In 2005 and 2006, singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton burst onto the music scene with his ambitious Thing a Week project, a personal challenge to record and post a song a week for an entire year. His success led to four albums (Thing a Week I-IV) and a growing loyal fan base on the Internet, all without the aid of a traditional record label. Though it has taken five years for a follow-up to Thing a Week, Jonathan has kept busy, producing the Internet sensation “Still Alive” for the video game Portal and touring with bands like They Might Be Giants.
We were able to catch Jonathan before his upcoming West Coast tour to talk about his new album Artificial Heart (which you can buy here, or via iTunes, Amazon, or Rhapsody if you’d rather), songwriting, They Might Be Giants, and Snuggies.
Stephen: Your new album Artificial Heart is out in digital form now. Your first one in five years, right?
Jonathan: Yeah, I guess. I don’t like to think about it that way, but yes, that is true. My first album of all new material in five years.
S: That surprised me, since we’ve hear your name so much in the past couple years with “Still Alive” and everything. What was it like heading back to the studio after your pseudo-hiatus?
J: Well it was tough. You know I did all that writing for Thing a Week in 2005 and 2006, this massive quantity of writing in a short time, and then I was tired and I took a rest and I just sort of never came out of the rest. I was doing plenty of other things, you know, and that’s when “Still Alive” happened and that’s when I started to tour and figured that whole side of things out, and then you know I found that I just was not doing a lot of writing. My life had been taken over by all these other things and writing had fallen to the bottom of my list of priorities.
So getting back to it was a real pleasure, because of course working for John Flansburg meant that I had somebody… I kind of had a boss, somebody saying, “You should do this and you should do this by this time and guess what? I booked a studio and you should have a song ready.” And so it was nice to be pushed again because I was apparently incapable of pushing myself.
S: You had a full band for this album too. Did that change how you approached writing songs?
J: Yeah, it really did. You know I’ve always written a combination of styles. My older stuff has picky folky things and louder rock things with electric guitars and this album is really no different although I will say that having a studio and some other musicians besides me playing was much easier to get things that were rock songs to sound like rock songs, and it was a great deal of fun to go into the rehearsal studio with a song and hand it over to the drummer and the bass player and have them make it awesome.
S: And you can hear that on songs like “Sucker Punch” (see our review here). They definitely have that late 90’s radio rock feel.
J: Yeah, and I love that kind of music. I am such a huge fan of the two minute pop song. It’s just catchy and short and it doesn’t try to overcomplicate itself and it doesn’t try to say too much, and when it hits the right spot it’s a really wonderful thing. But I hadn’t written a lot of those; I’d been writing all these four minute and fifteen second robot murder ballads, so that was a challenge for me. It was kind of like, “Well, let’s try to write some of those short quick ones that are just fun.”
S: Do you have a set process for your songwriting? Do you get crazy ideas and write them down and come back to then, or is it more focused, where you sit down and just say, “I’m writing a song now”?
J: It really has to be very focused for me. It’s very rare that I am doing something else and a great song idea comes out of nowhere. You know I find myself humming things and I don’t know where they came from all the time, and if one is particularly good or has some lyrical content I will record it into my voice recorder or my phone and come back to it later. But for the most part it’s about sitting down, deciding to write, and really focusing. And it might start with just noodling around on the guitar or it might start with picking up another instrument and trying to play something on the piano or starting a drum beat and singing along or whatever it is. I find I really have to jump start the machinery myself to get it going.
S: I noticed too on the new album you have a bit less of the crazy narrators that some of your past hits have had, like the murderous robots or the zombified HR directors. Was that a conscious effort to mix things up or was it just where your songwriting landed this time?
J: It’s definitely where my songwriting landed. I have always tried very hard to write exactly the things I wanted to write without worrying about whether or not somebody was going to like it or whether it was going to succeed commercially or any of that stuff. You know I find it’s very hard to write about something I don’t personally care about. I can’t imagine writing a song that I’m not interested in writing.
And I’ve always done this mix of stuff. I think I’ve become more well know for the songs about zombies and robots than the other stuff but there’s always been an undercurrent of relatively serious subjects. My narrators are still crazy, it’s just that they are crazy in a much more human way than they used to be, I think. It used to be useful to have a little bit of distance between me and the character, so I would decide the song was about a giant squid and that would make it easier for me to proceed through the complicated emotional landscape that I was trying to describe. But I think in a lot of ways they’re the same songs, I just sort of dropped the pretense of there being as much distance between me and the subjects I am writing about.
S: So you mentioned John Flansburg was heavily involved with the album. How did you guys become acquainted? Was it during the 2010 tour you opened for them or did you meet him and the rest of They Might Be Giants beforehand?
J: We had met a couple times before then and I had come across their radar in a number of different ways I think. I was a fan of theirs since I was in college, and I think that we had a couple mutual friends and at some point they asked me to open for them… Oh, I know what it was! They were doing a show in Chicago as luck would have it the same night that I was doing a show in Chicago, and when I discovered that it was like, “Oh great! There goes my audience!” And on top of that, they were doing a Flood show [Editor’s Note: a live performance of their popular 1990 album Flood], which is like, I wanted to go to their show instead of mine.
So, I kind of had met them a couple times and I emailed them to say, “Hey, you guys are doing this Flood show in Chicago. I wonder if you’d mind if I did my own acoustic Flood show as sort of a tribute and nod to your superiors ticket selling abilities.” And they thought it was kind of cheeky and charming and weird, I think, and they were like, “Sure, go ahead!” So I did that. At my show I just played through Flood acoustically with my friends Paul and Storm who were opening for me but we all played together.
