Thing a Week Redux

5 years ago Jonathan Coulton (that's me) started a project called Thing a Week, in which I released newly recorded song every Friday for a year. I'm replaying it in real time here with all the songs and the text from the original posts.

Oct 4

Thing a Week 52: We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions

Unbelievably, we are here. Thanks to all of you who sent in hand claps – every one of them is in there. It was very charming how almost all of you apologized for the quality of the recording, and suggested that I just throw it away and forget about it if it was unusable. I have taught you well – always, ALWAYS doubt yourself.

I’m sad and relieved that it’s the end. It’s been a really amazing trip from 1 to 52, and I can’t thank all of you enough for the many different kinds of support you’ve offered me over this last year. If you bought a CD, if you bought a song, if you sent a donation, if you drew a picture, if you made a video, if you stole a song and passed it along to a friend, if you babysat while I recorded vocals, even if you just wrote me to tell me you like the music, you are one of the reasons that this lasted a whole year. The difference between my life then and my life now is enormous, and it’s all because of you. And while the standard rich and famous contract continues to elude me, in the ways that really matter I am filthy, stinking rich.

Thank you.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: The audacity! The nice thing about covering a song like this is that it takes the pressure off - you can always blame your failure to excel on the original being so iconic and irreplaceable. Though I think we did pretty well all things considered. Getting the hand claps from everyone felt absolutely correct, and the scope of the song is huge and epic, which seemed important. Once I’d hit on this as the final song, I couldn’t think of anything that fit better.

I couldn’t get the boom claps right, so I got them wrong in a different way. There are plenty of mix and arrangement problems I can hear, but boy was I tired of solving those! I love the way it veers into the instrumental section at the end of We Will Rock You with the slide guitar and the sweeping vocals. The slow picky arrangement of We Are the Champions works pretty well I think, and the understated nature of it gives the whole thing a fresh coat of poignant. Arranging it as a sad song is somewhat predictable given my tendencies, but still appropriate. It’s always sounded to me like a slightly depressing, “non-victory” victory song. “No time for losers cuz we are the champions of the world” - sounds a lot like a Jonathan Coulton character to me. Pathetic but proud, no self-knowledge, tragically sure of himself. Possibly a monkey or a robot (technically, you can’t tell if it is a monkey or robot or not, I’m just saying).

Just like in Thing a Week five years ago, here I am at the end and I’ve already said a tearful goodbye last week. What a relief! I’m not sure what to say, except thank you again and again and again. There was no reason at all to suspect that this ridiculous plan was going to work. The only reason it did was because of the various kinds of support I got from complete strangers all over the web and all over the world. I am grateful, always.

It’s a strange time for musicians and the business that lives around them. It’s a simple truth that For Sale competes with Free in the digital realm. That’s just the way it is. We don’t get to decide if it’s good for us or not, because we’ve already demonstrated that this is the way we want things to work. So now we have to figure out what to do.

In my experience, For Sale wins often enough that it doesn’t matter what’s happening on the Free side. This may not be true for everyone. You could argue that people only pay for things because the iTunes store came along and made it slightly easier to buy than to steal. You could suggest that the only reason it works for me is because I write funny songs about monkeys and robots. You could predict that in ten years, the downward trend of the value of a song in mp3 form will lead us to a place where music is free. I might grant you all of those things, but I still think we’re going to be fine. Music isn’t going away - it was here long before we figured out a way to make money from it, and it will be here at least until the day we all upload our brains into the giant universe-shaped computer and disappear. The music business is an accident, a side-effect, an unintended consequence; music comes from humans.

I’m immensely proud of Thing a Week, partially because of what I accomplished, but more because of what WE accomplished. My plan, if you can call it that, was to concede victory to Free at the start. You guys pay me anyway, almost as if you “like music” and “want to support musicians.” Dummies.

Thank you for everything.

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at

Sep 27

Thing a Week 51: Summer’s Over

Isn’t it though? Here’s the thing – this is song #51, and the next one is #52 and I’m freaking out. It was very hard to write this one. You can imagine how much pressure I’m feeling at this point to wrap the whole thing up with a couple of really kick-ass songs about monkeys and robots, really blow everybody’s mind. As a result, I can’t think of anything really interesting to say about monkeys or robots. So this one’s just about somebody leaving somebody else at the end of the summer (hint: no it’s not, it’s about the end of Thing a Week).

