Write a Song with Jeff Tweedy

Jeff Tweedy, of the band Wilco, shared three things he does everyday to help him write the great songs that he is known for.

First, he stockpiles words, language, and lyrics by doing exercises like freewriting , writing poems , refining , and revising.

He also stockpiles music, songs, and parts of songs by “making demo recordings, practicing , learning other people’s songs , and writing parts for songs in progress .”

Finally, he pairs words and music by “writing lyrics to a melody and searching for matches between stockpiled demos and lyric sets , poems , and freewriting.”

And he does all three on a daily basis.

“On most days I manage to get all three checked off to some degree without much of a struggle. But I feel generally satisfied and that I’ve maintained my work ethic even when I’m only able to knock one off the list. It doesn’t take much: If you keep it up for any length of time , you are going to accumulate a lot of material for songs, even if you’re able to set only five to ten minutes a day.”

Here are a few more tips from his great book, Write One Song.

“Come up with ten verbs that are associated with, say, a physician, and write them down on a page. Then write down ten nouns that are within your field of vision. Now take a pencil and draw lines to connect nouns and verbs that don’t normally work together. I like to use this exercise not so much to generate a set of lyrics but to remind myself how much fun I can have with words when I’m not concerning myself with meaning or judging my poetic abilities.”

This would be a great activity for teachers to try in the classroom. This next one, not so much.

“Stealing words from a book . . . I swear it can be really helpful when you find yourself mining a tired vein of your normal vocabulary. Think of a melody . . . it doesn’t have to be your own for learning this process. Open up a book anywhere, any page, and keep humming the melody to you over the surface of the words on the page and focus your attention on the melody. If you can get in the right frame of mind , words will jump out and attach themselves to the melody. Highlight (literally, with a highlighter, if you can) those words, and keep moving until you’ve collected a cache of words that potentially sound right in the context of your melody. . . Again, this might take some trial and error before it becomes helpful. I like this exercise a lot because it puts my ego securely in the backseat, far away from the steering wheel, and forces me to surrender to a process that puts language / words in front of my creative path and I’m free to find them as though they’ve come from somewhere else, because they have. So I feel more free to react with surprise and passion or cold indifference than I am able to when my intellect begins treating my lyrical ideas like precious jewels.”

Although he does add this caveat.

“I think anything left unchanged (choruses , riffs , etc.) should always be credited. I think it’s always important to share your inspirations when given the opportunity. But that still leaves an enormous world of musical ideas to inspire and integrate into your own ideas.”

Writing songs is a powerful thing that we all have access to.

“We have thousands of years of evidence that songs help us live and cope, and they teach us how to be human. Becoming a part of the continuation of that rich human activity is all up to you. An endless flowing river of song. And you get to add your voice.”

So read the rest of this book, or just the two posts I’ve made about it, and go write your own song!