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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS:
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.”
Enough with the bigfoots and zombies, this one is pretty straightforward subject matter. The headline is “Sadsack Can’t Find Love,” which is just about as classic as it gets. I have spent more time than I would like to admit hanging out by the food table at parties, because it makes me look like I’m busy with something instead of just afraid to talk to anybody.
I like the way the title phrase sounds out of context – it seems like maybe it might mean something, but you can’t really say what. And I’m incredibly relieved to have broken out of the endless series of sad songs in the key of D that I appear to have been working on. It feels nice to do something a little different. This one’s in A, D and G! Crazy!
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Right on. I love this song. Many classic JoCo tricks in there, but somehow it all adds up to something that sounds pretty fresh to me. Put down a nice crispy bed of doubled acoustic guitars and your pop song will sleep comfortably, that’s for sure. Our old friend the m7b5 chord is there (surprise!) in the kicker line of the chorus (“me zero”), but it’s not in the same role it usually is when I deploy it - I don’t have the patience right now to figure out what it’s doing there exactly, it’s probably best understood a substitution for something else. Doesn’t matter, it’s delicious!
(Requisite comment about the mix/arrangement: not enough dynamic range. Oh well.)
There’s a lot about this song I don’t quite get harmonically. It starts with this AM7 suspension thing (stolen from Code Monkey chorus, later redecorated for Pull the String) that’s weirdly ambiguous - it’s actually kind of an E chord played over A. By the end of the first line of the verse we’ve sort of shifted to D as the tonal center. And then in the prechorus we just bust into a section in G like it’s nothing. And then of course that great moment at the end of the bridge where the harmonies hold over the change from a Cadd6 to that AM7 thing. I just love all that wandering. There’s probably some nice music theory that can “explain” all this jumping around any number of ways (I mean, probably?), but what I like about it’s weird, but it’s still nice and pop-friendly. It’s rare that I sit down to strum on a guitar and come up with something that feels new.
The prechorus was a little atom that floated around in my ideas folder for a long time before this song got written, and it just kind of got sucked up into this song. Aside from that fact, I remember almost nothing about writing this one. I just remember how I felt in those weeks. I was out on the edge. Every song was a struggle that started with complete despair. I made decisions quickly and didn’t look back. I had no idea if what I was doing was good or not.
There were a couple of moments during the end of the writing process for this new album where I felt like that - and it felt good in that, “I’m running a triathalon, ow!” way - all tapped out and still somehow things coming out of me. Like getting food poisoning. I can’t possibly have anything left in there, can I? And then too I found the same strange room that I always forget about, the room where all the good songs are. Every time I find myself in that room I think “Well hmm, this is quite nice all these good songs lying around, why don’t I come here all the time?” It’s just that it takes an awful lot of effort and pain to get there.
The songs from this part of Thing a Week are my favorites, I think largely because of their mysterious origins. They came from outer space. They happened during the stretch when I was most able to forget about myself. Maybe I like them because they don’t feel like they’re mine.
Not many people know this, but when Leonard Nimoy did the Bigfoot episode of “In Search Of…” he and the creature hooked up one night and had this crazy fling. These kinds of things never end well, but Bigfoot in particular is a bit of a cad anyway (being mostly wild animal). As you might imagine, Leonard Nimoy came out of the experience somewhat worse for wear.
I’m almost sure that I have stolen this melody from somewhere, or maybe parts of it from lots of places, it sounds very familiar to me. And the bassline – hello? Blue Bayou? At first this was just a “bigfoot broke my heart” song, but I wasn’t getting a lot of traction. It wasn’t until I realized that it was Leonard Nimoy talking that it came together for me. There are just a couple of subtle references to Spock in there, and bigfoot’s name is never mentioned, so if you’re haven’t read this explanation you are either confused, or blissfully unaware that it’s about Bigfoot and Leonard Nimoy. Godspeed.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Ah, a classic Thursday desperation song. Never in a million years would I have TRIED to write this song, rather I only would have ALLOWED it to happen in the absence of any other alternative.
Not that it’s so terrible. I actually think this one deserved a better place in JoCo history than it got. I like the melody, it’s simple but pretty solidly built. There are some nice moments in the lyrics, in particular I love the “bag of suet” joke, and I love the entirety of the third verse. In terms of solving the puzzle (describing a love affair between Bigfoot and Leonard Nimoy without mentioning either one) it succeeds very well. Here are the problems:
Arrangement - pfft. Not a lot there. It starts from style parody, which is always a dangerous game, especially when you veer away from the style and just start throwing stuff at the wall without caring if it sticks. The terrible chorus guitar in the choruses and those background vocals just don’t make sense to me, and they’re there only because I didn’t come up with anything else to fill the space. At the end of the day I really just copped a bassline.
Subtlety - almost nobody who hears this song figures out that it’s about Bigfoot and Leonard Nimoy. It’s too clever by half. I can’t imagine what you would think of this song if you didn’t know what it was about. It would just seem bizarre, unfunny, and not very interesting.
Goofballism - obviously I am trapped by this a lot. It’s rare to come across a song that is completely goofy and still emotionally stirring enough to matter to someone. Many would say that’s my wheelhouse, and in fact I just wrote myself a new bio in which I claimed that it was. I frequently try for that combination, and it feels wonderful when I hit it right, but the truth is I fail more often than not. When you write about goofy things, you’re giving all the other songs in the world a head start. I failed to back this one up with much of anything, and I think that’s why it fails to achieve liftoff.
To be clear, I am not anti-goofball. There’s nothing wrong with funny music, I don’t care what you say. I listened to Weird Al’s latest album Alpocalypse and was reminded that while there’s a ton of funny music out there, only a small fraction of it is done really well. Weird Al is the undisputed champion, and he elevates the genre like nobody else because he’s got a great musical brain and has honed the hell out of his craft.
It doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re doing, death metal or novelty songs, it has to be honest and it has to be great.
I don’t know what’s going on with this one, I just decided earlier this week that it was time to write a song about a creepy doll. I was thinking about various 70s horror movies that scared the hell out of me when I was a kid. Back then you didn’t need to torture people with chainsaws and drills to make a scary movie, it was enough just to have a doll that kept showing up. Or maybe a clown. I couldn’t keep a straight face though, somewhere in the middle of the song the doll just becomes not so much creepy as annoying. And before you post it in the comments, yes I know that it sounds like Bacteria in the beginning – it’s the same Glock sound and the same key, and kind of the same music. Sue me. We’re on song number 42 here people…
Also, just a little merch plug: I’ve just added T-shirts for “Re: Your Brains” to my CafePress store. The image is the song lyrics typed in memo form decorated with a delightful blood spatter. Buy zombies, buy!
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Yes, well, victory of course. This has become an important part of the repertoire. I didn’t know it at the time obviously, you never do. As a recording I don’t think it’s super great - I find it too slow, though part of that is because I’ve been playing it a lot faster live. And I wrote beyond my abilities on the guitar. I can imagine it being a lot more awesome when played by someone who can really play. Some nice elements in there I guess, though they sound a little pat to me now. I was already bracing myself for criticism about using the same spooky music box trick I used in Bacteria (and would later use in Still Alive). The reverse thing at the end is cool, but I had a devil of a time getting it to smoothly transition from the forward version to the reversed version.
Song-wise, I think it’s a good one. The chord progression sounds kind of unique to me, it wanders and is spooky, but doesn’t really hit you over the head with the usual spooky music tricks. And it’s funny, but it has enough subtlety to it that it doesn’t get too annoying. I do love the turn when you realize the doll is just kind of irritating. And the twist at the end, while standard in this genre, feels CORRECT anyway. I was thinking about that Stephen King story with the wind-up monkey, and I was thinking of the doll in Trilogy of Terror, and probably a couple other things I can’t remember.
That line about “if you really need that much honey” actually comes from my past. I had a girlfriend in high school whose Dad had a reputation in the family for being something of a type-A personality, and it’s true, he was absolutely nuts about turning lights off, not wasting food, and saving money. For some reason he bought powdered milk, mixed it up, and then served that to his family in equal proportions with regular whole milk - WHY? Nobody knows. He was the kind of guy who would gingerly slide the turn signal arm into place when he turned on the blinker, because he wanted the switch to last a long time. He drove everyone crazy. There was a framed photo somewhere in the house of him posed and smiling in a suit. His son, my girlfriend’s older brother, had taped a little comic-style talk bubble to it that said “Hey! Do you really need that much jelly?” I thought it was a hilarious character assassination, so I stole it for this.
It’s all the little secrets you have about where things come from that make you feel a little fraudulent sometimes. The audience see a magic trick, but I see a box with a trap door in it that I bought at the magic store. I know that’s how everybody works, because I’ve seen bits of my life in things that my friends have created. It feels good, like a little secret shout out. And then I wonder about this particular reference. Does that family remember that joke as well as I do? And have they heard this song and did they recognize it?
I was thinking about how with seahorses, the males are the ones who carry the fertilized eggs until they hatch. And then of course I started thinking of a sad seahorse, whose female had left him alone to care for the kids – AGAIN. I’m pretty sure this is not actually the way things really are for seahorses. But if it was, you know, this song would make sense.
I can’t believe we’re on Thing a Week V.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Goink! Thing a Week V? Apparently I still hadn’t done the math to figure out the factors of 52. Ten is not a factor of 52, that’s sort of obvious. I guess I was just thinking that albums were ten songs long? Which they’re not. Who knows!