And I think that was sort of the thing that made me most noticeable to them. At some point after that they asked me to open for them, and that’s when John Flansburg had more of an opportunity to hear what it was that I did, and it was at the end of that little mini-tour that I did with them that he suggested we make a record and he produce it.
S: And the rest is history, as they say.
J: Well, yeah. A very short history.
S: So speaking of They Might Be Giants, I saw an interesting comparison on the Internet between your Thing a Week project to their Dial-a-Song answering machine from the 80s. Was there any kind of conscious homage there? Did you think it might do the same for your popularity that it did for them back in the 80s? Or was it total coincidence?
J: I don’t know if it was a conscious homage, but I certainly was a big fan of Dial-a-Song and thought it was such a great idea. That’s one of many things that I’ve seen them do over the years that made me feel this general air of “Why not do this crazy thing?”, because they do that so often. They pursue ideas that I think other bands would be afraid to pursue, whether it be the Dial-a-Song thing or the venue songs project that they did or the puppets that they do at their live shows, which is this crazy… I kind of think it takes a lot of balls to do a puppet show in the middle of a rock show.
And so, Dial-a-Song was just one of the many things that they did that I admired over the years. So, yeah, when I considered the possibility of doing a song a week, certainly knowing that they had done Dial-a-Song on a daily basis, on an answering machine, with a tape in it, it was like, well yeah, if they can do that I can probably do this.
S: What was it like having that set goal of a song a week for 52 weeks? You mentioned that it helps for you to have those deadlines and those times where you have to sit down and write, but I imagine it was still stressful at times.
J: It was stressful all the time, every week. From about week three on it was terrible. I am glad I did it and I am grateful for the experience and I learned so much about songwriting and I came out of it with so many new songs that just never wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It was very instructive in that way. For me the lesson was, “You have to write songs in order to write songs. There’s no way around it.” Which sounds obvious but is not. So, yeah, it was hard but as I say I am grateful for the experience.
S: You were recently compared on NPR to the Snuggie for your success on the Internet. First of all, what are your thoughts on how the Internet has helped? And second do you have a more popular made for TV product you’d rather be known as? [Editor’s note: we never got to the second question, so feel free to offer your suggestions in the comment section]
J: Well the Internet has certainly been of great importance to my career for two main reasons. First of all the technology that enables me and musicians everywhere to easily and cheaply record and distribute music and communicate with their fans. Twenty years ago it was a very different landscape. Twenty years ago without those tools I was doing the same thing except all the songs I wrote ended up on a cassette tape that I kept in my desk drawer and that was the end. This basically took that cassette tape and blew it up and sent it around the world for free, that’s what the Internet did. The other thing that it did, because I was writing this, well, I still am sort of writing this music that’s not really mainstream stuff. I mean it sounds like pop or rock but I’m under no illusions that it’s going to get a lot of airplay on radio stations. It’s less accessible than most pop music. A lot of that has to do with the subject matter, and the fact of it is there are a lot of specialized interests on the Internet.
So when I wrote a song about curling and put it on the Internet, all the people on the Internet who liked curling heard about that song. And when I wrote a song about Pluto being demoted from planet status to dwarf planet status, all the astronomy nerds heard about that. So it was a nice way for a guy who writes about a lot of different kinds of stuff to find all the groups of people who liked all those different things.
S: That makes sense. Kind of bringing all those isolated niche groups together.
J: Yeah, without any geography coming into play. So I didn’t have to find all the nerds in New York City. All I had to do was find the nerds in the world. And there are a few.
S: The gaming community makes up a big part of your fan base, too, especially after “Still Alive” became such a sensation at the end of portal. Are you a gamer yourself, or do you at least play your own songs on Rock Band and just smile and think, “Yeah, that’s me”?
J: You know I am actually not very good at Rock Band. I am better at actual rock band than I am at the game Rock Band. But I am a gamer. I used to be a lot more of a gamer before I had kids and when I had a lot of time. I’ve sort of moved from console gaming which feels very time consuming and monolithic to… I’m a big fan of iPhone games because they’re always in my pocket. If I have a spare 30 seconds I can dip into a game for 30 seconds and be entertained. I don’t have to put a disc in and wait for it to load and go through forty hours of game play shooting aliens, which I love to do, but I just don’t have forty hours.
S: You’ve got a big show coming up here tomorrow in Brooklyn: They Might Be Giants, John Hodgman, John Oliver, and Paul Rudd. How do you get that many funny people together under a roof?
J: Well, it’s not actually me, it’s John Hodgman. It’s his book release party, and he is a friend of many famous people. He’s a bit of a connector; he’s a focus point, the hub of a wheel. I am just along for the ride.
S: And this last one is just for fun: what is the craziest idea you’ve had for a song? Maybe one that popped up during your Thing a Week sessions that you didn’t use.
J: I’ll give you a little bit of trivia. I have a song called “Tom Cruise Crazy”, which is about how Tom Cruise is crazy because he’s super famous and it makes him crazy. And the chorus to that song at first, instead of “Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise crazy”, was “You dumb red state motherfucker.” I decided not to do that. (laughs) I decided it was too incendiary. It was right after an election, the one where all the maps were drawn. It was the point at which blue and red were most divided. So those were just the words I had in my head as I was singing the tune, but I backed off to something a little less incendiary, which is poking at Tom Cruise.
S: Which is a universally supported pastime.
Jonathan begins a West Coast tour this Friday, playing in support of They Might Be Giants. Dates and locations can be found here. His newest CD Artificial Heart, is available for digital download now.