Thing a Week 40: SkyMall Ah, the joys of travel. I actually…

June 30th, 2011



Thing a Week 40: SkyMall

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).

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

Nobody Loves You Like Me

June 22nd, 2011

In the UK I did a song from the new record called “Nobody Loves You Like Me.” A few people have been asking about the technology – it looks like what’s happening is that I’m singing into a microphone and fiddling with my iPhone and something weird comes out. That’s an accurate technical description, but here’s a little more detail.

The microphone goes into my laptop through an audio interface. The laptop is running Ableton Live. I’ve got an audio track in there that’s listening to the mic input and running a plugin called The Mouth. That plugin does a lot of awesome things, but in this case it takes the audio and um. I don’t know exactly what it does. It sounds to me like it’s taking the audio input, and using some algorithm to retune the input to a single pitch at several different octaves, the relative volumes of those octaves being determined by the frequency content of the input. You know, robot voice. Kind of a vocoder I guess? But more juicy. I’ve listened to just the 100% wet effect, and it’s almost like it’s carving out space for whatever the input note is – it’s like you can hear the shadow of the melody as it shifts up and down the octaves.

Anyway, put that all in a box and say the effect is weirdifying the input and outputting a repitched copy of what I’m singing. That pitch is determined by midi messages. So I also have a midi track in Ableton Live. The iPhone is running an app called TouchOSC which is sending OSC data over wifi to an app on the laptop called Osculator, which is set up to translate certain OSC messages into midi note events, and then sending those events to the track in Ableton Live, which is then routed to the midi input of The Mouth on track 1. I’m playing a little onscreen keyboard, and that changes the note that The Mouth plays when I sing.

I am also texting three wives and two girlfriends at the same time!

Hope that explains it. It’s probably more than you wanted to know, huh?

Thing a Week 39: Pizza Day In my school, it was Friday. The…

June 21st, 2011



Thing a Week 39: Pizza Day

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.

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

Thing a Week 38: Drinking With You I don’t know what it is…

June 13th, 2011



Thing a Week 38: Drinking With You

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…

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

Thing a Week 37: Rock and Roll Boy I went trolling for some…

June 9th, 2011



Thing a Week 37: Rock and Roll Boy

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.

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