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Jeff Tweedy on Wilco, his new memoir and music’s power to console and inspire

The Wilco leader is coming to town to promote a new memoir 'Let's Go (So We Can Get Back)' and his first solo album, 'WARM.'

Jeff Tweedy. The Wilco leader has a new memoir 'Let's Go (So We Can Get Back)' and a new solo album, 'Warm.' He's at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Thursday.
Jeff Tweedy. The Wilco leader has a new memoir 'Let's Go (So We Can Get Back)' and a new solo album, 'Warm.' He's at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Thursday.Read moreWhitten Sabbatini

Jeff Tweedy is on the phone from the Loft, his rock band Wilco's Chicago headquarters, which he calls "the magical recording studio/bunkhouse that I dreamed about while watching The Monkees."

That description is found in Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), Tweedy's new work of nonfiction, subtitled A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. The book will bring him to the Parkway Central Library in Philadelphia on Thursday.

On Nov. 30, the 51-year-old father of two and Dad Rock godhead will put out WARM, an aptly titled, acoustic-guitar-centered record of uncharacteristically autobiographical songs.

It's the first album for Tweedy under his first and last names. (Sukierae, the 2014 album titled after wife Sue Miller's nickname, features his son Spencer on drums and was credited to family band Tweedy.)

Let's Go's title comes from a favorite phrase used by Tweedy's late father, Bob, that betrayed his anxiety about leaving the house. That hereditary uneasiness courses through the book, as Tweedy details a battle with an opioid addiction that, at his lowest, led him to steal morphine from his cancer patient mother-in-law.

Tweedy, who grew up across the Mississippi from St. Louis in Belleville, Ill., might seem too young or just too normal to be authoring a career-spanning tell-all rock memoir. And there is little that's scandalous in the book. But after getting off to a goofy start, Let's Go settles in with affable virtues that match Tweedy's.

It's engaging and self-questioning, whether focusing on his relationship with Jay Farrar, his partner in the alt-country punk band Uncle Tupelo (whom Tweedy paints as a talented, humorless "grim protector of music's sanctity") or chronicling his ongoing musical adventures with Wilco, who plan to get back to recording and touring in 2019.

» READ MORE: which have been published in the New Yorker.

I think art is a great consolation in general. And music seems to have that ability more than any other art form. There's something consoling about feeling you've been recognized.

When some piece of art feels like it was made just for you, or you can respond to it in a way that is so particular to what you need in that moment, there's almost a sense of being seen.

I think that's extremely important for people. I see it in heavy metal kids and K-pop kids. People that find their music find their people. And themselves through that music.

To me, that's maybe the lowest bar you should shoot for, maybe making anything, is to hopefully be honest enough that it can provide some consolation. I think the highest aspiration is that you can make somebody crazy to make something.

You put it succinctly: “Creating creates creators.”

Something like that. [Laughs] I thought that sentence would get edited out.

It would have  saved only three words.

It's true. The greatest achievement of almost any work of art is that people continue to make art. It perpetuates itself and regenerates. And when people have the impulse to create, I think they have a lot tougher time subscribing to philosophies that require destruction.

You tell a story about doing art therapy when you were in rehab. You write, “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was watching a catatonic 63-year-old woman who had been hooked on heroin for close to thirty years become human again by holding a pencil and being asked to draw.”

It was the first time she had held a pencil, she claimed, in years. And that simple act of making something that wasn't there before was profound.

When you started writing songs, you write that you had “a bone crushing earnestness, a weaponized sincerity.” You realized that “my comfort level with being vulnerable is probably my superpower.”

There are parts of me that aren't confident. I don't feel like there's any point for anybody to deny those weaknesses. Especially as a dad or a parent. … I don't feel like it's unique at all to be sad or deal with depression. All of those things are just extremely common and typical. And I think we've bulls- each other enough.

Was it easy to get to not worry about screwing up when it came to writing a book? You’ve written a lot of songs, you’re pretty good at that. But writing 300 pages of prose is a different deal.

A rock memoir is pretty low stakes. I don't know if I felt an enormous amount of pressure to blow the lid off the genre. That being said, I really like literature. I like books. And I did my best to write in a clear way what I wanted to say. The only way I think I would have failed was if I wasn't honest.

Did you have things you want to set straight, say about Jay Farrar or Jay Bennett [who played a key role in Wilco and died of a fentanyl overdose in 2009]?

I didn't have an ax to grind with anybody. To the contrary, I felt like it was an opportunity to tell some positive stories about how much those guys mean to me. I don't think I've ever been asked once since Uncle Tupelo, 'Tell me something fun you and Jay [Farrar] did.' It's just not the narrative. So I enjoyed that part of it.

I interviewed you when you played the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 2010 and called you a “serial collaborator.” Is that right? You’ve teamed with a lot of people, from the Jays to Jim O’Rourke [on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born] to three albums with Mavis Staples.

I've actually been doing a lot in the past five or six years that's primarily been me making all the music. Most of the last few Wilco albums have been done that way. So in that sense, I've been working more in a solitary fashion than I ever have. I love working with other people. I love making records with Mavis. Music is a social endeavor. There's nothing that quite feels like that, when you share the intimacy of making music with another person.

In Let’s Go, you say the songs on WARM are the first ones you’ve written that express “exactly what I’d like to say directly to someone. What I would like to say to you.” What took you so long?

I'm already kind of recoiling from the notion that it's the first time I've ever been this direct, even though I wrote that. I'm trying to put my finger on what feels different about this material.  It's probably proximity to writing the book that makes it feel more open and outward-looking. There are some things of me directly looking straight at the listener, and then — object permanence — I disappear again.

You write that songs are ruined for you in a sense once they’re done and you can’t work on them anymore.

Of course, music doesn't really exist until you put it out in the world. But I prefer to stay in the head space of having a lot of material around that I'm still working on, where it's still mine and it still has potential. And it's still someplace to disappear, really.

Is music as consolation particularly needed now, when there’s so much rage out there? There was a show last month in San Francisco where a fan provoked you by yelling out “Kavanaugh!”

That guy was trolling. He was intentionally reminding people of something that had upset them that day. … I don't like being angry on stage. Anger is not an emotion that is easy to get rid of. And I was happy to be able to get rid of it fast enough that I could finish the show and get back to a place where people were singing along, and it was a communal environment. That was important, and it's always important. Maybe more so now than ever.


Jeff Tweedy at the Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine St., 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Auditorium is sold out, in-house simulcast available. Admission includes the book. $33. 215-686-5322.