Photo: Annabel Mehren
Jeff Tweedy's Blurred Emotions: Wilco’s Leader On 'Cruel Country' & Songwriting As Discovery
"I'm trying to open myself up enough to see what's inside me," Jeff Tweedy says about Wilco’s 'Cruel Country.' "I'm just full of country songs and folk songs."
With their 1994 debut album, A.M., Wilco accrued the "country" genre tag; for their latest album, they teased a full-chested embrace of it. "Wilco goes Country!" they announced; after famously swerving around the genre for almost 30 years with drone sculptures, Dadaist poeticism and motorik meltdowns, it was time to drink straight from the bottle, as it were.
But if you think about this multifarious band for a few moments, it was obvious that Cruel Country wouldn't — couldn't — have been as one-note as Wilco implied it would be.
The tongue-in-cheek lead single, "Falling Apart (Right Now)," offered zero foreshadowing of the aerodynamic suite "Bird Without a Tail / Base of my Skull." Or the heart-in-throat ballad "The Universe," which unfurls into the celestial "Many Worlds." Or the poppy "Hearts Hard to Find" — which is practically destined to remain in setlists as a swoony sing-along, on par with classics like "California Stars."
No, Cruel Country, which was released May 27, isn't strictly a country album — it adheres to the form more as a North Star than as a hard-and-fast requisite. What binds these songs more profoundly than their stylistic conceit is Jeff Tweedy's songwriting — which frequently explores how seemingly opposed human emotions commingle and inform each other.
"My experience of my own emotions is that they all interact," Tweedy tells GRAMMY.com over the phone. "They aren't individual, isolated things that you experience one at a time, and I think that's a really beautiful thing about being alive."
Hence, a song like "Tonight's the Day.""Between good and bad/ And what is true/ Between happy and sad/ I choose you," Tweedy sings: "Between hard and easy/ Surrender and escape/I heard you say/ There is no way/ It's the only way." Meanwhile, drummer Glenn Kotche plays pensively — like he's chewing on a heavy thought, weighing two equal and opposing truths.
Because of how Tweedy's brain works, he can tread a seemingly limitless breadth of philosophical territory — like the vast American horizons evoked in Cruel Country.
As a lifelong student of folk and country music dating back to pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo (and before), Tweedy's songs seem to fill the air, ground and water; every leaf he turns over might reveal a new tune, however strange and oblong.
"I do look at the act of writing songs as discovery as much as composition," Tweedy reflects. "It's like finding stones on the beach or something. They all have a certain value, if you're into looking at them… I get into a certain state of mind, and think to myself: I wonder what song I'm going to sing today."
Whatever might follow Cruel Country is bound to be interesting, at the very least. Comparing Wilco’s upcoming material to the new album, he says it's like "somebody dropped a weird shape into the desert." (The monolith from 2001 comes to mind — an unexpected, futuristic structure in what was thought to be a vast, unbroken plain.)
Until then, this double album, which is loosely conceptualized around the subject of America, is worth repeated communion — every spin of its commentary on messy democracy, westward expansion and philosophical contradiction will reveal something new. Especially when Cruel Country deals with human emotions — which, like the United States, can't be easily compartmentalized.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Tweedy about the process behind writing and recording Cruel Country and why he saw a rare form of communal love in lockdown-era society.
He also discussed Wilco's recent triage of surprise sets at Carol's Pub in Chicago, the band's hometown, where they played cuts from the album as well as Americana classics.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How was the Carol's Pub show? Did it engender a different sort of satisfaction than a typical Wilco show?
[Chuckles] It was really awesome. A fun, fun night.
We love playing, and we love getting to play in these beautiful theaters and festival stages and all the different places we get to play. But we very, very rarely get to play the way I think music was intended to be heard, you know?
The shows that mean the most to me in my life have been the shows I've seen in small clubs — just having that visceral connection, and being able to hear the instruments coming off the stage, and not just through the PA. There's just nothing like that kind of connection.
You can make a communal experience in any room, and you can make a big spectacle — arena shows, everything has their place, and music is an incredible force for good. But, in my opinion, nothing ever sounds quite as good as the way it sounds in a small room.
The sheer capacity of a giant venue might lend itself to a sort of passivity between the artist and crowd. I'm sure you get to touch more of an active force in a smaller room.
Yeah. I mean, the stage is low. You're almost eye-to-eye with the audience. I feel like you can hear people listening in a different way. The movement in the audience becomes more a part of how the band's playing. It's just a much more immediate give-and-take, I think.
Can you touch on some of the covers you performed, starting with Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You"? What does that tune mean to you guys?
I've done that song a couple of times; I opened up a couple of acoustic shows with it one time. The Tweedy band — when I do shows with [sons] Spencer and Sammy, and our friends — we've done it maybe once or twice.
I just love the way it opens up a set. This message of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" is, obviously, not what the song's about, but it's a nice thing to say to an audience. I think it's a nice introduction to a set.
How about the Tom T. Hall song "That's How I Got to Memphis"?
[Chuckles] That's just a great song. Something we just started playing in our dressing-room jam room, so we just threw it in the set.
One more: the Grateful Dead's "U.S. Blues," which I'm actually not that familiar with.
Deadheads are sure familiar with it. Boy, it really highlights and underlines the people in the audience who have that vocabulary [laughs]. When we play that song, it's amazing. There's a fair amount of crossover with our fans, it seems like.
When we kicked into that song the first time we did it, in an encore, I don't know if I've ever seen a reaction like that from such a sizable portion from the audience.
[Wilco guitarist] Nels [Cline] and I played a show with Phil Lesh and Friends; we were invited to do this festival set with them in Chicago. They wanted me to sing some Dead songs, and I picked a few that I felt like I could do well. That was one of them.
And then, when we got back to the Wilco tour, Nels and I were playing it in the dressing room again. It just sounded like something that fit in with the lyrics of Cruel Country; it has a similar commentary on the brokenness of the community.
And musically, it felt right in our wheelhouse, so we just kept playing it. It's fun.
To get into Cruel Country, I love that you waited months to play this show and open up to the press a little bit. Was this in an effort to let fans sit with the album for a while, to give it some space?
I think it's more just the reality of how Wilco operates. We're not super-concerned with album cycles. We [didn't] have the physical record to sell, or anything like that. We wanted to put the record out at our festival [Solid Sound], so we did it digitally.
It's probably not the best business decision, but it's the best artistic decision to just have these new songs and new material to play, and have people know what it is, because we like playing it.
We have another release this year; that's an archival release. We've done some stuff with that, but mostly, we're just out playing the songs that fit in with what we feel like playing right now.
When I watched you do an interview on camera at the Loft a few years ago, you were talking about how human emotions can't be neatly compartmentalized — you can be sad-hopeful, or pensive-hopeful, or happy-concerned.
It seems like Cruel Country's songs mutually gnaw at these nuanced psychological concepts. Was that something you were thinking about during the writing process? Is that partly why they swim in the same tank?
Well, I certainly think it's part of a broader philosophy of making music that feels honest to me. It generally involves blurring the lines a little bit in that regard; a song that's entirely joyous generally feels even more joyous to me if there's a little bit of darkness allowed into it — just as a reminder, or something.
I think that's the way life works. My experience of my own emotions is that they all interact. They aren't individual, isolated things that you experience one at a time, and I think that's a really beautiful thing about being alive. You can have a thought of mortality at the same time you're having a hot dog at a baseball game. [Laughs]
Can you talk about the song "Ambulance" a little bit? It's presented as this harrowing, autobiographical story, but I'm reluctant to take that at face value. I'd rather ask you about it.
Well, it's nothing autobiographical. Certainly, not literally. I was just trying to intuit a different scenario where there's some redemption for all of us. As a person that's an addict and in recovery, I think a lot about all the different paths that people take to getting healthier, and in some cases, I'm really relieved and grateful that I didn't experience more suffering.
At the same time, I'm pretty sure I suffered enough, [laughs] you know?
I'm not sure if this is intentional, but to me, "All Across the World" so succinctly captures the post-pandemic, post-Trump presidency milieu. So many people I deal with are trying to be functional and happy and return to normalcy, but there's a shell-shocked look in their eyes. Is that in the ballpark of what you were going for?
