Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy Talks Life on the Road, Woody Guthrie and Singing to His Kids
Wilco, from left, Patrick Sansone, Mikael Jorgensen, Jeff Tweedy, Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche and John Stirratt. Photo by Austin Nelson.
The life of a rock star isn’t always easy and there are bumps to life on the road, but Jeff Tweedy of Wilco wears them well these days. He appeared relaxed in a T-shirt and jeans when we sat down with him in the band’s tour bus before a packed concert at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va.
I started by asking if he still enjoys touring.
“It’s my job and it’s a really good job,” Tweedy said. “And like any job it can be challenging — any good job should be challenging and hard sometimes. It’s also extremely rewarding, and I still enjoy getting to see the world. I’ve gotten better at it, and it’s easier than when we started. We’re not in a van, sleeping on people’s floors and are more comfortable. And I enjoy playing the shows especially; it’s just the waiting around that’s harder.”
Tweedy explained how he doesn’t write as much on the road, but at this point in his career the seeds for songs are constantly being planted in his mind.
“Even when I don’t think I’m writing, I’m writing,” he said. “There’s some part of my brain geared toward making songs up, and I know it’s collecting things and I know when I get a moment to be by myself, that’s when they come out. I always think I don’t have any songs, I don’t have anything I’m working on, and I get in the studio and realize there are 20 things I’m thinking about. It’s just kind of second nature.”
Back in 1998, Wilco teamed up with Billy Bragg to record and put to music previously unrecorded songs by folk legend Woody Guthrie, who was born 100 years ago this year. Wilco and Bragg finished the third album and released it in the spring along with the first two CDs as “Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions.”
“Being in the archives and working with Woody’s lyrics definitely was a watershed moment for me as a songwriter, as an artist,” Tweedy said. “Just getting to see someone so comfortable being [himself] and creating without a lot of editing…. [E]verything he wrote wasn’t beautiful; everything he wrote wasn’t perfect. In fact, a great majority of what he wrote was slight or sort of off color or imperfect in some way, and that is what is sort of beautiful about it as a whole. The sublime moment seems to be only a product of allowing yourself to get through, to get to a lot of stuff in your life, write about a lot of stuff and not edit yourself. That is a great lesson to learn for anybody that writes or creates in anyway, to be able to make something without being good or bad.”
Since Wilco formed in 1994, Tweedy has grown (with some growing pains) into his role as rock star and band leader. In addition to his performances with Wilco, Tweedy occasionally picks up his acoustic guitar for solo shows.
“I have always thought it was important to maintain some connection for myself to what it takes to make a song work by myself, to put a song across to an audience by myself. I feel like I am better in the band knowing how to do that. My role in the band is more, I don’t know, understandable to me,” Tweedy said.
I asked how he sees his role in the band now.
“I think to create an environment where my songs sound good and that I have friends playing with who feel fulfilled and engaged in the process. I guess be the leader of that endeavor. Hopefully, foster some sense of freedom, make a free creative environment … make the songs sound good and have people be consoled. It’s a consolation, a great consolation they get to participate in that exchange, the gift economy of the ritual of playing a rock show. It is awesome,” Tweedy said.
Tweedy’s also learned to balance being on stage with being a dad. He proudly showed off a picture of his oldest son on his phone and welcomed my wife and our baby daughter to join us for the interview. I ended our chat by asking what songs he used to sing to his kids at night to put them to bed.
“My oldest son has a special fondness for ‘Muzzle of Bees’ because I must have been writing that song and playing it a lot years before it was recorded, and it would have been a song he heard a lot at bedtime. For both my kids I used to sing ‘Beginning to See the Light,’ the Duke Ellington [song],” he said.
“Never cared much about moonlit skies. Never wink back at fire flies,” Tweedy sang.
“They both associate that song with bedtime. It is kind of romantic song, a lot of sweet imagery,” he said.
Wilco is on the road for the rest of the year with concerts in Europe and across the United States.