It was especially hard because I knew something you didn’t, which is that this is the last song I’ll write for Thing a Week. Next week is going to be a cover. Why yes, it is a cop out. But really, I can’t imagine writing something that’s as appropriate as this cover song will be – you’ll see. It just feels right to me.

Speaking of which, I need a little something from you folks to make it happen. If you have the capability to record decently (no built-in laptop microphones please), I would like you to record a single hand clap and email it to me. Your best hand clap please, mp3 is fine as long as it’s a pretty decent bitrate. By doing so you agree to let me use it for whatever I want from now until the end of time without getting any sort of credit for it, ever. But you’ll be on a CD.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Of all the songs that I can’t remember writing, this one feels the most like it was implanted in my history by space aliens. No idea. I was playing it close to the vest in the blog, keeping it light, but there was definitely some heavy emotional stuff going on about the approaching end of Thing a Week.

I’ve always had trouble with transitions. I get obsessed with the borders between things - everything that came before this moment was X, everything after will be Y. I can’t help but try to unpack that moment, savor it, hate it. Birthdays, graduations, moving day, they’re all terrible. All that stuff functioned as a multiplier for the standard weekly performance anxiety, which had been growing larger all year anyway. It was overwhelming. So I tricked me, and I made this one the last one. I basically left without saying goodbye (though technically I do say goodbye quite a few times in this song).

I have a vague memory of still having large gaps in the lyrics during the recording process, so I’m betting that this song really didn’t get started until Thursday or Friday. There are a couple of clunker lines in there, and sitting here with all this distance, they seem incredibly easy to fix. Or maybe I just write differently now. Anyway, I forgive myself for the melodrama with all the flowers dying and the cold wind, because I absolutely love the kicker lines at the ends of the verses. And the middle section with the lonely accordion and the a cappella singing group vocals sounds positively cinematic to me. All in all, it feels pleasantly unfamiliar enough to convince me that during this period, I was really WRITING in a way I never had before.

That bit about goodbyes moving in circles hits me hard here in this hotel room in wherever-I-am. Five years ago I was finishing Thing a Week, feeling proud and hopeful about the possibilities, but coming up on a scary stretch of unknown territory - what now? Hodgman’s first book was out and I was about to accompany him on his big book tour. I was just starting to do my own shows in other cities. I was gearing up to release all the Thing a Week songs as albums. I was ready to admit that this was my job. It was the end of TAW but the beginning of everything else, very much a time of LAUNCHING things. None of which was at all obvious to me at the time.

And now here I am in this hotel room in wherever-I-am, on tour with They Might Be Giants. They’ve got a new album out, I’ve got a new album out, I’ve got this new band, all these new songs about grownup things. Hodgman has another new book coming out and is about to start touring. So here we are again, five years later, and I’m truly grateful and amazed, but still facing the same scary stretch of unknown territory. What now?

I like to play the game where I imagine going back to tell five-years-ago me what was about to happen to him. There’s no way he would believe it. And I think that’s what really gets me about these transitions, the idea that the end of this thing you know is really just the beginning of this thing you haven’t met yet. It seems like there should be a way to see that new thing, to figure it out ahead of time instead of blindly stumbling across it. Of course you can’t - that’s precisely the difference between the future and the past. And here we all are, eternally stuck in the present, where all you can do is close your eyes, put your head down, and go.

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at

Sep 17

Thing a Week 50: Pull the String

This appears to be about a famous person with a terrible secret. It’s not about anyone in particular as far as I know. Maybe it’s about you – Tom Cruise! Or you – John Hodgman! It kind of reminds me of Big Bad World One, mostly because of the A/E ambiguity in the verse. Believe it or not, that acoustic riff in the verse is an idea that’s been floating around in my head since I was about 17 – it’s a relief to finally get that one out the door. Who’s next!

