. Infused with hints of electronica and keyboards, mixing indie rock noisemaking with retro-pop stylings, the recordings forced listeners to reimagine the genre.
And his experimentation with song structure and sound on records like “A Ghost Is Born” and “Sky Blue Sky” helped stake Wilco’s claim as an important American band and elevated Tweedy to one of the most influential musicians of the past few decades.
Despite the pandemic, Tweedy has remained characteristically productive of late.
This month, he’s out with a new book, "How To Write One Song," and a new album, Love Is The King, a collection full of breezy, infectious tunes. Both were created in the time of Covid, which has left him working from home for one of the longest stretches in his professional career.
“The pandemic has sort of sharpened my focus,” he tells me in a Zoom interview from The Loft, his recording space in Chicago. “Because maybe it’s a little more necessary to push the world away,” he says. “That creates a little bit more of a hermetic seal on the ability to focus on work.”
The new book is Tweedy’s second in two years. His memoir, “Let's Go (So We Can Get Back),” published in 2018, tells the story of his family’s working-class roots in Belleville, Ill., and coming of age in the country-punk and alternative rock scenes in Chicago.
In “How to Write One Song,” Tweedy works to demystify the creative process and instead extols the importance of making creativity part of your everyday life. “The whole point isn’t to get everybody to write a song,” he says. “It’s more to encourage people to actively spend time with themselves and participate in their lives on the imagination side of their brain.”
I came to Tweedy and Wilco during a drive up to Vermont years ago.
Stopping along the way for coffee, I spotted a few CD’s for sale behind the check-out counter, and stumbled across “Being There,” the band's second album.
Born from the break-up of Uncle Tupelo, the band’s first album got a lukewarm reception from critics so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from their follow up record.
What unfolded over the next few hours – as I traveled up I-91 toward Stratton – amounted to a kind of listening session for “Being There.”
From the first chords of the opening track, “Misunderstood” – a blast of violent guitar riffs that eventually settle into a tuneful ballad with traditional country flourishes – to Tweedy’s wry observations on “Red-Eyed and Blue,” which hint at the kind of honest introspection and melancholy Tweedy would eventually become known for - I was drawn to the music.
Though it held many of the basic tenants of a traditional rock album, it was clear “Being There” was something altogether different from the alt-country pack. Full of noisy interludes and subtle transitions that matched Tweedy's songs beautifully. This was something far more ambitious, I thought.
I’ve seen Wilco perform more than a dozen times since then, from Brooklyn to Berlin, even traveling to Chicago to see the band play in front of a hometown crowd.
And like many Wilco fans, I’ve greeted each new album with a kind of boyhood enthusiasm akin to watching your favorite baseball team take the field on a warm, sunny afternoon.
Tweedy recently spoke with ABC News from his studio in Chicago. Below are excerpts, which were edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve managed to remain fairly productive creatively during the pandemic. Was that a challenge?
I’ve definitely maintained a work flow that was very similar to the productivity that’s been happening in the last ten years or so. The pandemic has sort of sharpened my focus because maybe it’s a little more necessary to push the world away. That creates a little bit more of a hermetic seal on the ability to focus on work.
The thing that’s really stuck me about being home so much is trying to recreate the structure of touring life. Or get myself some routine as a person who doesn’t have a 9-5 job. I’ve had to consciously structure my life around some routines. That’s been the main challenge.
How much of the current tumultuous times played into what you created?
With the world as it stands right now, it was impossible to keep that out of what I was making. It seeps in there in unintentional ways. But I try not to look directly at it with any lyrics. I tried to get rid of anything that was too much of a time stamp when the song is written. But at the same time there’s a general atmosphere on the record that feels like right now.
When the pandemic unfolded, did you consider taking a break from writing and music?
I was pretty convinced early on that the pandemic wasn’t going to be just a couple of months. For some reason, one of the last shows we did I told the audience ‘I’m really gonna miss you guys.’ It came out of the blue and I really didn’t know why I was saying it. But it did have this real sense of uncertainty about when is this going to be safe again.
The new book delves into the creative process of writing a song, but is feels like there are some life lessons in there for readers. Was that part of the idea behind the book?
A lot of the books on songwriting that I’ve read are more focused on how to get your songs published or more on the craft or music theory.
My premise is that something like writing a song in everybody’s life would help them. The whole point isn’t to get everybody to write a song. It’s more to encourage people to actively spend time with themselves and participate in their lives on the imagination side of their brain.
To peer into themselves as opposed to into a TV or a phone, things like that. I’m not against any of those things, but I’m advocating for the idea that a little time dedicated to creative drive in your life could really be a good way to live.
Is that your philosophy?
I think that’s a natural inclination I have to be a little bit philosophical about things I do. I try and understand them. I’m not satisfied with a lot of the answers that artists have given me over the years about where their ideas come from.
I think artists sometimes go out of their way to make things look more magical than it is. I don’t want to do that. I want people to think of it as normal to create a poem. It’s normal to have the ability to write a song. It’s in you.
You’ve talked openly about the disappointment - and in some cases anger – you felt after the 2016 election. Is that feeling still there as we approach another election?
I do have anger and frustration, but I don’t want that to guide me.
What I would like to be is someone who is useful even to people I disagree with. And for me, I have to feel that way. I have to feel like that would be a better world to live in.
That doesn’t mean I have to forgive anybody or make excuses or absolve anybody for things that I feel are wrong. Very wrong. To me, it means that I have to be willing allow people to evolve and redeem themselves and be a part of that light.