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, an 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.
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, ya know?”
It was not only a good idea, but one that ought to be embraced by academics who teach the art of songwriting. In fact, one might venture that students would likely have a lot to gain if Tweedy undertook that role as a kind of visiting lecturer of sorts. At very least, it would be nice to have How To Write One Song become required reading at the university level.
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. (laughs) 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 benefitting 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.” (laughs)
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 awhile 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. I was basically watching the Ken Burns documentary and thinking about all the people who wrote songs for other people. I wasn’t necessarily trying to write a modern country song that would be a hit, but maybe trying to writing a song Porter Waggoner would want to sing or something. So I started doing that on a daily basis and I started sharing it with my songs. My sons Spencer and Sammy and I decided to go to the studio and record a song a day. At some point, they started becoming personal (chuckles). I had one song called ‘I’d Rather Be Alone,’ but it didn’t make the cut. At some point I think they’ll come out as B-sides, especially maybe the more straight country attempts. 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.”
The inevitable question is how, with all the bands that he’s a part of and also the veering back and forth between Wilco and his solo projects, does he decide which of his songs go where. Tweedy’s response is surprisingly straight forward.:
“The weird thing is, that when I go out to play by myself, it all seems to fit together,” he muses. “When played on acoustic guitar, there’s not that much that sounds like an anomaly — to me at least. I feel connected to all the material in a very similar way, so when I’m tasked with putting it all together, I don’t make a lot of distinctions. I look at it the way you might look at hanging out with some friends and playing records for them. I have a whole bunch of songs and I write songs every day, and if I get together with Wilco, I start thinking about what songs I have that they might like. So I just share stuff that breeds a response and feeds off the energy in the room based on people’s enthusiasm and how they’re responding to what I’m playing for them. The same goes with the time I spent recording with Golden Smog or any other project I’m involved in. It’s more like I have all this stuff stockpiled and I don’t really worry about where it’s going to end up. If it’s good enough, it will end up somewhere. If it’s up to me, I’ll use the stuff I’m excited by for my solo stuff. Very rarely do I make a pitch for a song. You’re not going to get the best results while recording a song if people aren’t very involved with it. I don’t want to be in the business of making it a job and making it hard.”
Yet at the same time, there’s no denying the accolades Tweedy’s received over the course of his career, all of which have acknowledged him as one of the most profound and prolific forces in modern musical realms.
“You have to inoculate yourself from the process and not be burdened with any outlook,” he suggests. “I’m also not in the business of lauding or evaluating or waxing hyperbolic about my own work. (chuckles) I don’t feel that connected to the acknowledgement, other than to say I love it when I play a song for people at a show and they respond. I love that connection. I feel more energized about the prospect of getting better. I want to get better. I like the feeling that maybe I figured out something faster than I did ten years ago when I’m trying to solve little word puzzles. There’s a craft to it that I acknowledge, and while I’m not overly focused on it, I certainly enjoy the process of being involved in a craft and something that takes me even a little bit higher than pure craft.
“I also have the living memory of making things and not having them being received very well and then having people’s opinions change over time. Plus, I have my own neurotic thoughts. I’ve learned a lot about how my own opinion of my work has shifted over time. I don’t feel like I’m troubled that much by it at all. Maybe it’s good that I feel the weight of what I’ve made. I do feel feel that sense when I read reviews or see what other people think, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t make a new song that’s going to compete with 20 years of somebody’s experience, songs that become like family members and friends to somebody. I don’t have any way to compete with that. Maybe over time it might happen. But that takes some of the burden off too, just knowing that.”
That said, 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 widely acknowledged as 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 wildly 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.” (chuckles)
At the same time, it’s undeniable that Wilco has continued to evolve and experiment, adding new sonic textures to their music in some often surprising ways. Tweedy indicates that it’s simply part of his stock and trade, that is, to break down boundaries and resist being confined to any single sound or style.
“I don’t think it’s oversimplifying things or incorrect for an artist to reduce everything to simply expressing one’s self with sound,” he insists. “That’s really all anybody’s doing. If you look at all the different types of music, they are always most interesting when they are up against some other form. There’s way more in common with the artists themselves than what we allow ourselves to think. I think we like making categories, and people like knowing what aisle to walk down at the record store. I don’t know. Most musicians that I’ve enjoyed working with the most are people that have wide-ranging curiosities about other music. To me, Ry Cooder is an artist who’s never been confined by boundaries. If you listen to modern country, a lot of it is taking cues from hip-hop. I’m just not sure that I’ve ever understood what genres are for, other than for marketing. And marketing to me isn’t as inspiring as music is.”
The way Tweedy describes it, pushing past those parameters is simply a natural form of expression. “I don’t understand how you can do it any other way,” he says. “Some people fall in love with a specific style and they really hone it and work on the craft of that specific genre. I can see how that would be really satisfying, to be hyper-specialized in one type of thing. But my impressions come from other people’s music. I’ve always been mesmerized by recorded sound and people making records and trying to say something over a long period of space and time. Those things have given me hope and a kick in the pants to make something more challenging. The bar’s in a different place for people like me. The inspiration can come from a book or a movie. The bar for me is how high it should be while I’m aiming to get my point across and make something beautiful. That’s really my only criteria, to aim for that far connection, not necessarily for that hit record or the genre classic.”
That said, there’s a lot to come from Tweedy and company as 2021 comes to a close. Besides the book and the new solo effort, there’s also an expanded version of Wilco’s classic Summerteeth album being made available 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 on November, 1999.
“Our motto is, ‘keep them wanting less.’,” Tweedy jokes. “For the reissue, 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 Ground 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.”
In the meantime though, would he consider hitting the lecture circuit with the new book?
“I went to college for three years and dropped out without a single credit,” he recalls. “That’s one of my major accomplishments in life I think. Nobody even believes you can do that, but I managed to do it somehow. I have been looking for an honorary degree from somewhere however. The University of Phoenix perhaps? I will say that I’m listed on the Wikipedia page of Southern Illinois University as being among their famous alum. However, it’s not accompanied by my transcripts. I can assure you of that.”