Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Jeff Tweedy by Sammy Tweedy

How Jeff Tweedy found hope in chaos

02 November 2020, 08:30

If the emphasis on singularity in the title of Jeff Tweedy’s new book, How To Write One Song, is first missed, then look again. Sure, the word "song" might be illustrated in vibrant, rainbow colours on an otherwise pale cover, but One Song is the real subject of Tweedy’s pursuit.

For the Wilco frontman this distinction isn’t just a “Neat semantic trick”, but key to understanding the real reward of songwriting in the first place: to find a moment “when you aren’t “trying” to do anything or be anything anymore. To spend time in a place where you just are.” It’s in this light that Tweedy’s second book can also be read as a way of reshifting the focus or obsession with being something – a songwriter, artist or just about anything – to doing and creating a song, art, or just about anything. No doubt many with little interest in penning a ditty will still find enjoyment in Tweedy’s practical approach to living in the moment.

But like how the 53-year-old’s 2018 memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) delved into the topic of songwriting, this book is perhaps just as much a window into Tweedy himself as it is a helpful guide. “I came up with that title because that is what I actually do”, he tells me directly from his infamous songwriting sanctuary, The Loft. “I write one song, and then I write another song, and each time I think I forget how to do it and then relearn how to do it. It's exciting, because it does feel like each one is a little bit special in its own way, you know?”

It’s unlikely that anyone familiar with Tweedy would doubt his songwriting credentials – Lord knows he’s written a lot of them – but releasing a solo record at the same time mustn’t hurt. Written and recorded with the help of his sons Spencer and Sammy, Love Is The King is an expertly coherent folk-rock record that subtly captures the ambivalence of life in lockdown and the long-felt hopes and anxieties of the momentous upcoming election.

BEST FIT: You touched on the process of songwriting a little bit in Let's Go. What do you think spurred you on to develop that fully in its own right with this book?

JEFF TWEEDY: Aside from enjoying writing about my creative process and it being something that I've thought about a lot, it tended to be the main thing I got positive feedback from my writer friends and musician friends when they read my book. I had some people that I love and trust that said that was their favourite part of the book and that they kinda wished there was more about it. I think that's what made me start thinking about doing more of it.

Does writing it down help you improve the process itself?

Well I don't think it hurts, but I really can't tell if it improves the process. It was nice to have it in front of my mind when I was working on the record at the same time because it made me a little bit more focussed on making the record come across clearly in a songwriting sense.

You said of Let's Go that you could add a 'huh' or a question mark at the end of each sentence, but this book has more of a functional purpose, doesn’t it? But also, one of the first things you do in the book is accept the abstract nature of the song, so do you think that statement still stands this time around, that you could add a question mark at the end of each sentence?

No, I find myself being pretty inclined towards making the opposite argument any time I read myself saying anything. If I read this interview and I see myself asserting something with some sort of authority or positive outlook, like I know what I'm talking about, my instinct would be to think 'Nah it's totally backwards, it's the other way round,' you know? And I think that's a natural impulse maybe a lot of people have, but I think it's especially prominent in people that create; I think that's one of the reasons we remain open to creation or to our creative spirit. Challenging yourself is important. I don't think getting set in your ways and narrowing your viewpoints necessarily results in great art or productivity.

I think what I meant more accurately before about whether writing out the process has an effect on your songwriting, is that you say in the book that the appeal of songwriting is the departure from the ego and just being in the moment. But that's obviously different when you have to write about it, and step outside that moment. So was it something you were prepared for, or did the writing itself take some getting used to?

I find writing songs and writing prose very different. It's kind of the photonegative of what I've done most of my life, trying to distill language into something that paints a picture outside of the lines, gives the listener some environment for their own imagination, or trying to get someone to see something very specific and in a very economical way. Whereas with writing prose I've had to learn that you don't want to leave anything to chance. You can't assume that the reader's gonna get up into your head and understand what you're talking about, you have to really lay it out explicitly.

But I will say I enjoy both, and when I was writing the book a lot of the same things worked for me. Having a little achievable goal each day, like writing a thousand words a day, really helps. And I do disappear, I was disappearing when I was writing about disappearing, you know, and it was really nice to know that that works in another medium.

I think that the productivity gets really squashed by our notions of perfection or this idea that, you know, to do something really substantial I'm gonna need a lot of time, I'm gonna need the perfect environment, I'm gonna need the correct beverage, you know? We try and control all of the things that we have control over because we don't really have any of control of what we're gonna get out of ourselves in a lot of cases. So I feel like you gotta turn that on its head and take control of that limitation too, and basically convince yourself that you're OK with whatever you get out of that short amount of time. Because, that's not a reasonable amount of time, so whatever you get is great. What ends up happening is you start, because you've given yourself permission to have it be a song that you wrote in five minutes as opposed to your masterpiece.

And has the process of writing ‘One Song’ changed for you over the years?

It changes all the time, but I hesitate to say that it's changed at all, because I really feel like the impulse is the same. The drive that I have to make up something for myself to sing is really intact, and it's the same as it was when I was a little kid I think. I really want to make something for myself to sing, and I'm most excited about the next thing that I get to sing. It wasn't always about that, I wouldn't have always looked at it as about myself singing. I might have made it easier for myself to imagine someone else singing it, to get myself to write a song. But the impulse seems really constant, it's like a very familiar feeling to how I felt when I was younger.

I was going to ask actually if it was just your own process of approaching a song, or perhaps in writing the book you looked to some of your own songwriting inspirations? You've talked about Daniel Johnston, for example, as one of your favourite songwriters. Did you approach it from that angle as well, or is it purely your own personal guide?

My intuition would be that Daniel Johnston taught himself how to write songs. My insight would be that some of Daniel Johnston's delusions gave himself permission to write songs, and maybe even the delusion to believe he could write a great song. You don't have to be mentally ill to give yourself that freedom or that license, but mostly I wanted to write a book that would allow someone to understand that where it comes from, each song is gonna be a process of teaching yourself how to write a song.

I wasn't as interested in teaching anything specific, even though there are specific things in the book, I just thought the best motive of education in my mind is one that teaches you how to learn not what to learn. So there are some tricks that I've learnt that helped me give myself permission, number one, and taught me how to learn how to do what I do.

It's interesting that you say that, because rather than what you do with the song once it's written, you talk more about promoting the joy of finding this place of unbridled creativity that we found so easy as a child. You reference childhood specifically, and how proud we were when we coloured in, just because we made it ourselves. Do you think that a) creativity is inherent in everyone, and b) it's hindered or diminished as time goes on?

I do personally believe that everybody has an imagination. That's basically where creativity comes from I think, from our subconscious and our imagination. If anybody didn't have an imagination, we wouldn't believe a lot of things that we believe. About ourselves, about the world. We kind of fill the gaps on a lot of things, and we don't have any clue whether it's real or not. Then I think what happens is when people get older, to function in society you have to sign on to an agreed upon fiction, you have to enlist yourself into a shared version of reality, to know what you're talking about in a conversation with someone who isn't in your head. We learn how to do that and how to basically hide our imagination and creativity in adhering to the same map everybody has agreed upon.

"To me creativity is basically teaching yourself how to pay attention to all those thoughts that you don't necessarily want to have."

That's one theory that I have as to why it becomes harder. But I think that that part of our brain once we get older just becomes a part not as valued, certainly not valued by society, so it becomes frivolous, or thought of as a frivolous part of who we are. Our whimsical nature, our ability to lose ourselves and hum or sing to ourselves is something you're taught to hide, or feel vulnerable about sharing. And kids don't have that. The world just kind of wears it down and smooths it out. Because it's unwieldy – our imaginations are somewhat uncontrollable, I mean you don't really control what you think, so you have to pretend that you can by disregarding all kinds of thoughts. Not paying attention to them. To me creativity is basically teaching yourself how to pay attention to all those thoughts that you don't necessarily want to have.

