Long beloved for the captivating power of his open-ended and abstract lyrics, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has, in recent years, found just as much success in being straightforward.
Over the course of three recent solo albums, as well as Wilco’s 2019 release Ode to Joy and his two books — the 2018 memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) and last year’s How to Write One Song, a book of songwriting advice — the 54-year-old has embraced unadorned and unflinching language to frame his heartfelt observations on aging, love lost and love maintained.
“My comfort level with being vulnerable,” he wrote in the memoir, “is probably my superpower.”
Despite its inevitable appeal to diehard Wilco fans, Starship Casual has the potential to resonate with a much wider audience. Mixing stories from Tweedy’s thirty-plus years as a professional musician, brief audio check-ins from the road and recordings of unreleased songs, it could easily find a home with any fan of rock music, American cultural history, romance or humor.
Tweedy’s tales, told in straightforward and conversational prose, blend the past with the present, and highlight the less-than-sexy but no-less-outrageous aspects of three decades as a professional musician; in one installment, he’s wandering through a desolate Warner Bros. office, unaware of an ongoing bomb threat; in another he’s racing to get his passport renewed to fly to London, the master tapes of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in hand, only to discover he’s gone temporarily deaf in one ear. In one particularly moving and surreal piece, he’s handed a homemade gift at a concert in Montana, minutes after getting news of a serious health situation in his family.
For Tweedy, the opportunity to release demos and raw recordings of unreleased material, casually plucked from the bowels of his phone and uploaded into the ether, is nothing short of thrilling.
“How close together the intent is to the way it’s being received, it’s the closest I’ve been able to achieve,” Tweedy told The News Station.
Two months into his new endeavor, The News Station caught up with him in his hometown of Chicago, during a break in Wilco’s co-headlining U.S. tour with riot grrrl icons Sleater-Kinney, to learn why he has gravitated toward the newsletter medium, why internet trolls make him feel “very sad,” his favorite newsletters to read and more.
Max Savage Levenson: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Jeff! What appeals to you about the format of a newsletter? How is it different from social media, which I gather isn’t your cup of tea?
Jeff Tweedy: I think one of the things that feels unpleasant to me about social media is the same thing that’s unpleasant to everybody about it. It’s kind of an outrage economy.
Overall, I’m not the kind of person that’s doom and gloom about technology or new ways of communication. There’s growing pains. There are growing pains with the printed word. There are growing pains with things we take for granted as being fairly benign that have historically had huge disrupting patterns.
I just don’t know how to deal with a lot of social media. For me, a newsletter is sort of a tried and true format. It isn’t anything new. A newsletter is about as old as it gets. Of course technology allows for a lot of things you could never do before, like including audio and video in a newsletter.
The interaction is generally kind of purified by the email aspect, the idea that it comes directly to somebody. And the opting-in seems to change a little of the dynamic, conversationally, in the comments.
My friend George Saunders describes it as social media purified by conscience (laughs).
I’d like to think that he’s right. I think the nature of all interactions online these days is that you’re gonna have a fair amount of trolls anywhere you interact with people you don’t know. So far [with Starship Casual] it’s been really, really, really minuscule compared to my experiences with what you would think are innocuous comments over the years that draw the most outrageous vitriol (laughs).
MSL: People have got some time on their hands.
Jeff Tweedy : Yeah, a lot of people just want to be seen. The negativity of it doesn’t enter into the equation for a lot of people: it’s just being paid attention to, in a maladaptive way. What they’re wanting is that engagement, that validation that they’re here. It’s a really sad way to just witness someone behaving, even somebody that isn’t using their real name. I know there’s a person on the other end of it and it makes me very, very sad. There’s a despair that’s kind of hinted at in any commentary like that.
MSL: Amen to that. Are you the kind of person who relishes looking at the stats and the data on your newsletter posts or do you steer clear of that stuff?
Jeff Tweedy : I look at it occasionally. It’s nice to see when things are growing. It’s nice to see when there’s more engagement. But I just don’t know what the industry standard is. It seems like from where I sit, they feel really good to me. It seems like a lot of people are opening these emails.
MSL: I’ve loved hearing the demos and first drafts of songs you’ve included in the newsletter. I’m curious how releasing them in that format — and getting immediate feedback from fans — shapes what happens with them next.
Jeff Tweedy : A lot of them will end up being fully fleshed out in the studio at some point. Part of the point is that I write way more material than I could ever get to in my lifetime, in terms of how much time I have to tour and other things like being a person and having a family. [Even with] the amount of time I spend in the studio, which is already a lot, I’m still what I would consider being years behind being able to approach a viable fully recorded version of all the stuff I write.
It’s kind of a relief that there’s another new place to share this material. It’s kind of all I ever really want. The commentary that comes back immediately is kind of the thing I crave the most. I don’t understand hit radio. I don’t understand record reviews. I don’t trust a lot of where things like that are coming from, because I don’t think a lot of things that you put out into the world at this point, after being a band and being around for a long time…I just think that there are people that feel like they have to have an opinion.
There are things that you put out that wouldn’t necessarily be for that person, but they feel compelled to weigh in because it’s a Wilco record and they’re a rock writer. It’s not a natural connection, communication-wise. But when you sit down and play a song for somebody and they’re open and receptive to it, in person, that’s one of my favorite things in the world.
This is as close to that, in terms of immediacy, as I’ve ever been. It’s kind of strange. It’s new, and I’m still getting used to the way it all works, but for me, gosh, I think it might be the ideal. I mean, surely, sonically, it’s not the ideal. But in terms of the actual…how close together the intent is to the way it’s being received, it’s the closest I’ve been able to achieve.
MSL: That’s awesome. Per that notion of immediacy, can you speak to your process? Are you working with an editor?
Jeff Tweedy : I’ve been working with my book editor [Jill Schwartzman]. Initially it was a little bit of an adjustment for her because she was editing things to be a little more formal. And early on I said, I think we need to leave in some of the more conversational [tone]. My writing is always pretty conversational.
We got on the same page really fast. Initially it was a little weird to figure out what this is exactly. It’s not much different than the way I think about [writing] books: I really want to make sure I keep my mind going back to what it sounds like reading it out loud, in a room; to have a palpable presence of a human, you know, involved (laughs). And a certain awareness and consciousness of another conscience being part of the equation.
MSL: That put a big smile on my face. Thanks for saying that! Are there other Substacks you enjoy reading?
Jeff Tweedy : I haven’t spent a lot of time with other people’s Substacks. I tend to read books a lot. I spend enough time on my phone and my computer. I find a lot more comfort in reading books and magazines and stuff like that.
Patti Smith is the one that I was introduced to first and I check out her Substack a lot. I’ve been checking out some of the other people that started around the same time I did: Perfume Genius and Neko Case.
MSL: Is there anything you’ve learned or taken away from the first two months of the project?
Jeff Tweedy : I don’t know if I’ve learned anything really (laughs). The more I do it, the more I feel like I enjoy writing in this particular format. Not necessarily just the Substack format but the format I’ve been trying to emulate, of [the author] David Markson, using shorter paragraphs and smaller building blocks of storytelling. It feels like I’ve stumbled upon something that feels really…I don’t know…effective to me, in terms of getting what I want to say out.
This conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.