When I asked him to choose a favorite line for this series, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy wanted to discuss a lyric by Daniel Johnston, the indie cult hero whose bedroom recordings have influenced a generation of lo-fi musicians. Tweedy explained how Johnston, whose mental illness leaves him permanently in the care of his parents, remains an inspiration for the emotional honesty of his lyrics and the raw, visceral quality of his recordings.
After making Wilco’s most recent record, The Whole Love (2011), Tweedy realized that he’d never made an album on his own before—even though his bandmates had all worked outside the context of an ensemble. On his new record, Sukierae, he plays every instrument except drums, which are contributed by his 18-year-old son, Spencer. (The two also played together on gospel legend Mavis Staples’s Tweedy-produced One True Vine). The result is a two-disc tour de force that shifts shape through varying musical styles—abrasive guitar rock, shuffling drum ‘n’ bass, Neil Young-inflected ballads. Privileging emotional presence over any kind of defining atmosphere or mood, and featuring some of the most memorable melodies of Tweedy’s career, Sukierae is a portrait of a master craftsman at home, at ease, and willing to try anything.
Tweedy spoke to me by phone.
Jeff Tweedy: I first came across Daniel Johnston’s cassettes in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s—I don’t remember exactly what year. We were touring through Austin, Texas—where Johnston lived and performed at the time—and Waterloo Records carried them in their store.
From the beginning, I loved the way he records his material. There’s so much potential evident in his songs, but it’s rarely fully realized—and that’s kind of the beauty of it. It can be like listening to a Neil Young demo tape or something, like hearing an early, stripped-down version of a great song. For a songwriter like myself, hearing this music in such a raw state is exciting. There’s so much to draw you in. You can get lost in the potential, in how much he leaves open to interpretation.