And on the topic of kids, even though they're not children anymore, what does it mean to be able to perform with your sons? Your wife is a valued member of the Wilco community in her own right, too. Not that you ever forced your kids to pick up a pair of drumsticks, but I know that your interest in music as a child wasn't necessarily shared with your parents, so it must mean a lot to be able to play with your family? Was that a conscious thought?

It was a conscious thought. My wife had a rock club, so Spencer got to spend a lot of time there when he was really young. Sammy missed out on it, but our whole family culture, our atmosphere, is consciously built upon the idea that it's normal to make stuff, it's normal to sing together, it's normal to be goofy together. Nobody had any kind of pressure on them to become a musician, but there was an overall expectation in the family, and there still is to this day, is that you participate in what the family values. And I value connection and togetherness through these kinds of activities. Making music, consuming art, talking about philosophy and things like that.

Just before we move on, going back to the book, do you think it would be accurate to call Let's Go a personal process – in that you dealt with some of the heavier themes in your life – whereas How To Write One Song might be seen as a way of empowering the reader?

I feel like they're more similar than that would imply. What makes them both worthwhile to me was that I felt like I had something to share that might help someone else. Not that I was eager to tell my amazing story; I'm aware that at this point in my life there are enough people that have been paying attention to me and what I do to be interested in that, and that was appealing too, but I don't think that alone would have been enough to convince me that it was worthwhile to write a memoir at fifty years old.

Both books to me are similar in that they're trying to demystify some of the things that surround rock musicians, or artists in general. Things that make someone else feel like it's inaccessible to them, that time of self-liberation or freedom.

I'm curious about the bilateral nature of the book and the album Love Is The King, in a similar way that WARM might have been seen as a counterpart to the last book. Would you prefer fans to approach the album and book together?

I think that they stand alone, but if someone has the inclination to explore them together, they would compliment each other, because they do for me. But I didn't feel like I needed to make a record to illustrate the things in the book, and if it wasn't for the election coming up I probably would have opted to put the record out later. I think a lot of people that make things are rushing to get them out before the election, because the post-election world is so hard to picture in this country right now. It really feels like there's a sell-by date on a lot of the feelings that we're having right now, and hopefully they won't apply to what's happening in six months.

When I was thinking about what to ask you about the current political situation, I didn't just want to opt for the classic rockstar-against-president position. I was looking for something a bit more nuanced, I guess, but there really isn't anything nuanced to say any more, is there?

There's so much to say, and not a whole lot of it matters that much. The fact is I don't understand it. It baffles me that such a sizable percentage of a population, of otherwise mostly decent people, seem to lack enough critical thought to spot the world's most obvious conman. That blows my mind. It's worse than just that, because obviously there is real damage being done to big ideas, big things that we need like democracy, social justice. There's damage being done to people that aren't being protected in even the most simplest ways to mitigate a worldwide pandemic. Just the bare minimum isn't being done to protect people, and it's homicidal negligence, you know? It really is. So all of that is intense to be a witness to?

How do you deal with that? Both personally and as a musician, if the latter has any difference?

Well I think that everybody feels a duty to pay attention, and to make note of what needs to be fixed. What needs to be fixed and what isn't normal. But there's also... people live all over the world in horrifying circumstances, especially in terrifying regimes. Americans are really soft; we've really become pretty numb to our liberties and our good fortune. I think a lot of Americans have taken our democracy for granted for a long time and have become very, very comfortable. But people aren't like that in a lot of places in this world. And I think that we're waking up to that reality, too.

