Jeff Tweedy is the founding member and leader of the Grammy Award winning American rock band Wilco, and before that the cofounder of the alt‐country band Uncle Tupelo. Over the course of his prolific career, Tweedy has released twenty albums, and published three books, including the best-selling 2018 memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. The book is a candid, insightful look back at his life in and beyond music, and a window into his creative process.
Tweedy’s best-selling follow-up, How to Write One Song, picks up that thread, offering readers practical advice about the craft of songwriting, and his thoughts on the value and joy that come with making creativity a part of our everyday lives. Tweedy wrote the book during shelter in place as he was also writing the songs for his third solo album, Love Is the King, which he recorded with his sons Spencer and Sammy. The album was released digitally last month, with vinyl and CD formats set for release in mid-January.
We had a chance to talk by Zoom on the eve of the Presidential election. It was a wide-ranging conversation about the book and the album, and how the act of sharing what we create with others can provide us with sustenance and comfort, especially in uncertain times.
The Rumpus: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your new book, and your new album. How to Write One Song isn’t a breakdown of how you wrote a specific song, but rather a guidebook that’s more directed toward inspiring a general reader to recognize and nurture their own capacity for creativity. Can you tell me why you decided to go that route?
Jeff Tweedy: In my experience, I’ve been the least satisfied when I’ve succumbed to some urge to try and sound like someone else’s record. I totally get it, you know, I still buy gear based on “Sister Rosetta Tharpe played that type of guitar.” I have wish lists of instruments, and things I want for the studio based on other people’s recording history, but I really try and consciously not use those elements in a mimicking kind of way.
Rumpus: Before you get into specific writing advice, you reject the myth of artistic genius spontaneously originating from a higher power. Why do you think that myth is so pervasive, and are musicians sometimes guilty of perpetuating it?
Tweedy: Anybody who knows better should speak out about that, and undermine the notion that the only people with permission to create are these exalted creatures that you are not. I think it grows out of some of the insecurities that artists have about what they do. I think artists play up a lot of those mythologies because it makes them feel more special, and there is an aptitude that is being confused with creativity. Certainly certain people are going to have gifts that are extraordinary and aptitudes for musical instruments that not everybody possesses. But my favorite thing in the world is inspired amateurism—and that only happens through people giving themselves permission to make something. One of the things that’s incredibly beautiful about inspired amateurism is more often than not it actually results in something no one else can make.
Rumpus: You also reject the widely held idea that creativity is born only from suffering, taking the view that it’s really the product of work, ideally in the form of daily creative practice. Can you tell me more about that?
Tweedy: Well, I would argue that if creativity was only something that grew out of suffering there would likely be a lot more art. I think it’s in spite of suffering. The argument I’m making is that creativity is a really powerful consolation in the face of suffering. I believe that everyone suffers, and that everyone, with varying degrees of aptitude, has some access to their own imagination. We often access that without consciousness, without active participation. We’re imagining things we believe all the time, without looking at it as a creative act. For example, our ability to believe things that aren’t true about ourselves and the world. At some point, when we’re young, it becomes a lot easier to conform your imagination to some agreed-upon social map. For whatever reason, we spend a lot less time actively constructing our own ideas.
Rumpus: I think a lot of people believe you need to know how to read music, or play an instrument really well, to be a songwriter—but you don’t think that’s necessarily true.
Tweedy: I believe that the part that I’m trying to relate in the book as being very, very helpful to me, and worthwhile, and that I value the most about what I do, is accessible to everybody. That’s the notion that anything can be a song. What you’re really looking for is not something that you’ve done that you can show off and say, “This is great! Look at the great thing I made! I’m amazing!” The real goal is to have spent that time with yourself in a conscious effort to create a moment that you can recreate again, or that you intentionally made that wasn’t there before you made that happen.
Rumpus: So it’s not about mastering a particular set of conventions—
Tweedy: If you really want to open the doors to the belief that a song can be anything, it could be just setting out to make your spouse laugh, or just recognizing there are certain things you do that reliably make that happen. The fact is we’re all living part of one long song. From the day you’re born till the day you die, you have your heartbeat at the very least. There is an ongoing rhythm to everyone’s life. No one is immersed in silence.
Rumpus: That’s a really gorgeous thought. Why do you think we’re not more attuned to it?
