An Interview with Jonathan Coulton

Jonathan Coulton
Photo credit: Emily Rawlings.

Musician Jonathan Coulton talks about his year recording a song a week, why it's good news when his characters start saying ridiculous things, and the value of solitude and boredom.

In the course of the year you spent working on Thing a Week, did you develop any techniques that seemed to help you tap your creative side?

I wish I could say that I developed a sure-fire strategy for writing a song. That's one of the things I was hoping would come out of Thing a Week -- that I could somehow discover a process that worked every time. But it was always different.

I spent a lot of time walking and riding my bike, mumbling under my breath, making up lines about things I saw or thought of. Ideally, one of those lines would be interesting enough to stick with me and grow into something. Sometimes I would get inspired early in the week and the song would sort of write itself. Other times I would think and think all week, and Friday would find me with no good ideas.

The one thing I did learn was that even the good songs have a point when they feel awful -- for me there's always this deep valley of self-doubt when it seems like I should stop writing and abandon the idea. But sometimes even the songs that started with bad ideas would have a very strong finish, and I would find that I'd pulled something really great out of nowhere. Not always -- there were certainly some songs that never really got good. And I think that's an important part of the process too -- you're going to write some clunkers for sure, but you'll never really know unless you write them. Starting a song is easy; finishing it is a lot harder.

How did you stay focused and productive, particularly on those days when you were feeling a little less inspired?

JC: Solitude and boredom. If I ever found myself stuck, that was usually a good time to take a long walk or a bike ride. There was something about separating myself from all the instruments and gear in the studio that made things move forward -- I think it's easy to get bogged down in a particular detail when what you really need to do is brush lightly over the surface of the whole thing. And I have so many patterns that I rely on when I'm actually playing the guitar that it can sometimes be a hindrance to write with it in my hands -- my brain makes different choices when it's by itself.

I have so many patterns that I rely on when I'm actually playing the guitar that it can sometimes be a hindrance to write with it in my hands -- my brain makes different choices when it's by itself.

Bio

Jonathan Coulton sings songs about workplace zombies, ennui-afflicted clowns, self-loathing giant squids, and devotees of a certain Swedish prefab furniture store. In 2005-2006 he recorded and published a new song every week as a free podcast called "Thing a Week." A few of these songs have become full-fledged internet smashes, including his folky cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," a visual ode to Creative Commons called "Flickr," and "Code Monkey," the anthem of software designers everywhere.

Coulton releases all his music under a Creative Commons license that allows for file sharing and copying, as well as non-commercial derivative works. And his community of fans has rallied around him to generate airplay on hundreds of podcasts, create a library of music videos, and even set up gigs through Eventful.com.

Jonathan Coulton on the Web: JonathanCoulton.com, Thing a Week Podcast

Did the way you tackle a new song start to change over the course of the year?

I used to wait for things to happen. I would only complete the ideas that held my interest all the way through. But I didn't have that luxury with Thing a Week, so I was forced to push things through. It was nice to discover that was actually possible, and a great relief to learn that the old adage about the ratio of inspiration to perspiration was correct -- now I realize that I can make a song happen rather than waiting for the perfect one to come to me fully formed in a dream.

Is there an example that comes to mind -- a song that you had to power through?

"A Talk with George" was particularly tricky for some reason -- I knew I wanted it to be kind of inspiring and not just a goofy song about George Plimpton, but I wanted to get there by listing all the crazy stuff he did. And it just wasn't working -- it sounded like a song written by Wikipedia, and it sounded like a joke. I hated it for a long time.

I definitely find it useful to work in a number of different environments -- with a guitar, with a pen and a notebook on the subway, walking around thinking about stuff, sitting in front of a computer typing in the lyrics and filling in the gaps. I was just typing the lyrics out and making them rhyme ("he did this, he did this other thing, and then he did this"), but it had no life or heart or anything. So I went on a long bike ride and put the whole thing on a spin cycle in my head.

Somewhere in there I switched to the second person ("you should do this, you should do that") and all at once it felt better -- it was George talking to you, which felt a lot more personal and less harsh and fact-y. Out of that came the idea that "you" had run into his ghost in a bar, which sort of opened the whole thing up so that he could say some really personal things about himself. But it was still soft and indirect -- it let George reveal his own emotions in a subtle way. I never would have gotten there if I didn't walk away from the computer, get outside, and let it happen.

Can you talk a little bit more about the tools you use to capture and develop your ideas?

I keep a notebook in my shoulder bag where I can jot down lyrics when I'm on the subway. Sometimes I like to use dead time like that to brainstorm lines and song ideas, and if anything good comes of it I can make some notes. I also would have lost a lot of ideas if I didn't record them immediately into the voice recorder on my phone. When I have a musical phrase in my head, no matter how certain I am that I'll remember it, I always record it somehow. I've learned the hard way that the new ideas take a while to get a solid footing in my long-term memory.

