Rock and Roll Book Club: Jeff Tweedy on 'How to Write One Song'


Jeff Tweedy's 'How To Write One Song.'
Jeff Tweedy's 'How To Write One Song.' (Dutton)
Jeff Tweedy on 'How to Write One Song'
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Jeff Tweedy — of Wilco, Tweedy, and formerly Uncle Tupelo — has a new book called How to Write One Song: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back (buy now). I loved Tweedy's 2018 memoir, but today, rather than review the new book, I was pleased to turn the mic over to the author himself. Here's a transcript of his conversation with The Current's Jill Riley.

Jill Riley: Jeff, how you doing?

Jeff Tweedy: I'm good. Thanks for having me.

How's Chicago?

Same. It's starting to get cold, you know,'s here. It's still here, contrary to the reports you might have heard on the news.

Chicago is still there. I'm in St. Paul. St. Paul is still here. You know, Jeff, I was just thinking back to this past spring. I was checking in with some musicians all over the country, all over the world and I had an opportunity last April to talk with Mavis Staples. She was kind of holed up at home during the stay-at-home orders, and we were talking about that song, "All In It Together." I just said, that's such a timely song, how did you crank that one out so fast? She said, we didn't! It's been sitting on a shelf for a while. And she kept hearing that phrase, and she said, "I knew that we had that song and I called Jeff Tweedy. I said, 'Tweedy, we've got to get that song out.'" Is that how it went?

If Mavis says that's how it went, that's how it went.

A few years ago, I remember, when you came to Minneapolis with Wilco, and I think — this is about four years ago, so I don't expect you to totally remember the concert in particular — but it was a concert at Hall's Island in Minneapolis, an outdoor show and Kurt Vile opened. We, The Current, were live broadcasting that show and I remember you came by our...we had, like, a broadcast camper that evening, and we talked about your professional creative partnership but your friendship, also, with Mavis Staples, and you said something that evening that I will never forget. You referred to her as an angel, but what I didn't tell her was the second part. I'll just never forget you saying this. You're like, Mavis is an angel...actually, Mavis makes angels look like a--holes. I will never forget that! I thought, Jeff, you're so lucky to have such a great relationship with Mavis Staples.

Oh, absolutely. She's something else. She's one of a kind and, yeah, our family does not take it for granted that we're very fortunate to have Mavis in our lives. Our kids have a close relationship with her and Susie, my wife, talks to her frequently and yeah, she's a part of our extended family. I'm not sure why that happened or how that happened, but I'm very, very grateful.

And at that time that I was checking in with Mavis, you were in the studio making music. When did you start working on this book, How to Write One Song? It was just a couple years ago that your memoir came out. When did the idea for this new book, How to Write One Song, come up?

Not long after the last book came out, I started thinking about writing another book and what it might be about. One of the things I enjoyed the most about writing the first book was getting to talk about the creative process and things that I contemplate a lot and getting to share that stuff. Our tour got canceled the beginning of this year; we were supposed to be out for five weeks and once we got home, I was pretty certain we weren't going to be going anywhere for quite some time, just looking at the pandemic and the scale of what was happening. I started writing probably around March or so, or maybe April, just because...what else am I going to do?

It's an easily digestible size. It's a book not meant to be exhaustive, but more of a little nudge for people that are having trouble allowing themselves the freedom to create.

Jeff, do you think that anybody has the capability to write a song, or do you think that people are kind of born with "the stuff" and then you hone the craft?

I think everybody has an imagination. I think everybody constructs versions of themselves all day long. They think of themselves as certain things that are fictitious in some ways and beautiful in...we all do that, all day long. We all interpret our surroundings in a way that's pretty much exclusive to our imaginations. Certainly as kids we have a lot more direct access to that side of our brains. We play, and that usually involves a certain amount of imagination. It becomes this part of our mind that we usually treat as inferior or frivolous and I just like to see people participate in that side of their brain!

Yes, I do believe everybody can write a song. It depends on what you call "a song." I don't necessarily think everything people call "a song" is what you should be aiming for. What you should be aiming for is your song, and your song might be making your friend have a better day, you know, with some intent. I think it should be very, very broad, the way we look at a creative act.

Jeff, how old were you when you wrote your first song?

I think I was probably 13 or so.

Do you remember the name of it?

I think it was called "Your Little World."

Did you have a lot to learn about the structuring of how it's actually done?

The structure is stuff anybody can learn. I'm still learning. I still learn how to put shapes and chord progressions together and things like that. The craft of it is something that you can work on your whole life. I think the thing that was maybe more difficult, that just came naturally to me, is just allowing myself the freedom to think of myself as someone who can make up a song. That was the biggest hurdle, and it's a big hurdle for a lot of people. I was delusional, maybe, to some degree, or it was just something that I beautifully had at my disposal for some reason because I was left alone a lot.

You've been busy, not only writing a book, but you've got a new album called Love is the King, out Friday, Oct. 23. At the beginning of our conversation, we talked about going back to last spring and thinking about where we were at the beginning of the pandemic and your tour being canceled. It's like, okay, what do I do with my time? The whole idea of songwriting, it seems to me, was the most natural response for you. So you've got a new record on the way.

I mean, it's a habit: just something I do during the best of times, and it seems to ramp up a little bit when I need it a little more. I think it's been one of the ways I've consoled myself my whole life, or distracted myself or pushed the world away. You know, it's very effective for that, and other people's music has always been very effective for that. It's been a real lifesaver.

I think the difference, maybe, for this record is that at the very beginning of the pandemic, I think, when things were even scarier than they still are, I probably gravitated towards my comfort food type of songwriting — which is all of the shapes and tropes of country music and folk music that, I think, do come most naturally to me. I'm not trying to expand the genre, I'm not trying to bring too much of myself to it. I'm basically just trying to write a song that I could pitch to Buck Owens or something, you know? I take myself out of it quite a bit when I'm writing country songs, folksongs. I started doing that, then the world started creeping into some of them and it became a little more personal.

Yeah. That's naturally going to happen. I appreciate your time, and hope to check in soon. We miss seeing you live. We miss those Wilco shows. You've got a great fan base here in Minnesota.

Absolutely. We miss you too. Definitely looking forward to playing music for humans again.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

October 22: Mirror Sound: A Look Into the People and Processes Behind Self-Recorded Music by Spencer Tweedy and Lawrence Azerrad (buy now)

October 29: 666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die: A Guide to the Monsters of Rock and Metal by Bruno MacDonald (buy now)

November 5: Violet Bent Backward Over the Grass by Lana Del Rey (buy now)

November 12: She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music: Revised and Updated 25th Anniversary Edition by Lucy O'Brien (buy now)

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