Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song brings readers into the intimate process of writing one song—lyrics, music, and putting it all together—and accesses the deep sense of wonder that remains at the heart of this curious, yet incredibly fulfilling, artistic act.
Songs are mysterious. Where the fuck do they come from? I’ve written tons and tons of songs and STILL the best I can think to say after I finish one I’m happy with is “How’d I do that?” It’s confusing when you can DO something and not know exactly HOW you did it (and then somehow expect to do it again.)
I think that’s why so much mysticism gets attached to songwriting when people try to talk about it—you hear things like “I’m just a conduit” and “The universe wanted me to have this song.” Whatever you say, man. I’m pretty sure it’s still ME doing the work. Some partnership between my conscious mind and my subconscious gets results, but when things are going right, the distinctions between the two get blurry, and I’m never really sure who’s in charge.
So the idea of teaching songwriting feels to me more like teaching someone how to think. Or how to have ideas. Because songs, to me, are much more like individual thoughts than other works of art. They’re hard to hold onto—Air-like and ephemeral. They pass through time. They’re here then gone . . . yet they’re portable, they can linger as a memory and, even crazier, just pop into our minds for no discernible reason. Other art forms, like paintings or books, have physical shapes and permanence, but how many of them can you hum a few bars of?
So understandably, I think we all sort of assume songs are more conjured than written. And it makes sense that people are skeptical about the idea that songwriting can be taught. I mean, it’s easy to see how a step-by-step approach might be applied to the “craft” of songwriting—music theory, traditional song shapes, meter—but in my experience, that’s just the architecture. How do you teach someone to write the kind of song that makes someone else want to write a song? A song that you can fall in love with, and song that feels like it’s capable of loving back. Can you teach that? I’m not sure.
But I have a feeling that part of the problem is the enormity of teaching someone how to write “songs” plural. Instead, I believe the only way to teach someone to write “songs” would be through teaching them how to give themselves permission to write ONE song. To teach them how to teach themselves—starting with one song.
To me, the difference between one song and “songs” is not some cute semantic trick; it’s an important distinction, and it’s more precise about what it is you’re actually doing. No one writes “songs” plural. They write one song, and then another. And it’s also a reminder of what you really want. Or what I think you should REALLY want, which is to disappear—to watch your concept of time evaporate, to live at least once inside a moment where you aren’t “trying” to do anything or be anything anymore. To spend time in a place where you just are.
Ok? Ok. That’s all . . . That’s something that doesn’t happen through “songs’ plural. It only happens when you’ve lost yourself in the process of making one song.
Or Do You Need a Reason to Write a Song?
Why I Write Songs
Long before I wrote my first song, I thought of myself as a “songwriter.” I would say to people, “Guess what? I’m a songwriter,” not “I might like to try my hand at songwriting someday.” Just “Yep, I’m a songwriter.” It was bonkers! I think I was around seven years old. I was delusional. I was a delusional seven-year-old, and I had stumbled onto some internal TED Talk-level trick of self-actualization. It worked! It turns out that the reason I started writing songs is because I happened to be a songwriter. That, plus the looming sense as I got older that it would only be a matter of time before someone would say, “Boy, I’d love to hear one of your songs!” So I guess I found the desire to NOT be revealed as a complete fraud quite motivating as well.
Does that sound like you? Do you like the idea of what it would feel like to be someone who writes songs? Is that your answer to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Maybe minus the awkward transition from “I’m thinking firefighter . . . maybe cowboy . . . You know, I’d like to be something in the firefighting realm, but I’d also like to be on horseback if possible” to the crazy conviction of “Songwriter! Next question, Grampa!” Maybe your internal dialogue sounds something more like this: “I’d really like to be able to maybe write songs someday?” OK. Let me just settle this right off the bat: You are a songwriter! No doubt about it-and definitely as much as I was before I wrote any songs. Phew. I’m glad we got that out of the way. All right then, thanks for buying the book.
Just kidding. Ha! That was hilarious!
Sorry. I’m going to come at this from another angle, because I think it’s as close to the core philosophy of this book as I can get, and I believe it’s worth repeating in a way that might be understood from a broader perspective than just songwriting. The truth is that as I got older, the answer to “What do you want to be?” became much more difficult to say out loud. Even though I always had a pretty good idea that I wanted to write poems and songs and play music, I always had a hard time telling people that I wanted to be a poet or a songwriter or an artist. It still feels wrong sometimes to label myself as something so grand in my estimation. Why? Is it false modesty? I doubt it. My ego seems sturdy enough these days to tolerate some aggrandizement.
I think the disconnect is more related to the idea of “being” anything when it’s the “doing” that’s most rewarding. Being something isn’t real in the same way that doing something can be real. Everyone has a different idea of a “songwriter.” We all picture that differently. Your “songwriter” wears a beret, doesn’t she? I knew it! If you can pull off a beret, you can definitely write songs. Anyway, my “songwriter” doesn’t wear a beret or really think of himself as a songwriter at all unless he’s writing a song. That’s another main reason I wanted the focus on ONE song to be reflected in the title of this book. When you’re in the act of creating, when you’re actually focused on that one song, and that focus is allowing you to disappear (which we’ve already established is ideal and to be desired), there isn’t anyone else’s image of who you are to compete with. In fact, even the image you have of yourself can take a breather.