I keep reviewing the other blog posts chronologically close to the original Thing a Week one, and around here is where I can recognize the beginnings of me becoming too busy to blog properly. I was falling behind on everything, and it has stayed that way ever since. One of the first things to go was my ability to keep on top of things that people were sending me - stuff they made, stuff they noticed that was cool or stuff they found that was about me. Early on when I wasn’t getting much of these, I had the time to lavish attention on them in a way that they deserved. I still find it remarkable that anybody cares, and I still treasure every little drawing, video, story, half-pony half-monkey monster that comes across my radar. Unfortunately if I spent as much time studying and celebrating them as I wanted to, I would: 1) have no time to make music, and 2) be absorbed into my own ego so completely that the heat from my self-love would explode our solar system. Lately I’ve been so busy falling behind on things that I don’t even have the mind space for Twitter - TWITTER! Who doesn’t have time for Twitter?
But hey, listen to the mix on this song would you? Not too shabby. Drum loop that’s not too egregiously out of place, those lush vocals in the chorus (the patented JoCo doubled, hard-panned SPREAD (not actually patented, or mine)). What’s nice about it is that it hangs together as a whole really well - usually I can hear all the little individual parts sticking out, but this sounds pleasantly cohesive to me. Bassline in the verses: aces. Edie Brickell tremolo guitar in the left channel: you’re welcome. And my favorite, the little rush at the end of the chorus, which I think is a guitar strum run backwards.
The song is pretty. A fine melody, maybe not a lot of meat in the lyrics. I was consciously trying to write simply, to write Hemingway lyrics. I remember thinking it would be a challenge to use all one-syllable words. Of course by making this about a Seahorse, I failed out of the gate, but it was a nice guiding principle. And it’s sweet, if a little fluffy and inconsequential.
The bridge shares some DNA with the B-section of the verses from “I Crush Everything.” I can’t remember the precise details anymore, but I think I remember that line about the waves above going up and down trying to sneak its way into “Crush.” Or maybe it was the other way around? Either way, two songs about sad sea creatures:they’re bound to sound like siblings.
Ah, the joys of travel. I actually enjoy browsing the SkyMall – never mind the delicious array of products for the person who already owns all the world’s products; the copy alone is worth the price of admission, which is zero, since Skymall is free. Look into it.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Um, excuse me, that is a fantastic intro - that little McCartney bass riff right before all the other instruments is CANDY. I was bracing myself for this recording to be not so good, but it’s pretty decent actually. Maybe a little too busy an arrangement, but I’m not quite sure how I pulled off such a totally believable guitar rock thing. I feel like that was an ongoing struggle through that year, one of my weaknesses that the process really hammered on until it was much less of a weakness. I think that by this time of the year I had figured it out pretty well. And hey, check out that bridge! The lyrics there crack me up, it’s an interesting but not jarring little harmonic shift, and the arrangement hits all the right spots for me with the delay on the vocal and the washy wall of sound.
I could have skipped that guitar solo. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not necessary. If I were to do this one today I’d take the bridge through some kind of fall apart moment and break the whole thing way down for the start of verse 3. I’m a fan of the verse 3 break down.
I also wish for a little more depth in the lyrics. I mean, the thing is about a guy who likes SkyMall, so I guess what are you gonna do? I fell into the trap of “list of ridiculous SkyMall items” in verse 2, but I’d say that failing is mitigated by the line about the Santa in which (in my mind anyway) the guy is talking to himself in the voice of SkyMall copy, as if he’s fallen completely under its sway. It’s a subtle thing, but I like it.
Really what would be excellent is if I could have gotten to a little more emotion. This guy’s on the road all the time, and he’s obviously got someone at home that he misses. “O’Hare is nice this time of year” is a pretty sad line when you think about it. And judging from my breathy vocal performance in that verse I was trying to convey a little sadness there. And I find a LOT of tragedy in the first line of verse 3 “I love you best when I’m away.” But all that gets swept away by the joke that the real reason he’s excited to get home is that he can’t wait to get his hands on the wine-holding bear statue. Honka honka! Again, the song is called SkyMall, it’s going to pull you in that direction pretty hard.
I don’t think I had a ton of travel under my belt at this point in the year, so maybe I hadn’t found that particular source of sadness yet. I had started doing a little touring, and of course having done long stretches with Hodgman on his book tour I had a taste of it. I always try to keep my tours as short as possible, because long trips tend to make me miserable. It’s a combination of highs and lows - the incredible rush and joy of playing for a crowd of people, alternating with large chunks of time waiting around, driving in vans, or counting Tshirts in crappy hotel rooms. It’s weirdly dehumanizing. I sometimes feel like pieces of my personality start to fall away - I go off twitter, I fail to contact friends that I have in town for the standard, unsatisfying rushed meal and catch-up conversation. And of course I miss my family and my home and all my stuff. SkyMall really isn’t that much of a comfort. I wish I were still young enough to just do drugs all the time - I get why that’s a thing in the rock and roll biz.
In September I’ll have a new record out and will be opening for They Might Be Giants for a stretch of over three weeks. That’s the longest I will ever have been out, and I’m curious to see to what extent I go to pieces. I’ll have a lot of company of course - my own band, plus all the TMBG guys who I know pretty well, so I’m certain it will be really fun. TMBG are serious, hard-working road warriors, and some of the people in that band have been dealing with long tours away from family for years and years, so maybe I’ll pick up some tips (or perhaps a couple of these).
In my school, it was Friday. The pizza wasn’t any good at all, but you can’t really argue with pizza at school can you?
Those of you who’ve spoken to me in the last 24 hours may be surprised that there’s a song here – until about 2:00 this afternoon I had pretty much nothing. I was all ready to blow it off and go play some tennis when this came to me. The music is an idea that’s been floating around in my head forever, but the sad guy singing about pizza was one of those things that just bubbled up from somewhere. It’s by necessity a pretty simple structure and arrangement, but I kind of like it that way. It’s economical. And recording it also felt very old school for some reason, reminded me of high school, sitting in my room at home with a four track cassette and a chorus pedal. And maybe a piece of pizza.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: One of the “bolt from the blue” songs, born of desperation and despair. I’m just now remembering that originally this melody had different lyrics: it was a love song for Dana Scully. No, I can’t remember them, and I wouldn’t share them with you if I could because they obviously were not good enough to graduate to song-dom. Even then it felt a little too on the nose.
Jeez, this one is a heartbreaker, it makes me really sad. The arrangement could use some work (duh, it was done in two hours), but those vocals at the end of the chorus are great. Still love the concept, though I probably could have eased up a little in verse two - one of the things I think I’ve learned how to do a lot better is write AROUND what I want to say instead of just saying it. There is certainly a bit of distance for this guy, he never says “me” or “I”, and that works pretty well. I do think the lyrics could be stronger if he didn’t directly address what he’s really worried about in verse two. Of course there’s something honest and simple about him talking about lunch tables and wanting it all to be over, but I often find that the knife twists more painfully when you don’t see it coming. Gah, I can picture this kid sitting alone with his little slice of pizza, make it stop.
And you know, I wasn’t the kind of kid in school who didn’t have friends at lunch, so I don’t know why it still hurts me so much to think of this character. In a general sense I was definitely a nerd. I had buck teeth, I liked math, I was pals with the teachers, but various class clown techniques kept my head above water. And then in junior high, one day I woke up and realized I was a gawky kid with the wrong clothes and the wrong haircut and a sweaty underarm problem and ridiculous giant glasses. I had a good friend who had made it across the barriers, maybe had always been there somehow, and I went to great efforts to model myself after him in all the right ways. I spent a couple years feeling extremely uncomfortable all the time about how I looked and moved and acted, and somewhere in there found my way to contact lenses and confidence. By high school I had figured out how to pass as a cool kid, though I was always terribly afraid someone would discover my secret, put glasses on me, and punch me in them.
But those kids. I remember their names still, sometimes even the odd way they walked or the twitchy thing they did with their eyes when they were socially panicked. The super smart kids who talked funny. The kids who really did sit alone, who really had no friends at all. I hope I was nice to them, I always tried to be a nice to everyone, but I bet I was a jerk sometimes. I certainly didn’t go out of my way to sit with them at lunch. And I still remember how it felt before I put on my cool kid skin, the blind fear that came with certain situations - the AWFUL feeling of being different and having someone call attention to it. That’s the worst thing I can imagine, having to slog all through your school years feeling that way. I’m glad I’m a super cool rock star now with no insecurities.
Oh, and I just got this, it’s about Friday isn’t it? Because of course at this point I was done with Fridays. That was by now the saddest day of the week for me because I was tired, and empty, and slowly shambling week by week toward the day when I could stop writing dumb songs.
This is the last song on Thing a Week Three, and this is where it starts to get really good.
I don’t know what it is with me and the office crushes – I haven’t had a job in almost a year so you know, it hasn’t really come up. But I find them very sweet, I think because offices are a lot like high school, which is the best time to have a crush. Except when you have an office crush, you are most likely old enough to drink, and so you can go out and get drunk with your crushee, which is also the best.
I am sensitive to the fact that some might misconstrue this song to be not so much a “sweet love song” and more a “pro-date-rape” song. This is not what I mean. I’m talking about that night long after the two of you both know very well what is going on but haven’t acted on it, and you make this mutual but kind of secret decision to “go out for drinks” – and you’re playing it cool on the outside but inside you’re jumping up and down and doing a one-person conga line singing “Going out for dri-hinks! Going out for dri-hinks!”
If you aren’t old enough to drink, don’t go out for drinks with your crush. It’s really not that awesome. Stay in school kids.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Yes, yes, yes. To my mind this is a nearly unqualified success - still love the song, not that embarrassed by the mix. I managed to not ruin this by over producing it. I even find the solo to be appropriate, interesting, and dare I say, well-executed (Ebow, baby). This kind of picky acoustic arrangement with the moving bassline is a trick I first discovered in “So Far, So Good” which was week 19. But the chord progression feels pretty fresh to me, there’s even some stuff in there that I’m not exactly sure what it is. I wrote the guitar part first, and it was one of those songs where I just played it and played it a million times before I knew what it was about. I don’t recall where the lyrics started coming to me, but my guess is that it was the kicker line in the chorus, “It’d be nice to go out drinking with you.”
