In his new book, How to Write One Song: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy shares his detailed thoughts on the art of songwriting, from practical tips to philosophical observations on the creative process. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the workings of his musical mind, and a winning follow-up to his 2018 memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). The book is out October 13th, and then, 10 days later, Tweedy will release a new solo album, Love Is the King, which he wrote and recorded during the early days of the public-health lockdown this spring. In this exclusive excerpt from How to Write One Song, he discusses the origins of “Gwendolyn,” a highlight from the new album.
Which Comes First, Music or Lyrics?
When you write songs, the one question you get asked more than any other is “Which comes first, music or lyrics?” Starting here — with words being sounds and music, but not necessarily thinking about meaning just yet — is the best way I can think of to emphasize that the answer I often give to that question, “Both and neither,” isn’t meant to be evasive or condescending. It’s really how I try to approach the creation of my songs. It’s a process I love. So in this part, let’s take a look at some of the tricks and exercises I use to let my ego-driven, meaning-obsessed brain off the hook for a while, let’s allow words to be musical and atomic, and let’s start moving them around a little bit. Hopefully these exercises and tricks can help make words alone be musical enough to hear something you didn’t expect, or make you see a word in a new/unexpected way. And I think all of that is songwriting, all of that is poetry. And all of that is related to what we’re here to do, and talk about, and create.
Playing With Rhymes
I can’t tell if this is a no-brainer or will come as a shock, but I recommend getting a rhyming dictionary or two or three. At the very least, keep a browser window open to some rhyming website. There’s no shame in this. It’s still going to be you and your own unique curation of language when you use these tools as tools and not as a crutch.
I love rhyming. Sometimes an overly obvious rhyme scheme can become oppressive, and I have a real pet peeve about song lyrics that telegraph the impending rhyming word from a mile away. Country songs have a lot of trouble with this, in my opinion. I hate it when I can easily predict every rhyme in a song. There aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules in terms of avoiding predictable rhymes, but I’m going to ask anyone reading this that please, for the love of all things holy, don’t rhyme “train” with “rain” anymore. If you do, you’d better surround it with some of the best poetry ever written to cushion the blow.
One thing I like to do and that I find scratches the same sort of itch crossword puzzles can get to is writing free-standing rhyming couplets. Free-standing meaning that they are unattached to any poem or song. Just taking two rhyming words and connecting them can be very satisfying, especially when you’ve freed yourself of the burden of the architecture and logic of an entire poem or lyric. As an example:
when Gwendolyn speaks to a county police
plastic cup of beer held between her teeth
It’s not a perfect rhyme, but you get the idea. I can’t wait to hear the rest of the song that fits in. I may never find it, but I enjoyed making that tiny little puzzle piece and I’m happy it exists.
Can You Hear What Comes Next?
This next step is where things get borderline mystical for a lot of people when they try to explain how a song happens — how words and music join together to form something greater than the sum of their parts.
I’m not sure I can demystify something I feel wholly inadequate to explain. For me, the moments that make my scalp tingle a little bit are when I hear myself sing a lyric out loud for the first time. On occasion I make myself cry. Not because I’m marveling at my songwriting genius or I’m overcome with my poetic gifts. It’s a moment that feels more like I’m witnessing something better than me, or better than what I imagined I could make, being born. Certain things I’ve written that, at first, didn’t strike me as being remotely worthy of being sung have, when sung for the first time, startled me by uncovering truths about myself I had no intention of revealing. Recently I finished a song with the lyric “She holds my hand between her knees/Like a dream I’m never sure what it means.” It’s kind of songwriterly cute in a way I might otherwise feel a little self-conscious about, except when I sang it out loud for the first time I felt a composite memory wash over me: When the lights would dim at basement rec-room get-togethers in junior high school and my classmates began pairing off in the shadows, I would always find myself paralyzed on the couch holding some small, adorable, sweaty hand, 100 percent convinced that the very clear signals I was receiving were all in my imagination and not to be trusted. Slow on the uptake, I was.
Sometimes the words hang in the air in an almost physical way, as if they’ve taken on the properties of an actual object I could touch and feel if I reached out. Or like the feeling you have when you know someone has entered a room you’ve been occupying alone. And even though they make no sound and don’t announce themselves, you can sense their presence and that you’re no longer alone.
