By JoCo February 21, 2010

Bored on an airplane from Phoenix to San Diego by way of Salt Lake City (what?) I opened my laptop to do a little musical messing around and got distracted by a folder filled with old ideas. I’ve learned the hard way that when I get a little nugget of something that might be a song, it’s important to capture it before I forget it. At a certain point song ideas are like dreams – they’re in my short term memory and they feel pretty solid, but they’re really not stored anywhere permanent. Let a couple of hours go by and they completely disappear. So I’ve gotten in the habit of opening the laptop and hitting record.

Some of you might find these interesting from a (pardon me) “historical perspective.” The quality is terrible, they are extremely raw and not meant to be listened to, they’re recorded in Ableton Live through the laptop mic, and often I can’t actually play them correctly. But generally they’re the very beginning stages of my process, when I’ve got a line or two maybe, a guitar part I like, a chord change I want to use, etc. You can hear the lyric technique I use at this point, which is to sing nonsense syllables as I’m figuring out the melody (and sometimes what the song is about). Some of these ideas get completely blown apart along the way and reworked into something else, some of them stick pretty much as they are. It’s funny for me to go back and listen to them because a few of them changed quite a bit – it’s like bizarro world, where all the songs turned out just a little different.

A Talk with George

Pre-Song: A Talk with George

The file for this one is called “sad irish,” not sure what that means exactly. I don’t think I was planning on writing a song about a sad Irish person, probably I was referring to the style, though it isn’t particularly Irish at all actually. You can hear me reminding myself how to play it in the beginning. The verse melody is mostly there, but different. No bridge yet, no Plimpton either. This version floated around until I connected it with the Plimpton idea and started fleshing out actual lyrics. Usually deciding on a subject or a point of view helps cure the melody, makes it settle down and decide what it’s going to be – there are certain choices you have to make once you’re using actual words. The guitar part in the second half of the verse is mostly complete at this point, that stuck pretty well through to the finished song.

I wish I had a record of the lyric-writing process on this one. For the longest time it was third person – George did this, George did that – and I hated it. It felt very gimmicky. And then somewhere in there I switched it to the second person, as if George was giving you advice. That softened the “wikipedia” feel of listing George’s accomplishments, and gave it depth enough to be about something more complicated.

Big Bad World One

Pre-Song: Big Bad World One 1

There are three clips here. The first one starts with what eventually became the pre-chorus, and as you can hear it started as a much sadder song – the title of the file is “What If.” I can’t play it properly yet at this point. I’m glad I ditched the second part of this one, it seems to just kind of wander aimlessly.

Pre-Song: Big Bad World One 2

The second clip was part of a different thread, the one that became the song. It’s the verse and the chorus but I haven’t yet decided to steal from clip 1 for the pre-chorus. The last line of the chorus is there, a couple other hints of where the lyrics were headed. I think it’s safe to say that at this point I had just figured out what I was writing about – that last line pretty much sums it all up.

Pre-Song: Big Bad World One 3

The third clip has more worked-out lyrics, plus I’ve put the two pieces together. It’s out of order, the pre-chorus lyrics here actually ended up in the third verse, but you can see how they evolved from the original “What If” idea. This is the point in the process when writing gets easiest – there’s a pretty well-formed point of view, a verse, a chorus, both with lyrics. I think of this as having “broken the back” of the song. From here on out it’s just a question of filling in the details.

Blue Sunny Day

Pre-Song: Blue Sunny Day 1

The first clip is from a song I was calling “My Nemesis,” not sure exactly what it’s about, and I may come back to that idea someday. The second section is the chord progression and melody that would eventually become the pre-chorus of Blue Sunny Day. There’s also an idea for a bridge, which now sounds boring enough for me to wonder why I bothered capturing it.

Pre-Song: Blue Sunny Day 2

The second clip has a great intro guitar part, which I’m glad to have come across again because I still may want to use it somewhere. You may recognize a little figure near the end of that intro section, which is a little picky thing on a G13 chord that now happens between halves of the verse in BSD. The verse chords are there with a completely different melody, and I’ve also figured out the modulation that happens between verse and the pre-chorus section stolen from clip 1. Haven’t yet figured out the modulation back that happens shortly after. I remember that this chord progression floated around in my brain for months, I would just sit and play it waiting for it to take me in some direction. At that point it’s usually time to pick a subject and push it through, because I can dither around with a musical idea until I am bored to death and start to hate it. At some point I would find the line “blue sunny day,” and that was the bit that made me decide it was about a sad vampire, much to my chagrin.

Hilariously, there is a file called “Nemesis 3” that I just listened to, and it is me playing an acoustic version of “Never Gonna Give You Up.” So yes, I just rickrolled myself. No idea.

Drinking With You

Pre-Song: Drinking with You

Chords and melody mostly there, you can hear me mushmouthing around trying to figure out a lyric/melody combination that works. I have the last line, “nice to go out drinking with you,” so I definitely know what the song is about. And I can’t play it AT ALL (and still can’t). I’m a little sorry I lost the turnaround and repetition of the line at the end, which refers back to that dissonant chord in the prechorus (“I know this place that’s near here”). It’s nice, but of course it also just repeats earlier material, so all in all I think it’s better without it.

