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.

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?

March 30th, 2011

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?

March 30th, 2011

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.

Thing a Week 27: Madelaine New recording of an old song – this…

March 26th, 2011

Thing a Week 27: Madelaine

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.

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 26: Re:Your Brains If Hollywood has taught us…

March 24th, 2011

Thing a Week 26: Re:Your Brains

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.

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