Arts

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy details the making of his memoir

Whitten Sabbatini

‘If I have a message,” said Jeff Tweedy, “it’s that everybody should make stuff. Everybody should feel liberated to do that. People suck at sports, but they feel compelled to play softball the rest of their lives when they discover they’re not any good at it. But [most] people stop creating when they leave kindergarten. They don’t give themselves any license to sit and make something that wasn’t there.”

Tweedy was speaking by phone from the Loft, the Chicago studio that is home base for him and his band Wilco. He was talking about his new book, “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording With Wilco, Etc.” The book — by turns self-deprecating, sincere, hilarious, and harrowing — is packed with stories about his childhood, his friendship with Jay Farrar, his and Farrar’s pioneering band Uncle Tupelo, Wilco’s hard-fought success, his struggles with depression and prescription drug addiction, and his family.

At its core, though, the book is an extended paean to the power of creativity and self-expression, and the salvational effect that music has had for Tweedy. Making songs, he writes, “is all that matters. . . . As long as it’s something that makes you feel better and you wake up every morning wanting to get back in the studio, there’s not much anyone can [expletive] do to ruin it.”

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Tweedy — who also has a new album, “WARM,” out on Nov. 30 — speaks about the book at the Wilbur Theatre on Nov. 14.

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Q. Why did you write this book? In the introduction, you kind of throw cold water on the whole project of writing a memoir.

A. Well, it’s baked into my psyche — the Belleville [Ill.] boy doesn’t allow me to stray too far into thinking anybody would be interested. There’s a deep sense of “Who the [expletive] do you think you are?” that courses through my veins on a daily basis. It’s not false modesty; it’s debilitating, really. But, oddly enough, I also think that’s kind of worth sharing. There’s a demythologizing of not just me but the idea of a normal, fairly well-adjusted guy making music that has some fairly typical struggles.

Q. Was it difficult to find your voice in terms of writing prose? When I read the book, your voice seemed different than what I think of as your songwriting voice.

A. Hmm. Most people that know me think that the book feels like sitting down and having a conversation with me. So I didn’t really look for a literary voice; I was more concerned with capturing an accurate representation of that familiarity. I read out loud a lot, just to find what felt comfortable to me.

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Q. It seems like you got the urge not just to play songs but to write them pretty early. Did that feel instinctive, or was it influenced in part by your partnership with Jay Farrar?

A. Actually, I think I had that influence before Jay. I know that because it was easier for me to write songs than to learn other people’s songs. I mean, they were terrible songs, and they were barely proficient in terms of writing chords and that stuff. But that was an impulse that was more fulfilling to me than figuring out how other people’s songs went. I honestly think that . . .

Q. . . . It worked the other way around?

A. Yeah, I think it was a little bit of healthy competition that in my delusional early musical career, I [was like] “Oh, I made up rock and roll. Watch this!” [laughs] That probably gently pushed Jay towards, “Well, if he can [expletive] do it, I sure as hell can do it, I’m a much better musician.”

Q. Was it difficult going back and reliving the memories of Uncle Tupelo ending, when Jay told you he was leaving?

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A. No. I mean, I haven’t dwelled on it nearly as much as some Uncle Tupelo fans. [laughs] I hope it comes through in the book that I don’t really have an ax to grind with Jay. There are a few things in the public record that I at least wanted to get my side of down. But for the most part, the part I was the most interested in sharing is the answer to the questions I never get asked.

‘There’s a demythologizing of not just me but the idea of a normal, fairly well-adjusted guy making music that has some fairly typical struggles.’

Q. Like?

A. Like, “What was it like when you and Jay had a good time? Ever have any fun together?” It’s like, [expletive] yeah! We were teenagers in a rock band and we somehow made a band that got to put records out. It changed my life.

Q. One of the best parts of your book is that you describe your songwriting process in a lot of detail. I was surprised to read that you consider melody, rather than lyrics, to be the most important emotional ingredient of a song.

A. At the same time, I wouldn’t say that I’m some brilliant melodicist or anything. But yeah, I truly believe that. There wouldn’t be much need for music if that wasn’t the case. You can’t tell people a melody, you can’t write down in words a melody, and they’re very emotional. I kind of think it’s the closest humans have gotten to being able to document an emotion and transport it over time and space.

So I always try and remind myself of that. I want the words to look good on the page, I want them to look good when they’re contemplated apart from the melody. But I’m always gonna err on the side of what sounds good because I don’t want to break the spell of the melody with a clunker lyric. I know I’ve done it, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

Q. You describe in painful detail the run-up to the time at which you went into rehab for both addiction to painkillers and mental health issues. Reading that section, I was amazed that you were able to be as functional as you were, touring and recording a Grammy-winning album.

A. There are people all around you every day that are deep in their addictive minds, who are functioning. I grew up in a household with very high-functioning alcohol abuse. So I have that as a formative example of the sense of obligation to my job, my duty. It was my job. So that doesn’t surprise me at all, looking back on it. That’s one of the more vivid examples my father would’ve provided, beyond almost anything else. He got up every day and went to the railroad.

Q. And then drank a 12-pack of beer every night after he came home.

A. At least.

Q. When you went into rehab finally, did you think there was a chance Wilco might not exist when you got out?

A. Sure. To put myself in that position, I got to a position of “Anything is better than this.” And that included, “What if I never write any songs anymore?” Or, “What if nobody wants to keep doing this?” I was willing to sacrifice anything to not feel the way I was feeling.

Q. Wilco took all of 2018 off, and I’m wondering whether you missed the band when it wasn’t there as a regular, everyday thing. And what plans are there for the future?

A. Oh, of course, everyone missed it. It was a good thing to do. We’ll be starting back up next summer. There’s a healthy amount of energy, just about the process of getting back together. I think sometime around this time next year there’ll probably be another Wilco record. So we’ll see.

Jeff Tweedy

Presented by Brookline Booksmith at the Wilbur Theatre, Boston, Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $45-$72. 617-248-9700, www.thewilbur.com

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.