Jeff Tweedy’s Word Games
Though Wilco is a collective entity, at its center is Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting, which like the band itself defies easy description. Tweedy draws on the sounds of ’60s folk and rock but loves surreal wordplay, preferring collages of imagery to conventional narrative or personal confession. This combination has made Tweedy one of the most elusive and influential voices in contemporary songwriting, and his songs are increasingly being interpreted by others. Here’s what Tweedy has to say about writing lyrics.
There’s a lot of mystery in your lyrics—strange juxtapositions and transitions that don’t make rational sense. Is it a goal for you as a songwriter to have your lyrics make sense to a listener or even to yourself?
TWEEDY No. That’s not really a goal, to be honest. I don’t find a lot of my favorite lyricists to be perfect sense makers. Writing something that has an image, something that you see and you’re not just being told about, is the main goal. And I can’t dictate what you feel, but I want to feel something for myself. As long as that’s happening, I really don’t feel compelled to sweat just having it sound rational. Music isn’t really supposed to play on that part of your brain; it’s supposed to be more mythos or some sort of release from making sense.
In the past you’ve talked about your interest in using “surrealist speak.” Do you use surrealist writing games to tap into that sort of unconscious creativity?
TWEEDY Oh, sure. In fact I’ve done a fair amount of it. I make lists of words I like that are all related to one topic, and set them against words that I’m just finding beautiful at the time. I love having a verb act on a word that you’re not used to it acting on, and vice versa—I like having nouns made into verbs that you don’t expect. Sometimes I just take all the verbs out of an Emily Dickinson poem and put them on one side of a page and take all the nouns out of a, you know, Robert Frost poem and put them on the other side of the page, and see if anything interesting happens. It’s fun—it’s kind of therapeutic. It’s exciting to play around with. It’s kind of a hobby, I guess.
Can you give other examples?
TWEEDY I can’t give away all my tricks! I think the single most helpful thing is just to train yourself to sit down with a notebook and fill up pages without stopping yourself. And then it’s really good to put stuff away and forget it; when you go back and read it months or years later, it sounds like it was written by a different hand. It’s much easier to be objective. I always end up finding stuff I really like and then highlighting it, and it would have been much more difficult to have those judgments in the moment.
Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar March 2012