Why Jeff Tweedy Composes His Songs Without Words

Why Jeff Tweedy Composes His Songs Without Words

The singer-songwriter and Wilco frontman describes how music has been his constant companion, and how the emotional landscape of a song is the thing he wants to get down first.

When Jeff Tweedy’s older brother, Steve, gifted him his enormous record collection when Jeff was around eight years old, he says it felt like being given the Rosetta Stone—a mystery that he would spend the rest of his life trying to decipher. Growing up in Belleville, Illinois, just outside of St. Louis, Tweedy would haunt record shops and live shows, and was encouraged by local musicians to write and perform songs without worrying if they were good or not—much like his idol Woody Guthrie, whose prodigious output inspired Tweedy to experiment freely with his songs.

In 1994, when he was 27, Tweedy formed the band Wilco with musicians John Stirratt, Max Johnston, and Ken Coomer; the foursome would be signed to Reprise Records in 1994 and go on to record ten albums, including Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) and A Ghost Is Born (2005), which won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. They continue to release music. Tweedy’s book, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc., was published in November 2018, the same month he released Warm, his first solo album.

In this extended interview conducted by writer Jancee Dunn for Topic’s June 2019 Monologue video, Tweedy, 51, discussed from his home in Chicago why he prefers writing songs without words, how the internet erased the generation gap between him and his sons, and why inspiration always hits on a Friday.


How has music kept you emotionally afloat?

Music has just been a constant companion throughout my life. I feel like the only consolation I’ve ever had that feels similar has been close friendships.

I really don’t know how to explain the consolation that comes from not just listening to music but making music for myself. The best I can do is describe it as something that allows me to disappear. I think that’s a really healthy thing for people to do, kind of like meditation; it can be really valuable to your overall mental health and probably your physical health, too.

  When you were a kid growing up in Belleville, Illinois, you found an escape in record stores. Could you talk about what they meant to you? Because hanging out in record stores is becoming something that some kids have never done, and I feel sorry for them.

I can picture all of the record stores I’ve ever hung out in pretty vividly. Record stores are hard to ... the phrase I’m looking for is to “map completely.” No matter how much time I spent in any of the record stores, even the ones I worked in, I feel like if you set out to find something that you never heard before, or set out to find a whole genre of music that you didn’t understand, you could find it.

I feel like that about libraries and book stores and record stores. For a person with a really curious kind of attitude towards the world, I can’t think of any better places to be.

Tell me about the life-changing day when your brother, Steve, came home from college and he found you filling out a form for the Columbia House Record Club. He gave you his record collection instead. Can you talk a little bit about his collection?

My brother had the craziest record collection in the world. It’s still sort of mind-boggling to me how he assembled all of these records, coming from the same place I came from. He had very difficult records to find—for sure they’re hard to find today, like Aphrodite’s Child and all these prog-rock records and early experimental electronic records, Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream. And then he’d have singer-songwriters like Harry Chapin and Tom Waits. Ambitious, literary-minded college people listen to those types of records, I guess.

He basically dumped the Rosetta Stone into my lap. I’m still trying to figure out those records.

  When you were a teenager, you started going to a St. Louis club called Mississippi Knights. You saw The Replacements there, right?

We had tickets for the underage section of the X show. The Replacements just happened to be opening for them. We really weren’t familiar with them at all yet. I think they were maybe just about to put out Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, or maybe Hootenanny, I can’t remember which one. But for the most part, they were playing early Replacements music from Stink also.

People weren’t into it. People weren’t listening to them. People were dismissing them because they weren’t on the top of the bill. But their ability to fight through that, to not have it ruin their delivery, their joy, it was just defiant. I felt like it was a window into a different way of navigating an indifferent world.

The first song that you ever wrote was recorded by a band called Joe Camel and the Caucasians. I collect great band names. Tell me about the song, and about Joe and, of course, the Caucasians.

Joe Camel was a local bar-band guy who had great taste in music and a great record collection and played saxophone. He fronted a band that would play mostly 1950s and ’60s deep cut, R&B, and garage rock and things like that. He was a hip guy.

He was also a really generous mentor of other younger musicians in town, and he invited us to open for Joe Camel and the Caucasians when we were still The Primitives—way before we were probably ready to perform in front of people. He believed in us.

I must’ve told him that I knew how to write songs, because I certainly didn’t have any songs to show him, and he took me up on it. I wrote a really sort of sophomoric song about a girl; it was very, very angsty. It was basically “Your little world is much too small, I don’t have any room at all,” or something like that. It was kind of feeling pushed out of someone’s narrow interest. It was not a good song.

  You write in your book that if you brought Joe a record to listen to, you would both be still and listen—whereas other friends would talk or get up or futz around. Could we talk about that for a minute? Because I think this is a common thing that music geeks appreciate.

I think it’s still maybe more of a criteria for my friendships than it ought to be. It’s a little unfair, because music can certainly be enjoyed a lot of different ways. But I’ve always felt a deep connection to someone who can be still and quiet listening to music. I don’t understand how people put music on and write or do other things. It’s very difficult for me. I honestly can’t think about anything else when there’s music playing.

I’d also think that there’s a rare, unexplainable thing that happens when you listen to music with someone else who’s listening intently. I think the music actually changes; it can become better. You can hear it with not just your ears but someone else’s ears.

You’ve said that your superpower, in terms of songwriting, is being OK with being vulnerable. How has that shown up in your work?

