Jeff Tweedy's Subconscious Songwriting

The Wilco singer says Daniel Johnston epitomizes his mostly instinctual creative process.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

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.

Around then he started getting a little bit of national attention with that Shimmy Disc record, 1990, which includes what’s become one of his best-known songs, “True Love Will Find You in the End.” That song has an incredible line that says so much—much more than what you should be able to say in so few words.

Don’t be sad, I know you will
But don’t give up until
True love will find you in the end

This captures a very real internal moment. I think it’s a window into the way someone really thinks and feels when they’re telling somebody else not to be sad. The speaker tells the subject to feel better—it’s even an order, “don’t be sad.” At the same time he knows that’s impossible. In fact, before the line is even over, he’s retracted it.

I love, too, how the line doesn’t have a “but”—the more obvious thing to write would be “Don’t be sad, but I know you will.” The way Johnson wrote it is so much more powerful. It means it’s not an either/or. It’s an all of the above. “Don’t be sad” and “I know you will”—two contradictory emotions, experienced at the same time.  It captures a profound feeling: the desire to comfort someone, and the impossibility of doing so, all at once.

It’s heartbreakingly real. It’s heartbreakingly accurate. And I think it demonstrates why we need poetry, why we need songs—to say the things that can only be expressed in this kind of elegant, inexplicable way. Things that, if you could explain them straightforwardly, you wouldn’t have to have poetry, you wouldn’t have to have songs. I’m very drawn to Daniel Johnston’s real gift for tapping into this depth of feeling—there are lines like this one littered throughout his recorded output.

I’ve thought about Johnston a lot in my own work with words and lyrics. Lyrics are a very tricky thing to write, because songs, in my mind, are ruled by melody. I really believe that melody does all the heavy lifting emotionally. When I write lyrics, or when I adapt a poem to a song, what I really want to do is not interfere with the spell that’s being cast by the melody. Basically, I just don’t want to fuck it up. I just want to stay out of the way. At the same time, I hope—at best—that the words enhance some meaning, or clarify somehow what the melody makes me feel.

I think that’s partly why I usually don’t bother with lyrics for a long time, because I don’t want them to get in the way. In fact, one of the primary ways I write lyrics is to sing and record vocal sounds without words, vowel and consonants that sound like language but don’t actually mean anything. I’ll even double vocal tracks of these sounds without words—I call them “mumble tracks.” A lot of times people will hear them and think I’m singing real lyrics there, but I’m not. I mix them low so you have to struggle to hear, but loud enough so you can get the sound you want and get the melody to come through. With this approach, you can work on a song and finish it without even having the lyrics done.

Then, I’ll take the recordings out to our summer log cabin and sit around for hours listening to them, taking notes. I translate them—I guess that would be the best way to describe it—doing my best to hear what it sounds like I’m saying. Once I’ve transcribed and translated the mumble tracks into words, I look at what I’ve got. The lyrics at that stage are often pretty meaningless and nonsensical—though sometimes they’re not, which is kind of crazy. The second step after translating is to add one more round of editing and shaping so that the final product has some coherency. Usually, there has to be an image in my mind that guides me through the song—some narrative, even when it’s impressionistic or fractured. For me, that visual connection is important—I have to be able to see something to remember it.

The cover of Sukierae (dBpm Records)

I don’t think this is an unprecedented process. Keith Richards has done that on demos for years, and Mick Jagger’s translated his mumbling. I think it’s a pretty common approach. And it works because our brains are wired to make sense of things. If you listen to a mumble, your brain really wants to hear words. You listen to one line at a time, over and over again—well, a lot faster than you think. It’s hard to stop hearing the words. For me, I often get the feeling “That’s obviously what I’m singing there”—which is strange, and wonderful, because no words were intended at all.

I think I’m attached to this process, too, because it keeps me attached to the song in its early state, the way it was before I’d thought it through and figured out what it was. I don’t trust myself to make conscious choices. I trust myself to make stuff and respond to things that I can feel and intuit, but I don’t really trust when the ego gets involved. This way of working means I get to preserve that felt, wordless melody until the very end—and when I do write lyrics, they’re a way of listening and responding to the song, instead of imposing a vision on it. It keeps the observing ego out of the way as much as possible.

For the same reason, those early demo takes can have such magic: They’re closer to the subconscious. That’s why I like to include elements of early recordings on the finished records when I can. Almost every song on Sukierae has the original element somewhere in there. A lot of my iPhone acoustic demos became the basic tracks we overdubbed to, and they’re still there in the finished record. (That’s why we listed the iPhone as an instrument in the track notes.) The song “I’ll Sing It” includes a cassette recording from a Being There-era demo of that song. Stuff lies around forever, and for this record it was fun to make some use of it.

It’s a totally different process working with an ensemble. Wilco is a six-piece band, and its members have varying degrees of interest in the finishing touches. As a collective, we always gravitates towards something much more fully realized—and that’s the pleasure of it. Working on my own, I always hope to abandon something before I feel like I’ve made all of the choices that could be made. If I commit too much to one approach, I mourn all the choices that weren’t made when I get to that point. I think that’s one way Sukierae would have been different if it had been recorded by Wilco. I can still hear possible overdubs on every track, I can still hear things I could have done, and that’s the most enjoyable part for me. It’s the same thing I love about Daniel Johnston’s music—all that unrealized potential.

This may sound strange, but as a person who’s spent a lot of time in the studio, and who’s written a lot of songs, I can hear those finishing touches even when they’re not there. And they’re just as enjoyable as they were. At this point in my life, I can have a certain amount of confidence that I know how to put a record together, that I can make it sound a certain way, and that there are a certain number of people that will respond (or not). But that’s not the part that’s satisfying to me. The part that’s satisfying to me is how it sounds way before that happens, when I can still hear all the different potential pathways that are being laid out.

When a song is still new, it retains a mysterious quality that it’s hard to take ownership of. I’m proudest of my music when I come to a song after the fact and think—how did that happen? It’s a much more enjoyable thing to appreciate something that you made, with some sense that it wasn’t you who made it. Even though I sometimes have feelings of pride when I listen to stuff—you did good Jeff, that’s great—I would rather enjoy my music the way that I enjoy other people’s records. If you don’t let the observing ego get too much in the way, this really can happen. My favorite songs I’ve written move me in a way that I can’t allow myself to claim with pride—it’s as though I didn’t write them.

Writers tend to get pretty mystical and metaphysical about these things. You hear people talking about channeling something like it’s coming through you, or being “given” a song. I think that’s all bullshit. It’s obviously coming from you. But it’s your subconscious. The gift, I think, is the ability to be able to go into your subconscious, come back unscathed, and present something from it.

That going in and coming back again is Daniel Johnston’s gift, what he does best. There’s an added element of mental illness, I think, that makes one feel a little bit uncomfortable discussing it. But basically what comes across, most of all, is this incredible bravery. Bravery in the face of more than most people could bear. For him, I’m assuming there really isn’t another option. Music is the mode of communication that he has found for himself that’s the most conflict-free, the way he can experience aspects of his subconscious and make them palatable or perceivable to someone else.

This is the sustaining and consoling part of what artists do, even the ones who aren’t fighting mental illness. I know that’s the part that most matters to me: being able to disappear into something that’s bigger than you, and returning from it with something to show. Music in general is a thing I’ve disappeared into, as a listener, since I was a little kid. And making my own music takes me to an even richer and deeper place, as far as how it can console me and be a comfort to me.