Jeff Tweedy Wants To Teach You How To Write One Song

In 2018, Jeff Tweedy published Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), one of the funniest and most insightful rock memoirs of recent years. For anyone interested in the Wilco frontman’s creative process and personal outlook, Let’s Go is as essential as any Wilco record. Tweedy must have felt that he was on a hot streak, because he’s back again with a new book out today, How To Write One Song, that delves even deeper into his artistic approach, only this time with a motivational twist.

As the title suggests, How To Write One Song aims to instruct the reader on how to do what Tweedy himself has done successfully for more than 30 years. Unlike many songwriters, who often bat away questions about their work habits by claiming that ideas simply come to them from some unseen higher power, Tweedy is refreshingly practical about the act of writing songs. In his book, he gives tips on how to write lyrics (taking a nap can be very helpful) and the best way to record a demo on your phone (singing in the bathroom will add reverb to your voice). He also offers tips on how to fight the existential battles that prevent people from pursuing their dreams, such as the tendency to judge ourselves as unworthy before we’ve even done anything.

More than that, however, Tweedy makes a case for songwriting — as well as creativity in general — as a way to improve your life. It doesn’t matter what the final result is, he writes. It’s the process of making something, and the way it allows us to live in the moment by discovering something new while also losing ourselves, that matters.

“I want to be a person who encourages more humans to do that — to have some private moments of creativity, whether they share their creations or not,” Tweedy writes. “We should have an army of people advocating for that. I think it’s the coolest thing in the world when someone steps outside their so-called station in life to indulge in a personal ‘art for the sake of art’ moment.”

Tweedy himself in recent years has been as creative as he’s ever been, putting out a series of solo releases along with the usual Wilco records. His latest LP, Love Is The King, drops October 23. (There is also a massive box set commemorating Wilco’s 1999 masterpiece Summerteeth due out November 6.) Ahead of that, I spoke with him about How To Write One Song and his overall philosophy about how songwriting is something anyone can do.

I wouldn’t want to call this a self-help book, per se. But there is an element of How To Write One Song that posits songwriting as a way to improve your life. Is that a fair summation?

I philosophize about this a lot. I think art is an essential part of life. Beauty and artwork that creates introspection and meaning and all kinds of ways to think about the world and have our perceptions changed, that’s all incredibly important. I feel like one of the best aspects of embracing art in your life is that it’s a better life. I know that kind of flies in the face of a lot of people’s opinions about what artists’ lives are like, but I don’t feel like that’s necessarily worthwhile to perpetuate. It is an incredibly great thing to do: to actively participate in your own life and your own imagination.

A lot of the book is talking about the process of creation and it seems like you’ve really put a premium on that — just enjoying the process and not being overly concerned with what the end result is going to be. Have you always thought that way? Or is that something that has evolved as you’ve gotten older?

I think it’s always been the case, it’s just an observation that became clearer to me as I got older. I’ve always benefited the most, personally, from the time spent creating, and the things that I struggle with and have caused me any type of minor suffering related to art has always come after that period. Like, just putting it out in the world and the melancholy feeling you get with other people weighing in sometimes. Just the frustration that comes with trying to get a song right with a live performance or something like that. But the act of creation itself that has generally been the part that, over time, has made itself clearly to be the most beneficial.

That part of the book really resonated with me, because I didn’t come to appreciate the process of writing until later in life. When I was younger, I was more preoccupied with the end point. In a way, you believe that making this thing will also make me a different person in some way, either because you’ll be more successful or because you’ll realize something about yourself. But I try not to get hung up on those “reward” aspects now, in part because you don’t really become “different.”

I’m embarrassed to say that I do still probably harbor some distorted belief that, once everybody hears this one song, they’re going to stop saying mean things about me. [Laughs.] I do sometimes have those weird little daydreams that a song’s going to be important or something like that. I’ve been much better off as I’ve learned to recognize what that is, and also remind myself of the reality that some of the songs I’ve written have become important to some people. I don’t always feel that, and I can’t feel that in a way that I can carry around with me. So, it’s much better for me to focus on the creative side and the act of creating than what the songs become or what it makes me. I don’t become anything really “different” ever.

You really demystify the process of songwriting. I interview songwriters a lot, and many times they don’t want to be analytical of their own work almost out of fear that if they’re too self-conscious about what they do that it’ll ruin their inspiration. So they’ll talk about being a “conduit” for ideas sent from some mysterious higher power.

There is a tendency to feel sort of superstitious. That in itself is self-conscious. I can’t think of anything more self-conscious than to not want to talk about something because you’re afraid that it’s going to change it somehow. What’s to stop you from having thoughts? Just putting them out into the air isn’t going to change anything.