I mean, the way I feel is that one of the things everyone is really struggling with is being immediately presented with the world's suffering upon requesting it. At any given moment during any day, we have more access to the lives and struggles of the globe, and the fears and concerns of everybody, everywhere.
Modern social media has provided us with what conceivably could be a really good thing — that we're more tuned in to each other in a way that you hope would present an opportunity to unite in some common understanding that we're all doing our best, and we're all pointing toward the future with the hope that it's better — or good.
So far, we haven't really evolved to that. The thing I think we have evolved to is that it's emotionally overwhelming, and most people have a difficult time processing all of that. Instead of talking about solutions and ways to problem-solve all of this suffering and awareness of global concerns, it's much easier to find people to blame.
That seems to be where we're stuck. So, in my mind, that song is kind of about, at the same time, being aware of all the things that I'm glad that I'm not experiencing. For example: just say a hurricane — whatever it is. Being aware of it, and finding some negativity to add to it doesn't help anyone.
It's like "putting your oxygen mask on, first thing" — that's a pretty succinct analogy to the way I think you kind of have to live right now.
I think it's important to converge your ability to be inspired, your ability to be joyous, and your ability to give a beautiful thing to the world, and hope for the best — and do everything you can to alleviate the suffering that you can have an immediate impact on.
I'm really moved by "The Universe." The impression I get is that it would seem it would take your whole life to write that song. What led you to write that one?
Not to give you a super-long answer, again, for a song that's, like, three minutes long. I don't know if all of what I just said is contained in "All Across the World," but that's what the thought process is that leads to a song like that. Same thing for "The Universe" and "Many Worlds."
At the beginning of the pandemic, one of the things that made me a little hopeful was the idea that, in a really fractured society that doesn't tend to share a lot of experiences across the board, we were all going through something similar. At least there was a similar fear being expressed around the world.
I think the opportunity was mostly squandered by leaders around the world not acknowledging it. Some places did better than others. But I felt moved by the idea that movie stars and presidents and dishwashers and trash collectors — everyone across the board — was basically navigating this one topic.
Whereas, for most of my life, I don't remember there being a single topic that you could guarantee everyone was at least somewhat aware of. It just underlined and highlighted a belief that we've maybe all expressed at some point — that we're all kind of in this together.
That was just made completely visible in that moment — in these moments that are still continuing, I guess, but it's definitely not the way it was at the beginning.
Probably, the thing that probably most inspired it was: early in the pandemic, when things were really shut down, I took a drive with my kids, and the highways were completely empty around Chicago. It seemed like a really powerful moment of love. There was enough concern for each other that people were actually adhering to these public health guidelines.
It wasn't like, "Oh my god; everyone's being controlled by the government." It was more like, "OK, everybody gets it — at least enough to know this is what needs to be done right now." I found that really beautiful.
"Story to Tell" seems to exist hand-in-hand with "Darkness is Cheap," in the sense that it deals with notions of sticky narratives, of gripping tales, of plundering or killing yourself to be legendary. Which is obviously so pervasive in rock 'n' roll lore. What were you trying to impart with that first one?
I think we hear about it a lot in the art and music worlds, because of the pervasiveness around tortured artists and creators and the connection between that type of suffering and creativity.
But I don't think that there's any market being cornered by [laughs] a musician on that particular topic, because I know a lot of people who don't make songs or art in my life that have caused themselves needless suffering — almost as a way to create what they feel like is a real life. To not feel numb or alienated.
I think at one point, when I was younger, it did feel like I wouldn't have anything to write about of value to anybody if I wasn't in pain. And that's nonsense, and everybody should know it's nonsense.
The last one I want to touch on is "Country Song Upside-down." The melody just seems to fall out of your guitar and voice, and it comports with what I imagine the Cruel Country sessions were like — just grabbing country songs out of the air.
We have a place in Michigan that's a little bit more secluded in the woods. We call it "the cabin." That's what that song makes me think of.
