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

Aug 25, 2010 at 4:00 am

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]

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.

If I can find someone who's going to make me look as good as Mavis Staples, yeah, I think I'll probably do it again.

As a musician, what sorts of things did you take away from the experience? Can you see it affecting any of the music you make, personally, in the future?

Yeah, I'm sure it will, I just don't know exactly how. I do know that as a listener, I really like being able to experience making music with somebody when I've listened to their records a lot. To be able to stand in the room with someone that you have listened to a lot coming through your stereo speakers, I think helps you as a listener, which helps you as a musician to be able to hear deeper into records. It's easier for me to picture what actually happened in the studio, what actually is a part of the recording artifice, when you get to experience something in person. I've been fortunate enough to see some of that with other heroes of mine, and it always adds to your ability to hear deeper into records. That's really the only way I can put it. That's one of my great passions my whole life, is wanting to be deeper inside of records [laughs] and loving them. I feel very fortunate to get to spend time with someone like that.

That's good the mystique isn't broken once you hear about it. There are certain musicians I admire where I'm like, "I never want to meet them and I never want to interview them," because if they don't live up to expectations, I'd be disappointed.

Even if the mystique is broken a little bit, to me that's all a part of it. It's still beautiful. I think everybody — even the most brilliant person on Earth that's ever made records — I don't know, even Bob Dylan, I think it's really good for you to realize that there is a mystique. And to see what the difference is, what the separation is between the magic of it and just being a person. To me, that makes you closer allows you to feel closer to that power, that ability to make something magic. At least for myself, as a person who makes records too, I like knowing that there's flaws there, that it isn't all, they wake up in the morning and they shit out a fucking masterpiece. [laughs] I want to know that they work for it, and that there's also parts of it that are out of their hands. That's what I'm talking about — that's beautiful.

That's humanity; that's awesome. I was really excited when you worked with Neil Finn on the 7 Worlds Collide project, because I'm such a huge Crowded House fan. I can't imagine going to New Zealand and working with him — it just blows my mind, because I love their music so much.

And he's not going to blow your mystique in any negative way — he's just the nicest guy in the world and a really sweet person. But he cracks a few notes here and there, just like everybody else. That's actually one of the things that I've learned separates people that make good records from people that have trouble making good records. People that make good records are always going for it in a way that they're more likely to crack a note, they're more likely to fail. I mean, Woody Guthrie...I got to work with Nora [Guthrie, Woody's daughter] and the archives on the Mermaid Avenue records. He wrote the stupidest stuff in the world down, because he wasn't inhibited by a really fascistic, overseeing ego. He was able to transcend that part of himself that was telling him he's saying something stupid. [laughs] At the end of the day, he ended up with things that most people can't get to.

I have that trouble as a writer. If I write something and I'm like, "This is dumb," I'm like, "Okay, I'm just not going to come back to it." It takes courage to do something like that, as an artist.

It takes courage, and to be reminded that no one was ever hurt by a bad sentence. [laughs] A bad record's not going to kill anybody. It's really all going to be just so unlikely for it to have any kind of impact like that. It's all just so much straw, as they say.

When you play those [Guthrie] songs live solo, have they taken on any different meanings for you, the more and more you perform them?

I mean, I feel very connected to them. Every song evolves as you evolve, as you become older, as you become more experienced. I don't know, everything kind of transfers...I have trouble remembering that I didn't write those songs, the lyrics, sometimes, because they've become such a deep part of me and what I've been able to express. I don't know; they just seem like they've always been there at this point.

After you guys tour in September, what are your plans for the rest of the year?

I personally am doing a few things here and there with Mavis, especially cause her record comes out in September. When I get back [from tour], I'll do a few promotional things with her. Then we're going to be recording. I really think for the forseeable future, Wilco's going to be spending a lot of time at home in Chicago making music and recording music. I think most of the fall and winter will be spent hanging pretty close to home and getting down to business.

You guys deserve a break, to say the least.

It's been a pretty intense year. We've definitely put more shows closer together than we have since maybe Being There or something.