“To Me, They’re All Folk Songs” Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy Interview
Wilco are an unstoppable force within American music. Directed by Jeff Tweedy, the band have amassed an imposing catalog, which asks deep questions about themselves as musicians and the traditions in which they operate. Able to venture into left field, new album ‘Cruel Country’ finds Wilco enjoying a comeback moment, with a 21-song cycle rooted in acoustic guitar and the bonds that bind these musicians together.
Catch Wilco at the Black Deer Festival next weekend (June 17-19) – tickets.
The title itself caused a stir. Jeff Tweedy had long resented the “country” categorization — even though pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo’s “No Depression” performance was used as the title of the alt-country movement. internal magazine, he never really thought the tag was appropriate. So far.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything particularly different,” he says. “I feel like there’s always been a country music element to it. The songs themselves stem from this very common type of songwriting that I have, which is rooted in folk music and country music. It’s the default position of a song for me, it’s a song that I can kind of sing with an acoustic guitar. So to me, it’s all folk songs, it’s all country songs.
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Out Now is an incredible collection of songs, one that underscores Wilco’s enduring power as a vessel. To match the release, Jeff Tweedy shared an absorbing essay, separating “country music” as a term and what it could potentially mean.
“I think most of what I was trying to say with the essay was okay, okay, this is from the country. Look, let’s call it that. The name itself is what all record names are supposed to do – try to grab someone’s attention and hopefully get them to notice what you’re saying and pay attention.
“Country music is way older than the term ‘country music’ anyway. And the different genres that we accept are all kinds of conventional fiction, and they’re mostly marketing terms,” he says. “I’m drawn to people on their porches, making the noises that have become bluegrass and country. It’s like punk rock, to me. I think the main consideration was making some noise and freeing up to find a way to fully express yourself.
This sense of expression has always been at the forefront of Wilco’s work; with ‘Cruel Country’ it seems particularly appropriate, with little or no dividing wall between the listener and the organic production, and the songwriting resolute. To cite just one example, consider the ensemble playing on ‘Bird Without A Tail’ and its exquisite coda, recorded live in the studio. “I love the way it sounds and I love how the band has grown to have that kind of faith and trust in each other to be able to pull off that kind of ensemble play.”
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It took years, even decades, for Wilco to achieve this level of mastery. The band are a fantastic live experience, and their European tour includes a headliner at Black Deer Festival, the Kent-based award-winning American feast. UK fans are sure to be in for a treat, with Jeff Tweedy citing the heightened intensity of these post-lockdown performances.
“We did a relatively big tour last summer and then a series of shows in the fall. And none of us had COVID! How, I don’t know! he’s laughing. “It feels good. To be honest, it’s still quite strange. There hasn’t been that cathartic moment where everything becomes…well. And I kind of gave up hope of this kind of thing happening. It’s amazing to play music, and there’s definitely some added weight. It’s not easy, but you take the little blessings and try never to take them for granted.
The band recently held their own Solid Sound Festival, a community event bringing together friends, peers and fans, all in one place. “I mean, it’s awesome!” he radiates. “It’s always great. It’s always a very touching experience to meet and play with so many artists and musicians that we admire. I can’t remember the last time I felt so much joy!
Wilco was naturally headlining, and for their encore they were joined by the Clash’s favorite Japanese breakfast. Gushing in his praise of the work of Michelle Zauner – “just a wonderful person” – he was also delighted with his own onstage praise of Wilco’s impact on his own work. “I think that’s the most flattering thing I’ve heard,” he says. “Someone a few generations younger, taking our records and making something out of them. I don’t know if there’s a higher aspiration than that.
The two have another hobby in common, Clash points out — both have published fantastic memoirs. “Well, I’m actually going to work on another book,” he reveals. “Soon, probably this summer. I like to write prose and I try to improve myself.
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If nothing else, Jeff Tweedy has an amazing work ethic. Along with Wilco’s deep catalog, he’s also a sought-after producer – at times he seems unstoppable. “I still think writer’s block…isn’t really what happens when people go through it,” he explains. “I think they just don’t like what they’re writing, so they stop writing. I worked very hard to allow myself to have a habitual writing practice and not judge it.
“I don’t really have writer’s block, but I definitely have periods where I write things that I don’t like as much. And I always feel like you have to write through that. No song is lost. No concert is lost. No bad mark is lost. It’s just part of the whole process.
Music, it seems, is his whole life – it’s his morning cup of coffee, and the last conversation he’ll have in the evening. “I try to write every day,” he adds. “What also happens when you have a practice like that is that I go back and look for things that inspire me months and months later, sometimes years later. And I find things that have no writing memory. I will have no memory of even being there when they were written! And that allows a certain objectivity on things.
Naturally, that means there’s a lot more to explore than just the finished product. Sharing demos and alternate versions of his Substack, Jeff is drawn to the idea of letting fans see the unfinished sketches, the pre-drafts. “I like to let people in on the process because of my exposure to rough mixes, bootlegs and snippets of whatever I could find them for,” he says, quoting Bob’s Bootleg series Dylan and the ongoing publications of the Neil Young Archive as prime examples. “This information is invaluable to a songwriter like me and to many, many, many people. This is the first time they’ve heard that their heroes aren’t perfect, and it’s an incredibly freeing thing to find out. All of these artists had to go through bad sound to sound good, and even when it was bad, they found a really important lesson.
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With a complete vinyl reissue of 2001’s landmark album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, the temptation is to look back – but not for long. “I think Wilco has always been much more forward-looking,” he smiles. “We don’t allow too much nostalgia to creep in. I mean, we did these anniversary shows, and it was tough, in a way, but I was really glad we didn’t have didn’t choose to do a whole tour like that.”
Another interesting action taken by Jeff Tweedy was the decision to divert 5% of his royalties to social justice organizations, a move made after the murder of George Floyd and the global protests that followed. It wasn’t a spur of the moment, he says – the songwriter had been looking for a way to contribute for some time, with the protests crystallizing his thoughts.
“I absolutely encourage other artists to do it,” he says. “I’m not really comfortable standing on a podium, but I felt it was the right thing to do, given the amount of music I hear today and the amount of I hear in my own music, which comes from the influence of things that weren’t compensated fairly. A lot of genius that has been very badly treated and stolen…just like our country is actually built on it, in a lot of very powerful ways.
“It wasn’t easy to put together, to be honest. It was confusing, it was a bureaucratic nightmare figuring out how to get people on board with something that I thought was really simple and easy. There was some hesitation…but we did it. And we’ve had a few people contact us to find out how we did it. And we’ve shared our information with different artists, and there’s a handful of people who are doing that as well. And it’s really, really satisfying.
We end by taking Wilco back to the future and its upcoming projects. A band that craves the live environment, Jeff Tweedy isn’t about to let Wilco rest on its laurels – not when there’s work to do and songs to write.
“Oh, I write,” he says. ” I do not stop. I just like to write. I like playing the guitar. We’re working on another record, the one we started before the pandemic. But I still release songs there and hope they find a home one day.
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Catch Wilco at the Black Deer Festival (June 17-19) – tickets.
Words: Robin Murray
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