Jeff Tweedy on songwriting: ‘The hardest part is getting started’ | Wilco

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Put yourself on the path

I happen to love deadlines. Not everyone does. I do, because they fit with my belief that art isn’t ever really complete. As the saying goes: “No work of art is ever finished; it can only be abandoned in an interesting place.” At this point in my life, I write with such regularity that being given a deadline (for example, an exact date when an album needs to be delivered to the mastering lab) is basically a “pencils down” alarm bell that allows me to stop making up new songs and to spend some time whipping an LP’s worth of tunes into shape. Maybe that’s not the level of commitment we’re shooting for here, at least not yet, since we are focused on just one song. At any rate, we’re going to have to unlock what motivates you to get started. Knowing how to write a song isn’t going to help you much if you never find the inspiration or discipline to get started.

I think I taught myself this lesson during the making of Summerteeth. We had finished the record and we were happy with it, but the execs at the label said to me literally the most cliched thing anyone could ever picture a record exec saying: “We don’t hear a single.” So they wanted another song – “And this one better be good!” I’ll spare you the deliberations that went on behind the scenes and my own annoyance about the whole thing. In my mind, every song I’d just delivered was a solid gold pop gem! But I lied and said: “Boy, I have just the song.” That even though we’d just spent months making a record, I’d for some reason forgotten to mention the surefire hit I’d been keeping in my back pocket. In reality, I had no such song, of course, but I thought it’d be interesting, since they were paying for it, to fly to Los Angeles and pretend that I knew what a chart‐scorching pop song sounds like. I wrote most of Can’t Stand It on the plane.

It was the first time I confirmed for myself that inspiration wasn’t always the first ingredient in a song. In this case it was demand. Eventually I found inspiration in the process and even felt good about taking their money to teach myself that lesson. The song didn’t chart, even though the label dudes claimed that they loved it and that they were going to give it the “big push”. So it goes. The point is, when I say something like “inspiration is overrated”, it’s not because I think you don’t ever need to be inspired. What I’m trying to tell you, and what I still tell myself frequently, is that inspiration is rarely the first step. When it does come out of the blue, it’s glorious. But it’s much more in your own hands than the divine‐intervention‐type beliefs we all tend to have about inspiration. Most of the time, inspiration has to be invited.

Wilco pictured in New York, 1996.
Wilco pictured in New York, 1996. Photograph: Ken Weingart/Getty Images

Process

To me, process is whatever act you can engage in, whatever steps you can take, and whatever device you have at your disposal that you can use, together, that reliably results in a work of art. “Process” is also the only name I know of for whatever series of contortions and mental tricks we have available to lose ourselves in when we create. It’s the door to the disappearing that is my ultimate desired creative state – being able to get “gone” enough long enough for a song to appear. Beyond what it helps me create, disappearing is also the most sustaining part of what I do. And it’s the part that’s long over with way before a record comes out.

I’ve talked to other songwriters about this, and some have pointed out how it can also be a vital part of performing. How it’s important to get to a place where you’re confident enough to prevent your ego from overseeing every move and hiding your vulnerability. When I’m on stage, my experience often goes something like this: Blankness … bliss … blankness … twinkle of awareness that rocking has been achieved … bliss … Voice of Observing Ego yelling over amplifiers: WOW! YOU ARE FUCKING KILLING IT DUUUUDE! … Clang! Wrong chord.

The cover of How to Write One Song.
The cover of How to Write One Song. Photograph: Faber

My ego does that to me all the time. That’s kind of having an ego in a nutshell. It’s there to build you up. And protect you. To protect your idea of yourself as smart, and handsome, and someone who should be taken seriously and never be laughed at. Your ego wants to conceal your insecurity and your fear. And that’s why it can be such an unwelcome intrusion when we’re trying to create or perform. You need your human frailty to be at least somewhat visible if you want to connect on an emotional level – if you want things to feel real.

So that’s why I surrender to process, why I so regularly employ the mental tricks that get me in the right frame of mind to create. It makes it easier to have moments of truth and recognition, and it gets my ego out of the way. And getting my ego out of the way makes it easier to listen to myself with some objectivity – to hear myself almost as a different person would. So if you can give yourself over to a process and get comfortable with disappearing, you’re likely to harvest some hard‐to-find truth along the way, both about yourself and about what you’re trying to say.

Don’t worry about your ego. It’ll be fine taking the backseat for a while. Trust me, it’s never gone for long. It’ll be there to help figure out what to do with whatever you make, take credit for the parts people love, make excuses for any shortcomings, decide what font and point size to use on the poster, etc. In the end, learning how to disappear is the best way I’ve found to make my true self visible to myself and others.

Inspiration versus craft

Tweedy performing on Late Night with Seth Meyers, June 2017.
Tweedy performing on Late Night with Seth Meyers, June 2017. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Let’s talk more about what we call “inspiration”. It’s overrated. I believe that you have to invite inspiration in. I’ve found that most people who have a fulfilling life in art are, like me, the people who work at it every day and put the tools of creation in their hands frequently, who not only invite inspiration in but also do it on a regular basis. Instead of waiting to be “struck” by inspiration, they put themselves directly in its path. Pick up a guitar, and you’re much more likely to write a song. Pick up a pencil … etc.

There’s little doubt in my mind that because I do so much of that planned, methodical thinking in which I put the tools of inspiration in my own hands – a guitar, a pencil, a computer – I’ve trained my subconscious to always be working a little bit. Because I’ve already cleared the pathway and tended that pathway, kept it open and remained receptive to it, by practice.

But beyond that, once you get started, how much is inspiration and how much is craft? The craftsman part of me understands that as a song crafter, I could probably be OK looking at it as if I were building tables. As if I were using a standardised process that will guarantee another song, and the pipeline of songs I’m committed, and driven, to provide. But I personally think that I am where I am because I aspire to make trees instead of tables. Because there’s something higher in my mind about doing so. And that I’ve accepted the fact that it’s also impossible to make the perfect tree – there’s no perfecting it. There’s no reaching some conclusion that you’ve made the tree.

In some way it’s very high‐minded – putting you on the same plane as God. But on another level, it’s letting you off the hook. A tree could be almost anything. A tree is basically just … me. I’m a tree. I didn’t fit perfectly into any mould. I wasn’t made by a specific set of plans. The things that have happened to me in my life have taken away some of those straight edges and shaped me into a tree, shaped me into something less predictable, less understandable.

What’s important when you’re getting started

My sincere wish is for people to be able to foster a little more licence to create in their own lives. I do sincerely want it for everyone. I understand that there are time considerations – people look at me and think that I work so hard, maybe because it’s unusual in terms of people’s conception of a rock musician, that I would work normal hours. But I think actually setting aside time to spend in the creative state – especially when I see how much time people spend on their phones – is something you can do every day. I think this suggestion is valuable even for people who juggle a mind‐numbing load of obligations, to their kids, to work, to whatever else is important in their life. Even if you can only find five minutes – it doesn’t take that long. It’s just a matter of telling yourself that your creation is OK, no matter what it is.

• How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy is published by Faber (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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