I never just set out to become vulnerable. I think that I’ve had a difficult time in my life believing other people are very different than I am. That sounds pretty solipsistic, and it probably is. But I always assume other people have a lot of the same feelings I do, and that probably has led me to believe that everybody’s bullshitting when they say they’re not scared or upset or worried or emotionally distraught. People hide a lot, and I’ve never really bought it.

  I thought it was interesting that you feel like melody does the heavy lifting emotionally, more than lyrics, and that you often don’t bother with lyrics at first. Do you often sing and record vocal sounds without words first?

The initial vocal tracks in almost every song I’m working on in the studio are nonsense syllables and sounds that, if mixed at the right volume, most people assume are words. I’ve played a lot of tracks for people over the years where I’ll say I just need to finish the lyrics. And they’ll look at me puzzled, like, What are you talking about, there were lyrics on there. And I’m like, No, it’s all just sounds.

This allows me to keep working on the song until the emotional landscape of the song reveals itself to me.

  People’s natural state, at least young children, is to be creative—before they grow up and get self-conscious. Why is this important to you, and do you remember when you started thinking this could be a goal for yourself?

It’s always been an impulse in my life to create. It was never really sufficiently beaten out of me by the culture, or my education, or whatever happens to most people. It just somehow remained mostly intact.

But it was reinforced by a couple of different things. One was getting to work with Woody Guthrie’s archives and seeing the unedited output of this hero of mine and how unprecious it was, how random it appeared to be from the outside. It was just this constant flow, without hardly any judgment that you could discern. If Guthrie wanted to write something disgustingly pornographic, he would write that. If he wanted to write something that vented anger at a local politician or a foreign leader, he wrote that. He basically let things pour out of him. That was a great lesson, or affirmation, of a way to live your life.

I know your son Spencer helped with your recent album, Warmer, and that he records and tours with you, too. How has music made you closer to your children?

It’s our family’s version of playing catch. A natural inclination to kill some time together is to get on the floor and play some instruments and just improvise. It’s been a part of our communication and how we relate to each other as a family.

I think that rock-’n’-roll culture, counterculture, the notion of 1960s teen rebellion, and just the general idea of a generation gap is a bill of goods that was destructive, sold to people as marketing. It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t help anybody to seal yourself off from the wisdom of people older than you, that have been through more than you.

I think if there’s something good about the internet, it’s that the time periods of culture are all happening at once, all the time, and so it’s not as easy to draw borders around high art and low art, valid ideas and invalid ideas. My kids just don’t look at it like that.

They both grew up in a culture of belief. They know lots and lots of adults who have not given up on some type of dream, of being a creative person and figuring out a way to make that work in their life.

You mention in the book that your songwriting process is often jump-started by listening to music. Maybe it’s new records, old favorites, and then you just sort of can’t take it anymore and you have to make something new or you’ll lose your mind. Can you remember specifically when that happened recently?

It’s kind of an automatic reflex at this point, and it happens on a daily basis. I can tell you it almost always happens on Fridays, because new releases come out every Friday and we live in a world where I have all of the different streaming services. My younger self is just blown away by the idea that I can listen to every new release that comes out every Friday, and I honestly try to. It inevitably leads to some spark going off.

  You’ve experienced debilitating migraines for much of your life, and that material that you’ve recorded reflects some of the migraine pain. You’ve said it mimics isolating alien landscapes.

Philosophically, I’ve honestly tried very hard to figure out what the purpose of pain is. I don’t want it to go to waste. I just have a hard time tolerating the idea that there’s no reason for pain.

That’s initially what led me to want to at least create something out of it, to transform it into something expressive or beautiful. Very often in my life I’ve wondered if I would be the same person if I hadn’t had migraines. Would I still be the same person if I somehow could snap my fingers and never have another one?

I honestly have had some anxiety about the notion that they could go away. There is a euphoria that comes with a subsiding migraine. You start to feel like, Oh, it’s going away, I’m gonna be OK. I don’t know how you would get that catharsis any other way.

When I was an editor at Rolling Stone, I was a bit of a—I don’t know if you’d call it a music snob—but now that I’m older, I find that I’m appreciating artists that I once shunned.

I think reappraisal of people that I hated growing up was such a disorienting thing. Punk rock forced you to shun Neil Young when I was growing up. We made fun of our friends that listened to Neil Young, because he was a hippie and we thought that hippies were the enemy. I don’t know where we got that idea, because it was stupid.

Some of my favorite music has come to me after getting over that irrational shunning. I would go even further and say that I don’t ever trust that my opinion of anything will remain intact. I don’t try and form fully established opinions of other people’s music. If anything, I listen to a lot of music that I hate, because I always feel like I should go back and give it another chance.

I think it’s a healthy, humble place to be to remind yourself that you can be fallible in your initial assessments or your current assessment of something.

  You wrote in your book that people who seem the most like geniuses are not necessarily geniuses, they’re just more comfortable with failing.

I’ve definitely met some real geniuses in my life, but what distinguishes them from everyone else in their field is their work ethic. That seems to be a more consistent trait in people that I admire, creators that I admire.

I don’t know what good it does you to be a genius if you don’t work at it still. I don’t know if it’s a very helpful concept in the first place. I think it’s a cop-out; it’s another one of those things that can be utilized by people that are afraid to try.

That, to me, is antithetical to the whole idea of just wanting to make some connections, any human connection. The intellectual capacity or talent level of the creator shouldn’t have much to do with it.

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