Thing a Week Redux 2011-08-22 09:13:21

August 22nd, 2011

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

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

Thing a Week 46: You Ruined Everything I was having a…

August 19th, 2011



Thing a Week 46: You Ruined Everything

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

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

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

I have no memory of writing this song.

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

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

Thing a Week 45: Mr. Fancy Pants I tried to write something…

August 13th, 2011



Thing a Week 45: Mr. Fancy Pants

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

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.”

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 44: Big Bad World One Enough with the bigfoots and…

August 4th, 2011



Thing a Week 44: Big Bad World One

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.

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

First Track from Artificial Heart

July 28th, 2011

We are inching closer to the point when you will all be able to actually HEAR this new record I’ve been talking about forever. In fact, here is a track for you to listen to right now. It’s called “Nemeses” and the lead vocal is sung by none other than JoCo Cruise Crazy favorite (he is also famous for other things) John Roderick.

I hope you like it, because it’s good, and so if you don’t like it then that means you have terrible taste.