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: I am listening now to this song for the first time in five years - I’ve never played this one live, haven’t really thought about it since the day I uploaded it. Love that E over A thing. I am realizing now it reminds me of the piano lick between verse couplets in the Donald Fagen song “New Frontier” (oops, sorry Donald). Mix needs a lot of help, I seem to have layered myself into muddy territory during the pre choruses. Whoa, right, forgot about this bridge - what the? Abrupt, chopped off ending for extra drama, got it.

OK. Some good and bad here. On the plus side, I think most of the music is coming from an original place, or at least I don’t hear the endless parade of standard JoCo tricks I usually resort to when I’m out of ideas. Maybe that’s just because it’s been so long since I’ve heard this song that I don’t even remember how to play it right now, but the chord changes sound kind of fresh but catchy, which is the whole point of a pop song. I like the textural change-ups a lot, the way it gets big and small and loud and quiet. I was ashamed of the bridge the first time I heard it again, but listening a second time I think it’s kind of nice - it’s all new territory within the song, and I think the buildup thing works pretty well with the noisy guitars and everything. All of that stuff sounds to me like at least I was still inventing things at this point. Guitars are not awful. Lead vocal performance actually has a nice vibe to it, as if I cared about what I was singing, which is not always something I am able to capture when I’m singing into a microphone.

The biggest problem for me is the lyrics. I fell into the classic trap where the song is just about one thing and every line is just another way to describe that thing in a not very interesting way. Those kinds of songs can certainly work, but this one centers on a pretty nonspecific and low stakes idea, and it simply doesn’t generate much heat. Also, there are a bunch of phrases in there that sound a little pat to me: “they all want in,” “underneath your skin,” “call your lawyer.” It sounds like a Glen Frey song from 1984, where you’re “in the night” and this or that thing is “dangerous” because something is happening “in your heart” or maybe “on the streets of this city.” Oy.

I’ve written a lot of songs like this in my life, ones that should be good but are not because they lack some essential unnameable thing. This is the one you leave off the album, or you put aside for a while and then try re-writing later once you have starved it of enough attention that it’s ready to play ball. With more time I might have solved the problem by finding something personal to write about - not me necessarily, any person would do (I know tons of secrets about ALL SORTS of famous people). As it is, most of it sounds like me filling up space until the writing is done, rather than being compelled to tell a story or explore a character that legitimately interests me. You don’t have to get mad to write an angry song, but it does help to think about a time when you WERE mad and play off the details. Specificity makes things interesting, even if it’s secret specificity that nobody else will understand but you. Sometimes especially if it’s secret specificity - am I right, Charles R. in Santa Fe?

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at

Sep 12

weirdojace-deactivated20111219 said: So when you're done sharing your thoughts on Thing A Week, will you share your thoughts on the songs from The Aftermath as well?

I think that’s a fine idea. I may also extend it on through the songs from Artificial Heart if I’m feeling frisky.

Thing a Week 49: Make You Cry

Sometime in this week I found this guitar figure that hypnotized me into playing it for about a hundred hours straight. I wish I had picked something that was a little easier to play, because it drove me crazy during the recording process. My poor, stubby little fingers! I don’t think I’ve done a song for Thing a Week that’s just guitar and vocals, and this one seemed particularly suited to it, so there you are. It’s another love song from a crazy person – this guy wants to win the girl so he can punish her for not loving him. I guess. He certainly seems confused and angry and sad. Do NOT hang out with him.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Yeah hey, this one’s a pretty song isn’t it? People ask all the time, which comes first, words or music? In this case it was definitely music, I spent the week pacing around, playing and building this guitar part long before I had any idea what the song would be about. This style of guitar playing reminds me of You Ruined Everything, Drinking with You, and also So Far So Good: picky and folky, thumb working the bass notes. It’s kind of a Bob Dylan via Paul Simon thing. It’s very satisfying to me musically because I get to do everything - it’s a real ARRANGEMENT, not just a bunch of strummy chords.

Guitar part is doubled and very hard to play, so it’s no wonder it took me a while to record. I’ve done this live a few times with Paul and Storm, and my fingers are still not great at playing it. Bridge: three part harmony, all bluegrass-like, brings a tear to my eye it does. There’s something about the sound of those simple harmonies that plugs right into my emotional ache center. All in all I’d say this is a pretty good effort.