And that’s a good line, if I do say so myself. It’s a concept I haven’t heard before in a love song, not in such a sweet setting anyway, and it feels slightly dangerous - like you shouldn’t talk about that feeling, and anyway if you try you’ll probably screw it up. You can hear my backpedaling in the blog post I wrote at the time. But it’s a real thing, at least it was for me back when I used to go out of the house after 6 PM. My wife and I never worked together, but the beginning of our romantic involvement (we were friends for a long time first) had a lot to do with drinking together at bars in big groups of friends. And that line about discreetly sharing a cab home comes from that period of time when we hadn’t yet gone public to our social circle. Those hours at the end of an already too long evening, trying to outlast everyone else so you can leave together without them noticing that you’re leaving together - that’s still my most direct nostalgic connection to my mid 20’s, and what passed for romance in New York City in those days.
I forget how directly I lift from my own life sometimes, and usually I don’t notice that I’m doing it. That seems crazy because of course, it’s me inside my head all the time. How did I trick myself into thinking I was writing about some imaginary office crush while not noticing until years later (today actually, just now) that I was writing a love song to my wife? It’s such a complete and total deception - when exactly did I stop paying attention to what I was thinking?
It’s a strange headspace, and I’ve found that I can most easily get there by writing when I really don’t feel like writing - 38 weeks of Thing a Week did the trick in this case. I’m sad that I have to write a song, but here I go. Shuffle sad over to sentimental, and then start making stuff up and see where it leads. It’s a kind of emotionally directed free association, and it’s almost pathetic how well it works once the right switches get flipped on. Because if you’re doing it right, free association is not really “free” at all. In fact it might be the only time you’re ever writing as YOU, because for once, you’ve taken your dumb, scared, self-hating self out of the equation. Something else takes over then, and it doesn’t feel like it’s you. There’s another voice in your head, and you are merely listening to it and repeating what it says.
This is that feeling of being directed by the muse, the kind of writing you can’t remember afterwards, and that somehow makes an end run around all your stupid emotional sentries and gets to something resonant and true. If I had set out to write a love song about my wife, I never in a million years would have started with the sentiment that I liked getting drunk with her back in 1995. I sure did though…
I went trolling for some interesting audio this week over at the Internet Archive – frankly, I’m a little sick of writing songs, and I wanted to flush out the system with a found audio thingie. I found this treasure trove, a collection of kids on cassette in the public domain (if you’ve never been to the Internet Archive, you should check it out – it’s non-profit with an enormous library of, like, everything). It brought back fond memories of yelling nonsense into the grill of a 40-pound tape recorder with a record button you had to lean on and mash down with your whole hand. And I was blown away by six-year-old Justin’s “Rock and Roll Boy,” which begins with the most fantastic opening lines in the history of rock and roll. So I wrote a song around Justin’s vocals. He wasn’t thoughtful enough to provide a third verse or a bridge, and he wandered a bit in terms of key, so I had to improvise. But I really think he had an actual song in his head. Which is more than I can say for myself some weeks…
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Well, hm. I find my backup vocals hilarious: “He loves to live in this crazy crazy town.” And I seem to remember it was quite a bit of work to get the audio to do what I wanted, so that part feels like an accomplishment. But I can’t really say I’d ever, you know, CHOOSE to listen to this song. I like the guitar solo, which is unusual. One thing I would do differently today is not make it three and a half minutes long - a lot of the songs from the new record are just barely two minutes, and they’re just fine that way. There’s just not enough material here to justify so long a song.
Boy was I tired! I can remember making the decision that I was not going to write anything that week, and how relieved I felt. At this point the relentlessness of the weekly schedule was kicking my ass. It was harder and harder to find ideas and tricks that I hadn’t already used at least a couple of times. I think that after you’ve written enough, that happens, in fact I still feel that way today. Like I’m cooking dinner and nobody’s gone shopping in years. Rice? I guess we could have rice again. Rice with chicken? Haven’t had chicken in a couple of meals. Maybe if I put these mushrooms in, nobody will notice that it’s still just rice and chicken. It’s either that or this can of cheese soup I’ve been staring at for six months. Fuck it, let’s open the can.
Ah, denial. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps you going. This one cried out for hand claps from start to finish, but I resisted – the first step is admitting you have a problem.
Funny story: while I was recording this, I got a call from the Gin Blossoms. They want their pre-chorus back.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Egads, what a mix! The weird, short, roomy reverb on the vocal drives me nuts. Overall it’s just too busy and monolithic - there are some good ideas in there, but they haven’t really been featured in a way that keeps them out of each other’s way. It’s like there are a couple of radios playing in the background, I can’t hear anything. What’s that synth doing in there? Do you want the synth or not?
The song is OK, catchy, not too deep though. The setup and the one-joke-only aspect of it, plus the appearance of the kicker line in the chorus makes it feel to me like a song that you might hear if you were one of those guys who takes song pitches in Nashville. Of course it’s the same logical conundrum presented by Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” which means it’s already an idea that’s been done QUITE PROPERLY thank you very much. It sounds to me a little like I was flailing, possibly a bit checked out, busy with other things.
As I recall, the title and the line in the chorus had been with me for a long time, like maybe years. I’m looking around on the blog and in my calendar for that week and can’t find much going on specifically, though likely I was in the midst of PopSci podcasts, preparing to release physical CDs from earlier parts of Thing a Week, and trying to leave time free for all the Summer family stuff that starts to happen this time of year. Just like now in fact (except for the podcasts of course).
I don’t remember (nor do I have good records on) how much money was coming in at this point, but I can tell that it was getting really busy in a lot of areas. There’s a point when first you launch into a bossless existence where you think you’ll never be able to fill up the hours of a day, and early on you don’t. You find stuff to do, and bit by bit it creeps up on you. Eventually you have to start saying No to things because you just don’t have time to do them all, and that’s kind of exciting. Pretty sure that feeling was just arriving for me at this point five years ago. Now I work harder than I ever did when I had a job, and I feel slightly behind and out of control of lots of things at once. On the plus side, I do not have to wear pants.
I find this one a bit unsettling. The guy in this song is a total ass – his philosophy is whatever the opposite of carpe diem is. I thought the idea of someone “soft rocking” you was kind of funny when I started this, but now I think it’s just creepy and sad. I’m disgusted with the whole thing.
No bass – no time!
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: No bass, no time, no matter! It’s funny, you obsess over every little thing, and then one day you don’t put bass in and it doesn’t really make all that much difference, the world doesn’t end (literally).
The loathing I felt for this character I created certainly comes from my own tendency to avoid seizing the day at any costs - I really don’t like to strive, or make waves. Here’s a story: I had a girlfriend at some grade school age where having a girlfriend means you tell each other that you LIKE each other and then you never speak again (doing it wrong). Her family moved out of town and we got together for one last (first?) hanging out together time at her house after school, and it was chaste and awkward. After she moved she wrote a letter to me saying that she had a new boyfriend and he was awesome! I found out later at some high school reunion that she made it up because she was mad that I didn’t try to kiss her. I’ve always been too busy “respecting” (I think I might mean “fearing”) girls to ever try to make out with them. I’m pretty sure it was this very memory that made me hate this character so much. The passive voice joke though, that’s a winner.
This song has had much more of a life in live shows than it ever did during Thing a Week, and for that I must thank Paul and Storm. It was their idea to cram a semi-improvised medley in the middle, and it’s always an enormously successful set piece when we perform it together. It’s also a great excuse to sing soft rock songs in three part harmony, which is all I ever wanted to do anyway.
I haven’t talked about Paul and Storm much during this reblog thing, but that’s because this was the year I met and got to know them. They contacted me sometime after Baby Got Back and we started doing shows together, and we’ve been friends and frequent collaborators ever since. I learned a great deal from them about many things, especially touring - from the best envelopes to use when you’re sending posters to the cheapest way to book a hotel (Paul is a master of the Priceline bidding mojo). I continue to rely on them for advice for all sorts of things, and to be a little jealous of their energy and never ending string of good ideas. If it was the internet that helped my career get off the ground, it was Paul and Storm who helped me figure out how to bring it out into the real world in front of real audiences. They are consummate showmen, and if you say otherwise I will write a very long blog post explaining my opinion about it. Count on it!
Seriously, don’t wake the dragon (because he is very tired).
This is a cover of a Leonard Cohen song. If some of you kiddies haven’t heard it, you should, and in fact you’re about to. I’m sort of obsessed with it – to me it’s a nearly perfect example of how stories can be told in songs. You never know exactly what happened, but you get glimpses through all these tiny verbal gestures. The title itself says so much without being at all specific. I like to try to fill in the gaps – there’s something about a friend, a wife, and a betrayal, but also something more complicated and private. It’s especially creepy to hear Leonard Cohen sing it, because he is nothing if not totally creepy.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: It’s raining here in Brooklyn, and my very old cat died this weekend, so Leonard Cohen is just about right.
I still feel the same about the greatness of this song, and it will always be in some corner of my brain, waiting expectantly like an unfinished puzzle. These days I think more about how it might have come to Leonard - what he was thinking about when he was writing this, and how much of it might be personal. He hasn’t explained it much. Wikipedia quotes him as saying the raincoat actually belonged to him:
I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959. Elizabeth thought I looked like a spider in it. That was probably why she wouldn’t go to Greece with me. It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather. Things were clear. I knew how to dress in those days. It was stolen from Marianne’s loft in New York sometime during the early seventies. I wasn’t wearing it very much toward the end.
So that clears it up.
I’ve been writing more in this direction for the new album, trying to explain less and evoke more. Trying not to worry too hard about what any song is ABOUT until late in the process. I think there are a couple that will be mysteries to most people, or rather, they’ll assume a different shape for every listener. But they’re all about something. Indeed, I’m starting to think they all might be about the SAME THING.
The scary part, and often the most essential part, is letting pieces of yourself creep into the story. Sometimes there’s a narrow, fuzzy line between the writer of a song and his characters. It can get confusing, because often characters have to do and say and think awful things in order to be interesting. If you write a character that way, is it you thinking that awful thing? Are you really the person saying that, do you secretly feel that way? Well, yes and no. The bits and pieces that grow into a song come from personal experience, they have to. But then you can use them as a guide, strike out in a certain direction, just hang them out there in the wind and see what sticks to them. It’s you, yes, but it’s also your friends and your parents and this character from that book, and that guy’s smile seems to reveal something, and those people look like they have a story to tell, and hey look, ice cream.
I listen to Famous Blue Raincoat and the first thing I want to do is figure out who Leonard Cohen was writing about - who was his friend who did that bad thing! Who was his ladyfriend who had that affair! But then, it’s his raincoat isn’t it? So as directly, painfully personal as this song feels, you just can’t say for sure which parts of it are him. Is he the rake? The cuckold? The woman?
It goes like this: Leonard Cohen was feeling kind of sad one day (maybe his very old cat died) and then he remembered something someone said once when they were making fun of him for wearing the same raincoat all the time. The phrase they used was sarcastic, and maybe a little nasty. It suggested to him a character and a relationship - he’s known people like this, the guy you love and hate, you can’t believe he wears that raincoat all the time, but of course he looks great in it and knows it. He’s dashing and fun and dangerous and kind of a mess, and all the ladies love him. You love him too, but you find him threatening. And as you all grow older, he starts to fray around the edges. Somehow it makes him even more glorious and more pathetic at the same time. As the rest of you settle comfortably into adulthood, he starts to flame out - he makes terrible mistakes, he apologizes, he gets help, he makes more mistakes, have you heard his latest plan to fix everything? You begin to understand that all that stuff that makes him so wonderful to be around comes from a very dark place, and these days he’s just barely keeping it together. One day he goes too far. He disappears for a while. Years later you write him a letter…
Poor Tom Cruise. Sure, he’s got plenty of money and fame and power, but the dude is seriously effed up. I’m a fan, I think he’s a pretty pretty fellow and he makes a fine action film. And I’ve really enjoyed watching him freak out in public of late. But there’s something about these superfamous types that I find very sad – the Michael Jacksons, the Madonnas, and now I can’t think of a third one. Which just goes to show, it’s a very exclusive club – there are only a few of these people who get so absorbed by popular culture that they lose the ability to exist on our plane.
Note to Tom Cruise/Scientologist Heavies: please don’t sue me or have me killed.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Victory! This one really had staying power, it’s become an important part of the repertoire even though at the time it wasn’t a huge viral hit or anything. It’s fun to play and fun to sing, and it’s one of those songs that works for almost any audience.
The chord progression and melody of the chorus were floating around in my head for months before it got written, every week it was one of the ideas I would circle back to and try to make work before I would write anything new. This week I either had some success with that technique, or more likely just couldn’t think of anything else and had to push it through. Tom’s Oprah appearance was in May of 2005, and that was the beginning of a string of stuff with him and Katie Holmes and a thing with Brooke Shields about anti-depressants and just general wackadoodle business. It was on my mind, and it’s possible I was also thinking about fame in relation to my own newly chosen career.
I really do feel bad for Tom Cruise. I’m a little more well acquainted with how it feels to be famous (kinda sorta) than I was, and I have to say, it does feel pretty weird sometimes. I always love making a connection with people through the music or through a performance, that’s not what I’m talking about. The strange part is the other stuff, the stuff that’s not connected with the things I make and do - and I get very little of this, but it amounts to “Look, there’s that guy.”
There’s an aspect of fame that is mostly about scarcity. You might want to have your picture taken next to the Eiffel Tower for the same reason you might want to have your picture taken next to Tom Cruise: because it marks the moment that you were there in that unique place. This is less a factor for me, because I’m not famous enough to be famous just for being famous. But when it does happen, I can feel it breaking my connection with myself for a second. The interaction between object of fame and admirer of fame has very little humanity in it - in both directions, I know, I’ve made an ass of myself many times in front of famous people. It just makes everyone crazy for a little while. While the non famous (or less famous) person is trying to mark the moment, or say something important, or in some way take advantage of this rare opportunity, the famous (or more famous) person is trying to act the way they’re supposed to act, trying to live up to what they’re supposed to be, trying to live up to the moment that is so important for this other person. And meanwhile they might be tired, sad, unshowered, in the middle of an argument, constipated, whatever. It’s not a real interaction between people, it’s some other kind of bizarre transaction, and our hearts are not built for it.
I never feel famous inside my head, and so when people treat me like a famous person, it creates a little tear in the fabric of reality. That tear is easily repaired by spending time as just me, hanging out with friends or family who know me as Jonathan. But I can imagine that if enough of those tears happened over a short enough span of time, you might not easily be able to come back from it. And what happens when even your private time gets corrupted? When you can’t go to the grocery store without people trying to take pictures of you and sell them to magazines? When you start to suspect even your friends are treating you differently, maybe even start to wonder if they are even your friends? And what if there’s a pseudo scientific system/religion/cult that blames all of your disconnectedness and failing relationships on the spirits of ancient aliens who are living inside your body? Does that make any less sense than the fact that complete strangers are hiding in bushes outside your home with cameras, going through your garbage, speculating on your sexuality, and wondering if you are really in love with your wife or just pretending to be? That would be weird, right?
I recognize this is a first world problem. And I’m not complaining - I love my job, SO MUCH, and I’m not trying to make you feel bad about having your picture taken with me. I am grateful for (and henceforth forever in desperate need of) your attention. I do my best to always stay grounded, appropriately thankful, and as real as I can be given the circumstances. But it’s not always easy even at my meager level of fame, and I simply cannot imagine how it must be for Tom and people like him (I call him Tom, we’re pals because we’re both famous).
Other than the things with John Hodgman, what did you do to promote yourself in the early stages? In other words, how much of a following did you have before Baby Got Back, and how did you get them?
I didn’t do anything to promote myself on purpose, other than blogging. I played here and there, with Hodgman but also at the PopTech conference before all of this started. I wouldn’t say I had much of a following at all before Thing a Week, some fans certainly, but not really something I would call a “fanbase.” I wish I could say there was some trick to it, but it’s like starting a fire without matches. Small things first that burn easily, blow on it a bit, wait for it to get big enough so you can add bigger pieces of wood. Sometimes it doesn’t catch and then you start over, maybe you use different materials, maybe you move to some new spot. It’s not like you can throw a switch - the stuff I did with Hodgman started in maybe 2000, and from there it took me years of various kinds of trying and not trying to get traction like Baby Got Back. And when that traction did happen, I had a catalog of stuff waiting for people to discover.
Just so you know how bad this monkey problem of mine has gotten, every time I type the title of this song my fingers want to type “Monkey” instead of “Money,” which would make for a very different song. This is more on the theme of “asshole sings a breakup song,” in this case his assholism is that he is a scrub, the kind of guy who can’t get no love from the lovely ladies of TLC.
I should also mention, by popular request I have made available a huge honking box set – it’s at the top of the songs page, it costs $50, and it gives you everything but the current Thing a Week album in one big zipfile. If you’ve been waiting to jump in and purchase, this may be the place to do it…
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: This is one of those songs that I basically haven’t thought about since the day I posted it, nor do I really remember writing it. I was just now surprised by the lyrics in the 3rd verse, which I could swear I’ve never heard before. Also: hey, this one has a bridge? Obviously it’s not one of my favorites. I do like the backing vocals in the chorus, though I sure wish I had resisted ending the chorus on that m7b5 chord, which you JoCo scholars will recognize as JoCo Harmonic Crutch #217. As a concept it’s OK, but I feel like it didn’t quite come together enough to transcend the jokes and become something else - think about Skullcrusher Mountain, funny, but there’s a lot more going on in that song. Here I think the concept gets you to the jokes and then leaves you there with not enough change in your pocket to take the bus home.
I also would like to complain about the arrangement (do NOT like the percussion loop and the way it fails to work with the croony acoustic vibe) and the mix (muddy! should have sharpened those chorus vocals a little) and the form (that bridge was a terrible idea, I can tell I was tacking it on to add something, anything, to what is just kind of a dull song all around). This song feels like part of the calm before the storm - we’re just a few weeks away from where it started to get really interesting.
This is exactly the kind of song you need to write and then LEAVE OFF THE ALBUM. Of course I didn’t have that luxury given my Thing a Week concept, which was just to release everything in chronological order, in its current state of completion, and regardless of quality. In that way the whole Thing a Week collection is less an album and more an archive of my creative process that year, which is interesting, but a very different beast.
I guess I really haven’t done a proper album since Smoking Monkey in 2001 (or something). The one that I’m working on now feels in many ways like my first album ever, which is weird given the fact that I’ve been doing this professionally for six years. I have to say I’m enjoying it quite a bit. In contrast to TAW, it’s all about diving deep, spending LOTS of time working on a song until it’s everything it can be. There are quite a few songs that you will never hear, because they are not good enough in my opinion. But it’s a great pleasure to not have to compromise based on how much time I have before Friday, whether or not I can play the banjo, etc. While I think there’s great value in something like TAW where you just go and go and never look back, it doesn’t leave any space for any consistency of vision. As I’m stepping back now at the end of this album process I’m finding that the whole of it is taking a shape, and telling a larger story. It actually seems to be “about” something, and that’s very exciting.
On the business and career front, this was the week when the PopSci Podcast launched - great fun to do, but I very quickly ran out of time to do it. I also started selling the Box Set of mp3s, which was the entire collection for $50. That’s been a really important part of the business, it’s a great deal and it gets people to listen to LOTS of stuff (even bad songs like this one, oy). Spiff’s WoW videos were starting to pop up on YouTube, and in general it seems like things were really buzzing out there. I’m almost certain that Code Monkey was the catalyst for this particular bump - all the little bits and pieces of my career were out there in a trail of breadcrumbs, and Code Monkey was the flashing neon sign at the trailhead.