Was there anything that you learned about the craft of songwriting that really stands out, in terms of what makes for a good song?

The best ones were always the ones that sounded a little bit crazy in my head -- there's a safe way to write a song, and there's a way that's more risky. The risky approach almost always ends up producing something that rings true in a way the safe approach never does.

I knew I had hit the spot when the character I was writing started saying really ridiculous things. It certainly makes things more interesting when you go off in a strange direction and have to find your way back, but it's also a kind of release. Sort of like I had to get my own ego out of the way and let the character say and think whatever they wanted, even if that made them sound like a jerk or a loser. And strangely, the characters who get that freedom tend to talk and think like me -- go figure.

Many of your recordings from Thing a Week have rich, layered vocal harmonies. Where did you learn to compose those sorts of vocal parts?

I'm obsessed with harmonies -- most of the music I love is pretty vocal-rich. I grew up singing songs in harmony with my family and spent a lot of time singing a cappella in college as well, and really I've just always been able to hear and write extra vocal parts in my head. Sometimes when I'm writing I hear parts of the vocal arrangement before I've actually finished working out the song.

And of course when you're doing digital recording it's really easy to try things out -- you just sing along with the tracks you've already recorded and see if it works. If not, there's always the delete button.

I also wondered about your drum tracks -- they always sounded very polished and natural, particularly for songs recorded on such a tight deadline. What went into creating those tracks?

I cheated on the drums -- a lot of them are from a library called Reel Drums, which is the best drum library I've found. It's a session drummer playing to a click track, and you get several tracks of well-recorded drums at a consistent tempo that you can cut and paste almost at will. Sometimes it takes a little jiggering to get it to work, and often I'd have to compromise a bit because what I wanted just wasn't available to me. Other than that, it was loops, or various percussion instruments that fit in a small Brooklyn apartment.

I think that drums can easily be overdone -- you really don't need that much. Sometimes I'd just use a single loop all the way through, and dress it up in dramatically appropriate parts of the song by bringing in a little tambourine, or maybe a second drum loop, or a tiny bit of some midi-triggered drum sound. And above all, midi drums almost always sound terrible -- I'd much prefer to use one boring loop of actual drums than the most meticulously programmed midi track.

You've got a pretty unusual relationship with your audience, whether they're making videos for "Re Your Brains," or creating "Jonathan Coulton Soft Rock Infomercials" and posting them on YouTube. Does this interaction play a role in your creative process? Or is it simpler than that, and it's just something you enjoy?

I try not to think about it as I'm creating -- it would completely paralyze me. In fact, the more people paid attention to Thing a Week, the harder it was to write. Sometimes it's important to pretend there is no audience. That said, I'm incredibly grateful to all the people who have contributed things like that. Yes, it's a great deal of fun, and it's really flattering to think that people spent time on something based on my music. But it's also great advertising -- many people have found me through watching a video that someone else made.

What's the best advice that you've heard about the creative process?

I think Stephen King said some great things in On Writing -- the main bit that I took away from that is the idea that you really have to sit down and do it. Treat it like work, spend a few hours TRYING to write every day. Sometimes it will be good and sometimes it will be bad, but there will be a lot of it. And really, it's not the creating that's the hard part, it's the decision to sit down at your desk and start working.

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  • loved coulton's line, "my brain makes different choices when it's by itself." we often forget how integral this is for all processes, creative and otherwise.

  • A lot of good food for thought. I like what Coulton says about the risky approach producing something that rings more true. It's in the same way that sometimes fiction--something totally constructed--rings truer than memoir. I'm going to try and apply this to to my drawings.

  • another winner. thanks for doing this. stephen king is right of course. it's all about planting your butt in front of the work and doing it every day. and also, inspirational lyric: "I never would have gotten there if I didn't walk away from the computer, get outside, and let it happen."

  • I just heard Jonathan Coulton on NPR a couple months back. This interview was right up there with that one.

  • thanks jonathan and cecil--another great interview. really enjoyed hearing about Thing a Week and the discipline of pushing through rather than waiting for inspiration to present something whole. thanks also for talking about the benefits of the risky approach. i'd like to think that taking such risks and also pushing through are about trusting in the coherence of what you're doing before a reassuring shape is visible; very encouraging!

  • Great interview -- questions and answers all.

  • I like this interview a lot. Echoes a lot of my sentiments about songwriting, but with some interesting new ideas. For instance, I probably should take breaks more often when I'm stifled, as JC suggests. (There was a spell of about two months, a few years ago, where I was able to pull off a song week. Nothing on the order of a year, tho!)

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