Tweedy: In a lot of cases we try to distract ourselves, to numb ourselves with outside absorptions of other people’s creativity and other people’s thoughts. We don’t give ourselves a whole lot of time to actively participate in our own imaginations and creative thoughts. I don’t believe you necessarily have to take anything great from creativity. I think that in and of itself that it is a great activity that benefits people the same way meditation or prayer might. I think it’s an elemental part of who we are that gets overlooked as a viable coping strategy.
Rumpus: You also talk about the value of sharing one’s creativity with others. For a lot of people, this is the hardest part. Do you have any advice for how to overcome the fear of judgement or rejection?
Tweedy: I think it’s just a matter of confronting your vulnerability. Even if you chicken out, and only get through a couple of lines and feel silly, that’s still sharing something with someone. You’ve already opened yourself up, and I think you would learn a lot about yourself.
Rumpus: For you, as someone who’s been at this a while, what remains the most challenging part of songwriting?
Tweedy: I mourn finishing songs because I’ve fallen short of their potential because of my limited ability to play the guitar or my limited ability to understand orchestration. Sometimes I hear things in a much grander sense in my mind than what I’m able to accomplish. At the same time that kind of pushes me forward. I love getting better. I love the idea of trying to get what’s in my head to be audible to other people.
Rumpus: Can you walk me through the process of writing one of the songs from your new album, Love Is the King, perhaps as an illustration of how you applied some of the techniques and strategies you discuss in the book?
Tweedy: I think the main gist of “Gwendolyn” is in the book. There is a line that inspired the whole rest of the song. It starts with the name, thinking how wonderful the internal rhyming is in the word, and everything grows out of the joy of those sounds. I started imagining a story about a much less risk-averse woman that might have led me away from home. The song became a composite of always feeling a bit naïve in my early dating life.
Rumpus: A lot of people have talked about how the album seems to reflect our current circumstances—was that intentional, or are some of these themes—loneliness, connection, and hope—more evergreen for you?
Tweedy: The book and the record were started in the spring and finished in the early part of the summer. Connection, mortality, and where we find comfort in the world are perennial topics for me, or obsessions in terms of songwriting. I didn’t want to write songs with words like “lockdown,” or “quarantine.” It’s not my instinct, but I do feel that as the songs were being revised and finished, one thing I did allow to creep into them more was a sort of semi-dystopian backdrop or atmosphere. To me that seems apparent in songs like “Love Is the King” and “Troubled.”
Rumpus: The typical ways that artists share their work, for example though live in-person events, are on hold for now. I know you recently did a drive-in concert—what was that experience like for you?
Tweedy: It was a beautiful night. It was abnormally cold, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg died about an hour before we went on stage. My kids were really, really shook, understandably, and so was I. But being there with them I was able to illustrate the unique healing power that music possesses—and how it can transcend those sad moments. Sometimes feeling sad and listening to someone who sounds sad can make you feel seen and acknowledged, and not alone. We also did a lot of social media sharing with communities that we’re in contact with, and streamed it live so people could watch it everywhere. There was a lot of honking, and other feedback from the audience. It was enormously reaffirming.
Rumpus: Do you think that’s something that could be potentially scaled into a tour?
Tweedy: With winter right around the corner, I haven’t heard of anyone trying to scale a drive-in theater tour. I imagine you’ll see more of that next spring or summer. I think you’d need a local entity to make sure you’re following the local guidelines, which is what we had. There’s a lot involved—not just for the band but the PA company, lighting, catering, security, etc. Hopefully testing will become much more efficient, widespread, and cheaper. It has to before things can become safer again.
Rumpus: You’ve also done over one hundred episodes of The Tweedy Show, which is live streamed from your wife’s Instagram account, and features family banter and impromptu musical performances with your sons Spencer and Sammy. Do you have plans to keep this going indefinitely, or are you taking it one day at a time?
Tweedy: I think things would really have to feel back to normal for us not to want to at least touch base with the community that has grown up around the band, and now as an outgrowth of our family Instagram Live. You know there’s a really sweet sensation, a lot of people communing with what they have to commune with. A lot people don’t get to see their parents or their loved ones nearly as much because of everything that’s going on. That’s why we’ve opened up our living room.
Photograph of Jeff Tweedy by Sammy Tweedy.