I’ve thought a lot about the things that get mythologized, and none of that type of thinking is ever nearly as interesting to me as the reality of what’s happening. The reality is fascinating enough. The fact that people do this and reliably make stuff all over the world all the time in lots of different ways with lots of different motives and results and traditions, that’s pretty incredible to be a part of. It’s like pseudoscience. When you look at science, it is way more fascinating than pseudoscience. Bigfoot is nowhere near as interesting as just your typical garden spider.

What demystified songwriting for you? Was there a particular person who made you feel that you could do it?

I don’t really know. I think that the gift that I had was just pure delusion. That maybe is something I share with the greats. [Laughs.] Just this initial impulse that was completely oblivious to the facts. That I didn’t know how to play the guitar or I was really bad in school or all the things that should’ve stood in my way, I was pretty inoculated from all that for some reason. Then over time I think I demystified it for myself by just doing it a lot and ending up with different results, from learning to focus on the part of it that was basically process. But early on it was just a drive to do it, and I think you have to have that. Like, just being able to picture yourself as somebody that does that. It’s hard to do something that you can’t picture yourself doing.

You write about it in your first book, too, just the importance of thinking of yourself as a songwriter or a musician before you actually are one.

That’s one of the appeals of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s a word I always gave it. Punk rock would’ve fit. But basically just now I think of it as just being creative and having an artistic outlook on life. One of the main appeals, one of the main selling points, is this idea of self-liberation, self-freedom, feeling of freedom, freeing yourself from the constraints of your own mind, your own self-doubt, the slings and arrows of your friends and neighbors wanting you to stay in your place.

Are there any songwriters that are still mysterious to you, just in terms of what they are able to produce? Take Bob Dylan — you’re a songwriter, you know how songwriting works, but can you still wrap your head around what he does?

I don’t contemplate it a whole lot. If I think about Bob Dylan, what he does, what he gets out of himself year after year, all I think is he must read and write and think about it a lot more than a lot of other people and he’s been able to maintain that energy for a long time. He has protected the part of himself that is inspired, I think, in a way that I find inspiring myself. But as far what kind of process he might use, it’s not that important to me, I guess. All I really know is that there is a process that has to be at work for almost everybody. There isn’t a pure conduit lightning-rod songwriter out there that doesn’t even want to write songs, and yet they just keep coming to them.

You write about how judgment can be an impediment to creativity, and how the willingness to write a bad song can be the path to eventually writing a great song. Is getting past the impulse to judge yourself during the creative process the main roadblock you have to overcome?

I think that that’s obviously the biggest struggle for most people, myself included. Even right now when I hear you say, “You have to be okay with writing bad songs,” I picture this being in an interview and I can hear the voices of the people saying, “Well, that’s all he’s done for the last 15 years.” [Laughs.] I hear those voices. Sometimes I project them out onto the voices that you see and feel from the internet or from fan pages. But it’s the same commentary that everybody else has. There is some part of your ego that is going to protect your ability to be hurt and vulnerable and one of its only options, in a lot of cases, is to dissuade you from doing anything, from sticking your neck out and participating. I’ve learned to circumvent that and my life’s work is to figure out ways to push that side of myself away as much as possible. Anybody that wants to do anything creative and put it out into the world is going to have to navigate that and find other ways to protect themselves.

You started your career before the internet. Was it easier to be creative, in a way, before anyone could say what they thought and make it public, or was there just some other way to feel bad about yourself before the internet?

There just wasn’t as much. I think it was all the same ways to feel bad about yourself. You could argue it’s better now because there’s so much — you could probably find confirmation about almost any feeling you have about yourself as a creator. I could definitely go online and find a bunch of people that think I’m really great and I could find a bunch of people that hate my guts. That wasn’t at your fingertips back in the day. I kind of look at it, a lot of it, as stuff that’s not meant for me and isn’t really offered up with any kind of conviction or seriousness, like just basically being able to hear every conversation at every table at every bar in the world all at once. It’s just people talking shit most of the time.

But back in the day, I will say that fanzines were pretty vicious, and because there was less of it they carried a lot of weight. There were people that just reveled in writing meanly about other people’s art. Like, early punk rock and post-punk fanzines and independent rock fanzines were extraordinarily negative in a lot of cases, I thought, growing up. That would land and sting for quite some time. Some of those journalists, like Gerard Cosloy, became sort of semi-celebrities in their own right and their opinions were heavily weighted.

I’m curious about your work habits, which you write about a lot in the book. It sounds like you are either writing something every day, or you’re picking up a guitar, or doing something that is involved in creating something throughout the course of a day. Have you always been like that? Did you write your forthcoming record, Love Is The King, the same way that you wrote Summerteeth 20 years ago?

Well, I can’t remember 20 years ago. I think it would be the same except more so now: the same energy for just wanting to think of something new to sing. In the most basic way, I like having a new song to sing. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to come up with something new to sing. So I feel driven to do that and it is a work ethic but it also really soothes some part of me. I’m trying to convey in the book how beneficial that is. So I would answer, even though I can’t remember, that it had to have been, for the most part, created the same way, at least in the initial songwriting stages.