One of the things I feel like we do is, take stock of all the things that are still beautiful, lean on the things that still matter and maybe allow pain to not be wasted by applying it to, adding meaning to, the things that are joyous. The things that are human-scaled and real become essential, and that in itself is a small silver lining. That you have to focus on your gratitude at the same time that you're understandably fearful about a lot of things.

I think what's been unique to this year is that, in my lifetime anyway, it’s been the first time that I’ve felt such a uniform, societal shift in mood or emotion. It’s hard to explain; a feeling like, ‘OK shit, things actually can change’. That doesn't happen all the time, that happens in a lifetime, so I just wonder what the mood in Chicago is right now?

It's hopeful, and definitely everyone's jittery and cautious because of what happened last time, that there was just no conceivable way of what happened would happen. This time I don't think anybody's taking it for granted. There does seem to be a great deal of energy and momentum towards removing him from office and getting things back on the right track.

You know, the pandemic to me was just an incredible squandered opportunity. I mean I'm glad that maybe Donald Trump is mainly incapable of it? He was incapable of doing the bare minimum, which would have actually helped him politically. But I really wish those people were alive; there's no doubt about it that more people are dead in our country than should be dead considering what options we had six months ago to mitigate what was about to transpire. But there was a moment when everybody was facing probably one of the top ten worst fears that they had about the modern world. The notion that at some point there might be a virus that causes a worldwide pandemic that becomes a very deadly proposition for everybody. Our experiences were the most similar I think they've ever been, in my lifetime for sure. And there wasn't any real leadership from the top that could have put that in perspective and really harnessed that to some sense of unity and togetherness – something transformative.

"I truly believe there still has to be some growth that comes out of this that isn't negative."

But people on their own did try and do that. Even today, the compliance with just the notion that wearing a mask is gonna help your neighbour, you still see so much of it. The first time we ventured out of the house during the early part of the lockdown we went for a drive for some reason, but the highways were completely empty. That was one of the first times living in a city like Chicago I've ever seen that before. It made me cry because it was a symbol of love... people loving each other to not go where they thought they needed to go. I truly believe there still has to be some growth that comes out of this that isn't negative.

You mentioned 'taking stock' earlier. What are you taking stock of in Love Is The King? It feels like you're bringing the listener closer into a more immediate setting – the opening lyrics are "Here I am / There it is", in contrast to the more heavier, internal topics that you begin the previous record with. What are you taking stock of?

Well like I just said, "Here I am / There it is / At the edge / Of as bad as it gets." What is happening is really in my repertoire of private fears I've had for a long time, you know? Well here it is, and what's gonna happen? Like I was trying to say before, obviously I'm not going to get through this without the love and safety and security and comfort of my loved ones, my family, my friends. When you start thinking that way you realise how far out that extends, and how interwoven it is: my wife's friends, her high-school friends, their friends, and just knowing that there's this vast network of people who really believe in this idea of us having love and a connection and a value to each other. That's joy and hope in the face of anxiety and fear, and all of the things that are hinted at elsewhere on the record. I never wanted to come at anything directly, because I was conscious of not wanting the record to be super tied to this moment, even though I think it's impossible for it not to be a document of what this moment is like.

The photograph on the front of the record is a Robert Capa photo from 1943 at the beginning of Operation Torch, when the allied soldiers began taking back the northern part of Africa. To me it was an example, a really vivid, poignant piece of evidence of what happens when people share a beautiful belief together and are willing to make a sacrifice for each other. Willing to have that be a motivating factor and wanting to live in a world that has a better outcome for more people.

I'm not saying the record is meant to imply that we're in the position of a soldier or the tip of the spear or anything like that, but I'm inspired by that notion for sure. That, as bad as everything can possibly get, and maybe you could argue that everything had to feel pretty apocalyptic in 1943, you know? Especially where you're sitting right now, I'm sure. I don't think a lot of people wanted to go through the things that they went through to put the world on a different path, but they did, and that always gives me hope.

How to Write One Song and Love Is the King are out now
Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next