Jeff Tweedy: Worlds of Wonder

Jeff Tweedy: Worlds of Wonder

“It’d be cool if we could see the worlds within the songs inside each other’s heads. But I also love how impenetrable it all is,” Jeff Tweedy writes in the introduction to his pensive and playful World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music. “I love that what’s mine can’t be yours and we still get to call it ours. Songs are the essence of this condition. And in my opinion, they’re the best way I know of to make peace with our lack of a shared consciousness.”

World Within a Song is Tweedy’s third book, following Let’s Go (so We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. (2018) and How to Write One Song: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back (2020). This work builds on the narratives of its predecessors, through a blend of autobiographical ruminations and musical insights. At its core, World Within a Song offers an amiable, insightful inquiry into the impact of various songs on Tweedy’s life, including “Smoke on the Water,” “Both Sides Now,” “Radio Free Europe” and “Wanted Dead or Alive.”

These chapters are interspersed with brief anecdotes that the Wilco frontman identifies as “Rememories.” He presents them “to illustrate how my deep immersion in music has shaped how I really think and remember things in ‘song-sized’ thoughts and shapes.” Tweedy then underscores “how important it is to allow the things we love the most—the things we’ve contemplated the most thoughtfully and with the most empathy and compassion—to guide our hand when we’re stumped.”

Indeed, sometimes an external perspective can be beneficial. This has proven to be the case with Wilco’s latest album, Cousin, in which singular Welsh artist Cate Le Bon flourishes as the first outside producer to work with the group since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky.

Le Bon first met Wilco when she appeared at the band’s Solid Sound Festival in 2019. Three years later, Tweedy approached Le Bon while she was rehearsing at Wilco’s Chicago studio, The Loft, in anticipation of her performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival, and inquired whether she would be interested in producing the band’s next record. Le Bon assented, and a process then ensued in which she listened to dozens of songs, with the goal of winnowing them down to a complementary assortment that would resonate with her sensibilities and vision for the project. In describing the ensuing record, Le Bon has referenced Loft studio manager Mark Greenberg, who characterized Cousin as an album that sounds like Wilco with a different lighting director.

The initial sound wash and ticking percussion of opening track “Infinite Surprise” herald the shadows and shadings that Le Bon brings to bear. She also introduces nuanced saxophone textures, gauzy guitar abstractions and a range of echo-saturated swirls, which serve rather than detract from compositions that often touch on themes of the temporal and transient. Instead of solely being a collection of songs, the album warrants a comprehensive start-to-finish listening experience. Cousin manifests Tweedy’s ongoing charge to create records that sound like Wilco but heretofore haven’t been made by Wilco.

In World Within a Song, Tweedy writes that “creating communication through music is my life’s work.” He has attained that objective in two distinct contexts this fall.

What led you to approach your new book as you did, with individual essays on specific songs?

Looking back, it probably should have been my first book because it’s more revealing of who I am than my memoir in a lot of ways. As long as I can remember, I’ve been immersed in songs—thinking about songs, loving songs and being mesmerized by the mystery of songs.

So, given the opportunity to write another book, I started thinking about Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life and other books in which authors are professing their love for other people’s works. I thought about how that doesn’t seem to happen as much in music. So I wrote this book and then Bob Dylan’s book came out. [Laughs.] But having read his book, they’re not very similar at all.

My goal was to give it up for a lot of things that I love and share that style of thinking.

Can you recall the first chapter you wrote for this book? What prompted you to focus on that particular tune?

I started with “Smoke on the Water” because it was the obvious starting point. It’s really important to me as a musician to maintain the excitement that came along with figuring out how to play those four notes—or reaching up, touching a piano, hitting two notes that sound good together and going, “Wow!”

I think if you lose sight of that simplicity and can’t feel some of it still, you’re in a danger zone of detaching yourself from the magic of it. So I wanted to find the place where, to my best recollection, that vibration in my fingers came to me as a revelation.

I wrote this book very similarly to the way I write songs. I wrote a chapter a day, and in a lot of cases, each chapter would lead me to think of a song I could talk about next.   