I wrote this song for a documentary a friend is working on about being tall (and in case he is reading this: yes, I certainly do owe him a phone call). Some people fake the funk, me, I fake the bluegrass. And this feller in this song, you see, he’s extremely tall and he would like to find a tall woman. I like the vocals and I’m pretty proud of the word play in the chorus, but I think this song could be much improved by the addition of a little fiddle – any bluegrass fiddle players out there?
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: It would be interesting to track the “day late and dollar short” index of the songs week to week from the original Thing a Week against the same measurement for these Redux posts. I am late a lot! It’s touring that does it to me. Short bursts of travel preceded by a stretch of planning and followed by a period of recovery and catching up. It amounts to a black hole, a dark, timeless void where I cease to exist - I become merely a shadow that smells like an airplane and only wants to fall asleep in front of the hotel television. In case it isn’t clear (it isn’t), this post was meant to happen 6 days ago, so if I want to get back on schedule I will post again tomorrow. Blargh.
ANYWAY. This last week (that is to say, last Friday’s “this last week”) was when Hodgman’s Apple ads started running. I thought I was becoming famous, but what happened to John as a result of these ads was another thing entirely: TV famous, very different from Internet famous. It was thrilling to watch, and I was very happy for my friend. Did I really call Justin Long “the guy from Jeepers Creepers 2”? Yes, I did.
Those were heady days! Code Monkey Tshirts first went on sale this week at CafePress, the beginning of my merchandise empire. MySpace was still a thing. And I, well, I failed to write a new song. Just as Long as Me was from the reserve tank, I think that I may have added a verse and tweaked a lyric or two, but it was mostly a repurposing of something I had already made. No excuse this time. Maybe too busy, er, watching Apple ads? Dunno.
I would later acquire a fiddle part from some kind internet person - I can’t locate that post right now and am too lazy to keep looking. It helped a lot with the bluegrass flavor. You may be wondering if I play the banjo this quickly. The answer is yes, for short stretches of time, like Wile E. Coyote running in the air right before he falls off the cliff. Thanks to digital editing capabilities, it almost sounds like a guy playing the banjo.
The song is a little too gimmicky for my taste now, I’m not as interested in writing these kinds of songs as I once was. There are some good jokes in there though. And YE GODS do I love three part bluegrass harmony, I don’t know why exactly. It’s like, the way my brain is wired, bluegrass harmonies are a direct line to the very center of pure musical beauty to me. Sometimes just the sound of it makes me tear up. Probably a tumor.
I also wrote an Al Jolson style number about being tall for the same documentary, and likely I used the same jokes there too. And the same banjo. Not sure if he ever finished that thing, I should ask…
This is a song that I wrote last year for a Presidents Day edition of Little Gray Books – one small fact about every US president (thanks Wikipedia). Some of you more dedicated Coulton scholars may have already heard the live version in episode 7 of the Little Gray Books Podcast. Back then I performed it with the Hungry March Band, the most energetic stoner marching band I’ve ever seen. They played the Hail to the Chief part in between verses – since I have no marching band here, I had to make do with toy instruments. This new recording may be a little rough because there are men hammering and sawing and drilling in my kitchen all week, not exactly the best thing to have on the other side of the studio wall. You may hear some of it here and there, but hey: this is Thing a Week, people.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Right, jeez, this is when there were four contractors in my two bedroom apartment for a couple of months. My studio stuff was all in my daughter’s room. She was still just a dumb baby for the first part of Thing a Week, but it got harder to keep my stuff in her room the more she turned into an actual child. We had this enormous kitchen, and since at this point it seemed like this was going to be my job at least for a while, it made sense to steal some square footage from it and make a little studio room. It was tiny, about 4x8, but it was a room with a door and there were no babies in there. Before that was done, a lot of the tracks were mixed with my daughter sleeping in a crib a few feet away, and I remember at least a couple of times when I was trying to finish up some background vocals on a Friday afternoon, holding her in my arms, hoping she would stay quiet while I sang into the microphone.
This was was particularly rough weekend in the renovation - dust, noise, people. It’s even harder to write when you’re afraid someone is listening to all your bad ideas. So I grabbed something from the catalog and gave myself an easy week. The song is OK, it’s a little bit of an easy target I think. Musically it’s not that interesting (OK, one good modulation), and it steals pretty heavily from the soup of country novelty songs that’s always simmering in my head. I still can’t remember all the lyrics, they just run together in my head for some reason, and I’ve done it wrong live enough times that I fear I know the mistakes better than I know the correct version. That’s always part of the fun though, at least that’s what I tell myself.
Mistakes that are built into the lyrics include the Garfield assassination date (1881, not 1882), and referring to George H. W. Bush as “George Bush Senior” which makes no sense because he has different initials from W. I have corrected one but not the other in my live lyrics, at least when I sing them correctly.
When Obama was elected I changed the last lines a little bit to reflect that. At first I did it in a way that was kind of snarky toward George W., and when I played it that way in Texas I got a few angry emails from people in the audience who said they were so offended that they weren’t going to be fans anymore. I find that a little silly. I mean, OK, but…really? Mostly I was amazed to encounter people in my audience who looked back on W’s presidency and thought he had done a great job. It just goes to show you what a liberal bubble we have here in NYC. It’s also yet another example of how polarizing red/blue issues have become. These people were really upset, more upset than anyone who’s ever emailed me to complain about anything. They did have one good point though, which is that if the last line is “I don’t like to make political statements” then maybe I should not make any political statements dum-dum. Evolution of the lyrics has been like this (according to my own wiki):
Original: W’s legacy’s a work in progress. That is all the Presidents so far
After Obama was elected: W’s reign of terror is finally over Obama’s been pretty excellent so far
After the Texans got angry: W decided he was the decider (not sure what the next line was, maybe the same as above?)
For Hodgman’s audio book, and this one stuck because I liked it: W decided he was the decider Obama has a peg-leg and a scar
I think that walks the line quite nicely thank you very much. Obviously it doesn’t reveal a lot about Obama’s presidency in a historical context (EXCEPT THE TRUTH!), but we’ll have to wait and see what happens, won’t we? Unless you read this as a satirical backhand slap to the Birthers and the other crazies who think he is not a citizen, that he is a secret Muslim, that he was born in Kenya, that he is a terrorist, that having him in power threatens our nation to the extent that we might have to get a bunch of guns and start killing people, etc.
You are, of course, free to read it however you like, because this is America.
Since you are collecting songs to release in a single, monumental blast, you must still abide by the notion of an "album." Why not release songs as soon as they are finished? Do songs released individually lack the power associated with a massive tune cluster motherlode?
(Of course, if you're cooking up a modern-day Winterreise, never mind.)
No matter what, I'm really looking forward to hearing "Je Suis Rick Springfield."
A fine question. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, since I’m currently working on a thing that is an album, a bunch of songs that nobody hears until they hear the whole bunch of songs all together. Why am I doing that?
I grew up with albums, and while I too am sometimes only interested in a song at a time, I still like to sit down and listen to entire albums by certain bands. I think there’s something great about an album, even if there’s no theme or concept or consistency, it still represents the stuff that an artist was working on at a particular period of time. And so the whole of it takes on some kind of meaning that way.
When I finished Thing a Week, I was pretty sure the album was dead. I had just released 53 songs one by one, and some of them did really well, and everything was moving along fine without the album construct. Except that Thing a Week WAS a kind of album. A long one to be sure, but even if I didn’t sell it as a single physical object (I do), I think it still would be possible to experience it as one big thing. It very powerfully represents quite a bit about my life and creative work and general freak outs at that time.
After Thing a Week I was tired. It took a while, but I eventually started releasing songs again in a slow trickle. I like a lot of them, but I feel sad that they don’t LIVE anywhere. I group all of them under the heading “The Aftermath” but I’m not sure how much that means. Maybe because they’re too spaced out in time to feel like they belong together. Working on this new album has meant a lot of intense and fast writing, a lot of thinking about the larger picture: the album title, the mix of styles, the track list, the artwork. It feels like a large important thing, and there’s something kind of thrilling about knowing I have 15 recordings that nobody’s ever heard, and someday soon they’re all going to leave the nest at once. It’s just more fun, and it just feels more normal to me. Shorter version: I am old.
Yay, monkeys. This is not autobiographical, but I did indeed used to have a job writing software. VB! MS SQL! I affectionately referred to myself and my co-developers as code monkeys, especially when a client asked me a question that I didn’t want to answer (“What do I know? I’m just a code monkey.”). Now this part is important: tomorrow morning I leave for a week long vacation in a sunny place, and I don’t know how easily I’ll be able to access the internets. I think it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get anything posted, so I’m giving you notice now: I’m taking the week off, I think. If I am in fact unable to post anything, I’ll refund a dollar to all you paying subscribers. The rest of you will just get nothing for nothing, which seems fair.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: The four weeks ending with this one included Re: Your Brains, When You Go, and Code Monkey (let’s just ignore Madelaine for a second shall we?). That’s remarkable to me. In my head the good ones were more spaced out, but clearly they clumped together pretty closely sometimes. This was the glorious Summer of Thing a Week, I can hear my carefree attitude in the writing and recording. The financial picture was starting to improve and the story that I was telling was getting some traction out there on the internet. There was nothing to worry about anymore - OR WAS THERE?