This is one of many I’ve written in the category of “songs about assholes.” It’s a classic song writing trick - start from a moment where you were the wronged party, and then write from the perspective of the bad guy. “I broke your heart” is a lot more interesting than “You broke my heart.” And it’s perversely fun to try to get inside the head of someone who is clearly crazy, or evil, or otherwise out of balance. What this guy’s doing doesn’t even really make any sense, it’s just an extremely unhealthy obsession that’s probably super annoying to everyone involved. It’s a twisted concept, and set in such a sweet sounding musical context it crosses wires in all sorts of pleasing ways.

This is very near the end of Thing a Week. I’m getting sad all over again.

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at

Sep 7

Thing a Week 48: The Big Boom

Last weekend when I was staying with some friends in Pennsylvania, there was a very loud noise that woke me up. It was thunder. But it was crazy thunder – it seemed to last about a minute and a half, and it wasn’t a bang, it was this huge, diffuse roar. And after it stopped all the car alarms were going off. It sounded like the end of the world.

At least that’s what I thought when I sat bolt upright in bed and reached for my car keys and a weapon. My first thought, probably before I was fully awake, was that someone or something had scraped Philadelphia out of the Earth, and that I was going to have to grab some provisions, get in the car and head north. I don’t know why this would be my default explanation for a loud noise. I suppose it means I’m a little on edge.

At first this was about a loud boom that led to nothing, but it didn’t take long before I realized it would be better if it was about a loud boom that really did signify the end of the world. The Big Boom. And then I changed Philadelphia to Michigan because there are too many syllables in Philadelphia. The rest of it writes and records and mixes itself!

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: This track suffers quite a bit from my DIY home studio limitations. No drummer, that’s the worst part. The loop libraries I have usually let me get pretty close to faking it, but I can really hear in this track that it’s just canned drums, there’s just no blood and guts in there. I’m also just generally not good at rocking onto tape. Of all the styles of music I tried to produce during Thing a Week, this was the hardest to get right - I think there’s a lot more subtlety to the recording and mixing process with this genre than you might think. It also helps to have a real amp, and some people who can really play. I like to rock, I just don’t always know how.

Things I like: the riff in the verse, the background vocals in the chorus, the minor major 7th chord at the end of the chorus, the bass guitar’s solo moment at the end of the bridge/solo section.

Things I don’t like: the general lack of testicles, the reappearance of one of my favorite harmonic crutches (the walkdown from F# minor, as seen in Chiron Beta Prime), the meh bridge/solo section (I need 16 bars of something, STAT!), and something about the vocal that I can’t put my finger on but has a lot to do with me not knowing how to make rock music.

Lyrically it gets close, but I think there’s just too much exposition, too much specificity and not enough evocative language. The guy is explaining too much, he should be more emotional and less able to express clearly what’s going on. Or at least that would be one direction to try, it could just be a flawed concept.

I still remember that feeling of waking up that night, that thing where your body’s awake but your brain is not, where you’re all pre-mammalian impulse and you just want to GET OUT. I think it’s what people refer to as night terrors, and it has happened to me only a couple of times. I was under some stress - great things were happening, but a lot was still hanging in the air somewhere between success and failure. Thing a Week One had just been put up at CDBaby, I was doing a bunch of Hodgman book tour stuff, and I was just setting up my very first all-me, out of town show in Seattle. It was also nearly the end of Thing a Week. I was tired of my weekly songwriting deadline, but I was also staring into an uncertain void at the end of it, riding right into a wall of clouds.

Which is not dissimilar to how I’m feeling now. Have I mentioned this new album? I have? Well, it’s called Artificial Heart, and it’s available for purchase on my website, and coming soon to all your favorite digital stores. I’m very proud of it, and I’m getting great feedback from lots of people, but it doesn’t make me worry any less. The last few years have been pretty amazing, and the old songs know exactly what to do - these new ones are just babies. They could fall! On top of that, I’m still feeling a little stretched in the danger department, getting ready to travel around for three weeks with a band opening for They Might Be Giants (who do I think I am exactly?).

