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Jeff Tweedy On Performing From His Couch: 'It Felt So Intimate To Us Right Away'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guest is singer-songwriter and guitarist Jeff Tweedy, the frontman of Wilco. This year, in spite of COVID, he's managed to release a solo album, publish a new book and performed from his living room couch. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: Like most professional musicians, when lockdown started, Jeff Tweedy found himself at home - a lot. That's quite a difference from the constant touring he was doing for most of his decades-long career. So he wrote and published a new book about songwriting called "How To Write One Song." He also recorded and released a new album, "Love Is The King," with the help of his two sons, Spencer, who's 25, played drums, and Sammy, who just turned 21, provided background vocals. Yet perhaps the best way Jeff Tweedy is connecting with fans is through something called The Tweedy Show. Back in March, Jeff's wife, Suzy Miller (ph), started filming Jeff and his sons performing in their house.

At first, the Tweedys did an Instagram show every night. You might hear a Wilco song or a cover version of songs by people like Neil Young, Pavement, The Band or the Beatles. After some breaks and a COVID scare over Thanksgiving, they still perform four nights a week. They may have been playing music together, laughing, poking fun and telling stories even if the iPhone wasn't rolling, but the show lets fans become part of it. Hanging out with the Tweedys has been one of my favorite ways of getting through this year. We'll talk about the show in a bit. But first, let's start with a track from the album "Love Is The King." It's called "Gwendolyn."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GWENDOLYN")

JEFF TWEEDY: (Singing) I don't think I can take another day. Oh, I don't know how I could ever say. I'm OK being so far away. Oh, I don't think that I can take another day. And Gwendolyn, when she starts to speak to a county police with a plastic cup between her teeth. The sun beating down like a big trombone. That's right when I start missing home. She holds my hand between her knees. It's like a dream. I never know what it means. I only know I'm feeling alone. That's right when I start missing home.

BALDONADO: That's "Gwendolyn" off the new album "Love Is The King." Jeff Tweedy, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

TWEEDY: Thanks for having me back.

BALDONADO: Now, since quarantine started, you and your family have been doing a live Instagram show called The Tweedy Show or you call it The Tweedy Show. Can you describe it for people who haven't seen it?

TWEEDY: It's just basically like inviting people over to our house to hang out with us in our living room and just hang out with a family that I think enjoys spending time with each other and can definitely get on each other's nerves and do a little bit of bickering and sniping. And at the same time, I - you know, I think it's a warm atmosphere to share with everybody. And I think that it felt so intimate to us right away. I mean, the first episode, I'm in the bathtub. So I think that's part of the reason we started calling the people that would come to watch it our clients as opposed to fans, because I think there was some impulse to keep some professional distance.

Sometimes we do a bunch of songs, sometimes we only do a few. But for the most part, we just try and push the outside world away a little bit. We don't really dwell upon the things that are happening in the news or stuff like that very much, because for a lot of reasons, I don't think people should come to us for a commentary on those things. I think a lot of people are feeling the same things. And what we need more of is connection and just some ritual of - I don't know - just being reminded that there are normal moments and things like that. It's like this really, really intimate-feeling thing, but it's not serious.

BALDONADO: Now, watching the show, one of the joys of it is how much you all enjoy spending time together. And I kind of feel like that's like - that's family goals. You know, I wish I could get my family to get along like that and want to spend that much time with me (laughter).

TWEEDY: Oh, it's - the shows have resulted in some, like, just knockdown, drag-out fights, though. I mean, we're on our best behavior with this show, you know (laughter).

BALDONADO: So otherwise, like as soon as that camera is off, you guys are not talking or fighting?

TWEEDY: Well, no, you know what? I mean, it's all - it's good. What it has done is sometimes it dislodges some resentment from something that happened weeks ago. And it's actually kind of good family therapy because you have this camera there and you're kind of trying not to show some of these tensions. Then you have to let them out when the camera goes off. And it's resulted in a lot of, I think, conflict resolution. And I don't - like, I don't want to paint a picture like our family has a lot of issues that we really need to work through. I think we do sincerely love being together and having a good - you know, we do have a good time together.

