[Books] How to Write One Song – Jeff Tweedy

To me, showing up with a reliably open heart and a will to share whatever spirit you can muster is what resonates and transcends technical perfection — Jeff Tweedy

Perhaps best known as the frontman and songwriter for alt-country rockers Wilco, Jeff Tweedy has a formidable portfolio as a songwriter. Alongside having written 17 albums for Wilco, he is a former member of—and main songwriter for—Uncle Tupelo and Golden Smog among others; he has released four solo albums to date; and is a long-time collaborator with Mavis Staples, no less, producing and contributing songs to three albums for the gospel legend.

Book cover of 'How to Write One Song' by Jeff Tweedy

Make no mistake: the dude knows how to write a song, and with such a prolific track record, Jeff should be more than qualified to author a book titled How to Write One Song.

From the outset, it’s clear that this is not just another a songwriting manual. It’s all good, practical advice, for sure, but at just 158 pages, How to Write One Song is eminently readable. Jeff is an engaging and personable host, and he knows what he’s talking about. Rather than tell the reader what they should and should not do, this is more an insight into the author’s own experience, and a synthesis of various tips and tricks which work well for him.

The book is comprised of four main parts:

  1. Finding the habit or mindset conducive to everyday creativity, and to losing oneself in it. Being able to “get gone long enough for one song to appear”
  2. Practical exercises to get those songwriting juices flowing, such as “Word Ladder”, “Playing With Rhymes”, and “Don’t Be Yourself”—a surprisingly liberating exercise in writing from the perspective of others
  3. Recommendations for developing as a songwriter, for example learning other people’s songs, and freeing oneself of the constrictive pressure of expectation that everything you write should be good
  4. Bringing it all together by using the outcomes of the exercises, combined with stockpiled words and music, to create and demo a finished song

And there you have it. In Jeff’s words: “To me, that’s ONE song. The one you’ve been working on, the one that’s the goal of writing and reading this book.”

The approach of attempting to write one song, rather than many, is refreshing. Certainly, it makes for a far less daunting proposition to the newcomer than the ambition of becoming an accomplished, prolific songwriter, but moreover:

No one writes songs—plural. They write one song, then another. [What you really want] is to disappear—to watch your concept of time evaporate, to live at least once inside a moment when you aren’t “trying” to do anything or be anything any more…That’s something that doesn’t happen through songs—plural. It happens only when you’ve lost yourself in the process of making one song

Where traditional songwriting manuals tend to focus on the craft of writing, How to Write One Song tacitly acknowledges a duality and perhaps tension in songwriting—-or any creative pursuit—of art versus craft, inspiration vs perspiration. It’s easy to get hung up, assuming that one cannot write a song until inspiration strikes.

That can be kind of a bummer, since inspiration doesn’t always come easy, and rarely can it be forced. Instead the approach here is primarily to remove the obstacles to inspiration. If that means practical steps, such as making sure to pick up a pen or a guitar or a tape recorder every day, or psychological processes such loosening one’s own expectations, to “have a party and not invite any part of your psyche that feels a need to judge what you make as a reflection of yourself”, so be it:

I believe that you have to invite inspiration in. I’ve found that most people who have a fulfilling life in art are, like me, the people who work at it every day…who not only invite inspiration in but also do it on a regular basis. Instead of waiting to be “struck” by inspiration, they put themselves directly in its path.

This is a valuable work and a rarity among “How to” songwriting books, in that the author genuinely gets it, and is more than willing to share it with the reader.

All of which leads inevitably to the question: did I get a song out of it?

Well, no, not yet. It will take time to work through the exercises, for example, not to mention the stockpiling of words and fragments of music, all of which the book recommends. Moreover, it may take a while to come to terms with exploring outside one’s creative comfort zone. Perhaps there’s a follow-up post to be written here at some point [1].

My own procrastination notwithstanding, this is a hugely inspiring and compelling book, and one which does help the reader to feel that they can write a song. Or, if they’ve already written at least one, that they can do it again, and better. Or at least more deliberately.

I use the term “deliberately” because, for my part, How to Write One Song has triggered an interest in addressing the process or, dare I say it, craft of songwriting. Perhaps in previous writing endeavours—about 30 years now—I’ve allowed myself to get hung up on the art. A song had to be totally honest and from the heart: to cure not only my pain, but all the pain in the world. The One True Song, as it were.

A laudable ambition for sure, but where has that got me? Songs that I’ve actually finished in the last decade probably still number in the single figures. I’m reasonably proud of them, but is that what Jeff describes as “a fulfilling life in art”? You decide.

Either way, How to Write One Song will be a valuable companion along the way. It’s one to read again, and probably one to keep on hand at all times, as there are countless valuable ideas in there. A hearty Three Hundred Songs thumbs up from here.


[1] Or, a much better idea, take a look at How to write one song (according to Jeff Tweedy) over on the very useful The Songwriter’s Workshop channel.

Title: How to Write One Song
Author: Jeff Tweedy
Published: Faber & Faber, London, 2020
This Edition: Faber & Faber, London, 2022; paperback

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *