Jeff Tweedy never meant to be a memoirist. “I was kind of recruited to write a book based on some agent’s idea that I might be able to write something worth reading,” he says, recalling a conversation five or more years ago. “I said, ‘Sure, I guess.’ It felt accidental.” That somewhat inauspicious beginning led to Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), the acclaimed memoir that Tweedy published in 2018. A couple of years later, he wrote a second bestseller, How to Write One Song, encouraging readers to tap into their own creativity. And this fall, with World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music (due out Nov. 7), Tweedy is going for the three-peat.
Each chapter in the new book is dedicated to a different song, with Tweedy providing insightful commentary on everything from the traditional spiritual “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” to Rosalía’s “Bizcochito.” He frames the setlist with stories from throughout his life, from his childhood in southern Illinois through the early days of Uncle Tupelo up through the nearly 30 years he’s spent leading Wilco. It adds up to his most bittersweet, heartfelt piece of creative nonfiction yet.
“Writing is remembering,” Tweedy says. “It’s a really powerful way to get to things inside yourself that you can’t get to without putting it down on the page — things that are hidden inside your memory.”
While he’s been building a side gig as a noted author, Tweedy has also been on an extraordinarily productive run with Wilco. Just a year and a half after their double LP Cruel Country, the band will return on Sept. 29 with Cousin, their 13th studio album. Produced by Welsh art-pop visionary Cate Le Bon — the first time in more than a decade that they’ve brought in an outside collaborator in that role — it’s an album full of unusual instrumentation, textural nuance, and emotional depths.
“I love her records, and we’ve gotten to be pals over time,” says Tweedy, who first met Le Bon when she was booked to play Wilco’s Solid Sound festival in 2019. “We’re both willing to dig in and tear things apart and put them back together … It sounds like Wilco, but I don’t think it sounds like any Wilco record we’ve made. That’s always the goal after all these years.”
As he and his band head into a bountiful fall, Tweedy talked with Rolling Stone about life, music, religion, sobriety, and more.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has given you?
Early on, we were touring with the Band. It was the Arkansas Traveler tour with Michelle Shocked and Uncle Tupelo. I was rehearsing, and Rick Danko stepped up onstage behind me, out of the blue, and said, “You sound desperate. You should always sound desperate. Don’t lose that.” It’s a weird way of saying something that I totally agree with. I think what he meant is people have to hear that you care — not that you’re desperate in your life, but that you’re desperate to communicate, desperate to connect. That’s why we sing.
In your new book, you write about all kinds of contemporary hits that you love, from Billie Eilish to Rosalía. How have you kept your ears so open to new artists?
Even if it wasn’t something I’m naturally curious about, I think it’s the most important part of what I do. I want to feed the part of me that gets excited by something unpredictable. You could spend your whole time going backwards, even, and still find something every day. I mean, I would’ve killed for this scenario when I was a kid, that I could just dial up anything I was reading about and hear what it sounded like, immediately. So it’s a way of honoring that kid in me.
What’s the most extravagant purchase you’ve ever made?
This is an obnoxious answer, but I have this habit of falling in love with a particular instrument and not feeling like I really have it unless I buy another one. So I have a lot of doubles of instruments that are all my favorites. It’s a certain insecurity from guitars getting broken or changing over time into something that I don’t like as much or whatever. That’s pretty frivolous.
You sound a little like Bob Odenkirk’s character on I Think You Should Leave. “Triples is best.”
Exactly. That’s me. I think I’ve got triples of the ’68 Gibson Dove.
Back to the book for a sec. You also have one chapter about a song you can’t stand. Talking about Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” you write, “This song sucks and you should not like it.” Have you thought about what you’ll do if you ever run into that guy?
I have run into Jon Bon Jovi. And it’s not the first time I’ve said something negative about him. I was on a TV show one time in Canada, and the question was, “Jon Bon Jovi says that Steve Jobs killed music.” And I said, “Jon Bon Jovi killed music.” It was set up like a bowling pin. What was I supposed to do, not knock that one over? But then, when I met him, I copped to that, in case he had ever seen it.
Really, like everything else in the book, that’s more about me. It’s about me not understanding what could give somebody that kind of confidence, to swing for the fences every time.
You were skeptical of religion growing up, but you converted to Judaism as an adult. What role does Jewish tradition and belief play in your life these days?
We’re primarily secular in our family. We go to High Holy Days and things like that. We have Seders. It’s a community that we feel embraced by, and a congregation that has a warm feeling to it for our family. When we’ve gone through things like my wife’s cancer diagnosis, it’s important to have a support system beyond just your friends — to mean something to the fabric of a community larger than that.
It’s one of the first things I noticed about my wife’s relationship with other people, especially when she ran a rock club. Anybody that was a Jewish person in a rock band that came through, automatically, they had a comfort level, and they could actually sing the same prayers. I was thinking, “What do I have like that? The Gilligan’s Island theme song?”
You’ve been in recovery for almost 20 years, since you went to rehab for an addiction to painkillers in 2004. How much do you have to think about that these days?
It’s a daily thing. It’s not something you want to lose sight of. It’s not as intense; the feeling of being on a ledge has gone away considerably over the years. At this point, right now, I’m in an enormous amount of pain, because I have really bad osteoarthritis in my hips, and I count my blessings every day that this isn’t the period in my life where I’m going to be introduced to opioids and find out how much power they have over me, and maybe not make it. I feel really, really fortunate to know what I’m up against and accept the pain.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot more lately. I actually have dreams about drugs now that I haven’t had in a long time. And I feel so fortunate that I’ve created a habit for myself of being able to put that thinking where it belongs.
There’s a lot about emotional pain in this book, too. You write about being a sensitive kid who “feel[s] so many things so deeply,” in a world that “keeps not giving a shit.” Has that gotten any easier for you as an adult? How do you cope with the cruelty of the world?
I don’t ever want to get completely used to it. I just learned how to take care of myself better and give myself a better chance to survive … I want to be helpful. I want to do good stuff. I want to do things that make me feel like I deserve to have the things I have. There’s a responsibility to that. I’m one of very, very few people that have ever lived that gets to do what he loves to do for a living. Gosh, how do you not feel compelled to pay back something?
There’s a song on the new Wilco album called “Ten Dead” where it sounds like you’re singing about the grim headlines we see after a mass shooting. What were you working through there?
That’s a state of mind that would be hard for me to write a whole album, at this point in time, without acknowledging. It’s just so much a part of our background radiation. It’s not particularly direct in terms of a political statement. It’s just more trying to honor the psychological landscape that I think most people I know are struggling with. It’s an outrage. I’ve literally heard somebody say, “No more than 10 dead.” That was poignant to me, that somebody could even bring themselves to say that. “Well, thank god it’s only 10.”
Bob Dylan is one of your heroes. He published a similarly structured book last year, writing about a series of songs and what they mean to him. Did you read it?
I’d already planned to write this book, so I was a little nervous when that came out. I did read it, but it was so far from being the same genuine spirit … I didn’t really think of it as the same idea. I was a little bit disappointed by it, to be honest. It’s very Dylan — it lets you in and pushes you out at the same time, somehow. There were things that felt like they were probably written by the Theme Time Radio guy that helped him. [Ed. Note: “Theme Time Radio Hour” producer Eddie Gorodetsky, whose other credits include “Two and a Half Men” and “Dharma & Greg,” is credited as a consultant on Dylan’s 2022 book.]
Speaking of legendary songwriters, you suggest in your book that Stevie Wonder could write a new national anthem to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That’s a great idea, but why not you?
[Laughs.] Well, who would you rather have write it: Me or Stevie Wonder?