Jeff Tweedy Will Teach You Songwriting




THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE HIGH/LOW ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO.29.

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I. A Magician Reveals His Tricks

HERE’S THE THING about me: I live for a challenge. So just imagine how my competitive spirit ignited when I saw that Jeff Tweedy, the beloved singer-songwriter who founded and has fronted Wilco since the early 1990s, wrote a new book called How to Write One Song. Even though that title boasts a modest promise that Tweedy, one of the most gifted and prolific songwriters of his generation, will teach you the ins and outs of penning a single, solitary tune, I took it as a dare. I imagined Tweedy, with his stringy hair and patchy beard, looking slightly bedraggled under a Stetson hat, standing 20 paces away from me in a dusty road outside an old saloon, with a guitar in hand instead of a six-shooter. Go ahead, he’d say, let’s see what you got.

To be fair, I’m no stranger to songwriting, but the last time I wrote a song, the Black Eyed Peas topped the charts. It’s been a while. In high school, I played guitar and sang in a garage band called Mall Security. Most of our songs were either about a goofball friend of ours named Kayvon or about how hard we rocked (which in our minds was a lot). In college, I fronted a more surrealist garage-rock band called Nuns of Summer. Our songs were surf-punk doodles, with titles like “Sternum Shredder” and “Seven Dollar Boots.” None of the songs by either of my bands has stood the test of time. For the most part, we never bothered to record them.

So I was eager to see if Jeff Tweedy, of all people, could guide me back into a regular songwriting practice, starting with just one song. Spoiler alert (I guess): I breezed through the slim 158-page book and, yes, wrote a song. In the book, Tweedy is an amiable songwriting teacher (who occasionally dishes out tough love when needed), and his methods and exercises work. After I wrote my song, I scheduled a Zoom call with Tweedy to discuss his book and my experience using his songwriting methods. I ironed a collared shirt and combed my hair for the call, but at the last minute his publicist informed me that the interview would be “audio only.” (I only mention this because, amid all the current tragedy and strife, I want there to be some record of a trivial hiccup with a publicist in a pandemic.)

During our conversation, Tweedy, 53, was as affable as he is on the page: thoughtful and generous, kind and funny. How to Write One Song isn’t Tweedy’s first foray into writing prose. In 2018, he published a memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). While his lyrics can often be dreamlike, his prose is conversational and folksy, like a skilled storyteller teasing out a tale by a roaring campfire. Tweedy called me from a lake house at an undisclosed location in Michigan where he was spending time with his wife Susie and their two sons, Spencer and Sam. During the pandemic, Tweedy and his family have been putting on a weekly Instagram Live show called The Tweedy Show, where they sing songs and putter around the house. It’s like a cross between The Osbournes and The Johnny Cash Show.

“Right off the bat,” I told him at the start of our call, “I have to say that I read your book and I wrote a song. So I’m feeling very accomplished.”

“Fantastic!” Tweedy said. That lone word of approval felt like getting a favorable comment from a beloved teacher, written in red ink in the margins of an essay.

II. A Jeff Tweedy Crash Course

For anyone unfamiliar with Tweedy’s work, here’s a CV of sorts. Born in 1967. Formed Uncle Tupelo, a band that pioneered the alt-country genre, in 1987. In the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s demise in 1994, he founded Wilco, his main project for the past 25 years. Wilco has been nominated for six Grammys (and won one in 2004, for Best Alternative Album, for A Ghost Is Born). He grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, but at this point he’s associated with Chicago in the same way that deep-dish pizza and Ferris Bueller are.

III. Jeff Tweedy Is Not a Self-Help Author

The first topic I discussed with Tweedy was that, at times, How to Write One Song felt like a self-help book. In the third chapter, “Obstacles: What’s Stopping You,” Tweedy writes about overcoming “self-defeating inner dialogue.” It’s the kind of language you’d expect from Tony Robbins, or How to Win Friends and Influence People, not a rock musician who sells out amphitheaters. I mentioned this to Tweedy, and he laughed.

“Self-help books have always been a little strange to me because if you’re helping yourself, you don’t need a book,” he said. “But mine is a little bit of an exposé of how I helped myself. And I think the ways that songwriting can help you as a person are vast.”

As I read Tweedy’s advice on overcoming obstacles, which occasionally veered into self-help speak, l recognized the obstructions to creativity he describes. That “self-defeating inner dialogue” — I don’t have time, I don’t have talent, I don’t know what to write, I don’t have proper training — can build to a crescendo, like a chorus of schoolyard bullies, with the ability to freeze any artist in their tracks. But with Tweedy as a guru, quieting those inner critics seems manageable. With its songwriting exercises (which, hang tight, I’ll get to), reading his book feels like having Wilco’s frontman sitting on your shoulder, like an alt-country Jiminy Cricket. And, as he motivates, Tweedy manages to get a laugh or two along the way. “I guarantee you,” he promises in one semi-inspiring passage, “that I have records made by people who are worse than you.”