But every family gets on each other's nerves, and you'd be really weird if you didn't, I think. But not every family gets good at figuring that stuff out. And sometimes maybe I guess you could go your whole life and you don't need to figure it out. But I tend to think it's probably strengthening when you can, you know, say, hey, you're - like, I know you're just my big brother telling me what to do, but when, you know, you do that, like, makes me look like I'm incapable or, you know, like just little - I don't know - philosophical things about birth order and stuff like that. It's amazing (laughter).

BALDONADO: There's this review of The Tweedy Show in The New Yorker. And one of the things the reviewer said I appreciated because I think, you know, you guys seem to be enjoying each other so much and playing music together. And, you know, as the reviewer pointed out, it's like, you guys have had hard times and recently. You know, you had to deal with your wife, Suzy Miller's cancer diagnosis. You also struggled with addiction. And, you know, watching you guys all together, it's just very kind of, you know, heartwarming and sweet. And one of the things you say in your book about the time when Suzy was sick was that playing music together with your kids was a way of holding each other without hugging all the time. And I thought that was so sad and sweet. Like, this - making music was something that you could do when there was nothing else to do.

TWEEDY: That's true. And it's also - I mean, I don't know of any activity as healing as playing music. I don't know what else there is to do that - I mean, I think maybe exercise helps for a lot of people when they're really suffering psychologically, really sad, really struggling. Anything that kind of gets you out of your head and into your body is probably really good for you. But music doesn't quite get you out of your head. It just makes everything lighter. And I'm not the first person to say this, obviously. It's just a real consolation. And it always has been.

Even before I could play music, I really think that I was a lonely, lonely kid and that music was a real consolation to me and developed that bond with me that formed that deep need and connection or maybe just as - you know, just made me aware of how powerful that just listening to music can be for - as far as like just healing yourself and making yourself a little bit more whole when you feel broken. And it's invariable in a way. A lot of times I don't expect it to work because I feel like things are so bad and I feel so sad that I don't think it's going to work. And the struggle then is to actually pick up the guitar or to put something on to listen to. And once you get over that hurdle, it works. And I just have a lot of evidence over a lot of years now that that's a constant and a pretty reliable thing. It's really the most reliable thing I can think of in the world.

BALDONADO: My guest is Jeff Tweedy. He has a new book called "How To Write One Song" and a new album called "Love Is The King." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is musician and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. He has a new book about songwriting called "How To Write One Song." And he has a new album he recorded with the help of his sons, Spencer and Sammy. It's called "Love Is The King."

Now, you wrote that your dad would have a favorite song that he would listen to over and over like for weeks to the exclusion of any other songs. Can you talk about what some of those songs were? And do you think you learned anything from that?

TWEEDY: I mean, I must have learned something from it. I mean, you certainly get to know a song pretty well when your dad plays it 50 times a night, you know. And you start to hear different things each time, I think, probably. You tend to focus on different things just to keep your sanity. But, I mean, a lot of times it would just be - he's a real lyrics guy. So it would be "I Love" by Tom T. Hall. You know, (singing) I love little baby ducks - you know, like something like that, which has some really amazing lines in it. And Mac Davis - it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way. Let's see - "Southern Nights" - he just loved - I think he just loved the sound of that one. It was really unpleasant and frustrating as a family, to be honest, when my dad - you know, my dad - it was - and, you know, I think my dad, you know, went through his entire life with a lot of the same mood disorders that I've had, maybe but in an undiagnosed state and clumsily medicated with light beer.

