Jeff Tweedy finds a kindred spirit in soul legend Mavis Staples, survives the dunk tank

Jeff Tweedy is a busy man. In between one of Wilco's many tours, he produced (and wrote two songs for) Mavis Staples' forthcoming album, You Are Not Alone. He joined the soul legend onstage at Lollapalooza and at the recent, Wilco-curated Solid Sound Festival in North Adams, Massachusetts. The two-day event took place at the contemporary art museum MASS MOCA and featured music, art, comedy and film. Solid Sound also included performances from all of Wilco's associated side projects (such as On Fillmore, the duo of Glenn Kotche and local Darin Gray), Wilco itself and Tweedy solo. We checked in with the Belleville, Illinois, native via phone, four days after Solid Sound.

Annie Zaleski: Have you recovered from the Solid Sound Festival yet?

Jeff Tweedy: Yeah, I think I have. It was definitely more exhausting than I anticipated. [laughs]

Jeff Tweedy: He’s thowing some heat on and off the ball field.
Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Jeff Tweedy: He’s thowing some heat on and off the ball field.

In what way?

I'm used to conserving energy all day long for a Wilco performance and not really doing that much other than maybe going for a hike or something. [laughs] These days were pretty full with meeting other bands and seeing other bands — you know, full, long days of hoping everybody's happy. And I had to get in the dunk tank, too, so that really wore me out.

Did your jacket survive? There are all sorts of YouTube videos up already about [you in the dunk tank].

Yeah, it's fine. We just set it out in the sun and it dried, it's fine. It's polyester, so those things are pretty durable. Thanks for asking.

That was the one video I saw, you were very concerned about the jacket.[laughs]

Oh yeah. [laughs] Well, I was just trying to get people to not throw too hard.

Was there any performance that really stood out to you, that you were really impressed by, or you really liked?

There were a lot of things I really enjoyed — I thought the Books performance was really, really great. I'm a big fan of the band and I'd never been able to see them live before. I was excited about that. Mass MOCA itself, that was really impressive — [it has] a lot of beautiful stuff on display. I really enjoyed the Sol LeWitt retrospective that they had. All the way across the board, it went better than we really could have hoped for.

How did you originally meet Mavis Staples? I'm excited about this record, and I wanted to know how it came about.

Well, we both live here in Chicago, and I think it was kind of put together from her management and my management kind of being in cahoots. [laughs] They tried to organize it, or arrange it, so we would get to meet and hang out, and the concept — I'm not sure where it came from, I think it maybe came from Mavis' manager, that I maybe help her out with picking some songs and maybe writing some songs together. That seemed like a really fun idea — I didn't really anticipate being brought on board as a full-blown producer, but once we started working on it, that's what it turned into. It turned out great — it was a really, really great time. Obviously, she's...I don't know what I could say that doesn't pale in comparison to what she's really like. She's a pretty incredible person and [it's] quite an honor to get to spend as much time with her as I've been able to.

I read an interview with her in USA Today, and she talked about how you came over to her house, and you guys really bonded — like over family and stuff. She seems like an amazing person — I guess that's a vast understatement.

She's an unstoppable ball of positive energy.

As a producer, what did you bring to the process? What was your role, what kinds of things did you tell her?

I picked all of the material on the record; I wrote songs for her; I helped arrange everything. It was a pretty hands-on kind of production job, I would say. We worked with her band that she's been touring with, and that was really important, because they're really awesome. It was all new material for them, so I helped them sort through those songs as well. I don't know — basically I just tried to make things as easy for Mavis as possible, to just be there and sing and make a record that she wanted to make. You do a lot of stuff to try and make sure that at the end of the day, you're really kind of invisible. [laughs] I really didn't want to be in the way.

I saw a video that Anti- Records [Staples' label] put up [featuring Tweedy and Staples talking about the project], and it's obvious she has so much respect for you, and you have so much respect for her. That was really cool to see.

She's been saying so many nice things about me, I told her she was going to ruin her credibility.

[laughs] Do you see yourself doing anything like this in the future? This kind of project reminded me of what Joe Henry has done with a lot of awesome legends.

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