Music Monday: Internet Famous, Vol. 3–An Interview with Jonathan Coulton
Are you ready for the long-awaited third installment of Music Monday: Internet Famous? Because it’s ready for you! This week, Nukezilla’s got a super cew exclusive interview with the nicest superstar you’ll ever meet!
So, I’m just going to go ahead and admit this up front: it took every bit of my self-control not to SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEE! into JoCo‘s ear and then faint while interviewing him over Skype. I think I did a pretty good job at not fan-girling out too hard (I did a little bit, though, I admit). But OH MY GOD I GOT TO INTERVIEW JONATHAN COULTON!
[Clears throat] So anyway, yeah. JoCo gave Nukezilla an exclusive interview in which he talks about his early career, his new NPR radio show, his recent album Artificial Heart, his upcoming Christmas album, and lot’s of other cool JoCo-related stuff. What follows is the transcription of the recorded audio from my interview with Jonathan Coulton:
Nukezilla: If you were going to describe your music to someone who had never heard it before, how would you describe yourself as an artist and your music and that kind of thing?
Jonathan Coulton: I would say that I am a…[Thinks aloud for a moment] I’m an independent singer/songwriter and I write stuff. All kinds of stuff. [Laughs] You would think I would know how to answer this question by now. You know, I’m most famous for the nerdy stuff that I write, songs about zombies and robots and monkeys and aliens and that sort of thing. But, you know, it’s a wide range of stuff that I do and all different styles. I mean, you know, I guess there are a lot of catch-all categories, uh, indie pop, but that doesn’t really mean anything. [Laughs]
NZ: Okay, so, uh…
JC: That’s a terrible answer.
NZ: I mean, that works. [Laughs] Okay, so if you were going to pick, like, let’s say one song for someone who wanted to get into your stuff but wasn’t really familiar with you, what would you suggest they start out on?
JC: You know, I often open concerts with a song called The Future Soon, which is from the perspective of maybe a 13-year-old kid who is dreaming about the future when he’ll be able to get rid of all of his problems using technology and also get revenge on the girl who has broken his heart. That’s sort of right in the center of my wheelhouse, which is why I often use it to open shows. If that song means anything to you then probably you will want to listen to more.
NZ: I gotcha. Now, when and how did you start making music? Where would you say your start was and how did you go from there?
JC: I have always really been making music. You know, when I was a kid, my mom and dad were both musical people and, you know, I learned to play guitar and piano when I was a little kid and I have always sung. And then it was probably around junior high when I started writing songs and recording them on a four-track recorder that I had, and it’s sort of gone from there. I didn’t do it professionally really until about 2005. It was always sort of a hobby with vague aspirations of professionalism, but it was never my full-time job until 2005.
NZ: Okay, so now, what was the point when you decided to go full-time making music.
JC: Well, you know, it was the thing that I had always thought about doing and, you know, by the time I was in college I recognized that I had an interest and a talent for writing songs. And it was sort of a thing that I said I was going to do when I grew up and I accidentally got a lot of other jobs and had another career writing software. But then in 2005, my daughter was born in the spring and it just sort of shifted my perspective on things and, you know, my priorities changed and it became clear to me that it was important for me to at least attempt to pursue the thing that I really wanted to do, which was to be a musician. And, you know, luckily I had the support from my wife to do it and we were able to say, “Well, Jonathan’s going to take a year off and try out some stuff and see what happens.” And that’s what we did. And over the course of that year I had some success reaching strangers on the internet with music, so it seemed like a good thing to keep going.
NZ: So, now, when your daughter was born in 2005, is that what the song You Ruined Everything, is that what that’s based on?
JC: Oh, certainly. Yes, that’s a very personal song. And yeah, that song is about the complicated things that happen in your brain and soul when you become a parent.
NZ: I’ve always really liked that song.
JC: Oh, thank you.
NZ: So who do you feel is your most prominent musical influence or musical influences?
JC: That’s really hard. I mean, there are so many. You know, I take inspiration from a number of different directions. When I was a kid I listened to The Beatles like crazy and I was consumed with wanting to know how they did what they did, as I think many musicians will tell you that’s what drives them to try to write better. You know, we’re all living in that shadow. But I also liked and listened to some folkier stuff. I was really into Loudon Wainwright as a kid. But I also liked Steely Dan and Pink Floyd and REM before they started to stink. And so, you know, it comes from all over the place, but I think I really am most moved by a certain kind of song that feels thoughtful, you know, not necessarily complex but composed. You know, I’ve never liked ‘jammy’ music. I’ve always been a fan of songwriters—you know, Ben Folds, people who really think about what they’re doing when they write a song.
NZ: And so, by ‘jammy’, what exactly do you mean by that?
JC: You know, I have never enjoyed getting together and jamming with a bunch of musicians. Just, like, playing…[Laughs]
NZ: Just playing to play, I guess?
JC: Just playing to play. You know, for me, it’s just not interesting. I would much rather have a song that we all agree we’re going to play and sing, and then work on playing and singing that song the best we can. I suppose me being a fan of Pink Floyd is sort of the exception. There’s a lot of jamming that happens on those records, for sure, but in between there’s some really good songs.
NZ: I gotcha. Okay, so, you’re fairly well-known in the nerd circle, but you’re most known by the greater populace by the song you did for Portal, Still Alive. How has that kind of two-fold popularity effected you as a musical artist?
JC: Well, it’s been a big reason for people knowing my name, for sure. When that game happened I had already made some headway, but I hadn’t received the kind of exposure that that game got me. And, you know, there are plenty of people who know me primarily as the guy who wrote that song. Which is great, I mean, I think any way that people have access to discovering who I am and maybe becoming fans is great for me. So, moreover it’s just a great thing to be involved with something that turned out to be such an important cultural moment for everybody. I’m very proud to have been part of that thing.
NZ: So, is there any…[Thinks aloud for a moment] Do you wish that the people that were fans of Portal and Still Alive were more familiar with your work, or are you happy with having that one really, really, really popular song and the rest of your music is still very good and popular in the nerd circle but maybe not as well known yet?
JC: Yeah. Well of course I wish that everybody in the world knew all of my music. That would be great. But, you know, it’s not as if I harbor a secret resentment about the people who only like that song. [Laughs] It’s all in the ‘plus’ column, as far as I’m concerned.
NZ: Okay. So, now, first, I’m a really big fan of yours, and one of the songs that is probably my favorite of yours is Space Doggity, [the song] about Laika, the Russian cosmonaut dog. Because I’m a really big fan of David Bowie as well and I also really love dogs, too.
NZ: So that kind of strikes me right in the heart.
JC: Oh, thanks.
NZ: [Laughs] But I was wondering where you got the inspiration to write that song.
JC: I was participating in a sort of online songwriting fun competition thing called Masters of Song-Fu. It was a bunch of different people and we would receive writing assignments, you know, and the one for that round was ‘write a song that sort of parallels Space Oddity, and the only rule is that you have to sort of tell that story of astronaut goes up, astronaut leaves the capsule, astronaut has some sort of freak-out or disappearance or something like that’. And, as I do, I like to find a twist to make it interesting for me to write about. And so that was where I went–the idea of being a dog, and specifically Laika, the first dog in space.
NZ: Was that something that you had known about before or was that something that you were researching for that particular song, or…?
JC: I sort of knew that there was a first dog in space named Laika, but it wasn’t until I researched the story that I discovered how incredibly sad it actually was. [Laughs] Things did not go that well for Laika, and, you know, they never expected her to return. And already that’s a sad story. If you care about dogs, the idea of putting one into a space capsule and launching it into space never to return is kind of a terrible thing to think about.
NZ: Right. Okay, so, a little more upbeat…
NZ: [Laughs] That was the depressing part of the interview.
JC: [Laughs] Good.
NZ: So tell me about the show that you’re co-hosting on NPR, Ask Me Another, and how you kind of got involved with that.