Tweedy and I discussed the idea that making songwriting part of your daily routine can help ground you as a person, almost like a meditation app. “Songwriting is a process and it’s an activity that, aside from being the way I’ve earned a living in my life, I’ve found to be so helpful that I thought it was worth sharing that insight,” Tweedy said. “I don’t think it’s a revolutionary insight that being creative and having a daily practice of creativity can be beneficial to your mental health.”

I recently read New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz’s new book How to Be an Artist. It shares a lot of common ground with Tweedy’s book — it’s (obviously) a how-to, it has a similar trim size (they both seem designed to be stuffed in a Christmas stocking — elves, take note), and they both share a similar tough-love message of “Just get off your ass and do the work.” Saltz’s book boasts chapter titles like, “Work, Work, Work” and “Start Now.” Tweedy also delivers the same “get to work” directive, but he’s slightly more casual about it.

“Songwriting takes different paths every time,” he told me. “It’s a process, not a blueprint. I’m just doing whatever I can to grant permission to somebody who might be finding themselves stuck.”

I hadn’t written a song in almost 10 years, but I wasn’t sure if I was “stuck.” Songwriting was just a thing that I stopped doing because, well, I got busy. But when I finished writing my new song, it felt like I was in an old commercial for Irish Spring soap — the clouds parted in the sky, the sun shone down on my shoulders, and the world smelled like a dewy countryside meadow in County Cork.

“It’s an incredibly centering thing to do, to remind yourself that you have an imagination,” Tweedy said, when I mentioned how good it felt to write a song. “That you have some control over how you see the world. That you have an inexhaustible well of entertainment between your ears.”

IV. Does My Song Need Meaning?

It depends. In the songwriting days of my youth, because I tended to write abstract, nonsensical lyrics, my chief concerns when sitting down to write in 2020 were: 1) will my song make a lick of sense? And 2) am I going to have anything interesting to say?

Tweedy writes that the question he (and all songwriters) get asked most often about their craft is, “What comes first, the music or the lyrics?” His answer is “both and neither.” But for the purposes of his book, to get the reader to crank out one song, he starts with getting words on the page. Tweedy teaches seven exercises on how to “hot-wire language,” to jump-start the songwriting process. I tried all seven exercises, but I found the first exercise he teaches, creating a “word ladder,” to be the most helpful.

A word ladder, Tweedy explains, is when you quickly jot down 10 verbs, then 10 nouns, each pertaining to a subject. The resulting two columns form, yes, a ladder. For my word ladder, I wrote down 10 verbs about being in a classroom, then 10 nouns that I spotted out the window in my garden. Using those pairings of words, I was able to get complete song lyrics within about five minutes.

But the lyrics I wrote, which were vaguely about growing roses, seemed abstract and aimless. But the closer I looked, and the more I edited, I was able to parse out some personal connection. In the book, Tweedy writes,

I find it’s almost impossible to put two words together and not find at least some meaning. We’re conditioned to look for patterns and identify mysteries to solve much more than we are designed to dictate what we’re searching for. I recommend allowing that natural curiosity and our sense-making brains to do their thing.

I underlined that passage because it made me consider Tweedy’s songs and my relationship to them as a listener. When I hear him sing the song “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” with its lines “Spiders are singing in the salty breeze / Spiders are filling out tax returns,” I can conjure up the images and my own meaning, but is it the meaning he, the songwriter, wanted me to receive?

“The exercises and the things I’m trying to get at in the book,” Tweedy told me, “are that, with revisions and with taking a step back and doing this as a practice, you become much more efficient at seeing what is coming across clearly, and what is making that assumption that somebody can see what’s in your head.”

In How to Be an Artist, Jerry Saltz writes about a trip to a gallery where he looked at some black-and-white photographs of clouds. The gallerist told him, “These are pictures of clouds over Ferguson, Missouri. They’re about protest and police violence.” Saltz bristled and said, “No, they’re not! They’re just pictures of clouds and have nothing to do with anything.” Saltz’s argument is that the meaning has to be in the work. To that point, Tweedy said he’s constantly striving to be clearer about the meaning in his words.