Next to Baby Got Back, Code Monkey was the biggest and fastest explosion. This song best exemplifies the synergistic advantage I had over anyone else trying to do something similar: I wrote funny songs about geeky subjects and distributed them directly to geeks over channels that only geeks were using. This was by no means A PLAN, it was rather a happy accident that resulted from my actual interests and aptitudes. I used to be a software guy, Code Monkey is about a software guy, and other software guys heard the song because they subscribed to my RSS feed, or because they read slashdot, or because they knew how to use torrents once my site got snuffed out by all the slashdot traffic. You notice that this did not happen to When You Go, also a pretty good song. People who wrote about “JoCo as Master of the New Music Economy” often overlooked this phenomenon, and I myself failed to recognize or understand it at the time either. And I’m not just being modest here, I really think this wouldn’t have worked without all these pieces in place, reinforcing each other. In the case of Code Monkey, the content fit the story fit the delivery system, and suddenly everyone who had a job working with computers was hearing this song and forwarding it along to their geek friends and co-workers.
Luckily, I was on vacation while all this was happening. I went to the island of St. Martin with my family and a group of friends. We ate croissants every morning by the beach and didn’t have the internet, which was great. Sometime mid-week I went to an internet cafe and tried to use the weird French keyboard to catch up on some of the emails that were flooding in, but that wasn’t fun so I stopped. The week prior to this Len Peralta started doing his Visual Thing a Week images. The week after this I got slashdotted, wrote some music for a bit John Hodgman did on the Daily Show, and discovered that someone was selling Code Monkey merchandise in CafePress. It was all getting kind of nuts.
I’ve said before that a successful song usually sent me into a tailspin, that writing a good song would make me start second guessing myself in a way that made it hard to write anything good for a little while. I’m looking ahead a bit and detecting a little quality valley coming up, and I’m guessing this was the first of many “death by success” moments in my career. A good problem to have, to be sure, but no less frustrating. I will complain about it in detail in the weeks to come, do not worry.
When you listen back to recordings like Soterios Johnson and Madelaine, do you ever dig up a recording of the original version and ask yourself "what did I do right on this version compared to his version?" On occasion, do you think the original version actually bests the cover?
Happens all the time. Everyone’s got their favorite version of songs, I know that a lot of people prefer the acoustic Soterios to the produced one. It’s faster for one thing. And often there’s a vibe to the demo that you can’t ever get back. Madelaine actually suffers from that, even though the arrangements are pretty similar, I still end up preferring the cassette 4-track midi drums version to what I did in Thing a Week. But you know, make a thing, move on, make a thing, move on…
The creative process is a funny thing. This week I was convinced that I was completely out of songs, that I would never write again, that all the ideas in my head were really just the same lame idea that I’d been using over and over again all along. And I had this piece of something, I knew it was a sad song because I was feeling frustrated and blocked and that’s when the sad ones usually come. I hated it, but I kept smashing it against the wall because I didn’t have any other options and it was Thursday morning already, and I have Paying Subscribers for goodness sake. But then something shook loose and by 3 PM I had a new song. Where did it come from? Why did it take all week to show up? Why can’t I remember how it feels to write when I’m trying to do it and can’t? After 28 of these you’d think I would have found the magic button in my brain that makes a song happen. Still looking.
Anyway, this is an a cappella breakup song (not necessarily about the end of a romance). It didn’t start out a cappella, but there were so many vocals that I decided to take all the instruments away and I liked how it sounded enough to finish it up that way. You don’t hear a lot of really sad a cappella songs, they’re mostly about putting limes in coconuts and zombie jamborees and that sort of thing. At least that’s how we did it at Yale. Ahem. Full disclosure: it is almost certainly a distant relative of Todd Rundgren’s “Pretending to Care.” Also, I realized too late that I had stolen a little chord change/melody line thing from a Jim Boggia song. I hope he either doesn’t mind or doesn’t notice.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Ha! Old me discovers writing songs is hard! I can’t decide if it’s comforting or disheartening to discover that five years ago I was working on exactly the same mystery. I can tell you that I’ve given up on it ever becoming easy. I’d like to say that I’ve developed a kind of faith in the process, so that when it’s Thursday morning and I still have nothing, I can take comfort in the certainty that something will arrive. But while I have that faith in my head, I rarely have it in my gut, so what good is that? But enough complaining (I am writing this by a pool in Hawaii, so you know, it’s all pretty good actually).
Still very proud of this song. A cappella is hard to record well, and there’s a lot I would change technically about this recording, but the song itself is one of my favorites. I wrote (cryptically) that it was a breakup song, but not necessarily about a romance. I was mostly thinking about my daughter when I wrote it, imagining the far off day when she leaves for college, or the army, or a swimming pool in Hawaii. Thinking about how parenting is a supremely masochistic kind of self-sacrifice - you spend years teaching them how to be independent adults and then THEY TURN INTO INDEPENDENT ADULTS. If you are parenting correctly, you are essentially teaching your children all they need to know to one day break your heart. That’s the awful, beautiful core of parent-child love.
Over the last few years many people have written to tell me what this song means to them, frequently it has to do with the loss of a loved one. These stories mean a lot to me. Anyone who’s ever made something and had a complete stranger say they liked it knows how wonderful that feels, and I will gratefully accept any and all high fives for Code Monkey and Re: Your Brains. But it is a powerful thing to put an honest, personal song out there and have it bounced back at you as a completely different, but no less honest and personal story from someone else. It’s a sure sign to me that I have done something right, something that, however small, is somehow still important. It is raw, pure, red hot human-on-human action, and it is the very last thing I will surrender when my entertainment empire is crumbling into dust.
What kind of music theory background do you have? When you write a song do you think "This will be Mixolydian and modulate to the third of the scale for the bridge" or do you plunk around and find some chords that sound nice?
It’s my first impulse when I hear something in a song that makes my head turn, to figure out what happened and then to try to incorporate that “trick” into my own writing. And for me that’s about figuring out the theory behind it. It’s often helpful to have a technical hook on which to hang a song - minor key, 3/4 time, Lydian mode - because it puts me into interesting predicaments, like dropping a survivalist into the jungle with a machete and a power bar.
I was a music major in college, and I love to think about music theory. When I write, sometimes I noodle around until I find something and then say “what is that?” Big Bad World One was like that, I’m still not entirely sure I understand what is the tonal center of that song and how it modulates. But other times I actually decide “this one is going to modulate smoothly down a whole step, like Penny Lane” and then figure out how to make it do that. (Or fail to figure out how to do that, I’ve been working on that one for a long time.) Lately I’ve been kind of obsessed with the minor third modulation, like the kind that happens in Still Alive. I actually had to force myself to stop using it in the songs on this new record, because it was becoming a habit.
Now that you're working with a "legitimate" "big-time" producer (John F.) and "real" "paid" musicians, is your approach to distributing your music going to change? Are the "salad" "days" of "free" "music" coming to an end?
Yeah, because I have a way of keeping people from downloading mp3s. That’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what I think. Free music is here to stay if you want it, whether I want it or not.
But to answer your question more directly, I’m still trying to figure out how this record gets released. Might be all me, might have some label involvement, might be my own label-like team cobbled together a la carte, don’t really know yet. There are a lot of things I don’t do well on the business side of things, and I’m trying to figure out the smartest way to fill those gaps with people who do.
That said, I would be crazy (anyone would) to deny the reality that a lot of people are going to get this for free. The best I can do is hope that those people will like it, and consume it in such a way that eventually brings me some kind of compensation - by coming to a show, by buying a Tshirt, by turning their friends onto me, by handing me $20 at a video game convention. I still believe that file sharing has a positive effect on my bottom line, though I will continue my strategy of leading with the “buy this music” concept and letting the free happen in the background. Because the other thing I can do is make it easy for people to buy it - make it available in all sorts of forms physical and digital, put it in the places where people are used to getting their music and then STAY OUT OF THE WAY so they can get it. That’s the strategy that evolved over the course of Thing a Week, and I see no need to change the fundamentals of it at this point.
Hey JoCo, I love writing poems and short stories, but my real passion is music, and I want to start writing songs, but I don't even know where to start. Every attempt at writing a song has turned out as a poem basically, I am lost on the process of writing proper verses and especially choruses. I feel like once I start practicing I might get out of the'poetry mindset', but starting seems to be impossible. I am a little worried because I don't play guitar or piano, I play bass and drums; obviously the rhythm instruments not being useful for songwriting. Do you have any advice on how I should get started with writing my first songs, based off your experiences?
You can write a song on the bass, I did it just the other day. It helps to play some instrument that has notes, I don’t know how far you’ll get writing with drums. But if you want to know what it feels like to write a song, a good way to start is to steal. Pick a song you like and use it as a template. Play the bass line into a recorder, and then spend an hour singing nonsense on top of it. Find a melody you like, a phrase that catches your interest, and then build from there. Use the same form and chords as the song so you won’t have to think about how long the chorus should be or where it should go next. That’s stage two of the process for me anyway, it’s just that the song template I’m working with is one I made up. But to make it less of a mystery, skip that step and use a ready-made template.
In today's TAWRedux you said, "Here was where it started to feel like my software career suicide at least had not been a terrible mistake." This is the first time I've seen you use the word "suicide" to describe the end of your software career, and it makes me wonder about whether there was a breaking point where you sort of snapped and said "fuck this, I'm working full time on the music" and quit soon after. Did it happen like that or did you undertake Thing a Week after a careful planning period? Did you try to keep bridges intact, and how much did you think about the possibility of returning to the ranks of the code monkeys?
Even when I started the software job I told myself it was only temporary, and that I was soon going to leave and do music full time. Nine years later I was still telling myself that. If there was a single moment, it came at the end of my time at home after my daughter was born. I took three weeks off and was just at home with my new family. When it was time to go back to work I had a real resistance to it - not just wah wah I don’t want to go back to work, because truthfully it was kind of awful at home with the sleep deprivation and the standard new parent insanity. It was deeper than that. I remember thinking how it just didn’t make sense: here was this new person and I had three weeks with her and then zip zap, I was going to go back to the office EVERY DAY FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE? This is OK with everyone, this is how we do things?