And so I think that you could add the repetition of the songs that he would fall in love with as some part of a coping strategy that involved a routine, you know. I could psychoanalyze it even more if you want me to, but it's - but I think that there is, you know, something pathological about it. And it was loud. He wouldn't listen to things quiet, either. It was loud and dominant in the entire house. And I could probably handle it a lot more than my mom could, you know, the 600th time that "It's Hard To Be Humble," you know, is getting spun on the turntable, my mom's probably - you know, part of the reason she probably had a fairly short life.

BALDONADO: I know for me, like, one of the things I'm worried about is, like, I would love to pass creativity on to my children, you know, or fostered in them. But I'm a little bit afraid of passing on what's bad about me to them, whether that's like anxiety or - I don't know - darkness tendencies or, you know, just - I don't know. So you just talked about how your dad had, like, perhaps undiagnosed mood disorders. And, you know, you've talked about your mood disorders and addiction. And I'm just wondering if you're worried about - I don't know. I mean, I can't remember. You call it the Tweedy curse. I can't remember in the book what you call it, but like a - I don't know - a Tweedy predeliction to these kinds of things.

TWEEDY: Well, yeah. I mean, alcoholism runs in my family for many generations. And it's certainly genetic and something to be concerned about. On top of that, I think that there's some really strong correlation between some mood disorders and our tendency to have an addiction of some sort. They seem to be related. So as a parent, there's a lot of concern that you're passing along those things.

I think that the main thing that will be different for them if that was their, you know, struggles that they encounter in their life, the difference between me and them would be that I only knew the struggle. I didn't know how to avoid it. But I also didn't - I never had any evidence or witness to someone getting better or even acknowledging it, you know, as a problem, you know? So I mean, it was obviously a problem for my family, and, you know, it caused a lot of heartache and a lot of misery. But the person themselves that was going through it, in most cases, was pretty firmly in denial of it being a problem.

So what my children have witnessed, on the other hand, is someone getting help and someone admitting that there's a problem and, I guess, modeling some behavior of vulnerability and struggle and endurance, you know, and ultimately some ability to transcend that suffering that they witnessed. And so that gives me some comfort to know that that is in there as firmly as anything else that might be inside them - you know? - and how they are wired to handle the world.

BALDONADO: My guest is Jeff Tweedy. He has a new book called "How To Write One Song" and a new album called "Love Is The King." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is musician and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. He has a new album he recorded with the help of his sons, Spencer and Sammy. It's called "Love Is The King."

Now, you know, the new book is about songwriting, but it's really about - I don't know - valuing a creative outlet, you know, like, making - carving out time to do something creative. And, you know, I gather it's because, you know, it's been so important to you. But you have this story about someone who you were in the rehab facility with who was very unresponsive and when, you know, sort of this opportunity for a small creative outlet really helped her. I was wondering if you could tell that story.

TWEEDY: Yeah. I was in a dual diagnosis facility, you know, primarily being treated for addiction but, for the first time in my life, really being treated seriously for my depression and anxiety as well. And I was in - you know, it was a city hospital, and it was not full of investment bankers and car salesmen getting over their coke addictions. It was some really seriously damaged people that had maybe last - I don't know, maybe it had been the first time they lived inside a building for a long time, a lot of homeless people and really some really hurting people, hurt people.

And this woman who was a heroin addict, maybe in her 60s and was catatonic for most of the time the first week or so that I was in the hospital with her - in group therapy sessions, she would never say anything. And at one point, we were taken to some art therapy class, and she was given a pencil and asked to draw a self-portrait. And she said it was the first time she'd held a pencil in 20 years or something. And she - I mean, it might be one of the only true miracles I've witnessed in my life because it really felt miraculous to watch somebody become completely human again in such a short period of time.

She drew a pretty rudimentary drawing of herself. It was, you know, kind of charming, you know, outsider art-looking, primitive thing, and - but she was smiling. And she was talking. And she actually was able to name what it was that had made her - I don't know - had unburdened her, and it was that she felt like she had made something that wasn't there. And that - in her words, that puts her closer to God than she was. And a lot of that doesn't make sense to me in terms of my belief system, but the idea of putting yourself closer to creation puts you in the realm of something godlike absolutely makes sense to me.

