Thing a Week 51: Summer’s Over Isn’t it though? Here’s…

September 27th, 2011



Thing a Week 51: Summer’s Over

Isn’t it though? Here’s the thing – this is song #51, and the next one is #52 and I’m freaking out. It was very hard to write this one. You can imagine how much pressure I’m feeling at this point to wrap the whole thing up with a couple of really kick-ass songs about monkeys and robots, really blow everybody’s mind. As a result, I can’t think of anything really interesting to say about monkeys or robots. So this one’s just about somebody leaving somebody else at the end of the summer (hint: no it’s not, it’s about the end of Thing a Week).

It was especially hard because I knew something you didn’t, which is that this is the last song I’ll write for Thing a Week. Next week is going to be a cover. Why yes, it is a cop out. But really, I can’t imagine writing something that’s as appropriate as this cover song will be – you’ll see. It just feels right to me.

Speaking of which, I need a little something from you folks to make it happen. If you have the capability to record decently (no built-in laptop microphones please), I would like you to record a single hand clap and email it to me. Your best hand clap please, mp3 is fine as long as it’s a pretty decent bitrate. By doing so you agree to let me use it for whatever I want from now until the end of time without getting any sort of credit for it, ever. But you’ll be on a CD.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Of all the songs that I can’t remember writing, this one feels the most like it was implanted in my history by space aliens. No idea. I was playing it close to the vest in the blog, keeping it light, but there was definitely some heavy emotional stuff going on about the approaching end of Thing a Week.

I’ve always had trouble with transitions. I get obsessed with the borders between things - everything that came before this moment was X, everything after will be Y. I can’t help but try to unpack that moment, savor it, hate it. Birthdays, graduations, moving day, they’re all terrible. All that stuff functioned as a multiplier for the standard weekly performance anxiety, which had been growing larger all year anyway. It was overwhelming. So I tricked me, and I made this one the last one. I basically left without saying goodbye (though technically I do say goodbye quite a few times in this song).

I have a vague memory of still having large gaps in the lyrics during the recording process, so I’m betting that this song really didn’t get started until Thursday or Friday. There are a couple of clunker lines in there, and sitting here with all this distance, they seem incredibly easy to fix. Or maybe I just write differently now. Anyway, I forgive myself for the melodrama with all the flowers dying and the cold wind, because I absolutely love the kicker lines at the ends of the verses. And the middle section with the lonely accordion and the a cappella singing group vocals sounds positively cinematic to me. All in all, it feels pleasantly unfamiliar enough to convince me that during this period, I was really WRITING in a way I never had before.

That bit about goodbyes moving in circles hits me hard here in this hotel room in wherever-I-am. Five years ago I was finishing Thing a Week, feeling proud and hopeful about the possibilities, but coming up on a scary stretch of unknown territory - what now? Hodgman’s first book was out and I was about to accompany him on his big book tour. I was just starting to do my own shows in other cities. I was gearing up to release all the Thing a Week songs as albums. I was ready to admit that this was my job. It was the end of TAW but the beginning of everything else, very much a time of LAUNCHING things. None of which was at all obvious to me at the time.

And now here I am in this hotel room in wherever-I-am, on tour with They Might Be Giants. They’ve got a new album out, I’ve got a new album out, I’ve got this new band, all these new songs about grownup things. Hodgman has another new book coming out and is about to start touring. So here we are again, five years later, and I’m truly grateful and amazed, but still facing the same scary stretch of unknown territory. What now?

I like to play the game where I imagine going back to tell five-years-ago me what was about to happen to him. There’s no way he would believe it. And I think that’s what really gets me about these transitions, the idea that the end of this thing you know is really just the beginning of this thing you haven’t met yet. It seems like there should be a way to see that new thing, to figure it out ahead of time instead of blindly stumbling across it. Of course you can’t - that’s precisely the difference between the future and the past. And here we all are, eternally stuck in the present, where all you can do is close your eyes, put your head down, and go.

