Jeff Tweedy’s first concert of the pandemic was weird. On Sept. 18, the Wilco frontman took the stage with the members of Tweedy, a side project that includes his sons Spencer and Sammy, for a drive-in show in McHenry, Ill. Emerging from quarantine to play music to a field of cars was strange enough. Warping the vibe further was the news, which arrived just an hour before showtime, that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.
“Nothing about that night got to be what I pictured it to be,” Tweedy says via Zoom from the Loft, his longtime studio in Chicago. But having spent years on the road, he found small joys in again experiencing “things I’ve taken for granted my whole life” — conducting a soundcheck, hearing a PA. “I think that the response being muted by people being in their cars would have freaked me out 20 years ago. I might have been really, really self-conscious not getting that immediate rush from the audience. And then also having the terrible news that you have to crawl out from under.” But that, he adds, is “what’s so beautiful about experience. I could tell my kids before we walked out onstage, ‘Once we get past the first few songs, the music is gonna heal you. You’re not going to know where all of this anxiety and sadness went. And it’ll come back, but it’s gonna go away.’ And it did. I have so much faith that that happens. That’s what music can do.”
The first song that Tweedy and his family band played that night was “Mi Sheberach,” a Jewish prayer for healing. (Tweedy’s wife and children were raised Jewish, and he converted to Judaism in 2013.)
Like so many artists used to an uninterrupted cycle of touring and recording, Tweedy turned to music to heal the pain inflicted by the siege of COVID and the relentless barrage of contemptible news from Trump’s America. But not every artist has leaned into the creative impulse so heavily as Tweedy has. On Oct. 23, his third solo album, “Love Is the King,” will drop. It arrives just 10 days after his second book, “How to Write One Song,” a practical guide to making music (and a spiritual guide to making art) was published by Dutton.
In “How to Write One Song,” Tweedy describes in detail a process rooted in daily habits. “Love Is the King” was very much the result of those habits. As Tweedy set out to write a song a day for what he envisioned as a country album, over a stretch of two weeks he shared his work daily with two friends, the actor Nick Offerman and the author George Saunders (the three took a camping trip together not long ago), inviting feedback.
Saunders, who co-wrote one of the songs on the collection, “A Robin or a Wren” and contributed liner notes to Tweedy’s 2018 album “Warm,” marvels at his friend’s ability to focus amid the chaos of 2020.
“Right when this coronavirus thing was just starting off, and everybody was kind of stunned by it, he just went on this creative tear,” Saunders says. “I’ve never seen such an effortless creative burst. He just seems to have this bottomless well of creativity that he’s wholly in touch with.”
At 53, Tweedy is no longer the full-cheeked, bushy-haired young musician who appears in the photo on the cover of his 2018 memoir “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back).” That book told the story of Tweedy’s journey from semi-rural Southern Illinois youth to his partnership and split with Jay Farrar in the groundbreaking roots-music band Uncle Tupelo to his enduring success with Wilco — one of the truly great rock bands of two decades that have been mostly lousy for rock. It also told the story of his battle with opioid addiction. Today, Tweedy has been sober for 15 years. His hair is scraggly. He seems at ease with himself and his work at a time when ease is an increasingly rare social commodity.
This is due in part to the process that he outlines in “How to Write One Song.” For those intimate with Tweedy’s impressionistic lyrics (“I am an American aquarium drinker,” Wilco’s seminal 2002 album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” begins, “I assassin down the avenue”), his prose can be jarring. He makes corny jokes. He uses exclamation points. He references Beyoncé more than once.
But most of all he is earnest, upbeat, even encouraging. If there’s a big takeaway from “How to Write One Song,” it’s that the act of creating something, when engaged in seriously and without worry over talent or skill, is good for one’s soul. That this message comes from the same guy who kicked off Wilco’s second album, 1996’s “Being There,” by shouting, “I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all,” over and over again is noteworthy. It’s a testament both to how much that guy has evolved and how a good artist can have more than one gear.
“I can tell you, having gotten to know him over the last few years, that this is what it’s like to talk to Jeff,” Jill Schwartzman, Tweedy’s editor at Dutton, says of his writing style. “His lyrics are coming from a different place, because they’re lyrics, because it’s music. But reading his prose is really like having a conversation with Jeff — a really deep and meaningful one.”