The surprising thing is that sometimes, I don’t even always love the songs that provide these exquisite moments when I hear them later. But out of all the things I enjoy about making up songs, those moments have always meant the most to me. In fact, I wouldn’t be writing this book if I didn’t believe that those experiences are so valuable that it would be wrong to not at least try to encourage everyone to have their own.
So, to me, that’s ONE song. The one you’ve been working on, the one that’s the goal of writing and reading this book. You’ll know it when you have it. If that can happen to you singing to yourself, it has a pretty good chance of working for someone else. I might have to write 50 songs or almost-songs to get ONE, or sometimes I might get a string going where I feel supernaturally in touch with my abilities.
Am I contradicting myself here? If a song is conjured more than it’s crafted with intent, why have we been learning all these exercises, doing all the work step by step? Because hopefully all of what I’ve been sharing here is in service of reconnecting with your imagination in a way that will eventually allow you to just close your eyes and imagine what comes next.
It is possible to write a song in the time it takes to play it. To just start with an idea and play through like you’re listening to a record. How? That sounds crazy. It doesn’t happen that way very often, even for me, but the only way I ever got to that point was because I learned these other avenues into my subconscious, and then made well-worn paths, eventually becoming conversant enough with what I like to hear and what kinds of shapes songs come in that I could improvise a passable song, the way you might use your language skills to describe your day.
Can you do that? With practice, I bet you can! I don’t think I’m that special, and I believe that’s what can happen when you keep doing everything we’ve covered so far again and again — you stop having to work at it and it just comes to you. Early on, trial and error plays a much bigger role in how words and music come together, and I think there are always going to be moments that require some patience. But the more you stick to it, the easier it will become to just close your eyes and listen to the music in your head and imagine what you’d like to hear next. Also, importantly, it will become easier to determine when an idea just isn’t working, as opposed to an idea that is maybe just one ingredient away from being magical. That requires a lot of practice, and work.
By the way, I’d like to add, you don’t have to do any of these particular exercises — but without the daily discipline component you might just have to be happy with writing a few songs a year that come to you in intermittent bursts of inspiration.
So let the magic happen. It’s almost time! Start by finding one of the melodies or chord progressions you’ve collected that you feel drawn to finish, and then scan through your lyrical ideas for something that fits rhythmically and emotionally. If you can’t find anything, go back and work through some of the lyrical exercises that are related to tailoring words to a melody, like finding words on a page. Easy, right?
Ok, just because the description of a process sounds mundane doesn’t mean the end result will be. In fact, I probably complete more songs in this manner than any other. It occurs to me as I write this that my idea of a song might be drastically different than yours, and I might be leading you through some peculiar-feeling maze towards a rather nebulous and ill-defined goal. Good! I think you should be suspicious of my idea of a song, as well as your own preconception about how you go about making the songs you think you want to write. I’m even willing to say the songs you don’t know you want to write are better than the ones you’re picturing.
Nothing about the way I enjoy my own creative endeavors made much sense to me early on. I knew I had an instinct for songwriting and a desire to learn, but because the reading music part was so difficult and my aptitude on an instrument was lagging, I always assumed I’d never know how people really write songs. Then I read somewhere about how Inuit carvers create. As I understand it, they take a walrus tusk, or a piece of limestone, and they don’t think, “I’m going to carve an elk or a seal or an eagle.” They simply carve, and as they go, they discover what’s inside the walrus tusk they’re cutting into. And they believe that was there, that they just opened it up and revealed it.
That’s what I’m like when I’m in my most ideal state of creativity — I’m as excited about seeing what happens next as if I was watching myself do it. This is the part I think I can encourage and teach. The processes I’m pushing can be used over and over again, and they’ll never result in the song you’re picturing. If you use the exact same process I used to write “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart,” you won’t write “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart (Again)” or even “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart (Tokyo Drift)” — and I know this for a fact, because I’ve used these processes over and over for years and I’m still delighted and surprised at the different shapes and animals they unlock out of the dull stone that is my brain.
The creative state is the most important part. None of it means anything if you’re not excited by the discovery of what you’re making.
From HOW TO WRITE ONE SONG: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back by Jeff Tweedy, to be published on October 13th, 2020 by Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Scot Tweedy.