“I don’t believe I have any control over the meaning that gets put together in someone else’s head,” Tweedy said. “But I do consider it the challenge and the thing that I find most satisfying — feeling that I can get better and better at making what I’m seeing clear, and what I’m trying to say clear. So that there’s still a lot of room for the listener.”

The Wilco song I’ve listened to perhaps more than any other is “Company in My Back,” off the 2004 album A Ghost Is Born. Through countless listens, I’d ascribed my own, perhaps ridiculous (and totally wrong) meaning to the lyrics. In the chorus, Tweedy sings, “I move so slow, steady crushing hand, holy shit, there’s a company in my back.” As someone who suffered from a debilitating back injury before having surgery to correct it, I heard this song from the perspective of someone with immense back pain. This narrator imagines a company of, say, tiny Oompa-Loompas, who are demanding Vicodin to ease the pain. This was my absurd reading of the song, but I related to it because of my own personal experience.

I went to the Genius website, where listeners annotate song lyrics with what they think they mean. On that site, a random person wrote that “Company in My Back” is about picking up a woman at a club and having a one-night stand. A very different interpretation from mine. In How to Write One Song, Tweedy writes that “Company in My Back” is “written from the viewpoint of an insect at a picnic.” Me and the guy on Genius couldn’t have been more off base.

“If I look back on that now, I don’t know if I was as clear as I needed to be,” Tweedy said when I told him of my misreading of the song. “At that time, I was really intoxicated by opioids, for one thing. I think I was really interested in the playfulness of the language, and I wasn’t as concerned with having a clear story emerge or an overall clear scene emerge as much as I knew that the language was making me see things. There was imagery there. It wasn’t just vague wordplay. So that was good enough for me at the time.”

Tweedy paused, then continued, “When I go back to a song, I’m not trying to get back into the same headspace that I was in when I wrote it. I think that’s common with poetry, when people first start writing poetry, in a lot of high-school-age poetry. You get the sense that the writer assumes that we’re seeing what they’re seeing. And that’s always the mark of some imprecise and ineffective poetry.”

In his new book about Radiohead’s album Kid A, This Isn’t Happening, Steven Hyden writes, “Meanings can exist whether the creator consciously put them there or not. Sometimes, an artist can put things into their work without realizing it. Or the audience might hear or see things that aren’t ‘supposed’ to be there, but are made real because ‘we’ put them there.” In the case of Kid A, obsessive listeners made connections between the album and 9/11 (even though it was recorded before the terrorist attacks). In the case of Tweedy’s songs, anyone’s songs really, I usually make some sort of connection between the lyrics and my own life.

After my conversation with Tweedy, I went back and looked at the lyrics I had written, about growing roses. I felt they were similar to “Company in My Back” in that I liked the imagery and the wordplay, but there’s no clear story, no easy-to-understand narrative. I knew what the words meant to me, but it’s the kind of song that some rando on Genius might incorrectly think is about picking up a woman in a club.

V. The First Time I Talked to Jeff Tweedy

Midway through my conversation with Tweedy, I told him that this wasn’t the first time we’d talked. Then I went on to tell him about our first conversation, 16 years ago. In 2004, I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Chicago as a representative of my college’s literary journal. I’d describe it as a ho-hum weekend spent sitting in a booth, selling poems and short stories written by my classmates. As I scanned the list of panel discussions happening at the conference, one caught my eye: Jeff Tweedy was going to speak and read from his then brand-new poetry collection, Adult Head. It’d been three years since Wilco dropped their critically acclaimed album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and anticipation was sky-high for their follow-up.

As I made my way over to the panel, I spotted Tweedy standing alone in the corner of the room. I was kind of surprised that he wasn’t surrounded by handlers, publicists, or label honchos. Wilco was arguably at the peak of their fame. They graced magazine covers, topped the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop’s critics’ poll, and had been featured in a documentary. It’s not every day that rockers with those credentials walk down from Olympus and mingle with the common folk. Or at least that’s what I thought when I was in college.

So I walked up to Tweedy and said hello, introduced myself as one of the editors of UC Santa Barbara’s literary journal, Spectrum. I’d purchased a copy of Adult Head, and I asked him to sign it. He did, with a shaky hand, and added a “2004” below his signature. He handed it back to me and noticed that I was also holding Digressions on Some Poems by Joe LeSueur, a memoir about LeSueur’s relationship with the poet Frank O’Hara. My memory is foggy all these years later, but I remember that Tweedy mentioned that writing poems on your lunch break, as O’Hara did when he worked at MoMA, seems a good way to pass the time.