JC: Yeah, it’s a new NPR show that is sort of a pub quiz. It’s a live audience in Brooklyn and there are contestants from the audience and it’s sort of word games but also trivia, and I’m sort of the co-host and I’m sort of a ‘Paul Schaffer‘–I play music in between stuff and I also do sort of ‘Name That Tune’ games–and it’s really a lot of fun. It’s sort of an accident that I got involved. It was never my intent to become part of an NPR quiz show. But I knew and went to college with a guy who was working on that show and I actually ran into him at a party and he said, ‘Oh! We were just talking about you because I’m working on this show and we’re looking for this kind of person and I thought of you.’ And I said, ‘Oh! Sure, let’s talk about it,’ and it sort of went from there. But it’s really fun, it’s a lot of fun to do.
NZ: So is the whole show done live?
JC: The whole show is done live, but, you know, it’s not aired live. It’s edited. But, yeah, we’re on stage and there’s an audience there and contestants from the audience and, you know, that’s one of my favorite parts is that you don’t always know what you’re going to get. [Laughs]
NZ: So, I’m a big listener of NPR as well, but I can never seem to catch the shows that I really want to catch. Is Ask Me Another going to be online for people to listen to?
JC: It is, it’s already online as a podcast alongside all the other NPR shows. And I don’t know all the stations that it’s on but it’s on quite a few around the country. It’s still sort of finding it’s time slot in a number of markets. You know, NPR moves very slowly. They have a lot of established shows, and so sneaking a new one in is a nontrivial task. But they’re coming back for a second season, we’re doing some shows this fall, and it’s now co-produced by WNYC, which is the station here in New York City. And it’s going to be airing weekly. You know, that’s sort of the target is to have it be a weekly show. So people should check their local listings or check it out in podcast, yeah.
NZ: And is it just on the NPR main website?
JC: Yeah, if you just Google ‘NPR Ask Me Another‘ I’m sure you’ll find it.
NZ: Okay, cool. Now, also on the NPR thing, has anyone compared you to a Snuggie recently?
JC: [Laughs] Not recently. But I feel like once is enough. It doesn’t have to happen all the time.
NZ: [Laughs] Right.
JC: Yeah. You’re referring of course to the Planet Money podcast.
NZ: Right, the interview that they did with you on your success as an independent musician.
JC: Uh-huh, in which the NPR music blog people compared me to a Snuggie, I guess sort to say that….You know, the discussion was about ‘can a musician use the internet to be successful, independent of a record label?’ which is sort of a ridiculous question because obviously the answer is ‘YES!’ But, yeah, they had some people from the NPR music blog on to talk about me and I think from a cultural perspective they thought that I was sort of niche and kind of a novelty musician. And, I mean, they’re not totally wrong, but to my mind it sort of misses the point. And, you know, ultimately I think everybody is niche and anybody who has success in this business has pulled off some kind of magic trick because it’s not easy and the odds are certainly against you. So, you know, I am certainly helped by the fact that I have funny songs about monkeys and robots in my catalog and, you know, maybe there’s not a lot of room in the world for multiple artists who have funny songs about monkeys and robots, but I suppose we’ll see. The internet will decide.
NZ: [Laughs] Hopefully.
NZ: So I guess kind of in the same vein as that, can you pinpoint any differences between the creative processes of your recent album, Artificial Heart, and your Thing-A-Week series from a few years ago and how the creative process has kind of evolved for you?