This is another great example of a song that started out as chords. Like Blue Sunny Day above, I would play these chords and sing along, and somewhere in there found “nice to go out drinking with you.” Once I have a line like that, I just need to figure out who’s saying it and why, and then the rest of the song falls in line from there.

Lady Aberlin’s Muu-Muu

Pre-Song: Lady Aberlin’s Muu-Muu

I wrote this song while on vacation with my family in Cape Cod. We rented a house that had this amazing organ, the old fashioned wooden cabinet kind with two rows of keys, an arpeggiator, a bunch of built-in beats, a bench filled with song books that show you how to play “Lady of Spain” with one finger. I was messing around with Bossanova 2 or something like that when I found these chords, and I had been thinking about Lady Aberlin and the idea of a guy sweetly but weirdly obsessed with this one blue dress she wore (definitely not me). I was hoping to use this organ in the actual recording, so this clip is assembled from a number of takes that I edited together in Abelton Live. But the tempo was all over the place and I am not a great pianist. And anyway it took me months to write the third verse because the form and the rhyme scheme is really tight and constraining.

One of the things that made it hard to play was that I couldn’t do it in C because all the D keys were broken. Keep in mind, this organ was old technology, a lot of wires and tubes and hamsters on wheels. Somewhere in there the D-inator had gone bad, so that every D key on all the keyboards and the bass pedals made no sound. UNLESS you turned on all the effects and sat on it for 15 seconds, then it would make this incredible growling whooshy noise, like a war of angels in an underwater gymnasium. I wish I had thought to record that sound because it was amazing, but I also kind of like that it faded out of existence when vacation was over. LIKE THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF MAKE BELIEVE ITSELF.

That’s all for now, I’ll post some more when I have a chance.


Leigh says

This is SO COOL. It's always neat to get a glimpse inside someone else's creative process. Thank you ever so much for posting it.

elliomeg says

What Leigh said, but with exclamation marks for emphasis (!!!!)

Michelle Spears says

This should be fun, since I have most of your songs memorized! They're all downloaded and ready to WinAmp will never be the same again! (Oh, like it was any saner after I added Dance, Soterios Johnson, Dance =P)


Nasarius says

Love the totally different first attempt at Big Bad World One.

Totz the Plaid says

This kicks ass! Thank you, and I look forward to as many more as you have/are willing to share!

Thomas says

When I first started reading this, I thought it meant you'd rediscovered old song ideas that you'd yet to use and got hopeful for a new JoCo tune.

This is about 95% as good. A Talk With George will always remain my favorite song by you.

Sujin says

It's always neat to get a glimpse in the creative process, like everyone else said. The organ version or Lady Aberlin's Muumuu is ridiculously catchy and will probably be stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Autumnraina says

Wow! Thanks for the peek 'behind the scenes'!

Jason says

I had a great time at the Los Angeles show last night. It's been a couple years since I saw you last, and I love what you've been up to with your set.

Bright spots were: Drinking with You and Dance, Soterios Johnson, Dance. Those are both special favorites of mine but I'm not sure I've ever heard you perform them live. If that's part of your usual set now, great. If that was a one-off, know that this fan loved them and thinks they'd be as regular numbers.

The high point was Mr. Fancy Pants. That number has really turned into something special. Whatever the hell that plastic handbag is, it's really fun to watch you work your magic on it.

Jason says

...thinks they'd be great as regular numbers...

Walt Schmerz says

Thanks! It's nice to know you usually start with music. I collect all sorts of little licks, but I rarely can get over the lyric-writing hump and turn the instrumentals into complete songs. How do you attack the lyrical/vocal side of the equation?

lasarack says

for some reason, this reminded me of 'The Beatles never broke up' and other recordings of those type.

John Darc says

I remember when some song JoCo did (I think Octopus) had a bossa nova section to it. Completely scrapped for what we got.

Dan Fego says

You really should post Nemesis 3 anyway. :)

Just Linda says

This post is arguably the coolest thing you've ever done. And that's saying something.

Lito says

It was awesome hearing some new additions to your set last night in L.A. since you were last here in May '09. Although I missed "Big Bad World One" (my fave song of yours), hearing "Dance, Soterios Johnson, Dance" live was great.

Oh, and hearing your "sketches" on this page is great -- thanks for sharing this with us!

Marisa says

I love being a part of this fandom so much.I always think,whenever I'm listening to a song or watching a movie or reading fiction,about how the artist might have come up with the idea and developed it.I actually am so much in the habit of doing that that I do it without realizing it at first,and it's knd of a fun exercise.I have always been mystified as to how creating a song happens,because I have absolutely no musical ability whatsoever and so even imagining it is beyond me,but this kind of elucidates it for me.I always wonder whether an artist comes up with lyrics or a tune first;I guess you do both simultaneously.This is really cool,thanks for enabling my over-thinking geekiness,and for doing this kind of thing for your fans!

Rich says

I am surprised, thankful, and oddly disappointed that you didn't post "Nemesis 3" with some vague description and rickroll us all from the past.