Fittingly for this post, this September leg of touring ends in Philadelphia - AS WILL THE WORLD!

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at

Aug 27

Thing a Week 47: I’m Your Moon

A few people suggested I do a song about Pluto, and I thought it was a fine idea. It was turning around in my head last week when the first line of the chorus came to me, as if from deep space.

As you certainly know by now, Pluto is not a planet anymore. Just yesterday the International Astronomical Union made it official by redefining “planet.” Pluto is a now considered a dwarf planet, along with a few other small, icy spherical things out there. Obviously very upsetting to Pluto. As you are also no doubt aware, Pluto’s moon Charon is kind of unusual: it’s about half the size of Pluto, which is pretty large for a moon. And it doesn’t orbit around Pluto, they actually orbit around each other, faces locked, like dancers. You wouldn’t be crazy to think of them as a double dwarf planet.

What I’m getting to is this: Charon sings this song to Pluto.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: This is probably an even more impenetrable riddle song than Under the Pines. I forget because it’s so obvious to me that it’s about Pluto, but listening just now I realize there’s not really any way you’d know that unless I told you. In spite of that, it’s become an important part of the repertoire, especially in the live acoustic show.

One reason for that is that it’s a better song. Actually in my opinion it’s a little hacky - it’s a “space song,” you know, I can hear myself dipping into the bag of tricks for stuff that sounds like that. The Aadd2, the slathered reverb and delay. But the concept works so much better - this song expresses a more specific and complicated sentiment than what’s going on with Leonard Nimoy and Bigfoot. So even if you don’t know the story, it still comes across as meaningful and sweet and kind of deep. Also there’s no style parody happening (just some slightly lazy writing and arranging). I give myself points for some interesting guitar playing instead of just strummy strummy all the time. And the way the bridge wheezes to a disorienting stop feels like a good choice. Less reverb was called for though, for sure.

This is one of those songs that a lot of people really latch onto. I just got a little weepy while listening to it because I thought of all the stories people have told me about singing it to their newborns and playing it at their weddings. I was just thinking about Pluto when I wrote it, but since it left my hands it’s been infused with the essence of all these other relationships. And so now the Pluto thing really is just a metaphor, and when I hear it or sing it I think about all those real people feeling things. Which is awesome - I love hearing that songs of mine have taken up residence in people’s emotional lives. That’s the point of songs, isn’t it?

I have no memory of writing this one either.

Listening just now, I realize that the lyrics and melody have evolved a little over the years of me playing this on the acoustic. Small changes, but they stick out - I think I’m more a fan of the acoustic version. That’s one of the side effects of the breakneck pace of Thing a Week, where the writing happened mere hours away from the final, permanent recording. (Yeesh, just writing it out that way makes it sound like a bad idea.) There was never any time for a song to sit and breathe and grow up. I still think this is a good song and I’m very proud of it, but I think it had more to give.

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at

Aug 22

angelastic said: In your 2008 interview with Bry and Jinx from the forums, talking about opening for P&S, you said 'Now that I can play for an audience that has come to see me? I never want to do anything else. I just don't have the time or the energy to beat my head against the wall that is an audience that has never heard me before. If you're a fan, great! Come to the show. If you're not a fan, I can't help you.' So… with that in mind, what's it like opening for TMBG, and how long till they open for you? ;-)

I think that my experience would be very different if I were opening for a band that wasn’t so close to my universe. Opening for TMBG has been great. For one thing, our fanbases overlap quite a bit, so there’s always a vocal cluster of JoCo fans making me feel like people actually want me there. And many of those TMBG fans who aren’t JoCo fans are also predisposed to BECOME JoCo fans, since, you know, TMBG and I are Pandora neighbors. So I do hope that expansion is one of the benefits of this opening band gambit, but I also am confident that we’re all going to have a good time whether that happens or not.

They will never open for me, they are rock stars.