I do look at the act of writing songs as discovery as much as composition. In fact, I'm much more comfortable with the idea — not that I'm opening myself up as a conduit to the universe or something like that; I don't necessarily believe in that.
I just think that I'm trying to open myself up enough to see what's inside me, clearly. To discover something I didn't know I wanted to say. And that's just what I'm full of. [Laughs] I'm just full of country songs and folk songs.
It's what I've listened to the most in my life, or something. I'm not tired of them, either. It's like finding stones on the beach or something. They all have a certain value, if you're into looking at them, you know? That's how I feel.
It's a much less judging state of mind — just pretty thrilled at the idea that, to keep with the analogy, that maybe I'm going to find a really good, flat stone to toss out on the lake.
Wilco. Photo: Anton Coene
Stepping away from your songwriting a little bit, can you talk about your bandmates' MVP moments on Cruel Country? I think of Glenn on "Tonight's the Day"; I can't imagine any other drum part on the song than the one he played.
Oh, yeah. That, and I think Pat really has a lot of breakout moments on this record, where he gets to play more guitar than I think he's ever played on a Wilco record. It just colors the whole record in a really beautiful way.
It's like a tapestry, or something — the way he and Nels started figuring out how to interact with each other. It's like an audible commune, you know? [Chuckles]
The band as a whole is really visible on this record, or really audible — partially, or mostly, because of the nature of recording it all in the same room, at the same time. We've made a lot of records in a lot of different ways, but it's been a while since we've done that.
We've played a lot of music together since the last time we did it, and that's what I hear when I hear this record.
People think of musicians and bands as being these static things — they got to a certain point where they were good enough to be heard and put out records. The way I look at it, almost all the bands and musicians I'm interested in and care about feel like they never quite got there — and they continue to grow, and continue to aspire to find out more of what it is they're capable of.
It's along the same lines as the songwriting concepts I was discussing. It's really, really gratifying to feel like you got a little bit better at something. And as a band, it's really gratifying to feel like we made something that we very, very profoundly, deeply know we couldn't have made five years ago, without all the miles that we've traveled together in between.
What can you reveal about the eventual follow-up to Cruel Country?
I don't know if the style of recording is going to change that much, but the types of songs — it's a collection of songs that really wouldn't fit into the Cruel Country landscape.
Maybe they would! They'll definitely fit in live. But it's going to be more like somebody dropped a weird shape into the desert, or something.
It's the furthest-out, striving kind of material for the band — striving for a new shape, striving for something that's exciting to us, that we don't feel like we've heard before. Definitely, something we don't think we heard ourselves play before.
Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage.com
Wilco Announce Sky Blue Sky Fest To Take Place In Mexico
"12 years ago on this very day @wilco released their sixth studio album, 'Sky Blue Sky.' Fast forward a decade and change as the band turns towards an exciting new adventure," a post on Instagram said
Alt-rock greats Wilco have announced a new destination music festival named after their sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky.
The Sky Blue Sky fest will take place in Mexico's Hard Rock Hotel in the Riviera Maya Jan. 18–22, 2020. The lineup will include sets from Wilco, Jeff Tweedy, a solo Courtney Barnett, Sharon Van Etten, Kamasi Washington, Yo La Tengo and more.
Wilco said they will only play three of the four nights in a post on Instagram.
"12 years ago on this very day @wilco released their sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky. Fast forward a decade and change as the band turns towards an exciting new adventure. We proudly present Wilco's Sky Blue Sky, an intimate concert vacation in Riviera Maya, Mexico!" the band said in the post.
All-inclusive tickets will be available May 22 at 12 p.m. ET. For more information, visit the Sky Blue Sky website.
Jay Z Tops 56th GRAMMY Nominations With Nine
Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Justin Timberlake, and Pharrell Williams earn seven nods each; other top nominees include Daft Punk, Drake, Lorde, Bruno Mars, and Taylor Swift
Nominations for the 56th GRAMMY Awards were announced tonight by The Recording Academy and reflected one of the most diverse years with the Album Of The Year category alone representing the rap, pop, country and dance/electronica genres, as determined by the voting members of The Academy. Once again, nominations in select categories for the annual GRAMMY Awards were announced on primetime television as part of "The GRAMMY Nominations Concert Live!! — Countdown To Music's Biggest Night," a one-hour CBS entertainment special broadcast live from Nokia Theatre L.A. Live.