Meaning in Tweedy’s creative life is intertwined with work. As he writes in the book, it’s important to invite inspiration in on a daily basis. “I think that artists like to give off this atmosphere of ‘I’m a chosen one. I’m just a conduit. Things just come through me, and I don’t even have to think about it, really. I’m just inspired,’” he says. “And it’s bullshit. That’s complete bullshit. I enjoy feeling like I have some routine and some small control over having some new song to sing. I like having a new song to sing. And one of the ways that I get to do that is to show up at work every day.”
That approach resulted in “Love Is the King.” The pandemic left Tweedy homebound for what he believes is the longest period he’s gone without playing a show in decades. And it made continuing work on the next Wilco record, which is “almost half” started, a logistical challenge.
Most of all, it put Tweedy in the same tenuous emotional state that so many of the world’s citizens are in. His response was to throw himself into his creative routine with a goal in sight. It’s a self-aware process he recognizes as his natural response to turmoil. When his wife, Sue Miller, was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, he entered a prolific period that yielded the first Tweedy album with Spencer, that year’s “Sukierae” (the moniker is taken from Sue’s nickname), as well as two playfully titled Wilco records — 2015’s “Star Wars” and 2016’s “Schmilco.”
“I need music more when I need to console myself more,” he says, dropping a trademark Tweedy-ism with nary a virtual blink. “Just when things get really bad, my focus tends to get really sharp. And I don’t know why, except that that’s what it’s always been my whole life. That’s what music has been for me.”
“Love Is the King,” he adds, was born of a need “to sit downstairs in my house and think of the stupidest country song I can think of, just so I can say I made a country song” that day.
That the album is self-consciously — and perhaps loosely — a country record should excite those fans who still clamor for an Uncle Tupelo reunion. That band ended up becoming, somewhat against its will, the standard-bearer for an independent Americana movement whose early proponents held up the group’s 1990 album “No Depression” as a sort of beau ideal. Wilco, formed after Tweedy and Farrar parted ways in 1994, clung to that identity in early, less celebrated records. The release of 1999’s “Summerteeth,” with its debt to the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” saw the band begin to draw the rapturous acclaim that would make it one of the most critically beloved rock acts of its time. (“Summerteeth” celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and will receive a deluxe five-LP/four-CD limited edition set to be released on Nov. 6.) Subsequent albums would burnish Tweedy’s reputation as a rock artist who embraced experimentation, technology and multiple forms.
Tweedy also never gave up on roots music, even as dad rockers of a certain age filled venues coast to coast for Wilco’s many tours. He delved into Woody Guthrie’s archives with the punk rock troubadour Billy Bragg for the “Mermaid Avenue” albums, a project that was covered in two documentaries. And his solo stuff — by virtue of being solo stuff — fits comfortably into the singer-songwriter bucket. But Tweedy insists that none of his work has ever ventured in spirit too far from a particular core.
“I think I’ve come to realize that I love being identified with an American song tradition — a song tradition that in this country is most evident in country music and in folk music,” he says. “To me, those are just the forms and shapes that are easiest for me to think in.”
In his younger years, Tweedy bristled at those associations. Now, he realizes, “what I was negatively reacting to for a long time was being associated with other artists that were using those shapes and those forms and, in my opinion, not bringing anything to them” aside from clichés about “whiskey and trucks.” But his critique of contemporary country music has no anger in it. Instead he seems awestruck at how a genre whose beginnings he likens to the early days of punk rock could evolve into something “that doesn’t sound anything like what I feel like I’m drawing upon,” but seems like it “has more in common with Journey or even hip-hop. It’s an incredible transformation over my lifetime. And I like a lot of it, but those aren’t the shapes that I think in.”
“Love Is the King,” though it draws on those shapes, also employs fragments of the various recording styles Tweedy has developed over the years. He compares the electric guitar on the new album to that heard on “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” as formally daring a release as there is in the Wilco catalog.
Tweedy assures that there will be more Wilco records. But he also confesses that, as he and its other members get older, the band has become “something that’s more like a great treat” to indulge in when the timing is right. He is enjoying the flexibility of making solo music, and foresees more of his energy being extended in that direction.
Regardless of form or style, or whether writing for a full band or just himself and his guitar, his process remains the same.
“Nothing has ever really been that far from me playing an acoustic guitar and writing a song,” Tweedy says. “That’s the part I have the most control over.”