BALDONADO: Did you work on music when you were there?

TWEEDY: No because, I mean, I wasn't in a hospital where they wanted any guitar strings around (laughter).

BALDONADO: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

TWEEDY: Yeah. Yeah.

BALDONADO: How - but in your mind, were you?

(LAUGHTER)

TWEEDY: No, I did - I think one day they let me in the recreation area. But one of the counselors had brought a guitar. And they let me strum it for a little while. But no, not in the hospital. After the hospital, when I spent some time in a halfway house, I was able to play guitar again. And that was - I mean, that's - it was really nice to know that I still could.

BALDONADO: And in your memoir, you write about that time - and I wonder if it was strange to sort of be working out what you were working out. But at the same time, I think "Ghost Is Born" was - is that the...

TWEEDY: Yeah.

BALDONADO: Yeah, was starting to be promoted. And you say your photo was on - I don't know - bus shelters. Was that kind of a weird thing, to be working out something for yourself but sort of have this other thing kind of out in the world?

TWEEDY: Well, it was a little bit after I was out of the woods. I mean, I was out of the hospital. And I was back home. And I'd spent a little bit of time in a transitional, like, facility. But, yeah, some of - I mean, it definitely was all gearing up because it would look like I was going to make it (laughter), you know? And so - but, yeah, the bus - the local weekly paper had me on the cover. And that was, maybe, a week or so after I left the transitional facility.

And one of the things I thought about while, you know, seeing that everywhere I went was if any of the guys that I was hanging out with in the laundry room were going to stumble across this picture of me and think, wow, he really made a pretty quick rebound (laughter) or something. I don't think they had any - nobody had any awareness at all that I was from a band that was, you know, putting records out and visible in the outside world or anything.

BALDONADO: Was it hard to perform the songs from "A Ghost Is Born" like right after because those were songs that were born of the time right before you went into the facility, like, you know, sort of songs that you write at a time where, you know, you're sort of in a bad place?

TWEEDY: No, actually. I think that that was one of the - that's one of the lessons I learned, I think, from that whole experience is it kind of led me to my belief that my - the part of me that writes songs, the part of me that engages in a creative act is is way ahead of me, is usually the best part of me. And it was really - I was really worried about it. And then, when I started singing those songs, they started making more sense, somehow, in the context of having gotten healthier than they would have to me - actually, it maybe made more sense to me than the way they felt to me going down in the studio. In a lot of cases, I felt like they were ahead of me. And they were striving towards something, you know, like a better idea of who I could be in a lot of cases.

BALDONADO: Well, Jeff Tweedy, thank you so much.

TWEEDY: Thank you.

GROSS: Jeff Tweedy spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. You can find "The Tweedy Show" most nights on Suzy Miller's Instagram feed @stuffinourhouse. Jeff Tweedy's new book is called "How To Write One Song." And his new album is called "Love Is The King." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll look back at this crazy year in movies and TV, a year with theaters mostly closed and so many productions shut down. I'll talk with our TV critic, David Bianculli, and our film critic, Justin Chang. They'll also tell us what's on their 10 best lists. I hope you'll join us. We'll close with a track from the Wilco album "Summerteeth." A deluxe 20th anniversary reissue of the album was released last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M ALWAYS IN LOVE")

WILCO: (Singing) Why, I wonder, is my heart full of holes? The feeling goes but my hair keeps growing. Will I set the sun on a big-wheeled wagon? Oh, I'm bragging - I'm always in love

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer this week is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M ALWAYS IN LOVE")

WILCO: (Singing) Like a bird in a cage, it's for you I swoon. I'm always in love. I don't get the connection. This is only a test. I hope I do my best. You know I won't forget.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "WHITE CHRISTMAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.