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 50: Pull the String This appears to be about a…

September 17th, 2011



Thing a Week 50: Pull the String

This appears to be about a famous person with a terrible secret. It’s not about anyone in particular as far as I know. Maybe it’s about you – Tom Cruise! Or you – John Hodgman! It kind of reminds me of Big Bad World One, mostly because of the A/E ambiguity in the verse. Believe it or not, that acoustic riff in the verse is an idea that’s been floating around in my head since I was about 17 – it’s a relief to finally get that one out the door. Who’s next!

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: I am listening now to this song for the first time in five years - I’ve never played this one live, haven’t really thought about it since the day I uploaded it. Love that E over A thing. I am realizing now it reminds me of the piano lick between verse couplets in the Donald Fagen song “New Frontier” (oops, sorry Donald). Mix needs a lot of help, I seem to have layered myself into muddy territory during the pre choruses. Whoa, right, forgot about this bridge - what the? Abrupt, chopped off ending for extra drama, got it.

OK. Some good and bad here. On the plus side, I think most of the music is coming from an original place, or at least I don’t hear the endless parade of standard JoCo tricks I usually resort to when I’m out of ideas. Maybe that’s just because it’s been so long since I’ve heard this song that I don’t even remember how to play it right now, but the chord changes sound kind of fresh but catchy, which is the whole point of a pop song. I like the textural change-ups a lot, the way it gets big and small and loud and quiet. I was ashamed of the bridge the first time I heard it again, but listening a second time I think it’s kind of nice - it’s all new territory within the song, and I think the buildup thing works pretty well with the noisy guitars and everything. All of that stuff sounds to me like at least I was still inventing things at this point. Guitars are not awful. Lead vocal performance actually has a nice vibe to it, as if I cared about what I was singing, which is not always something I am able to capture when I’m singing into a microphone.

The biggest problem for me is the lyrics. I fell into the classic trap where the song is just about one thing and every line is just another way to describe that thing in a not very interesting way. Those kinds of songs can certainly work, but this one centers on a pretty nonspecific and low stakes idea, and it simply doesn’t generate much heat. Also, there are a bunch of phrases in there that sound a little pat to me: “they all want in,” “underneath your skin,” “call your lawyer.” It sounds like a Glen Frey song from 1984, where you’re “in the night” and this or that thing is “dangerous” because something is happening “in your heart” or maybe “on the streets of this city.” Oy.

I’ve written a lot of songs like this in my life, ones that should be good but are not because they lack some essential unnameable thing. This is the one you leave off the album, or you put aside for a while and then try re-writing later once you have starved it of enough attention that it’s ready to play ball. With more time I might have solved the problem by finding something personal to write about - not me necessarily, any person would do (I know tons of secrets about ALL SORTS of famous people). As it is, most of it sounds like me filling up space until the writing is done, rather than being compelled to tell a story or explore a character that legitimately interests me. You don’t have to get mad to write an angry song, but it does help to think about a time when you WERE mad and play off the details. Specificity makes things interesting, even if it’s secret specificity that nobody else will understand but you. Sometimes especially if it’s secret specificity - am I right, Charles R. in Santa Fe?

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 50: Pull the String This appears to be about a…

September 17th, 2011



Thing a Week 50: Pull the String

This appears to be about a famous person with a terrible secret. It’s not about anyone in particular as far as I know. Maybe it’s about you – Tom Cruise! Or you – John Hodgman! It kind of reminds me of Big Bad World One, mostly because of the A/E ambiguity in the verse. Believe it or not, that acoustic riff in the verse is an idea that’s been floating around in my head since I was about 17 – it’s a relief to finally get that one out the door. Who’s next!

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: I am listening now to this song for the first time in five years - I’ve never played this one live, haven’t really thought about it since the day I uploaded it. Love that E over A thing. I am realizing now it reminds me of the piano lick between verse couplets in the Donald Fagen song “New Frontier” (oops, sorry Donald). Mix needs a lot of help, I seem to have layered myself into muddy territory during the pre choruses. Whoa, right, forgot about this bridge - what the? Abrupt, chopped off ending for extra drama, got it.