Aug 19

Thing a Week 46: You Ruined Everything

I was having a conversation with a friend who had recently become a parent, and she reminded me of something I had forgotten about since my daughter was born. She was describing this what-have-I-done feeling – I just got everything perfect in my life, and then I went and messed it all up by having a baby. I don’t feel that way anymore, but the thought certainly crossed my mind a few times at the beginning. Eventually you just fall in love and forget about everything else, but it’s not a very comfortable transition. I compare the process to becoming a vampire, your old self dies in a sad and painful way, but then you come out the other side with immortality, super strength and a taste for human blood. At least that’s how it was for me. At any rate, it’s complicated.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: This is one of those songs that I feel grateful to have found. It’s by far the most directly personal song in Thing a Week, and probably in my entire catalog. I love it because it expresses how I really feel about this very important part of my life without ducking for cover cover behind a giant squid or a mad scientist character. It’s a love letter to my kids, one that I think has enough emotional complexity in it that they’ll understand it over and over again in different ways as they get older. Or not. My daughter recently asked me, “Daddy, is there a different kind of ruined?” Well yeah, sort of.

Personal songs feel perilous to me. It’s scary to reveal what I think and feel about something, even in conversation with a single person, let alone with the whole internet. There’s the risk that I’ll reveal something about myself that I think is universal, and instead everyone will finally know what a monster I am. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this one - I’ve heard from lots of parents that this hits pretty close to home, and even from some non parents who find that this describes their romantic relationships pretty well. Those fears aside, I find it very hard to say honest things about myself in a song without it sounding like the sappy, maudlin, navel gazing stuff I used to write in high school. Somehow I got away with it here, but usually if you describe how you feel about something and then just make it a song lyric, it stinks. That’s why it’s often easier and somehow MORE honest to start with an imaginary point of view and let your true self sneak in. 

I have no memory of writing this song.

If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t just do a plain old acoustic/vocal recording. I’ve been performing it live that way for years, and it just works better that way. It’s a simple song, and it communicates just fine without any bells and whistles. I like tucking it away at the end of the set, a little quiet moment when I can close my eyes and think about my kids, far away, fast asleep in Brooklyn.

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at

Aug 13

Thing a Week 45: Mr. Fancy Pants

I tried to write something else, believe me. But this stupid line about Mr. Fancy Pants having the fanciest pants just wouldn’t get out of my head, so I was forced to follow it through to whatever this is. I’ll warn you, it’s a short one. A nice little amuse bouche (but for your ears). Even so I kind of like it – some kind of strange morality lesson about beating Mr. Fancy Pants at his own game. Or something. Anyways!


I remember a moment from this week when I was riding my bike around Prospect Park with the first line of this song stuck in my head, and wishing it would leave so I could get to work on WRITING SOMETHING. I would often ride when I needed to clear my head and find a new idea. I found that if I put my body into some kind of autopilot mode - riding, walking, driving - it would sometimes occupy just enough of my brain’s bandwidth to shut off the censors, and then something would bubble up. It didn’t always work, and in this case I ended up right where I started, with the same dumb non-idea I was trying to escape.

As it turns out, this song was a good one, though you never could have guessed. All I had was a bouncy feel, a not-really-rhyming line about pants, and an otherwise empty idea bin. I decided to try writing without a subject, just following the words where they led. In this case they led back to pants. It’s not about anything really, though it certainly pretends to be. I like how it leaves you at the end, with a hollow victory over who knows what, not really knowing how you’re supposed to feel or who the villain was.

I love the chords in the bridge. They’re something I found more with my fingers than with my brain. It’s almost like this song was generated by the non-thinking parts of me, by the systems level utilities - sitting down and typing gibberish until something gets traction. Strangely, it was the first time I tried this technique during Thing a Week, and I wish I had surrendered to it earlier. I relied on it quite a bit for this new album, and it often led to much more honest and personal expression than I could have gotten to otherwise. It’s very hard to write about nothing for very long, and the real stuff sneaks out of you when you’re not looking.

I was certainly thinking of They Might Be Giants once I got to the recording process - accordion plus electric guitar, keep it short and sweet, make it fun. I wanted it to sound like a marching band falling down some stairs. Of course the real magic in this song wasn’t released until I began performing it live on the Zendrum, at which point I was finally able to get to how it really sounded in my head when I first found it, which is to say “insane and kind of about pants.”

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at


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