At this point in his extended career, Jeff Tweedy possesses any number of credits as applied to his extensive resume. Singer, songwriter, producer and, of course, invaluable contributor to a variety of bands — Uncle Tupelo initially, and now Wilco chief among them, but also the Minus 5, Loose Fur, Tweedy and Golden Smog all along the way.
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Recently, Tweedy added the title of author to his list of accomplishments, courtesy of an excellent instruction tome, How To Write One Song. The follow-up to his first manuscript, the autobiographical Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), it examines the craft of composition from a personal perspective by sharing insights into his own creative process. Rather than focus on the results, Tweedy emphasizes the art from a psychological and subliminal point of view, eliminating the need for unnecessary expectation while making the process compatible with one’s perceptions and point of view.
In that regard, the book finds a higher purpose than simply songwriting. It encourages the reader to get in touch with one’s creative self and realize the subliminal satisfaction.
“I think primarily it was a sincere belief that there’s a good practice to be made for having a daily creative endeavor and wanting to share that, and also how that benefitted me,” Tweedy tells us. “It was written to maybe demystify the process a little bit, because there aren’t a lot of great books out there about songwriting, at least I don’t think so. I haven’t found very many. I think that a lot of people think it’s not something you can share. It just seemed like a good idea, you know?”
Tweedy himself laughs at the prospect that he’d be considered a candidate to join the ranks of academics in any particular position. “Well, that would be a first,” he jokes. “Don’t tell anybody. That would be cool though. I thought when you mentioned I’m on the verge of academia, you were going to say instead that I’m on the verge of having a lot of people writing songs and sending them to me. I’ll just nip that in the bud and say that if you need my approval, you’ve read the book incorrectly.”
He continues: “I think the only way to do it right is to ask how you feel about yourself, and then by spending time apart with your own imagination. I don’t think the song itself is the end goal necessarily. It’s nice to have a finished song, but the book is really focused on process, and the idea that that’s the place where you end up benefiting psychologically and spiritually, just spending time with a part of your brain you may tend to look down upon.”
Indeed, Tweedy takes a strong spiritual stance, one that might seem surprising given the subject.
“People spend a lot of time looking outward for inspiration, looking outward for entertainment or for reaction,” he observes. “We tend to be focused on being content and things like that. That’s no profound observation, but it does seem to be at extreme levels in the modern era. The people I know that are the happiest and have the best lives — at least judging from the outside — are people that remind themselves on a daily basis that there’s an enormous reserve of inspiration and entertainment inside, in their imaginations. It sounds almost childlike to describe it that way, but it’s true. We don’t really spend a lot of time with ourselves to self-soothe and to basically get lost in our own thoughts and imagination. I think that’s something worth sharing and worth championing, because it’s made all the difference in the world to me.”
In addition, Tweedy has a new solo album to tout, and not surprisingly, it too shares its sound from a personal perspective. Song titles such as “Save It For Me,” “Troubled” and “Bad Day Lately” reflect that introspective imagination while applying it to a countrified caress that often brings to mind the late Don Williams and his decidedly unassuming attitude. Indeed, “Love Is the King” and “Even I Can See” rank among the most soothing and solitary songs Tweedy’s ever written.
“It kind of works that way,” Tweedy responds when asked if the album and the book were produced in tandem. “Almost all of the songs on the record were worked on or being finished alongside the book, so there are some lyrics on the record that ended up in the book with some of the exercises. There’s a lot of sorrow and indirect references to this time period that we’re all living with. I’d like to think there’s some joy against that. That comes from being able to do something that’s creative and feels beautiful and doesn’t harm anyone.”
As Tweedy explains, the origin of the new album was borne from having found extra time on his hands after the outbreak of the pandemic.
“Wilco was on tour, and we were set to be out for a while and have a busy schedule ahead of us for this year,” he recalls. “We decided to end the tour early and come home because we could see the writing on the wall. A few days after we decided that, everything started getting cancelled. During those early days of being locked down and sheltered in place, one of the ways to cope was to initially go with some comfort food-type songs. I decided I was going to try to write some straight country songs and not bring anything else to them …We just kind of started calling it King Lear at the time, because we were talking about how King Lear was written during a quarantine. It seemed to be a way to connect and do something together to distract ourselves. It eventually started to have its own kind of sound and emotional landscape. It was all written in about a three-week period or so.”
It’s long been acknowledged that Uncle Tupelo, the group he co-helmed over the course of four immensely influential albums with Jay Farrar (currently a mainstay of the band Son Volt), is credited with giving rise to the Americana movement and a roots rock sound originally associated with bands such as the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others of that ilk.
“That’s really joyous when you discover some things that you didn’t know you could do,” Tweedy surmises. “I am aware of a widely held opinion regarding Uncle Tupelo in particular being some type of pioneer for that time period, or doing something that not as many people were doing at that moment. I don’t think Jay Farrar or I put a whole lot of stock in that though. Speaking for myself, I just look at it as a continuation. I feel very lucky to have had a way to participate in this river of song. It’s a really beautiful thing to do. Early on, we might have felt like we were participating in a scene, but we were really just doing our best to hold our own in our local community of St. Louis. Looking back over time, just the fact that some of those songs are still listened to is an incredible thing in itself. I don’t really have the need or desire to feel like a seer or a pioneer of anything. I know that truth, and that is that I wouldn’t be here without the inspiration and work of a lot of other people. I don’t feel like I discovered anything or pioneered anything other than allowing myself to make up songs.”
That said, there’s a lot to come from Tweedy and company as 2020 comes to a close. Besides the book and the new solo effort, there’s also an expanded version of Wilco’s classic Summerteeth album coming as well. In addition to the original set of songs, it includes an array of outtakes, demos, rarities and a complete concert recorded live at The Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colorado, in November 1999.
“Our motto is, ‘Keep them wanting less,’” Tweedy jokes. “For the reissue, (my son) Spencer helped me find a lot of that stuff from cassettes and demos that he dug up, including early demos for some of the songs on the album. It turned out pretty cool, I think.”
Meanwhile, he says the band’s plan is to hang tight until the pandemic passes. “We don’t have much hope things are going to get back to normal before next summer,” he ventures. “We’re just doing our best to tighten our belts and keep the band and crew’s heads above water. I’m hoping we’ll still have our annual Solid Sound Festival next summer, but that’s getting iffier by the day. I’m sure we’ll have ways to adapt and it will be very joyous and cathartic when we finally get to have some real connection with an audience again.”
Photo Credit: Sammy Tweedy