Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy Discusses New Book About the Songs That Shaped Him

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You won’t even have to already love Wilco to find joy in the experience of reading Jeff Tweedy’s new book, “World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music” — although nothing about coming in as a fan will exactly hurt. His tales about how dozens of pieces of (mostly) pop and rock music have hit him in a personal way over the decades is full of anecdotal pleasures that get at more universal truths about how we’re shaped by art… or, alternately, just illustrate a funny story Tweedy neglected to include in his previous books, the music memoir “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)” and the instructional “How to Write One Song.”

The book includes his thoughts on youthful favorites he remains unabashed about into his adulthood, like “Smoke on the Water,” “Takin’ Care of Business” and “My Sharona,” adult fare that rewarded more mature readings, like Randy Newman’s “In Germany Before the War,” and songs as disparate as the Replacements’ “God Damn Job,” Wings’ “Mull of Kintyre,” Rosalia’s “Bizcochito” and “You Are My Sunshine.”

Variety caught up with Tweedy on the road between stops on Wilco’s fall tour supporting the band’s recent “Cousin” album, following a solo tour in the summer of 2023.

In the introduction to this new book, you say that if you went back and were going to choose which order to write your three books in, you’d do this one first. Why is it that you’d want to do this book about songs before diving into a memoir, or a book about creative writing, if you did it over again?

I think it’s the topic I care the most about. I don’t know if I have the most expertise in listening! I don’t think it matters. I think everybody has enough expertise to put music together in their own consciousness and make it worthwhile, too (as explored in “How to Write One Song”). But (other people’s music) is the thing I think I’ve thought about the most, and it’s also a subject that’s so vast, it felt easier to write about than than my own life, even.

Your book is so different from, say, Bob Dylan’s, which is also a tome about different songs that have had an effect on him. He almost never uses the first-person in any of those essays; they’re almost all kind of tone poems.  Did you read that?

Yeah, I checked it out. I read it because my book was already well underway when that book was announced, and there was a little nervousness that it might be similar or have more similarities than it ended up having, which was a concern. But yeah, when I read it, it was like, oh, this is a completely different approach to this otherwise similar topic.

You made it very personal. Few of the entries are just pure music appreciation, and a lot of the chapters have a lot of autobiographical detail about how these songs touched you. Would you consider it an adjunct to your memoir, in any way?

Yeah, I think in a lot of ways it’s more intimate than my memoir. It’s strange. I mean, I think we all have had moments where a song has spoken for us, and felt like, “You want to know how I feel about this? Let me play this song by somebody else.” And a lot of that is a little bit embarrassing, because it’s vulnerable. It’s a vulnerable feeling to share your passions and share things that mean a lot to you. There’s a fear of rejection that is almost more concerning than sharing my own songs with people. It’s, I think, a really intimate way of expressing yourself. And it’s odd that music can contain that. We project so much onto it that it becomes something very personal… it becomes us. And it defies logic, I think.

In talking about the Billie Eilish song “I Love You,” you mention that sometimes you’ll play a song to get underneath it, get inside it, or just try to understand it. What’s that about? Do you really do that a lot, or is that just kind of in special instances?

Oh, I do it all the time. I feel like I learn a lot. It’s just a deeper way of learning how to appreciate something, just because I can play the guitar, because… I mean, there’s a lot of music that I can’t figure out how to play on just an acoustic guitar. Most hip-hop doesn’t quite work, in that context, although there are songs that do, and it’s fun when you can figure them out. It’s just a habit I have — I just like learning other people’s songs.

Once in a while you come back around to making general statements about, um, what the sharing of music means, and it’s interesting — “Loving one thing completely becomes a love for all things somehow.” There is a theme of openness throughout the book, and and communication. You say, “It teaches you to communicate with people solely using the language you’ve learned talking about music, to talk about art, gardening, college basketball, coaching, whatever.” I feel like I aspire to that, but at the end of the day in a conversation, I can feel like, “OK, let’s get back to talking about music, even if you are the college basketball coach.” It’s admirable that you’ve sort of used it as a way of developing empathy, to understand other people’s passions.

I bet you do it more than you think. Don’t you think that we all have our own touchstones of how we understand the world, and when we look at each other, we go, “Oh, that’s their Beatles…” I think that we try and find analogs in each other’s lives so that we can kind of navigate, not having led the exact same life. It’s just an extension of an idea that I think I stole from a maybe poorly-understood-on-my-part philosophy of Kierkegaard; I think that that’s one of the core concepts in his philosophy. I’m not a scholar of that particular school of philosophy at all, but it always made sense to me, as a layman, that that would work — to encourage people to love something really deeply, and in doing so, you have a language of passion that translates to other passions.