It’s an unremarkable anecdote about a friendly encounter with a rock star. The only reason it sticks in my memory is that, less than 48 hours later, when I was channel surfing back on my couch in Santa Barbara, MTV News had a breaking update that Tweedy had checked into rehab and that the forthcoming Wilco album, A Ghost Is Born, was indefinitely delayed. Tweedy has been sober since that day.

“Yeah, that was at the Palmer House,” Tweedy says, remembering the afternoon we met. “I was panicking all day long. I had a very rough time getting myself to that event. Susie went with me. I think I went to the hospital that night, and I think that they turned me away. The next day I went back to the hospital and they sent me to a different hospital and that’s where I ended up. I hadn’t taken any drugs of any kind for a month or so at that point, because I was trying to just fix it myself. But that caused all kinds of brain chemistry problems that made me extremely vulnerable to my mental health issues at the time.”

In his 2018 memoir, Tweedy writes candidly about the events that led him to check into rehab, including stealing his mother-in-law’s cancer medication to get high. In the memoir, he explains why he was compelled to share the darkest parts of his addiction. “I don’t want to romanticize any of this,” he writes. “It wasn’t glamorous or fun. It was awful.”

In one of How to Write One Song’s early chapters, Tweedy breaks down what his day is like as an artist. It couldn’t be further from a description of a user’s day — it’s a portrait of a working singer-songwriter and family man. He writes that, from 10:00 p.m. to midnight every day, he spends time with his wife and sons and does a crossword. “Yes, I’m a crossword puzzle nerd/addict,” Tweedy writes, “but it sure beats the hell out of when I was an addict addict.” If there’s a pervading rock ’n’ roll myth that drug abuse and being a walking disaster lead to better songwriting, Tweedy’s existence dispels it.

“The weird thing is, is that the same person that you’re talking to is the person that saved me,” Tweedy said. “I was able to see a better way to live. If I hadn’t been able to see that, I wouldn’t have been able to write about anything. That day is very memorable. It was a really, really rough thing. I’m glad you perceived me as nice, because I know that a lot of times in those days the struggle I was having internally would be interpreted as being aloof or distant or not friendly. So I’m happy that I was. Thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt.”

Tweedy added that sobriety, and stabilizing his previously chaotic life, were necessary to his songwriting. “I don’t know if I would have been able to write about anything with any sense of purpose,” he said. “It was a really difficult thing for me to do anything other than communicate through those abstract forms and through songs and things like that. I think I was able to maintain human connections, and fortunately that led to me being able to get help.”

VI. It’s Time to Talk Politics

It was going to come up sooner or later. We’re obviously living in politically charged (and divisive) times. Depending on when you’re reading this, we might have a new president, or we might be in the middle of a coup. In this climate, I was curious if Tweedy ever feels compelled to address politics head-on in his lyrics.

“War on War” is a standout track on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Even though it was recorded months before 9/11 and the United States’s invasion of Afghanistan, and years before the Iraq War, the song seemed like a condemnation of war, but what was it really about? The song begins with Tweedy hypnotically strumming an A chord and singing:

It’s a war on war
It’s a war on war
It’s a war on war
There’s a war on

Seems pretty clear that this is a song about war, right? But a few stanzas later, Tweedy sings:

Just watching the miles flying by
You are not my typewriter
But you could be my demon
Moving forward through the flaming doors

At that point it seems like Tweedy might be singing about a different type of war altogether. But listening to the song in 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and amid the War on Terror, it was hard to hear it as anything but an antiwar anthem. On Wilco’s most recent album, 2019’s Ode to Joy, Tweedy makes oblique references to politics, like dropping the charged phrase “thoughts and prayers” into the song “White Wooden Cross.”

Living in a country as divided as we are now, I wondered if Tweedy ever toyed with writing a song that carries a blunt political message. I mentioned a Neil Young song from August 2020 called “Lookin’ for a Leader” that is over-the-top in how direct it is (full disclosure: I currently play drums in a Neil Young cover band called the Cinnamon Boys). In that song, Young sings:

Lookin’ for a leader
To bring our country home
Reunite the red, white, and blue
Before it turns to stone
Lookin’ for somebody
Young enough to take it on
Clean up the corruption
And make the country strong

Sure, it’s cringeworthy, but you can’t accuse Young of sitting around and doing nothing during an attempted fascist takeover of the United States. But is it effective?

“I don’t know if I have a whole lot of faith in that type of messaging in a song, for me personally,” Tweedy said. “I think art is much more effective as a way to shift people’s perception than it is a way to shift people’s opinions. And I think that that’s much more powerful if you can change people’s perception about how the world is — if you can convince them that it doesn’t have to be this way, because they’re able to see a different world. That can do something much more powerful than reading something out of the headlines and telling somebody how to think about it. I mean, I’m a huge fan of a lot of music that has done just that at the same time. So it’s not like I’m against it. It’s a weird political time where I’m not sure who that’s for, and I’m not sure it’s for me. I would like to believe that it’s helping somebody move toward being on the right side of history or the things that I believe in. But I don’t find it to be particularly good as a song.”

