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.

Artificial Heart – Questions and Answers

September 10th, 2011

As you may have heard through various channels, Artificial Heart is now available for purchase. It’s a very exciting time for all of us! Thank you for all of your positive feedback and excitement about it. I’ve been living alone with it so long that I had begun to really go crazy not being able to share it with you all. Now that we can all listen to it, I feel complete again.

Many of you have been asking questions, and it seems that some of these questions have been asked more frequently than others. I’m going to take a look at these “QAFs” (Questions that are Asked Frequently) in the paragraphs to follow, and hopefully answer a few of them for you.

Here is the general plan: the album is for sale in its entirety right now through my website as a digital download in a format of your choosing. There are also some special bundles containing various physical objects. I am working on putting it in iTunes and all sorts of other digital stores even as we speak. I don’t have an ETA except to say that it will happen as soon as it is physically possible. Top men are working on it. Top. Men. I don’t have a specific list of the digital stores, but chances are the answer to your question that starts “Will it be available in [SOME ONLINE STORE]…” would be “Yes,” were you to ask it of me.

The bundles will be available for a limited time (more on this in a second). I wanted to do these initial offerings because: 1) I was tired of waiting for the gears to turn on the non direct sales side, let’s do this thing already! 2) I liked the idea of trying to cover the expenses of making this thing early on, so that I could maybe begin to relax – kind of a backwards Kickstarter strategy, and 3) I think it’s fun and exciting to have a special, celebratory moment at the beginning of this album’s life. In particular the level four participation and the various plans I have for it have become a fun creative play space for me. This is not a concept album per se, but it’s got some strong thematic undercurrents that are fun to mess with, hence the logo, the motto, the symbols, the evaluation questions, and other things yet to be revealed.

I do not always want to be in the business of direct physical sales, so I’m going to sell these things for a while and then stop. The CD and the Artificial Heart Shirt will be available for purchase after that, but these specific bundles, the signed CD, and all the other stuff that comes with Level Four will only be around for a little while – let’s say through the end of September, or while supplies last. Judging from the trend so far, I will make 1,000 of these and that will be all.

I actually had a meeting last week with the people who are making and assembling all the Level Four packages, and let’s just say we got plans – cool stuff is going to be in there, and it’s going to look great and satisfy you in that fuzzy, collector’s item kind of way.

Thank you all for the overwhelming support you have shown me over the years, even when I was not writing anything at all, but especially now as I publish what is really my first substantial new work since Thing a Week (eep). I hope you are enjoying listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it.

Thing a Week 48: The Big Boom Last weekend when I was staying…

September 7th, 2011



Thing a Week 48: The Big Boom

Last weekend when I was staying with some friends in Pennsylvania, there was a very loud noise that woke me up. It was thunder. But it was crazy thunder – it seemed to last about a minute and a half, and it wasn’t a bang, it was this huge, diffuse roar. And after it stopped all the car alarms were going off. It sounded like the end of the world.

At least that’s what I thought when I sat bolt upright in bed and reached for my car keys and a weapon. My first thought, probably before I was fully awake, was that someone or something had scraped Philadelphia out of the Earth, and that I was going to have to grab some provisions, get in the car and head north. I don’t know why this would be my default explanation for a loud noise. I suppose it means I’m a little on edge.

At first this was about a loud boom that led to nothing, but it didn’t take long before I realized it would be better if it was about a loud boom that really did signify the end of the world. The Big Boom. And then I changed Philadelphia to Michigan because there are too many syllables in Philadelphia. The rest of it writes and records and mixes itself!

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: This track suffers quite a bit from my DIY home studio limitations. No drummer, that’s the worst part. The loop libraries I have usually let me get pretty close to faking it, but I can really hear in this track that it’s just canned drums, there’s just no blood and guts in there. I’m also just generally not good at rocking onto tape. Of all the styles of music I tried to produce during Thing a Week, this was the hardest to get right - I think there’s a lot more subtlety to the recording and mixing process with this genre than you might think. It also helps to have a real amp, and some people who can really play. I like to rock, I just don’t always know how.

Things I like: the riff in the verse, the background vocals in the chorus, the minor major 7th chord at the end of the chorus, the bass guitar’s solo moment at the end of the bridge/solo section.

Things I don’t like: the general lack of testicles, the reappearance of one of my favorite harmonic crutches (the walkdown from F# minor, as seen in Chiron Beta Prime), the meh bridge/solo section (I need 16 bars of something, STAT!), and something about the vocal that I can’t put my finger on but has a lot to do with me not knowing how to make rock music.

Lyrically it gets close, but I think there’s just too much exposition, too much specificity and not enough evocative language. The guy is explaining too much, he should be more emotional and less able to express clearly what’s going on. Or at least that would be one direction to try, it could just be a flawed concept.

I still remember that feeling of waking up that night, that thing where your body’s awake but your brain is not, where you’re all pre-mammalian impulse and you just want to GET OUT. I think it’s what people refer to as night terrors, and it has happened to me only a couple of times. I was under some stress - great things were happening, but a lot was still hanging in the air somewhere between success and failure. Thing a Week One had just been put up at CDBaby, I was doing a bunch of Hodgman book tour stuff, and I was just setting up my very first all-me, out of town show in Seattle. It was also nearly the end of Thing a Week. I was tired of my weekly songwriting deadline, but I was also staring into an uncertain void at the end of it, riding right into a wall of clouds.

Which is not dissimilar to how I’m feeling now. Have I mentioned this new album? I have? Well, it’s called Artificial Heart, and it’s available for purchase on my website, and coming soon to all your favorite digital stores. I’m very proud of it, and I’m getting great feedback from lots of people, but it doesn’t make me worry any less. The last few years have been pretty amazing, and the old songs know exactly what to do - these new ones are just babies. They could fall! On top of that, I’m still feeling a little stretched in the danger department, getting ready to travel around for three weeks with a band opening for They Might Be Giants (who do I think I am exactly?).

Fittingly for this post, this September leg of touring ends in Philadelphia - AS WILL THE WORLD!

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