Still Alive Clarifications

April 10th, 2011

On Wednesday and Thursday I was in the studio working on a new recording of Still Alive for my new album. John Flansburgh was tweeting up a storm while all that was going on, and some of the actual facts got all crazied up by the internet. I kind of like to watch that stuff happen, it means that people are super excited (as am I) about the new album, about Portal 2, about John Flansburgh, about theremins, etc. But I feel the need to state some facts that are true. Ready for true facts?

The new album will probably come out this Summer, not in 2013 as John Flansburgh joked on Twitter. I don’t have a precise date yet, but we’re nearly done. Really.

The new version of “Still Alive” is not for Portal 2, or for Portal 3, it’s just another song that will probably go on my record. Portal 2 is being released in a matter of days, and all jokes about Valve time aside, they’re not THAT behind schedule. Portal 3 isn’t on anyone’s radar as far as I know.

I did write a song for Portal 2, a new song, and you’ll have to wait until you get the game to hear anything else about it.

The collaboration on this new version is NOT with They Might Be Giants, though I admit that part is confusing because Flansburgh tweets using the @TMBG account. But only Flansburgh is producing my record, and of the two Johns, he is the only one involved in this new version of Still Alive. Also confusing, Flansburgh snapped this photo of me and John Linnell and Joe McGinty (who DOES play on the new version of Still Alive) in the studio. I’m recording in the same studio TMBG is recording in, so I arrived when Mr. Linnell was leaving (he insists on me calling him “Mr. Linnell <--joke).

New version of Still Alive includes: Marty Beller on drums, Chris Anderson on bass guitar, me on some things, Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara singing the lead vocal, Joe McGinty of Loser’s Lounge (and, like, everywhere else) playing keyboardy things, and Dorit Chrysler on the new theremin introduction I wrote. I have to say, it’s incredible to be working with all these talented people, and it’s really fun to take this song that’s been kicking around in my repertoire for so long and breathe some new life into it. I hope you will like it as much as I do. We also shot a video while we were recording, so we’ll see what happens with that.

I hope that sets the record straight. Now, back to work on this John Hodgman one man musical about lobsters.

Thing a Week 29: Code Monkey Yay, monkeys. This is not…

April 8th, 2011



Thing a Week 29: Code Monkey

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.

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

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?

April 6th, 2011

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…

Thing a Week 28: When You Go The creative process is a funny…

April 1st, 2011



Thing a Week 28: When You Go

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.

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

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?

March 30th, 2011

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.