One thing that always captivated me about “Smoke on the Water” is that they name-checked Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, as well as Claude Nobs, the founder of the Montreaux Jazz Festival. That was not something I would have expected from a Deep Purple track played incessantly on mainstream rock radio. As a young music fan, did that catch your attention?

All that cross-referencing would come much later. [Laughs.] I probably didn’t even know I was playing “Smoke on the Water” when I picked up my cousin’s guitar and figured out how to play that riff. It was just a riff that stuck in my mind. In the moment, I might even have thought that I made it up.

You describe a moment early in your life when you thought your cousin had written “Takin’ Care of Business” because he was able to play it on guitar. One might contend that whenever you’re playing a song, you are writing it in a way.

Well, if you’re doing it right, you’re performing a score just the way that a symphony orchestra interprets Mozart. If you can conjure it up in a way that feels authentic to the audience, then it belongs to that moment and that performer, for sure.

As you were working on the book, did you make a point to go back and listen to the individual songs that were the subjects of particular essays?

Not all the time. I did do a little bit of fact[1]checking when I was worried that I was going to be getting it completely wrong. But, a lot of other times, I kind of went with my memory of it. Then, after the book was finished, I listened to some stuff that I’d written about without revisiting, like “Lucky Number” by Lene Lovich. Interestingly enough, in that case, the song narrative becomes the standard idea of “I thought I was alone, and now my lucky number is two.” It has this resolve to it that I had completely discarded in my memory.

Somewhat along those lines, one of the songs you write about is “You Are My Sunshine.” I think we learned an abridged version in elementary school, but much later, I sensed another nuance when I heard Gene Autry sing, “If you leave me to love another/ You’ll regret it all some day.”

Brian Wilson heard it in that song just in the chorus. That’s why he put it in a minor key and tried to highlight that there’s a wistfulness even in the chorus—there are still some clouds in the sky.

You share your affection for Michelle Shocked’s “Anchorage,” which is one of those songs that is so specific it’s outside anyone else’s immediate point of reference. Although it’s possible this could be off-putting, the imaginative process applied by the listener can also potentially result in a deeper connection to the song.

I think in a lot of cases, being overly specific kills the magic of a song. If you don’t allow room for the listener to pour their own experiences into what they’re hearing, then you kind of shut them out.

So I think, in general, what she’s doing doesn’t work as a songwriter. In a lot of cases, it becomes too specific and it can’t transcend into something universal. With these lyrics, though, it’s very clearly about something specific and real, yet it somehow draws you in. It’s just such an effective storytelling song about a friendship that there is a universal touchstone transcending the specificity.

As a songwriter yourself, how will you typically respond when someone asks you to drill down on the specific meaning of song, particularly if they have internalized it in their own specific way and suggest an interpretation that might differ from your own?

I try and answer questions at face value as often as possible. So if somebody asks me what a song is about, I might say, “At this moment, if you’re just now asking me what I think about that song, it’s about this. I used to think it was about this.” So I try and answer the question as generously and as openly as possible.

But if somebody tells me what the song is, what it means to them, I won’t correct them. It’s also antithetical to the beliefs that I have about how music functions.

The interstitial pieces in the book lend quite a bit as well. I really enjoyed your riff on the CBGB’s toilet, which to my mind, was as potentially traumatizing as you suggest.

Yeah, that was the chapter of the book that almost demanded a picture. [Laughs.]

At what point in the process did you decide to include those additional reminiscences?

Very early on, maybe even immediately after I finished the second book, I started writing down stories to kind of remember them in that “Rememory” style, as I call it. So initially, even before I had the idea of the book being about songs, I thought that maybe a whole book of Rememories would be something worth attempting.

Some of the early writing about songs came out of the Rememories. The most engaging writing tended to be about music, artists and things like that. So that energy was put into the songs at a certain point.

Your chapter on walking through an empty Warner Bros. office and discovering that it had been cleared out in a hurry is particularly memorable, including your allusion to the Mary Celeste. I appreciate that you do so without interrupting the flow by providing any backstory, in case some readers don’t know of the ship. Did anyone counsel you to add a parenthetical or the like?