Jamie Knowles says

Wow, it's really interesting to hear how your songs start out. Thanks for uploading these!

Jamie Knowles says

I just read the rick'rolld part, wow. -_-

Shaddox says

One of the best posts I've seen (other than new songs).

Colleenky says

Wow. Thank you. Wow.

M_pony says

evidently it was a Blue Sunny Laundry Day. BZZZZZT!!

Dude, these are so uncommonly cool to hear. You are, yet again, awesomely awesome in awesome ways.

Someday you should make a trip back to the Organ Of Impossibility and get that sound recorded.. that sounds like a circuit-bending dream come true.

Mary says

Thank you for sharing these with us! Hearing stories about these songs and listening to the clips makes me feel like I'm listening to them for the first time all over again. :)

Also.. hahaha! on rick rolling yourself! Epic!

monica s. says


John Darc says

JoCo should invest in a portable recorder of some sort instead of singing into his computer like a madman.

I know he mentioned that he loved his IPhone because he can sing into a voice recording app and no one can tell he isn't on the phone.

Borba Spinotti says

This is amazing to listen through. It may be possible to follow somebody talking about a creative process in the abstract, but having access to the breadcrumb trail of half-formed ideas is such a privilege. Thanks a million for sharing.

Kevin says

I learn't more about the creative song process reading and listening to this post than i have from any other source. Thank-you so very much.

Spintown says

Interesting to listen to the earily drafts & ideas of these songs. Thanks.

Rowan Fairgrove says

*laughs* This is so fun. Love the organ bit and the description of the d-inator.

Angelastic says

What elliomeg said, but with only one exclamation mark, because that's good punctuation.

As someone who basically only writes words (although they occasionally come with a melody attached, which I assume I inadvertently stole, and rarely attempt to express to anyone) it's really interesting for me to hear you playing this complicated guitar stuff before you even know what the words are. The most complicated backing music I ever added to something I wrote was a synthesised triangle, for goat's sake. I'm amuzed (amazed and amused.)

Also, I really like your gibberish voice, it's all soft-rocky and sweet.

Does this mean you're no longer afraid of revealing The Naked JoCo, and will let us hear some of the things you wrote in high school or college or whenever it was that you were still trying to soft rock the ladies with your guitar?

Amelia says

LOL "I just Rickrolled myself." That is awesomesause.

katytron says

Gosh I just love old organs and their quirks. I learned to play piano on this thing that was just... I dunno. Haunted.

PS Mr Coulton you are a wonderful series of keyboard tappings on the internet that I like to read.

Mark Torromeo says

Awesome. I love to try to imagine the process you went through to come up with your songs, and it makes me feel good to know that just like me you often start without really having any idea where you're going. Very insightful stuff.
And i think "My Nemesis" sounds fantastic. You gotta finish that one.

Trap Johnson says

One more for being interested in hearing Nemesis 3

David says

teh awesome is what this is! teh awesome!!11one!!!!

Kat says

that's a sweet bend at the waist.

also, very much like this. tre cool

Fredrik says

This is just fantastic!
I hope we'll get so see some for Re: Your Brains too! :D

Amanda French says

This is terrific. You're so smart to know how interesting everyone would find these, and so egoless to let us listen to them. And it's exactly this kind of thing that will encourage people who *think* they can't write songs to write them.

My favorite part is on "Big Bad World 3" when you start to sing, "World Zero, Me One." Parapraxis, much?

Jeremie says

Hey JoCo, thanks man. It takes courage to show you're just as real as the next person. ;) Can't wait to hear more. These snippets are really interesting, and the explaining is a very nice touch. Thinking DVD voiceover. lol.

guitar effects reviews says

Nice read. Would enjoy reading a follow up.

This sentence will contradict itself at the end says

Lucky... whenever I find these, they're just me humming stupidly. I particularly like some parts in "My Nemesis" and the "Big Bad World: One" series. Happy reminiscing!

ZSandmann says

I loved this! You have to post more JoCo.

I also really dug that piece of My Nemesis. Growing up it was me and my little brother. So I'm thinking "My Nemesis" is one of your kids talking about the other, right? A sequel in spirit to "You Ruined Everything in the Nicest Way"

Johnny Octane says

Please, oh, please, oh, please, oh, PLEASE will you post Never Gonna Give You Up? ^__^

Amanda H. says

Holy crap, these are amazing. I am a TOTAL demo junkie. Hearing early recordings and processes of how my favorite artists create their stuff is one of my favorite things to do. Thank you so much for posting/describing these, they absolutely made my day.

patt says

...Can we have Never Gonna Give You Up? Or are you planning to release it as a full cover? :P

MeeMeesiko says

The vampire concept in "Blue Sunny Day" made me laugh out loud.

If it was a blue sunny day outside, then who would be the only unhappy person out there?

A vampire, of course.

It reminded me a bit of "I'm Still Alive." It's ironic and sad, but hilarious all at the same time.

MoJo says

:-) Cool

Renee says

This is absolutely awesome!! I really enjoyed this. You should consider writing a book, and I'd love to publish it (I work for a publishing company in MD). Perhaps I'll send you an email about it. Thanks so much for posting these! I look forward to reading/hearing more.