A lot of people were discussing a chapter that was excerpted in the New York Times, about loving ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” after getting over a regrettable bias against anything “disco”-related in your youth. Many can relate.

Something I would like to clear up is that that essay in the Times might have made it sound like I just came around to ABBA last week. But the essay in the context of the book is more accurate. I think it’s clear that it’s something that happened a long time ago, but it was a firmly held belief. And it was good to like realize that, no, God, this should not be denied.

As much as this book is about things you love, you have four short chapters that are about things you don’t: “Happy Birthday to You,” “I Will Always Love You,“ “The Star Spangled Banner” and a Bon Jovi song.

I mean, think about all of those things. They’re all so monolithic, impactful and immune to almost any criticism, so I felt like they were safe to illustrate that, just for the book to be realistic, I don’t think anybody really can like everything, or should. It would be really strange and boring if we all only like the same things and only dislike the same things. There would almost be no point in having taste — there would be no such thing. So, yeah, I thought that Bon Jovi probably could take a punch. I’ve met Jon Bon Jovi; he’s always been super nice to me. I love Dolly Parton. And “Happy Birthday” and “The Star Spangled Banner” — I’m not going to do anything to dissuade anybody from having to hear those songs. I’ve always thought “Happy Birthday” was cloying, and I thought, “I’m never going to tell anybody that, probably,” or it’s not something I felt compelled to do.

We recently had an office Slack discussion where the “Nuke the Knack” campaign of the late ‘70s came up, when some people hated “My Sharona” — which is one of the songs you effusively praise in your book. It was weird, but telling, that in 2023 we’re debating a record from 1979.

Wow. I mean, that’s probably a fun debate. But where it gets really weird to me is when people try and convince somebody else not to like something, like there’s an objectively truthful or factually correct opinion of something like that, and that’s just absurd. I mean, millions of people bought that record. It still gets played on the radio. It’s amazing.

Nowadays everybody truly is a critic.

We’re definitely a culture that has leaned into opinion — we’ve gone all in on the idea that we should have opinions about everything, and it’s not good for us. I don’t think it helps many people. I think it is much healthier to go, “I don’t get it, but obviously somebody does,” and then that should be left at that. But I think a lot of people find it intolerable to feel left out of a conversation, even though it’s not for them, and force themselves to weigh in. Everybody has to care about everything.

Well, you proved definitively that you are not Jann Wenner by going and having a chapter about Rosalía in your book. You write about not understanding Spanish, and it not mattering, because you feel like you understand the essence of the songs.

There’s that intuitive sense that kicks in. That’s also a part of music as well, beyond just the purely intellectual understanding. Have you listened to any of her records? There’s so much communication happening, just in the rasp in her voice — I don’t know, it’s just really rich, rich music to me. I wish I understood it better and could understand the language exactly. I’ve tried to find a translation for everything. What I talk about in the book is how the translations, when I get them, aren’t that far off from what I feel like I’m getting from the music, and I think that’s kind of an amazing magic trick.

The book is so well-written, and so immediate and engaging and clear. And your prose style is so different from your songwriting style, in certain regards. Not that these different media would ever exactly correlate for any writer. But your lyrical voice is sometimes impressionistic and not always super-literal in the storytelling … and then, as a prose writer, you’re very straightforward. A lot of people are good at one or the other — really good at putting flights of fancy into song or really good at just writing very direct prose — and don’t tend to have both skill sets. Do you have any thoughts about the different parts of your brain you might be using for each?

I think that they’re kind of photo negatives of each other, at least the way they work for me. I feel like having realistic expectations about my prose writing helped me focus on just wanting to be able to read it out loud and feel like it was clear and still sounded like me. I really got excited learning how to write prose on these three books — just because I’d spent so much time condensing language and trying to find some essence of language and imagery (in lyrics). It felt like finishing a puzzle, to learn how to do kind of the opposite. I’m not trying to, you know, revolutionize literature.I thought that what people would be coming to my books for would be something much simpler, and that would be an openness, generosity, and an experience of maybe feeling like we spent some time together. So that made it a lot easier to just focus on being clear.

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