Wilco Are Still Here Because They "Were Willing to Risk Things"

Jeff Tweedy discusses new album 'Cousin,' producer Cate Le Bon, and "putting myself in the path of some inspiration"

Photo: Peter Crosby

BY Gen HandleyPublished Sep 28, 2023

"It's all about connection," Jeff Tweedy says of his multifaceted career.

This is evident in the intimate books he has penned, as well as his Substack newsletter, Starship Casual, where he interacts with his readers on very honest, filter-free levels. It's clear in this interview that he seems happy to be doing. It's obvious in his work as the charismatic singer and guitarist for Wilco, who have built up an unpredictable and extolled discography over the past 29 years as a faithful force in indie rock and alt-country.

"I think it's rooted in some desire to feel the world and feel each other — to uncover an authentic world that is often hidden by an artificial one," he says during a Zoom call from Wilco's legendary Loft studio in Chicago.

Always challenging expectations and boundaries, Wilco are releasing their 13th record, Cousin, on September 29, only 16 months after they released last year's Cruel Country. Tweedy started writing the new album before the pandemic, but Wilco were "detoured" by Cruel Country, allowing this follow-up to come together at its own pace. 

"It felt good to kind of vibe this record and give it some time," he says. "It just takes time with a record like this, when you're looking for sonic landscapes and looking to break through to some ideal version of a song, recording-wise."

And the sonic landscapes they discovered comprise a beautiful album that reminds listeners why Wilco are a band so difficult to place in a particular box or genre. These songs have the band playing again with synths and fuzz and harmonies, reaching deeper emotions via Tweedy's relatable words and the musicianship of a group of artists who collectively push the boundaries of what a rock band can be. On Cousin, the boundaries of the beaten sonic path are challenged thanks in part to Welsh artist Cate Le Bon, whom Tweedy became friends with over the years.

"I love the sensibilities of her records," he explains about why she was chosen to produce Cousin. "We did get to be friends over the last few years or so, and she and her band have used the Loft for rehearsals, and she did a song for the Wilco cover album [2019's Wilco Covered], of 'Company in My Bank.' She recorded it here at the Loft and she used [long-time Wilco producer] Tom Schick and our gear here, and I really loved the sound she got out of it and the arrangement was so imaginative. That was the first time I thought, 'It would be really fun to work together.'"

In addition to a new record, Tweedy is also releasing his third book, World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music, a contemplation of songs that gave him "permission" to be creative and be himself. Always prolific and writing, the father of two says song ideas are always around him — he just needs to push the creative ball a little bit to get it rolling.

"I come up with ideas by not thinking of anything to write about and just freewriting," he reveals. "When I do get an inspiring notion about what a song can be, I'm pretty good at documenting that. But, for the most part, the ideas just come from picking up a guitar or a pencil, so to speak, and just putting myself in the path of some inspiration that might come by starting."

For nearly 30 years, this process has more than worked, resulting in a body of work and reputation that every band strives for and dreams about.

"Part of the reason I think we're still here is because we were willing to risk things based on the belief in ourselves that we were good and could make an audience happy," he says with a smile. "There's a deep sense of gratitude that we still get to do it, and beyond that, at a level where we're allowed to do it and get to travel the way we travel."

He continues, "Thirty years is a long stretch for any band, and an even longer stretch for a band that hasn't had as many peaks and valleys. The band has kind of been on this consistent plane for a long time, which is pretty miraculous. We don't take that for granted."

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