Because one song is all it takes to make a connection. And in my opinion, connection is the loftiest of all aspirations.
So You Want to Be a Star?
It’s soul-crushing, at any job, to aspire to BE something versus being driven by what you want to DO. Do you want to be a “star”? Don’t bother. You’re going to lose. Even if you make it, you’ll lose. Because you’re never going to be exactly what you’re picturing. But what do you want to do? You want to play music in front of people? You can do that. You want to see if you can get better at playing in front of a larger group of people? You might be able to do that. I can even see someone deciding that they’re going to create an outrageous persona and experiment with new musical forms. And that might end up making them a rock star, but I doubt the title is anywhere near as satisfying as the creation part. Maybe it’s a cliché, but you have to focus on verbs over nouns-what you want to do, not what you want to be.
Keep things simple. You want to be heard-listened to. We all do. So as stupid as it sounds, that only means you have to make a sound. Many songwriters have aspired to be Bob Dylan, including me. And is that an overambitious desire? Both yes and no. Did I truly want to BE Bob Dylan? No. I wanted to do what Bob Dylan does, and on the most basic level there was nothing stopping me from doing what Bob Dylan does. That doesn’t mean I can play the guitar or sing the same way or write songs the same way or as good. It just means that I make a sound. I write a song and I sing it. At the very least, I hear myself. If you’re coming to me for inspiration because you want to sound like me or “be” me . . . well, I’m flattered. But you’ll be surprised how good it feels to hear yourself sing your own song.
Will One Song Be Enough?
For some reason I feel the need to clearly explain how I distinguish between an “aspiration” and an “accomplishment.” To me, “aspiration” is a word that is reserved for your loftiest goals, your dreams. I think “to aspire” is to aim for something just out of reach or something far away temporally-your end goal, maybe? It’s more related to the idea of how you want your work to be acknowledged. An “achievement” can mean sort of the same thing, I suppose, but I would argue that an “achievement” is something clearly defined and attainable.
I think aspirations are great! And I think you should dream big. It’s hard to do something you can’t envision, so close your eyes and picture something wonderful every chance you get. But for now, let’s just take a look at what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you trying to create a body of work? Or could one song be enough? Just to see what it feels like to have your own song to sing?
Because one song is all it takes to make a connection. And in my opinion, connection is the loftiest of all aspirations. To my way of thinking, there isn’t much else of any value going on in any song or work of art. At the core of any creative act is an impulse to make manifest our powerful desire to connect-with others, with ourselves, with the sacred, with God? We all want to feel less alone, and I believe that a song being sung is one of the clearest views we ever have to witness how humans reach out for warmth with our art.
I’m sure you’ve felt that as a listener, too. That warmth works both ways. We look for it in the art we choose-in the music we listen to. But how do you make a song do that? How can you be sure you’re making that connection happen? I think that to get there we have to start with ourselves. And to connect with ourselves, I believe, requires an effort to tune in to our own thoughts and feelings through practice or habit.
Before my dad died, he asked me, “How old are you?” (Old Dad was never the most attentive father.) I told him I was fifty. He said, “That’s great. The years between when I was forty-five and fifty-five were the most productive of my whole life.” And I was thinking, “How was he productive?” My dad worked for the railroad his entire career. I guess he made improvements to the safety and productivity of the rail yard. Maybe he reconfigured the computers in the tower or something. He had a lot of expertise in electronics. And he looked at his career as having some productivity that he felt connected to.
But I’ve always wondered if he meant something else-it’s really interesting how you recognize genetics and see yourself in your relatives and your family as you grow older. My father did have the impulse to sit down and write poetry. He would go to the basement from time to time when he was upset about something or when he was mad. He’d sit and write a poem, and then come upstairs, half drunk, and read a simplistic, heavily rhyming but not entirely artless poem about the Alton & Southern Railway, or our neighbor who’d died, or something else that he was stewing about.
We didn’t have many books in our house; we hardly had any high-minded notions about who we were as a family, and for all I know, book reading might have been akin to putting on airs. Dad was a high school dropout. My mother was a high school dropout. But I think they were both brilliant-I mean, really fucking smart. At some point, my dad must have realized that there were things he needed to say that didn’t mean as much or sound right without some rhyming. “Hmmm . . . a poem. I betcha I could write one of those.” He probably wrote them at work, in his head. What’s more curious is how he gave himself permission to do it. I think a lot of people write poems in their heads but don’t give themselves permission to write them down or share them. I’m sure the beer provided some confidence-some internal urging and support that led to the late-evening recitals. But when he first sat down to write-it was always straight after work-he was sober as a judge and riding a wave of pure inspiration.
I want to be a person who encourages more humans to do that-to have some private moments of creativity, whether they share their creations or not. We should have an army of people advocating for that. I think it’s the coolest thing in the world when someone steps outside their so-called station in life to indulge in a personal “art for the sake of art” moment. If we’re being realistic about what an end goal should be, creating something with no ambition other than to get something off our chest might be the purest thing anyone could aim for.
Excerpted from How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy. Copyright © 2020 by Jeff Tweedy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.