Of course I did it, but I had already started planning. My entry to music was not a complete free fall. At this point I was having some success in writing and performing for audiences, tagging along with Hodgman on his Fame Adventure. I felt talented, I was pretty sure that if I worked at it I could make SOMETHING happen eventually, figure out some way to make money from music. At the very least I knew we wouldn’t starve. My wife went back to work full time eventually, and I figured worst case scenario I’d bum around for a year and then just go out and get another software job. On the day that I left I still felt like that was a distinct possibility, and really I LIKED writing software and querying databases. I was hopeful that I would find another way, but I was certainly open to the idea that Thing a Week would ultimately become a brief interruption in my software career.
What difference did you notice in the process and experience of songwriting after you left your day job, compared to writing while you were working? Was it better or easier or faster when you had more time?
It has never been, and will never be easy. The one thing I have learned about songwriting in all this is that it is always difficult and frequently painful. The difference is that when I was working full time it was easy to avoid the painful stuff - I could float happily through my software life and if some idea came to me that wrote itself, I could follow it through. Or not. I’m sure a lot of great songs went unwritten because I wasn’t there to receive the muse when she showed up.
That changed a little when I started writing songs for John Hodgman’s Little Gray Books reading series. Those were deadlines and assigned topics, so it actually meant sitting down and working sometimes. It was easier because there was less pressure - it wasn’t my JOB. But some of them were really hard, some of them were actual work, and some of them came out not so good but I had to go with them anyway.
Thing a Week was a more distilled version of this. Adding to the pressure was the fact that I had declared it my job and I was doing it in a pretty public way. So there was no question about me sitting down every day to work on something, and there was no way for me to avoid the songs that just made me want to run away and not write them.
Roger Ebert tweeted the other day about how the muse arrives during the act of creation, not before, which means that you usually have to start without her. This is why starting is the most difficult part - you know you’re going to be alone out there in the wilderness for some period of time, and it’s going to hurt.
New recording of an old song – this is another one from the Supergroup set list. I’ve always liked this one, but couldn’t listen to the 4-track cassette, midi drums version anymore. I was working on something else for a while this week but then decided not to use it, long story I’ll get to later when it’s not so late.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Total cheat. Kind of surprising considering how good I was feeling in this stretch. It appears that what I was working on that week and gave up on was a mashup of Eye of the Tiger and I Want to Rock with You. Mashups are very easy to do poorly, but very hard to do well, and mine was just no good. I was also feeling weird about doing something so blatantly illegal now that I was getting more attention and starting to earn money from the site. I think probably I got excited about the mashup early in the week, lost interest on Thursday and was then just sort of stuck.
I do like this song though, it’s a got a pretty nice hook, some room for clever lyrics and such. Alternate tuning for those of you trying at home: drop both E strings to D. Supergroup was a band I played in many years before any of this started. We did a few gigs in the East Village where the whole audience was made up of our friends. We rarely rehearsed. The other guitarist was Darin Strauss, a good friend who is now a talented author, and whose first literary agent was none other than John Hodgman. Much to my shame however, that is not how you spell the M-name, not on any planet in the federation.
This was the week I first started using Eventful to track where enough fans existed to allow me to do a live show (I was certainly feeling confident!). It was an incredibly helpful source of information those first couple of years when I was figuring out how to tour. Having done my fair share of poorly attended gigs in the city before I was even semi-famous, I simply could not stomach the idea of TOURING in that way where you doggedly play to empty houses in ever widening geographical circles, hoping that people who accidentally see you one time will want to see you on purpose in the future. Just awful. So I used Eventful to identify the cities where I could be sure that wouldn’t happen (the first test of this technique would happen in Seattle sometime later, we’ll get to that). It was a great strategy for me, and really the only way I could have made it work. It’s less useful to me now that I have enough well-known markets to keep me busy for an entire year, but I still rely on it every now and then when I want to open up new territory.
I definitely can tell that a big shift happened in the weeks prior to this one. Even now, going over those weeks post by post, it’s hard to identify exactly where the change happened. But it’s obvious to me there’s new energy here, in my song writing, blogging, and tweaks to the business model - this was also the week where I set up a mailing list and forums. Who do you think you are Jonathan Coulton? Enough good things had happened to me that It no longer felt presumptuous to start planning for this to be my job.
If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that being trapped in a mall surrounded by a million zombies would be really troublesome. But how much more annoying would it be if the head zombie used to be your co-worker, and he was kind of a prick even before he got infected? And now he’s right outside and he just keeps talking and talking – still the same jackass, only now he wants to eat your brains?
Also, for those of you who only see this feed, I should alert you that there is now an option to purchase a subscription for Thing a Week if you like. Click here for details: http://www.jonathancoulton.com/subscription
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Friday is no good for me, how is Wednesday? Oh God, it’s THURSDAY?!
I would call it a tie between this and Code Monkey for the most enduring and well-known song from Thing a Week. And here it is right at the halfway point. This one came to me pretty easily - I was walking around my neighborhood, running errands or something, and the line “All we want to do is eat your brains” just popped into my head. I could already imagine the character, a zombie who’s just trying to explain and really, what is the big deal? The rest of it fell in line around that very clear and obvious (to me) character. Of course it has now become my semi-official closing song, with the singalong, and the screaming. And zombies continue to have their moment in popular culture, which is lucky for me.
You’ll notice this is where I tried the subscription model (the link is no longer active). It was a buck a week through Paypal, and it did not contribute too much toward the bottom line. I can see the plan evolving over all these posts as I tried one thing after another, waiting to find the magical formula for turning music into money. The truth is, nothing ever worked as well as selling mp3s. Donations were always paltry, the subscription thing maybe had 50 people by the end, I really just think people are more comfortable with the “buy this thing” kind of transaction. Though of course that was only at this point just beginning to get into respectable numbers. Somewhere around here was where I started earning enough from mp3 sales to pay for the babysitter who was watching my child while I pretended to work, and it felt like a huge victory.
This was also when I first met Paul and Storm, when I opened for them at their show in New York. I was surprised and delighted to discover that many people in the audience had come to see me. I started thinking about doing more live shows after that, and Paul and Storm would eventually teach me everything they knew about touring. They connected me with their booking agent, who would become my booking agent later. They continue to be an essential resource to me for all sorts of things in both the business and personal realms (which in robot language means that they’re trusted colleagues and close friends).
People often ask me when did I feel like I had “made it.” The answer is never - I continue to feel like there’s more I should be doing, and I can always find someone to envy. But somewhere in here is where I began to see a rough outline of a viable career, if I could just turn the volume up in a couple of places. Here was where it started to feel like my software career suicide at least had not been a terrible mistake.
On a sunny day in my neighborhood, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a stroller (believe me). I’m not complaining, in fact I freely admit that I am part of the problem. So this is kind of about that, though it’s also about a baby who likes to drag race. And before you point it out, yes, I was thinking very hard about the Beach Boys while I was doing this, specifically “I Get Around” and “Shut Down.”
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Late again, you are surprised. I’ve been waiting until I finished this song I was working on, and in fact I’m supposed to be at a session recording it right now. I am late for that too, and have rescheduled it for later this week, because I fail at being on time CONSISTENTLY.
And hey, I forgot how much I like this one! In my advanced years I’ve become a little suspicious of style parodies in my own work, it’s sometimes hard to keep it from becoming a crutch. And once you go down that road a lot depends on how well you are able to hit the right marks - style parody that fails to successfully evoke the style is a particularly sad kind of failure. I give myself pretty good marks on this front, you can at least tell that I’m faking Beach Boys. I’m especially proud of the Mike Love impression I’m doing in the lead vocal, and I worked very hard on getting just the right “crappy” guitar sound and bullshit Chuck Berry ripoff solo. I didn’t quite make it in a couple of places - the group vocals are evocative of the right things, but they don’t really get there for me. Part of the problem is that I don’t actually sing like ALL OF THE BEACH BOYS, but the arrangement is also off somehow, there’s too much low register stuff. And in the a cappella intro I was trying to do that Brian Wilson thing where he modulates somewhere extremely far away and back again, effortlessly in a couple of chords. But I am also not Brian Wilson, and I forgive myself for that.
But man, I still love the lyrics, I find them to be clever without being too precious. They lift language pretty freely from those other songs I mentioned, which helps. And the mashup of strollers and 60s drag racing songs is a pretty solid concept - there’s plenty of room for those specific details that make it sing, plus the added benefit of getting to write from the perspective of a baby (“full belly, clean bum” is my favorite line EVER). And style parody or no, it’s musically pretty successful, and the repeated chorus at the end blooming into an a cappella finish is still exciting to me.
And speaking of that Brian Wilson style extreme modulation, mine was so klunky and far away that I had a lot of trouble finding the right notes on that second chord. While I was recording each vocal part, I had to find the note, sing it out loud while I was waiting, and then just try to ignore the first chord. You can hear me doing that right here, and it’s pretty hilarious.
Yes: the Rick Springfield song. This recording is based on an arrangement I once did live at Little Gray Books with my friend Phoebe. I heard a recording of it recently and my voice sounded terrible, but I liked the arrangement a lot so I thought I’d flesh it out a little more and give it to you nice people.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: This marks 6 months into Thing a Week (but only 24 songs due to the two weeks when I failed to make anything). So terse! What was happening in my life? No idea. I was just looking through blog posts from around then, nothing interesting. Nothing on my calendar. Was I even there? Happy JoCo is kind of a boring JoCo I guess.
This was a fun cover to do - I don’t think you can do sad versions of up tempo pop songs forever, but it sure would feel great. I cringe a little about the vocals now, it’s so damned high, I really should have dealt with it a different way. Changed the key or something. I remember recording that B section a million times, screaming into the microphone trying to keep it under control, coughing blood for a few minutes and then trying again. If I had one musical wish it would be to extend my range a little higher - on a good day I can hit a short chirpy G as long as I don’t have to linger on it, but it sure would be nice to be able to belt it out up there. Then I could do Journey covers…
Chapter 23 in which you are visited by the ghost of George Plimpton and he relays to you an important message about life.
