THE READING ROOM: Jeff Tweedy Offers Insight and Encouragement in ‘How to Write One Song’
Two years ago, Jeff Tweedy took us on a little tour of his life up till now in his autobiography Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. In what was one of the best music books of that year, Tweedy wore his heart on his sleeve as he shared quite openly his battles with addiction as well as his feelings of insecurity in talking about himself. The book succeeds so well, though, because he never takes himself too seriously.
One of the brightest spots in the autobiography is when Tweedy focuses on songwriting: “I became a songwriter,” he says early in Let’s Go, “not when I composed that perfect couplet, or when I experienced the right amount of pain. It’s when I realized that whatever I wrote, even if it meant gutting myself in front of strangers, letting all those raw emotions come flooding out, making a fool of myself with my own words, was exactly what I always wanted to do with my life.”
If there’s one area of life, then, where Tweedy takes himself seriously — but not seriously enough to be off-putting or disingenuous — it’s as a songwriter. He’s written enough songs now that he’s ready to share his own reflections on the process of writing them, which he explores in his humorous and delightful new book, How to Write One Song (Dutton, Oct. 13). What Tweedy’s after here is not simply teaching us how to write a song — though there are plenty of such suggestions about process — but also offering a few thoughts about a process that Rodney Crowell once told me was “like doing card tricks on the radio.” Tweedy opens his book by acknowledging that “songs are mysterious. Any idea where they come from? I’ve written tons and tons of songs and STILL the best I can think to say after I finish one I’m happy with is ‘How’d I do that?’”
For Tweedy, teaching songwriting feels like “teaching someone how to think.” What distinguishes Tweedy’s book from other books on songwriting is clear from the book’s title: He’s teaching us how to write one song, not how to write “songs.” “It’s an important distinction,” he writes, “and it’s more precise about what you’re actually doing. No one writes songs — plural. They write one song, and then another. And it’s also a reminder of what you really want. Or what I think you should REALLY want, which is to disappear — to watch your concept of time evaporate, to live at least once inside a moment when you aren’t ‘trying’ to do anything or be anything anymore. To spend time in a place where you just are. …That’s something that doesn’t happen through songs — plural. It happens only when you’ve lost yourself in the process of making one song.”
Tweedy divides his book into four parts, each of which explores some facet of the process of songwriting, from making writing a habit and exercises to get started to recommendations for keeping the writing flowing and recording what you’ve done and sharing your song. In one chapter, for example, he explores the obstacles that we often place in our paths when we try to write a song. We can easily convince ourselves that we don’t have enough time, we don’t know what to write about, we don’t have play an instrument or have any musical training, or we don’t have enough talent. We might use any of these obstacles as an excuse against even starting to write, but as Tweedy gracefully reminds us: “I look at the artistic gift as more about communication and the ability to be oneself. And not just about being able to execute a piece of music perfectly. To me, showing up with a reliable open heart and will to share whatever spirit you can muster is what resonates and transcends technical perfection.”
Tweedy then shares his own daily work ethic, revealing a detailed schedule of what he does during various periods of the day and night to write a song. For example, from 8 to 10 p.m. he likes to “listen through some voice memos of simple guitar ideas or chord progressions and hummed melodies that I’ve documented on my phone until I find something interesting to play around with.” From midnight to 3 a.m. he takes the time to “focus on getting lyrics set in place enough to sing at least one verse and one chorus into my phone.” Also, during the day Tweedy has three main items on his daily mental checklist: “1. Stockpiling Words, Language, and Lyrics; 2. Stockpiling Music, Songs, and Parts of Songs; 3. Pairing Words and Music.”
Tweedy proceeds to carry us step-by-step through his mental checklist as a way of exploring the many facets of the songwriting process. For example, he starts with a focus on the “music of words,” offering a series of exercises such as “stealing words from a book” and “playing with rhymes” and building word ladders with verbs and nouns. “In order to write songs,” he points out, “most of us direct some intention into the mix to free language from our day-to-day communication needs and allow it to reveal beauty and pain, or whatever else is hiding beneath the outer layers of everyday language.”
So what happens when you’ve written your song? Here’s Tweedy’s “strong suggestion: play your song at least once for at least one person other than yourself. Allow yourself to feel the intimacy and vulnerability of singing your song out loud. … I do think what makes a song a song is how it feels when it’s sung. …To whatever degree you need that connection in your life, you’ve at least taken the time and made the effort to create a song. I would love for you to have the full weight of this one simple truth rest on your shoulders gently for long enough to understand what it is you’ve done.”
How to Write One Song is a gem with many facets. Tweedy loves words and music and loves the process of putting them together in writing a song. His passion and gentle guidance offer encouragement that we can indeed write one song, sing it at a local open mic, and feel the joy of our accomplishment for a moment before we start to write the next one.