Book Review | ‘How to Write One Song’ by Jeff Tweedy
Wilco’s Great Songwriter Shares a Few Tips for Aspiring Writers
How to Write One Song is an okay book by a great songwriter. Unlike the carefully crafted lyrics of Tweedy’s songs for his band Wilco, the prose in How to Write One Song often feels more like a daily journal entry. It’s intentionally casual — you could imagine it as a transcription of some of the thoughts Tweedy has poured into the beloved digital recorder on his phone. However, after a while, the off-the-cuff tone can be somewhat deadening.
To be clear, this is a book for near or absolute beginners. If you have written songs before, you may find some inspiration in the book, but Tweedy’s audience is the person who has always felt like they had a song in them but didn’t know how to bring it out into the world. For that person, this book is a worthwhile read.
The first section is devoted to encouraging people to get off the fence and actually give songwriting a try. Among Tweedy’s most persistent pieces of advice are to consistently carve out time to try and write a song — even if it’s just a few minutes a day — and to keep pushing past the inevitable self-criticism until you finish the song.
Part II consists of seven short chapters made up of exercises for coming up with song lyrics. Some of these exercises may look familiar to creative writers — “Stealing Words from a Book,” “Cut-Up Techniques,” “Playing with Rhymes”— and this section should be especially useful to songwriters hoping to move past the clichés endemic to early efforts at writing lyrics.
Part III is about the music half of the craft, and Tweedy acknowledges the difficulty here: “Since we’re talking about music, and since I don’t read or write music (and even if I did, I don’t think it would be fair to assume that you have that ability), this is quite a bit harder to write about than how I go about collecting lyrics.” Among his tips are humming, mumbling the words to a nascent melody, learning songs by other artists, playing a single string on the guitar or a using a single finger on the keyboard, and stealing other people’s chord progressions, which isn’t quite as egregious in the world of rock and country as it might sound.
Those hoping for consistent insights into the composition of their favorite Uncle Tupelo or Wilco songs will mostly be disappointed. There are some brief but specific stories about the songs Tweedy has written himself, but there’s a lot more generalizing, and a ton of insistence on the power of positive thinking.
Indeed, the persona Tweedy presents is far from the difficult rock star we might imagine. He’s kind, forgiving, and endlessly encouraging. If you were just starting out, and you had a songwriting teacher, you’d want it to be Tweedy. For that reason, How to Write One Song would make a great gift for the songwriter-to-be in your life. Most everyone else, however, would probably be better off listening to Tweedy’s own inventive, wonderful songs.
This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books
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