OK. Some good and bad here. On the plus side, I think most of the music is coming from an original place, or at least I don’t hear the endless parade of standard JoCo tricks I usually resort to when I’m out of ideas. Maybe that’s just because it’s been so long since I’ve heard this song that I don’t even remember how to play it right now, but the chord changes sound kind of fresh but catchy, which is the whole point of a pop song. I like the textural change-ups a lot, the way it gets big and small and loud and quiet. I was ashamed of the bridge the first time I heard it again, but listening a second time I think it’s kind of nice - it’s all new territory within the song, and I think the buildup thing works pretty well with the noisy guitars and everything. All of that stuff sounds to me like at least I was still inventing things at this point. Guitars are not awful. Lead vocal performance actually has a nice vibe to it, as if I cared about what I was singing, which is not always something I am able to capture when I’m singing into a microphone.

The biggest problem for me is the lyrics. I fell into the classic trap where the song is just about one thing and every line is just another way to describe that thing in a not very interesting way. Those kinds of songs can certainly work, but this one centers on a pretty nonspecific and low stakes idea, and it simply doesn’t generate much heat. Also, there are a bunch of phrases in there that sound a little pat to me: “they all want in,” “underneath your skin,” “call your lawyer.” It sounds like a Glen Frey song from 1984, where you’re “in the night” and this or that thing is “dangerous” because something is happening “in your heart” or maybe “on the streets of this city.” Oy.

I’ve written a lot of songs like this in my life, ones that should be good but are not because they lack some essential unnameable thing. This is the one you leave off the album, or you put aside for a while and then try re-writing later once you have starved it of enough attention that it’s ready to play ball. With more time I might have solved the problem by finding something personal to write about - not me necessarily, any person would do (I know tons of secrets about ALL SORTS of famous people). As it is, most of it sounds like me filling up space until the writing is done, rather than being compelled to tell a story or explore a character that legitimately interests me. You don’t have to get mad to write an angry song, but it does help to think about a time when you WERE mad and play off the details. Specificity makes things interesting, even if it’s secret specificity that nobody else will understand but you. Sometimes especially if it’s secret specificity - am I right, Charles R. in Santa Fe?

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 Redux 2011-09-12 18:56:06

September 12th, 2011

I think that’s a fine idea. I may also extend it on through the songs from Artificial Heart if I’m feeling frisky.

Thing a Week 49: Make You Cry Sometime in this week I found…

September 12th, 2011



Thing a Week 49: Make You Cry

Sometime in this week I found this guitar figure that hypnotized me into playing it for about a hundred hours straight. I wish I had picked something that was a little easier to play, because it drove me crazy during the recording process. My poor, stubby little fingers! I don’t think I’ve done a song for Thing a Week that’s just guitar and vocals, and this one seemed particularly suited to it, so there you are. It’s another love song from a crazy person – this guy wants to win the girl so he can punish her for not loving him. I guess. He certainly seems confused and angry and sad. Do NOT hang out with him.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Yeah hey, this one’s a pretty song isn’t it? People ask all the time, which comes first, words or music? In this case it was definitely music, I spent the week pacing around, playing and building this guitar part long before I had any idea what the song would be about. This style of guitar playing reminds me of You Ruined Everything, Drinking with You, and also So Far So Good: picky and folky, thumb working the bass notes. It’s kind of a Bob Dylan via Paul Simon thing. It’s very satisfying to me musically because I get to do everything - it’s a real ARRANGEMENT, not just a bunch of strummy chords.

Guitar part is doubled and very hard to play, so it’s no wonder it took me a while to record. I’ve done this live a few times with Paul and Storm, and my fingers are still not great at playing it. Bridge: three part harmony, all bluegrass-like, brings a tear to my eye it does. There’s something about the sound of those simple harmonies that plugs right into my emotional ache center. All in all I’d say this is a pretty good effort.

This is one of many I’ve written in the category of “songs about assholes.” It’s a classic song writing trick - start from a moment where you were the wronged party, and then write from the perspective of the bad guy. “I broke your heart” is a lot more interesting than “You broke my heart.” And it’s perversely fun to try to get inside the head of someone who is clearly crazy, or evil, or otherwise out of balance. What this guy’s doing doesn’t even really make any sense, it’s just an extremely unhealthy obsession that’s probably super annoying to everyone involved. It’s a twisted concept, and set in such a sweet sounding musical context it crosses wires in all sorts of pleasing ways.

This is very near the end of Thing a Week. I’m getting sad all over again.

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