The Wilco singer reveals how to write songs

With his band Wilco, Jeff Tweedy has been providing gripping songs and sonic surprises for decades. Jeff Tweedy explains how to do this in a kind of guide.

Jeff Tweedy is one lucky singer.

Javier Cebollada/EPA

In composing he discovered a way to become a happier person. Jeff Tweedy repeats this insight like a refrain when he tries to explain how a song is made in his book How to Write a Song. The best moment in the creative process always comes when he wakes up after three hours of self-forgotten work and is able to say hello to a new song.

He firmly believes, writes Jeff Tweedy, that life is better “if you manage to free yourself from your judgmental and judgmental self with a certain regularity”. And regardless of talent and technical skills, everyone has the ability to bring about such moments of liberation with a few tips and tricks.

The domino effect

Just to give us a helping hand, the songwriter and leader of the American indie band Wilco has written a new book. Tweedy has already proven with his memoirs “Let’s Go (so We Can Get Back)” that he is a fine author who knows how to present complex issues in a relaxed and easy-going way.

His guide is just as light-footed. Tweedy doesn’t wrap his advice in any mysticism. Nevertheless, he does not feel compelled to explain the “magical domino effect” of creative work, which can lead to results that alienate even the creator. “Most of the time inspiration has to be invited,” he writes. In short, easy-to-digest chapters peppered with examples from the Wilco experience, Jeff Tweedy presents a series of exercises and organizational tricks on how such an “invitation” might be designed.

At the beginning – for almost the entire first half of the book – everything revolves around the little devil sitting on your shoulder and whispering in your ear: “Stop it, it won’t work anyway.” It takes a willingness to sound bad, writes Tweedy: “That’s one of the most important pieces of advice I can give. Writing a song teaches you that it’s okay to fail.”

With Tweedy, however, one can infer any kind of creative activity from the songwriting. This is exactly why reading his book is encouraging. His insights into the mechanics and psychology of composition can easily be transferred to other creative areas. In this respect, this book can be recommended to everyone who is in any way dependent on creativity and inspiration.

As aptly as the songwriting may be presented – without the knowledge that Tweedy has been leading one of the finest guitar bands far and wide in Wilco for almost thirty years, his explanations would only be half as convincing. The release of How to Write a Song coincides with the release of Cruel Country, a Hydra-esque collection of 21 new Wilco songs that feel as casual as if Tweedy had pulled them out of his sleeve. After reading his book, however, we know what hard work is behind the apparent lightness.

The breakthrough

Tweedy’s first band, Uncle Tupelo, was one of the pioneers of so-called “Americana”, a style of music that combined influences from classic country & western (Hank Williams and the like) with Bob Dylan, The Byrds and other folk exponents to make them one with Bringing the new generation of music fans raised by punks to the punks.

With Wilco, formed in 1994, Tweedy began to put out feelers. It turned out to be a stroke of luck that he invited fellow British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg to set to music lyrics from the estate of American folk pioneer Woody Guthrie with him. The two albums that resulted from their collaboration, «Mermaid Avenue» (1998) and «Mermaid Avenue Vol. 2» (2000) became a success – far beyond the borders of the American indie scene.

The album «Yankee Hotel Foxtrott» (2001) fell into the same creative phase, on which Wilco increasingly played with electronic devices and achieved the commercial breakthrough. The band became even more experimental with the addition of guitarist Nels Cline, who had made a name for himself primarily in improvised jazz.

Back to the roots

Now, however, Wilco has returned to the country roots with «Cruel Country». During the lockdown, the band recorded some tracks remotely. When the musicians later sat together again in the studio, the recordings seemed too artificial. Then Tweedy pulled out of the drawer a number of songs that had previously emerged from everyday songwriting but did not seem to fit the band before. But now at the joint session in the studio they formally forged the band together. For him, these songs are like moments of happiness that he wants to share with other people, explains Tweedy.

Jeff Tweedy: How to write a song. German by Philip Bradatsch. Verlag Heyne, 2022. 160 pages, CHF 29.90. – Wilco: Cruel Country (Warner).

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