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.

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?

March 30th, 2011

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?

March 30th, 2011

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.