Since starting up 17 years ago, Wilco has combined influences as divergent as the Ramones and Woody Guthrie to forge one of the most distinct and experimental sounds in American popular music. The Chicago band's previous incarnation, Uncle Tupelo, gave rise to the alternative country genre with their 1990 album, No Depression. Formed in 1994 after that band's dissolution, Wilco won two Grammy Awards, including best Alternative Music Album. Rolling Stone named their 2002 release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the third best album of the last decade. Here, singer Jeff Tweedy shares the story behind the hand-written lyrics for "Born Alone," off their new record, The Whole Love (out September 27). The music video for the song, which premieres today, is below as well.
I brought a little travel guitar with me on vacation over the new year in Mexico. One evening I started playing a bit and came up with the main riffs for the song and recorded it on my phone. The melody and chord progression came about in maybe five minutes. This song came around at the end of the process of making this record. I dug up that piece of music again at my home in Michigan—a we have a lake cabin where I come out and write sometimes.
I wasn't coming up with anything specific, so I opened up a book of American poetry and randomly turned to the Emily Dickinson pages, no one poem in particular. I took a lot of words, most of them verbs, and put them against words that looked appealing to me from Whittier and other 1800s poetry. It's just looking at the words and writing a little poem trying to use as many of them as possible. If I'm lucky it all starts to settle meter-wise on the melody I have in my head, and then a certain amount of tweaking goes on to coax out a little more feeling. It's an exciting way to write, without trying to steer the ship in any one direction.
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When I took the song into the studio I really had the lyrics nailed down. One of the first things we did was sit down and learn the song on acoustic guitars and then came up with an arrangement that included a bridge that wasn't there originally that's a variation of the main melodic theme. I thought this lyric at the end—"born alone, born to die alone"—sounded like one of the most dire things that you can sing, but also defiant. I had strong feelings singing that lyric and wanted it illustrated in some defiant, triumphant way. So I came up with the idea that we would end the song with a Shepard tone, which is a series of chords that when repeated continuously sounds like its descending or ascending. It's kind of a musical trick—it sounds like it's endlessly going deeper and deeper into the abyss.
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[Guitarist Nels Cline] was asked to play the main theme that I had written quite a bit. He's always deeply involved in the sonic textures and coming up with guitar tones, and he adds many, many variations as the song goes on, and there's little runs and Nels cannot be held back any longer playing this simple, repetitive, almost inane riff. He frees himself periodically. It's a deeply collaborative process, even when something like that main riff is being dictated. I can play that guitar riff. I can't make it sound like that.
It's a natural assumption that we would feel liberated artistically [to record on our own label], but there hasn't been a whole lot of interaction between the band and labels, especially in the studio, for a long time now. Since Summerteeth, there's rarely been any record company presence in or around the studio. I don't think it really enters into it that much for us. Sure, we've afforded ourselves freedom maybe at the expense of our relationship with record labels. But we've been doing what we want to do for a long time.
--Jeff Tweedy, as told to Alex Hoyt