In the book you write about the song “Can’t Stand It,” which was famously added to Summerteeth as a potential “pop” single at the request of the record company. You talk about how writing a song on demand was actually beneficial, even if you didn’t necessarily appreciate the request at the time.

I think it was fun to learn that. It wasn’t fun dealing with the record company at that period in time, or ever, but what it taught me was that I could give myself assignments and keep it closer to things that I really wanted to make, more so than the ambiguity of a “hit” song, which I’ve obviously never had a real clear idea of what that is. At that time my idea of writing a “hit” song was just to think a bit more about tempo and modernity, that maybe it was just a recording thing. Because I didn’t feel like I was writing not-pop songs.

I’ve read about songwriters who can improvise songs on the spot. You mention being able to do that in the book. How is that possible?

Right now, I am improvising language to respond to you. There are simple blocks of language and pieces that you can get pretty good at shaping together on the fly. I would assume that that’s kind of how you could do it, and some people are better at it than others. Sometimes I can do it and sometimes I can’t. I definitely stopped allowing myself to do it quite as much early on because I didn’t end up liking the lyrics as much and they were hard to shake if I’d already sung them in the studio as we recorded them.

You write in the book about being able to write songs in your sleep, too. I wonder if there’s a part of your brain that’s always writing songs, even if you’re not aware of it.

It makes sense to me that you would build neural pathways that are so used to thinking along those lines, like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s cube. It’s just a habitual movement that your brain likes to exercise. I don’t think I have the ability to turn it off all the time and it seems obvious to me that my brain keeps doing it somewhat while I’m sleeping just based on how often I wake up with song ideas and lyric ideas that finish songs.

You’ve made several albums outside of Wilco in the past five or so years. Is there a difference between a Wilco song and a Jeff Tweedy song?

No. I make stuff and I try and get it in a place that feels really good to me. Sometimes I record and build a demo in the studio and then move on to the next thing. Then I’m working on a record. If it’s me I’ll just find the stuff that feels best to me to sing at that moment. If it’s Wilco, I really rely upon just the feeling in the room when we listen to songs that I’ve written. I don’t want to force anything on them, so it generally ends up being what everybody else picks and seems to have some energy for.

Does putting your own name on a song, as opposed to a band name, inherently make it more personal?

I don’t think that I consciously try to be more personal. I just try and sing the things that feel good to sing, feel accurate. I would say that there are a lot of songs on the most recent Wilco records that feel very personal to me. I think that overall, though, when you put a band name on it and when the band has an identity, it does add a layer of anonymity to the singer. The way I’m perceived as a voice in that context changes, and I probably utilize that somewhere in the back of my mind when I’m writing lyrics or finishing lyrics for those songs that we’ve decided have become Wilco songs. There might be some part of me that understands that dynamic a bit better than I would be able to articulate it.

You write in the book about the necessity of “stealing” from your influences, because emulating something you like and failing to match it is a way to discover your own voice. I’m curious what you think about the idea of “originality” in songwriting. There have been instances of estates for older music legends suing new artists for essentially stealing ideas, like the Marvin Gaye estate going after Robin Thicke for “Blurred Lines.” But given that every artist borrows from other artists, can anything really be considered truly original?

Well, I think I would come down on the side of the Marvin Gaye estate on something like that, because it was very specifically built almost as a soundalike track, the way some commercials utilize old records to side-step paying people. But I don’t really know if I have any super strong opinions about it. In folk music — the musical tradition that I’m probably closest to — originality is not a primary concern. What the primary concern would be is telling the story effectively and making a connection and relating what you want to relate. Woody Guthrie always claimed that he never wrote an original melody on purpose, and it was only if he misremembered something he was trying to steal. At the same time, I think Woody Guthrie sounds like nobody else and he’s an icon of individuality and originality and uniqueness. He just used that as a platform to be himself.

I think we do absolutely narrow our views of what constitutes originality and it leaves out a lot of intangibles about how something can be taken in a novel way. I try not to think about it too much because the main thing I really want is the connection part, and it’s really rare for somebody to come out of the blue and make something that has a completely new shape, a completely new, novel approach, and yet still maintains this sort of connection, which is kind of an inescapable core of what we want in a song.

I know that for me, whenever I thought something was completely original, it was only because I was unfamiliar with whatever influenced it.

For sure. You hear a lot of young bands and there’s a lot pastiche going on and a lot of outright just, “I’m just going to take this and this is going to be my band now.” And I think it’s cool. There’s so much personal DNA at work in everything. Even if you really want to completely mine someone else’s vein, you are inevitably going to sound like yourself. I don’t know how successful you could be at being someone else.

How To Write One Song is out now via Dutton. Get it here.