Jay Z tops the nominations with nine; Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Justin Timberlake, and Pharrell Williams each garner seven nods; Drake and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig are up for five awards.
"This year's nominations reflect the talented community of music makers who represent some of the highest levels of excellence and artistry of the year in their respective fields," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy. "Once again, The Academy's awards process and its voting membership have produced an impressive list of nominations across various genres promising music fans a spectacular show filled with stellar performances and unique 'GRAMMY Moments.' We are off to a great start and look forward to GRAMMY Sunday as Music's Biggest Night takes the stage."
Following are the nominations in the General Field categories:
Album Of The Year:
The Blessed Unrest — Sara Bareilles
Random Access Memories — Daft Punk
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City — Kendrick Lamar
The Heist — Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Red — Taylor Swift
Record Of The Year:
"Get Lucky" — Daft Punk & Pharrell Williams
"Radioactive" — Imagine Dragons
"Royals" — Lorde
"Locked Out Of Heaven" — Bruno Mars
"Blurred Lines" — Robin Thicke Featuring T.I. & Pharrell Williams
Song Of The Year:
"Just Give Me A Reason" — Jeff Bhasker, Pink & Nate Ruess, songwriters (Pink Featuring Nate Ruess)
"Locked Out Of Heaven" — Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine & Bruno Mars, songwriters (Bruno Mars)
"Roar" — Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry & Henry Walter, songwriters (Katy Perry)
"Royals" — Joel Little & Ella Yelich O'Connor, songwriters (Lorde)
"Same Love" — Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert & Ryan Lewis, songwriters (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Featuring Mary Lambert)
Best New Artist:
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Following is a sampling of nominations in the GRAMMY Awards' other 29 Fields:
For Best Pop Solo Performance, the nominees are "Brave" by Sara Bareilles; "Royals" by Lorde; "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars; "Roar" by Katy Perry; and "Mirrors" by Justin Timberlake.
The nominees for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance are "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk & Pharrell Williams; "Just Give Me A Reason" by Pink Featuring Nate Ruess; "Stay" by Rihanna Featuring Mikky Ekko; "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke Featuring T.I. & Pharrell Williams; and "Suit & Tie" by Justin Timberlake & Jay Z.
For Best Dance/Electronica Album, the nominees are Random Access Memories by Daft Punk; Settle by Disclosure; 18 Months by Calvin Harris; Atmosphere by Kaskade; and A Color Map Of The Sun by Pretty Lights.
The Best Rock Performance nominees are "Always Alright" by Alabama Shakes; "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" by David Bowie; "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons; "Kashmir (Live)" by Led Zeppelin; "My God Is The Sun" by Queens Of The Stone Age; and "I'm Shakin'" by Jack White.
For Best Alternative Music Album, the nominees are The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You by Neko Case; Trouble Will Find Me by The National; Hesitation Marks by Nine Inch Nails; Lonerism by Tame Impala; Modern Vampires Of The City by Vampire Weekend.
The nominees for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration are "Power Trip" by J.Cole Featuring Miguel; "Part II (On The Run)" by Jay Z Featuring Beyoncé; "Holy Grail" by Jay Z Featuring Justin Timberlake; "Now Or Never" by Kendrick Lamar Featuring Mary J. Blige; and "Remember You" by Wiz Khalifa Featuring The Weeknd.
For Best Rap Album, the nominees are Nothing Was The Same by Drake; Magna Carta…Holy Grail by Jay Z; Good Kid, M.A.A.D City by Kendrick Lamar; The Heist by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis; and Yeezus by Kanye West.
The Best Country Album nominees are Night Train by Jason Aldean; Two Lanes Of Freedom by Tim McGraw; Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves; Based On A True Story by Blake Shelton; and Red by Taylor Swift.