JC: Yeah, you know, it’s very different and at the same time horribly the same. You know, Thing-A-Week was the first thing I did when I left my day job and I decided to publish a new song every Friday for a year, and it got very difficult very quickly. For me, writing a song is kind of excruciating. It’s hard to get started and it’s hard to get over the hump that I think a lot of people have when they’re working on anything creative where first you have an idea and you start fleshing it out and maybe that ten or fifteen percent in, you say, ‘This is terrible, this is no good, nobody’s going to like this, I’m not good at this’. And so Thing-A-Week was a constant struggle to get over that hump, and ultimately some weeks I just had to release something that I thought was no good and STILL think is no good. So it was very much a shotgun approach to creation, just, like, ‘keep going’. ‘Shotgun’ is not the right metaphor, but, you know, ‘keep writing, don’t worry about where you’re ending up. Just volume. Volume over quality’. And then, you know, when I worked on Artificial Heart, it was the first time I had worked with a producer. It was the first time I had played with a band. It was the first time I had worked in a professional studio. And so it was a very different experience. It was a lot more thoughtful on the front end and a lot more collaborative. John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants was the producer and, you know, before we recorded anything, there was a lot of back-and-forth about the songs and which lines were working and which tempos were working and all that stuff. And then teaching the band to play it became a bit of a creative process because they would bring stuff to it with how they played things and we would decide together how to arrange things. And then, of course, in the recording process there are a lot of people involved. So it was a much more constructed and less slapdash effort. That said, the terrible hump was still there, and is always going to be there. And in fact, that’s most of the job–getting over that hump. So, you know, that’s why I say, ‘as much as it was different, it was also horribly the same’.
NZ: Did you do all the writing for that, or did you have any help from…John Flansburgh?
JC: You know, I wrote everything. He would frequently suggest a word change here or, you know, ‘switch these verses,’ or ‘we need a section that does this’. So, you know, it was collaborative in that sense, in that I would write something and play it for him and he would say, ‘this part is good, this part is bad, maybe you could fix it this way’.
NZ: Okay. So, kind of to wind down, according to your Wiki page which I was looking at the other day, apparently Re: Your Brains appears in jukeboxes in Left 4 Dead 2, which I was not aware of partly because I didn’t play that game.
JC: That is correct.
NZ: Are there any other video games in which your music appears, either subtly or not-so-subtly? Of course, Portal is the obvious answer. And Portal 2.
JC: Yes. [Laughs] Portal and Portal 2. No, not that I’m aware of. But, of course if it’s a secret Easter Egg, maybe I don’t even know about it.
NZ: [Laughs] Okay, I gotcha. So what are you working on right now?
JC: Well, right now I have recently completed a Christmas album, an album of all-original Christmas music with one original Hanukkah song that I wrote and recorded with my friend John Roderick who is a musician in a band called The Long Winters [and] who lives in Seattle. He and I got together at the end of the summer and wrote a bunch of songs together and went into the studio and recorded them together. That will be out very soon and in plenty of time for Christmas, so I’m excited about that. There’s some really great stuff on it and it was fun to write with him. He’s a good friend and I think a great musician and songwriter. So that’s the newest thing. And then, you know, aside from that there’s always a lot of background radiation. I’m constantly planning tours in the future and of course the annual cruise, JoCo Cruise Crazy, is coming up in February. That’s a year-long project as well. So, you know, a lot of stuff going on always. And things that I can’t even talk about, he said mysteriously.
NZ: Oh, wow. Secret mysteries?
JC: Secret mysteries, that’s right.
NZ: I like it, I like it. [Laughs] Okay, so, that’s pretty much all of the stuff that I have. Do you have anything you’d like to add? Anything we didn’t touch on?
JC: No, I don’t think so. I feel like we covered most of it.
NZ: Okay, cool. Do you have any closing words of wisdom, any advise for anybody either about getting into the music industry or the music indepen…dence? I guess? Or otherwise?
JC: [Laughs] The only thing I will say is that, you know, people ask me all the time, ‘how did you do it and also how can I do that?’ and the answer is, ‘I don’t really know, and nobody does, and everybody is still figuring it out’. So, whatever the creative thing is that you do that you want to do professionally and for a wider audience, the best advise I can give you is [to] work very hard, make the best stuff you can make, and make a lot of it. And publish. Publish, publish, publish. That is the biggest thing that divides people that you have heard of and people that you have not heard of, is that the people you have heard of have all published, and usually they have published a lot before anything happens. You know, there’s no real secret other than doing the work and putting it out there.
Editorial, Column, Music Monday Tags: aliens, Artificial Heart, Ask Me Another, JoCo, John Flansburgh, John Roderick, jonathan coulton, monkeys, NPR, Portal, Robots, Space Doggity, still alive, Thing-A-Week, You Ruined Everything, zombies
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