It was Jim Hanas who told about the song contest going on at The Plimpton Project, an organization dedicated to getting a statue of the man erected somewhere in the city. George was a hell of a guy, and he deserves about 10 or 15 statues, but I guess one would be a good start. I met him at a Paris Review party once, and he was pretty charming for a Harvard man.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: This might be my favorite from Thing a Week, and it was a real sneak attack. It started with Jim’s suggestion that I write a George Plimpton song, and my initial approach was to make it some kind of list song as sung by a guy who has done everything. I was tempted to go goofy (as always) with sort of a “isn’t it funny this song is about George Plimpton” vibe. But it wasn’t working - it wasn’t that funny for one thing, but it also just felt kind of pointless and off the mark. I met George once at a party he hosted to celebrate the latest issue of the Paris Review (which, not coincidentally, contained a short story written by John Hodgman - John is how I get to meet all the famous people), and he was a real treat. He was stork-tall, he was never far from his drink, his cheeks were flushed red, he was constantly grinning, and he wore a jacket and tie in the same way you and I might comfortably flounce about in our pajamas. I was a little star struck because I was a great admirer of his career - it seemed like the extent of his job was to be himself and do the things that were important and interesting to him. Nice work if you can get it.
So I kept messing with it, I tried going super serious about how awesome George was and then it just sounded all earnest and weird. And then somewhere in there I decided to switch it from “I did this…I did that” to “You should do this…you should do that” and it just clicked for me. Once I made it about George giving advice, it felt a lot more natural to me and it finished itself up pretty quickly. It became a warning that life is short, and an exhortation to go out and do the things you know you were meant to do. That has always seemed to me like a pretty good approach to living one’s life, but I had only just begun to really live that way, and it was just barely starting to seem like it might pay off. All that stuff that came out during the dark beginnings of Thing a Week when I was so terrified and lost turned out to be about this - about finding my way to a place where I could really try to be that person. Looking back I see this song as a kind of secret pep talk to myself. I needed it then, and I continue to remind myself of it often.
Sometimes you wake up grumpy, that’s all. I like this one – you can see that I’ve become addicted to hand claps in the chorus, as well as the combination bridge/solo move (that way you don’t have to write bridge lyrics!). I should point out that the solo is actually played by me on an actual accordion. That thing is a bitch.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: It’s true! I do like the combination bridge/solo move, especially when it introduces a new musical idea, in the best case something that wanders far afield and then comes back. Just like So Far So Good, but Drinking With You also does that, Summer’s Over, a few others. Coming to love that technique was a result of feeling forced into it some weeks - the pressure cooker of Thing a Week often forced me to make choices based on time rather than what I thought was best, and often those forced choices led me to interesting places. Limits make things happen. I’m feeling that even now as I work on this new album, though at this point it’s less about time constraints and more about not being able to STAND using the SAME TRICKS over and over. You write enough stuff and you use every tool in your bag a few times - when you’re sick of yourself is when you’ll actually want to stretch out.
I like this song a lot. It’s a character out of nowhere - I didn’t have anyone in mind, and it’s not really a personal song. But I like the point of view, I think it’s interesting subject matter. I like the way the melody and chord progression of the verse builds right into the chorus. Dobro in effect, hand claps, accordion, crazy bridge/solo section - you can tell I was feeling good (finally). It’s simple, but it’s fun.
It’s amazing how often I forget to have fun when I write and record. It’s so important. Being open to fun means being open to accidents and “what the hell, why not” decisions, and that is where the magic is. By far my favorite recording session for this new album was the one song we did without having rehearsed or planned anything, because it was written at the last minute. Somewhere in there someone said “hand claps?” and then the four of us were standing around a microphone clapping and smiling. That’s hard to beat.
Are you more Bernie Taupin or Elton John? Do you write lyrics and form a song around it, or do you write the music and form words around it? Have you done both? What songs of yours are the greatest example of each?
I never ever write lyrics completely independent of music. Music almost always comes first, though it doesn’t live alone for very long before I start filling it - just feels more natural to write a melody and lyrics at the same time, otherwise it doesn’t always fit right. The two threads inform each others’ progress as I go. Often in my noodling I’ll get a little burst of something, a phrase with lyrics and melody and chords behind it, fully formed and ready to be built into a thing. But only after getting a thousand little bursts that are stupid and unusable.
Blue Sunny Day was music and pretty complete melody for a long time before it had lyrics, that’s the exception. And then the line “All we want to do is eat your brains” came to me while I was out riding my bike not thinking about anything in particular, and it was obvious to me who was speaking and what he was like.
I’m in Denver you see. So this is from the reserves – I wrote it around Christmas time last year at the request of my friend Andrew at Z+ Partners.For their holiday card they sent a CD, and they wanted a Christmas song with a futuristic theme. Of course I went right for the post-apocalyptic, stranded on an asteroid, ruled by robots situation. What would a family Christmas letter sound like from there? Well I think it might sound…something…like this…
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: So I know this one LOOKS like cheating but I’m not going to count it that way because this song was actually written during Thing a Week (and I was quite busy touring with Hodgman). When I imagined how this whole thing would go, I thought that probably it would be smart to build up a bunch of reserve songs to use when I had a difficult week. Ha. This was the only song that ever sat in that reserve pile, and the only reason it was there is because someone commissioned it, i.e., it was an assignment.
Here in the present day I just went through several days of writing - serious clear the decks, do nothing all day but try to write days. I got two songs out of it and I’m pretty happy with them, but jeepers: writing hurts. It sucks and I hate it. That’s not completely true, I love it looking back on it, and in particular the day I just spent in the studio recording them was extremely fun and rewarding. But the time leading up to writing, and most of the time the writing itself, feels terrible. You get these moments of glory along the way, but they are against a background of pain and self-loathing. Jeez, that sounds terrible. But since I’m still so close to the process I just went through, I can tell you that it is in fact, ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE. Maybe some of you disagree, but that’s how it feels to me most of the time.
I’ve started writing lyrics in a google doc that I just keep open as I pace around with the guitar trying to find the shape of what I’m working on. When I’m done there are three verses and a chorus and maybe a bridge, and then below the good text that I keep there are 5-10 pages of complete garbage - awkward phrasing, abandoned rhymes, foolish directions. A long list of the many failures it was necessary to generate along with the stuff that ended up being a pretty good song. It’s no wonder I do anything I can to avoid getting the engine started, it’s no wonder I don’t just have a big pile of songs lying in reserve that I just happened to write in my spare time.
And now a confession: this is one of the more enduring and well-liked songs from Thing a Week, but it is not one of my favorites. It’s not terrible, and it’s kind of funny to me still. But I’ve always found it to be a little too on the nose. Once you come up with the (admittedly ridiculous) premise, the “asteroid-based, robot-run penal colony at Christmas” jokes practically write themselves. That sort of premise-based humor often feels a little lazy to me. But what I find most obviously lacking is a sense of character - I’m not at all interested in these people or what happens to them. They don’t learn anything or reveal anything about themselves. I mean, I know it’s not a feature film, but just a glimmer of something would make it stronger.
Funny fact I just noticed: up until this point there was no way for anyone to buy my music. It was only after this song that I finally got around to setting up an mp3 store. I imagined the tip jar technique was going to work, but it absolutely did not. I don’t seem to have the actual data anymore, but I remember that there was a vast difference between leading free music and asking for donations vs. leading with a music store and offering it for free elsewhere. I think buying things just makes more sense to people.
When you were Thing-A-Weeking it, how many hours of effort did you typically lavish upon each production? Were most of those hours spent practicing and performing or were most hours involved with digital setting up and editing?
Writing was always the most time consuming part, and also the most difficult to quantify. In a way I was always writing, even when I wasn’t thinking about writing. Generally once I had the song written, it was maybe 7-15 hours of work to get it all recorded. Though of course that varied depending on the arrangement, or more often, on how late in the week it was when I had a song I liked.
You mentioned fearing having trouble coming up with new songs. Recently, a Carnegie Mellon professor came up with The Muse as a way to inspire songwriters. Do you think these methods help, or is it still better to follow your own path (and muse)?
The site I'm referring to can be found here: http://muse.fawm.org/
Those things can be useful, and a lot of those tricks I do anyway. If you can’t get started in the inspiration department, sometimes you just have to decide “This one is in 3/4 and a minor key and it will have the word monkey in it somewhere.” But then the real question is, does that gimmick achieve lift-off? That’s really what I’m doing when I’m writing: making decisions about a direction to set off in, and then turning around when I don’t like where it goes. Eventually I find a thing a like, and I know because I start caring about it.
Wow, just read the cheating again post from the 7th, didn't know it could be such a tough time coming up with music. I've already begun on my music quest for world domination just before christmas, So yeah, enough blabbing. My question is - What is your idea of a balance between composing recording and resting?
Whatever works. But for me it has to alternate between extremely focused time where I lock myself in a room and write no matter what happens, and off time when I stop thinking about writing completely and play video games or build shelves. I’m doing some intense writing now for the new record, and it’s the same: I force myself to make up a bunch of stuff and none of it is any good. Then I take a break and watch Gilligan’s Island or something, and when I come back there’s a song there. Sort of, if I’m lucky that’s how it works.
For the recording of Thing a Week, what was your primary recording setup? Love the way everything sounds, and I know sometimes you were traveling and using your laptop.
My setup has changed little since Thing a Week, and you can see a list of most things in the FAQ on my site. A couple of the “make it sound better” boxes are new, or arrived in the middle of Thing a Week, but the core was always a Digi002 on a mac mini running Pro Tools LE. Laptop work was most often Ableton Live. All the acoustic parts were done on that Martin 000C, which I’ve been touring with for years, but I suddenly realize needs to stay locked up in a glass case from now on because it’s got so much history.