The nominees for Best Americana Album are Old Yellow Moon by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell; Love Has Come For You by Steve Martin & Edie Brickell; Buddy And Jim by Buddy Miller And Jim Lauderdale; One True Vine by Mavis Staples; and Songbook by Allen Toussaint.
This year's Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical nominations go to Rob Cavallo, Dr. Luke, Ariel Rechtshaid, Jeff Tweedy, and Pharrell Williams.
This year's GRAMMY Awards process registered more than 22,000 submissions over a 12-month eligibility period (Oct. 1, 2012 – Sept. 30, 2013). GRAMMY ballots for the final round of voting will be mailed on Dec. 11 to the voting members of The Recording Academy. They are due back to the accounting firm of Deloitte by Jan. 8, 2014, when they will be tabulated and the results kept secret until the 56th GRAMMY telecast.
The 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards will be held Jan. 26, 2014, at Staples Center in Los Angeles and once again will be broadcast live in high-definition TV and 5.1 surround sound on CBS from 8–11:30 p.m. (ET/PT). The 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards are produced by AEG Ehrlich Ventures for The Recording Academy. Ken Ehrlich is executive producer, and Louis J. Horvitz is director.
For updates and breaking news, visit The Recording Academy's social networks on Twitter and Facebook.
Photo: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage
Wilco And Jeff Tweedy's Solid Sound Festival Announces June Lineup
Solid Sound's Wilco-curated lineup highlights bands deserving greater exposure such as the Feelies and Tortoise
On Feb. 21, Wilco announced their curated lineup for this year's Solid Sound Festival on June 28–30 at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass. Wilco themselves are headlining along with Courtney Barnett, and the band's own Jeff Tweedy is also on board for a separate Jeff Tweedy & Friends set.
In addition to art experiences and fun activities such as axe throwing and yoga, Solid Sound's lineup provides an opportunity to learn what all the excitement is about regarding emerging and underground artists such as Clipping, the Feelies, Cate Le Bon, Jonathan Richman and Tortoise.
Wilco won Best Alternative Music Album at the 47th GRAMMY Awards for 2004's A Ghost Is Born, and Tweedy also won independently at the 53rd GRAMMY Awards as the producer of Mavis Staples' Best Americana Album winner You Are Not Alone. Courtney Barnett was nominated for Best New Artist at the 58th GRAMMY Awards. Another previously nominated artist on Solid Sound's bill is jazz guitarist Julian Lage, who'll be appearing with his trio. The rest of the festival's lineup are distinctive and all deserving of a listen and a closer look, so here's a quick zoom in on five that are representative.
An experimental hip-hop collective signed to Sub Pop, Clipping came out with their debut album in 2009 and their third, Splendor & Misery, was released in 2016 to critical acclaim. They are considered as having emerged from being remix-centered to being leaders of the "noise-rap" genre.
Underground jangle-rockers from New Jersey, the Feelies have struggled with staying together, selling albums and affording studio time while influencing major bands such as R.E.M., from their first record, 1980's Crazy Rhythms, to their 2017 sixth album In Between. Their biggest hit singles were 1988's "Away" and 1991's "Sooner or Later."
Welsh singer/songwriter Cate Le Bon released her debut in 2009 and has come to greater attention recently for her work with Deerhunter. Darkness and fragility blend with art-pop experiments in both her solo work and collaborations.
Singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman is celebrated for both his solo work as well as playing in the Modern Lovers. His youthful and amusing zest on songs like "Ice Cream Man" can obscure his sophisticated craft, but his cult following knows to listen more deeply.
The progressive rock ensemble Tortoise released their self-titled first album in 1994 and broke into the Billboard 200 with two of their albums in the decade of the 2000s. In addition to bringing fresh attention to Chicago's music scene, Tortoise is considered to have pioneered the genre "post-rock." Jazz, electronica and dub are just a few of the eclectic influences they intregrate into their experimental collective's fresh sounds.
The MASS MoCA venue provides an art experience all its own and will be hosting exhibits by Laurie Anderson and Annie Lennox. Anderson recently received her first win at the 61st GRAMMY Awards and her virtual reality installation "Chalkroom" has been at the venue since 2017. Lennox's show "Now I Let You Go ..." opens there on May 25.