There are things that I feel I need to illuminate with some facts and context, and then there are certain things where I feel like I don’t want to be condescending. So I want to assume that if I’ve heard of the Mary Celeste and I’m not that fucking smart or special, then surely somebody else has. But if they haven’t, we live in a time where that’s pretty much at your fingertips, guaranteed.

You go rather far into the book before discussing your lack of enthusiasm for “I Will Always Love You.” You note that you love Dolly Parton but you also point out, “One of the things people marvel at about Dolly is that she wrote this song and ‘Jolene’ in the same day. When I heard that for the first time, I thought to myself: ‘That’s pretty impressive, but at least one of those two songs sucked.’” It’s an amusing one-liner that also challenges conventional wisdom. Did it ever give you pause to include a negative assessment in this context?

In my life as a public speaker, a public figure, a person who gets interviewed and asked questions, I have really tried not to be dismissive of other artists. Over the last 20 years or so with social media, I have seen a lot of people use that style of communication to critique things in a way that I don’t want to participate in.

If it wasn’t for the book, it wouldn’t be important to go out of my way to dismiss “I Will Always Love You” or Bon Jovi, for that matter. [“Wanted Dead or Alive” is discussed in the chapter that follows.] But I think, in this context, it’s funny and it’s also honest. I didn’t want the book to be this onslaught of slathering praise for different things. It’s unrealistic.

I’ve met Jon Bon Jovi, although I have not met Dolly. I would like to think that they’re both so big and so confident in their own lives that they can take the hit when someone’s poking a little fun. To me, it was punching up. I wasn’t trying to kick anybody when they’re down.

You also make an important distinction in that, sometimes when it comes it newer artists, rather than being an old man yelling at the clouds, you can recognize the power of a particular song but also that it’s not meant for you.

To me, the impulse to try and destroy something that’s not for you or to try to form some sort of coherent argument that it’s not good because based on your taste, it’s not speaking to you, is intellectually lazy and dumb.

You can see people being moved, transformed, transported, consoled and held tight in a way that makes them feel loved and seen by other people’s music that means nothing to you. So why would you go out of your way to do that? It doesn’t make any sense and I think it never works. You’re never going to convince somebody that what they like isn’t good, and if you’re somehow able to do that, then it’s sad and shameful. You’re a monster and you shouldn’t be allowed to speak to people. [Laughs.]

At one point in World Within a Song, you mention that the concept of an artist “selling out,” which once was viewed by some music fans as a dire offense, “is kind of a quaint concept these days.” In your mind, is there a moment that precipitated this cultural shift?

I think that the advent of streaming services and the overall change in how people consume music—consuming it for free in many instances—has undermined a lot of arguments that the artist should never be paid for anything. [Laughs.] I think that’s probably when it started being a little hard to make the argument that having a song on a commercial is some sort of bridge-too-far egregious betrayal of the listener.

I think it’s always been a bit of a privileged position to call somebody a sellout for doing what they want to do with their art.

It seems like that concept doesn’t exist in other areas. We don’t condemn people for having to work at McDonald’s. We don’t condemn people for a lot of their affiliations when they’re just trying to get by.

My barometer on that is I saw how hard my dad worked. So if somebody was offering me money that I would be turning down, I couldn’t think of a reason why that would make any sense to him. None of those arguments are very compelling to me.

Of course, everybody can have their own opinion, too. If it’s not something you want to do with your art, if it feels like your art is too personal, then you shouldn’t allow it to be used in any other context than you see fit.

But even in that case, I feel like you’re pretending to have some control over something you don’t have control over. You don’t get to decide what the world makes of your music. Once you put it out there, it’s not yours alone anymore. So to me, it seems to be gatekeeping—it’s some sort of a purity thing that doesn’t make any sense. It also feels like a foolish attempt to control something that has its own inertia, its own life.