In short, don’t expect Trump to get name-dropped in Tweedy’s songs any time soon.

VII. Roleplaying in Songwriting

Among the many songwriting cheat codes that Tweedy offers, one particularly captured my interest: as you write, pretend you’re another songwriter. “While I agree it’s important to be truthful about what affects you in your day-to-day living,” Tweedy writes, “I’d like to offer a solution to the stultifying feeling that our lives aren’t worthy of songs being written about them: BE SOMEONE ELSE.”

He explains that it helps to get out of your own head by just writing in the voice of another singer. As an example, he says that, when he was writing the country-rock song “Forget the Flowers” for Wilco’s album Being There, he heard Johnny Cash’s voice in his head as he wrote it. When he sings it live even now, he has to consciously try not to mimic Cash’s baritone.

“It really helped a lot of songs come out of me that I’m not sure would have made it through the dense neurotic thicket of self-doubt and insecurity that defined my own self-image,” Tweedy writes of the act of pretending to be another songwriter.

Early in the pandemic, I listened to Flying Coach, a podcast hosted by Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. At the time, sports were on hold, so the two coaches killed time by podcasting together. One topic that came up frequently in their conversations was a book from 1974 called The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. It’s a book that, according to the back-cover copy, will help “focus your mind to overcome nervousness, self-doubt and distractions.” The book has gone on to sell more than 800,000 copies because, well, it’s more than about just tennis. In one passage, Gallwey writes about a technique he used as a tennis instructor:

Imagine that I am the director of a television series. Knowing that you are an actor that plays tennis, I ask if you would like to do a bit part as a top-flight tennis player. I assure you that you needn’t worry about hitting the ball out or into the net because the camera will only be focused on you and will not follow the ball. What I’m mainly interested in is that you adopt professional mannerisms, and that you swing your racket with supreme self-assurance. Above all, your face must express no self-doubt. You should look as if you are hitting the ball exactly where you want to. Really get into the role, hit as hard as you like and ignore where the ball is actually going.

Gallwey says that, when his students pretend to be world-class tennis players, their level of play elevates. Shots that were flying out of bounds were suddenly hit with precision and grace. It obviously reminded me of Tweedy’s technique. As I sat down to write my song, with an acoustic guitar and a legal pad, I realized that I was pretending to be a songwriter too: Tweedy, of course.

VIII. My Song

So, after reading Tweedy’s book, I wrote a song called “Raise Roses.” It’s a three-chord (A-E-B) country-tinged ditty sung by a narrator who tends to roses like they’re people. It’s not going to set the Billboard charts on fire and, if anything, it sounds like a Wilco B-side.

So, yes, Tweedy’s book works. How to Write One Song reminded me of The Inner Game of Tennis in that it’s-about-tennis-but-it’s-not-really-about-tennis way. Tweedy’s practical exercises and ways to think about creativity can benefit any artist, not just songwriters. There’s a Wilco song called “Kicking Television,” and I always liked that title. It makes television sound like a bad habit (which, you know, it is). After I read about Tweedy’s word-ladder method, I thought, “Oh, he probably stumbled on those words by matching random verbs and nouns.” It’s like David Blaine explaining how he levitates. But when an artist strips away the mystery, no matter the form, it’s an act of democracy. Essentially, Tweedy is saying, “Here, you can do this too.”

When I told Tweedy that I’d successfully written a song using his book, he said, “Well, have you shared it with anyone?” For Tweedy, sharing the song you write is one of the most important parts of the process. “This isn’t quite the old trope about a tree falling in the woods,” he writes. “I don’t think your song doesn’t exist until you manifest it in someone else’s imagination. But I do think that what makes a song a song is how it feels when it’s sung.”

The truth is I recorded my song and sent it off to an old bandmate of mine, who is now a painter in New York. He really liked a part in the song where I intentionally coughed to cover up a guitar flub. Not what I was going for, but I’ll take it. I’m going to keep playing it and playing it until I work up the courage to sing it for someone in person. In the meantime, I’ve started writing another song.

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Alex Scordelis has written for Billy on the Street and Difficult People, and received an Emmy nomination for his work on Triumph’s Election Special. A longtime contributing editor at Paper, his writing has also appeared in New York, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Esquire, and The Believer.

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Banner image: “Guitar strings close up” by Richard North is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

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