Single-day tickets for Solid Sound will become available at the festival's website on Feb. 28.
Photo: Peter Ash Lee
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner On Self-Actualization, Grieving In Public And Her Nominations For 'Jubilee' At The 2022 GRAMMY Awards
Japanese Breakfast is nominated for two GRAMMYs at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. Their leader, Michelle Zauner, opened up to GRAMMY.com about how the nominations feel, and why personal and global crises just made her more motivated.
When the pandemic first descended on humanity, countless millennials moved home, donned pajama pants and brooded at their parents' kitchen islands. In this sea of dejected Instagram posts, though, a few public figures stood out — those who decided to thrive during the age of demoralization. One conspicuous example was the singer, songwriter and debut author Michelle Zauner.
Zauner hit two professional home runs during the pajama-pants era. In April 2020, she released her affecting memoir Crying in H Mart, and that June, her band Japanese Breakfast released a critically acclaimed album, Jubilee. Granted, the lion's share of both projects was completed before we started wiping down bags of Doritos — and Zauner wasn't immune to "being depressed and eating a lot." Still, the timing of her breakthroughs speaks to her character.
"I've discovered through the past few years that I'm a surprisingly optimistic person — I'm a secret hopeful person!" she quips. "Because in any narrative or story I've told, it's been important for me to find some type of hope to cling to. I certainly am not one to dwell on the negative. It doesn't help me to have that be my end goal."
As such, accentuating the positive was something of an animating force while making Jubilee — and the result was a critically-acclaimed album on top of a New York Times bestseller.
Japanese Breakfast is nominated for two GRAMMYs at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards: one for Best New Artist, another for Best Alternative Music Album for Jubilee. In the above video, watch Zauner's recollection of drearily watching the nominations roll in, expecting nothing — and her very loud reaction at the results.
That's her magic in microcosm, alchemizing the depressing into the sublime. And her mother (whose loss looms large in both Crying in H Mart and previous Japanese Breakfast music) would undoubtedly be proud.
With the 2022 GRAMMY Awards on the immediate horizon (April 3), GRAMMY.com sat down with Zauner to discuss what motivates her during hard times, the palette of influences reflected on Jubilee, and the life-changing moments it produced— like watching Jeff Tweedy cover her Wilco-influenced song.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
During the early pandemic, I felt drawn to people who rose above their circumstances and thrived, rather than sinking into a mire. Where did your motivation come from during a very demotivated time?
I will say that a majority of both Jubilee and Crying in H Mart were done prior to the pandemic, so I was kind of one of those people being depressed and eating a lot.
But I was able to work on the final, final draft of Crying in H Mart during a time I was supposed to be on tour. I do think that having the perspective of going into the final stages of this book, when I had a ton of time off for the first time, was actually kind of helpful for me to get some of the really good, final touches on this book.
Honestly, I feel like I became very motivated in general after a very dark time in my life. I became grounded by my work ethic and my ambition and sticking very close to routine after my mom passed away. So, after this dark limbo period, I recalled being a caretaker for six months and being stuck in the house in Eugene, Oregon.
In a way, I feel like I've gone through this part of life before, and I felt prepared. I know what it feels like to be out of control of my life and watch a lot of darkness descend around me. I found that sticking close to a regimen or staying grounded through work is what helped me through that time. So, I think that's something I'm unfortunately used to at this point in my life.
Some people view grievous loss as a moment where their life stops, and they just wander through the past after that. But it seems like you're more interested in moving forward and honoring your mom that way.
Yeah, I think I got there through working through it creatively, in a way. But it is really interesting; I think that happens really often.
My father and I navigated our grief in totally different ways. I think that happens in families a lot — where one person goes on one path and another experiences it through another path. They can be at odds with one another.
But for me, personally, I was so worried about allowing myself to fall into a deep pit of depression about something very real for the first time — that I would struggle to ever pull out of it. I know my mom would want me to navigate my grief in this way, and that's what really helped me through that.