When it comes to reading fiction, you’ve said that you’re a Thomas Pynchon fan. In one of the Rememories, you share a story in which you’ve been invited to write a song with John Cale. His idea is to set a recipe to music, so you suggest the banana pancake recipe from Gravity’s Rainbow. How far did the two of you get with that?

We made a recording of it, but I haven’t heard it since. He got out a cassette player and a microphone, we sat in his living room and I played the music that I had come up with for the collaboration. He liked it, and then he started reading.

So it wasn’t like we spent the whole afternoon together. It was just a couple hours of visiting, talking and getting to know each other. It was very friendly and nice in a way that I would not have anticipated given my mental image of the Velvet Underground and his overall reputation.

I hope you revisit it at some point.

I’d love to. I mean, I don’t know how to ask about it. I doubt he even remembers it.

Maybe you should just take up the mantle yourself for a project of your own.

There’s no way I could read a recipe in a Welsh accent and have it sound that good. [Laughs.]

Now there’s a fitting segue, via country of origin, to Cate Le Bon and her work on Cousin. When you sent the batch of songs to her, were they unified to your mind in some manner, shape or form?

I sent her a Dropbox file that had 30 or 40 songs. She picked 14 and then we whittled it down to 10 when we finally recorded everything. I put stuff in the initial batch that I thought might have the potential to sound like it was all part of the same project, but she really picked the things out of that.

She selected the songs very astutely that formed the most cohesive type of record. I wanted her to help me keep that in focus because Wilco always struggles with cohesion. That happens when you write a lot of songs and you write them over long periods of time—some of these songs are eight years old, some of them are recent.

This is also an issue for Wilco because we’re a band that plays a lot live. We treat all of the different eras with the same level of respect and equality. So we’re always living in all of these different worlds that we’ve made on past records, and the band has a pretty broad latitude of things that we like to do and feel good doing.

But I don’t think that generally makes the best record every time. I think sometimes things need to be narrowed to make a record like Cousin, which is my favorite kind of record. It’s one statement made up of individual songs.

After she made her selections, were there any songs you wrote in the studio to fill a gap of some sort?

“Ten Dead” was written during the session. I like records where each song kind of has a companion. I think it always feels really good when there’s not an anomaly and each song has a partner song that makes sonic sense as being a part of the record. In this instance, I felt that “Pittsburgh” didn’t have another corollary song.

You’ve said that “Pittsburgh” may be the most autobiographical song on the record. Thinking about that in the context of World Within a Song, even if you write a song in character, many people will attribute that viewpoint to you because it’s coming out of your mouth. How conscious are you of that when you’re writing a song or do you put it all aside?

Yes, that’s kind of the same thing we were talking about. It’s something I don’t have any control over, no matter what the song is about. It’s in my voice. I’m singing it. I’m using first-person phrases, and it’s a pretty tough hill to climb for a listener not to picture that guy as being me in Wilco.

I think there’s a certain abstraction to a band, where it can be diffuse a little bit, so that personality gets spread out in the context of the band.

On the solo records, obviously there’s much more of a comfort level for me speaking in really direct and autobiographical ways.

But I’ve always liked the sucker punch of it, where there’s a disorienting nature to a set of lyrics and then dropping something very direct. To me, looking straight at the camera is always an effective kind of sucker punch. [Laughs.]

On the vinyl versions of Cousin, “A Bowl and a Pudding” opens Side B. Can you talk about its role on the album?

I think that song could have ended up on the last record, but it seemed to be the type of song, lyrically, that I identify as being a part of a record like Cousin.

To me, it may be the most direct song on the record, in terms of what the whole record might be aiming at—which is the idea that not saying anything says a lot. I’m trying to acknowledge the difficulty that we all have in communicating with each other, and yet kind of marveling at how a lot of times our points get made without us having to be articulate at all. When you get in tune with someone on an intimate level, virtually everything gets communicated with body language, looks and silence.

I think that’s what the record as a whole is trying to do, in that the only thing we have besides the words to communicate, is the music and the spaces in the music.

So a bowl and a pudding, if you say those two words next to each other, everybody knows where the pudding goes.

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