Another destabilizing factor for people in our age range can be a sense of futurelessness. Perhaps we share a drive to work around global traumas.
Yeah, I've discovered through the past few years that I'm a surprisingly optimistic person — I'm a secret hopeful person! Because in any narrative or story I've told, it's been important for me to find some type of hope to cling to. I certainly am not one to dwell on the negative. It doesn't help me to have that be my end goal.
Is it irritating to have to dredge up your personal adversities over and over and over in interviews?
Sometimes. Sometimes, it's honestly kind of therapeutic, which is, like, gross and weird. But there's this other stage of art making that I'm less prickly to than other artists. I learn a lot about what I've made through the press process. A lot of the themes and questions I navigate in the work get solidified with different perspectives through the press process.
So, sometimes I don't mind it as much, because it can be kind of enlightening. But certainly, like everything, it can become exhausting.
What's your relationship with pop music, like making something that appeals to as many people as humanly possible? Do you feel like an odd duck on the GRAMMY nominees list?
Yes and no. I'm kind of a poptimist and I really admire great pop music. One of my favorite artists is, honestly, Ariana Grande. In some cases, there are top-tier composers, producers, arrangers, and mixing engineers working to create something with mass appeal, which is widely enjoyable.
Even in K-pop, it's like that. You have the greatest music video directors, the greatest production designers! The highest-paid costume [designers] and stylists and makeup artists! Watching a city come together to create a piece of art that can reach a lot of people is very inspiring to me.
As an indie artist, trying to reach beyond my means in a similar way, on a smaller scale, has always been something very fun for me. I don't like to make purposefully complicated music. I enjoy making what I think to be listenable, enjoyable music that a lot of people can get into.
So, I'm happy to be in this realm, and I think it's really exciting. It's an honor.
I've never thought of it quite as a buffet, but I do really like that idea. One thing about Japanese Breakfast that I enjoy is that we have a pretty broad range of influences on all our records. There's a lot of range and diversity.
There was certainly a lot of Kate Bush in this buffet. A lot of Björk and Wilco. There was some Bill Withers and Randy Newman. Certainly, Fleetwood Mac. Alex G. Those were, I think, the main buffet trays.
I'm a Randy Newman fanatic — I love the Pixar soundtracks, the dark-humored stuff, the love songs. What's your Randy era or album?
It's either called Something New Under the Sun or it's self-titled.
Yeah, the debut.
It's the one with "Living Without You" on it. That was my introduction to Randy Newman. An ex-boyfriend had shown me that song and it just haunted me for years and years. He's just the master of a sweeping love song — a ballad. That was the inspiration for the piano and string arrangement on "Tactics."
I was always trying to channel my inner Randy. I think he's timelessness incarnate.
Classic rockers are always thrown into court over "stealing," but I think that's part of the musical process. Do you ever hear a great lick and say "I'm going to place that right here"?
I've never done that purposefully. But it's funny: When [Japanese Breakfast drummer and producer] Craig [Hendrix] and I were working on "Kokomo, IN" — I almost said "Kokomo, Etc." — we were definitely very inspired by the string arrangement on [Wilco's] "Jesus, Etc." The classic nature of that Beatles math that goes into a great pop song.
It was very funny, because Jeff Tweedy actually covered that song in one of his livestreams. I was super-inspired by "Jesus, Etc." for "Kokomo, IN," and I was also inspired by "At Least That's What You Said" — the solo — in the quiet acoustic section that leads to a big solo in "Posing for Cars."
It was amazing. I got to meet Wilco this year and see Jeff Tweedy cover my song! He's such a songwriting hero of mine.
I've never purposefully plopped a direct lick from anything. But there was a moment when we were doing "Kokomo" where we were like, "Are we biting 'Jesus, Etc.' a little too hard with the pizzacato strings?" But it's Jeff Tweedy-approved, so I don't think they'll be suing us anytime soon.
How do you see the musical landscape before you? What do you want your next few years to look like?
God, I have no idea. I feel like I'm just trying to roll with the punches here [with Omicron]. But I hope we just ride the wave of this record and get to play big festivals and travel again. I'm just going to try to do my best, as I always do.