Interview With Jonathan Coulton, Song Writing Machine

Yesterday, I promised an interview with Jonathan Coulton, the  brains, voice, instruments, sound engineer, and warped psyche behind the awe-inspiring, song-crunching Thing A Week project and its zombies, mad scientists, smitten seahorses, giant squid, and other heros and heroines.  (That’s his artsy black and white mugshot to the right; you can also seem him squaring off with a Storm Trooper here)

So, without further delay, check out the skinny on Jonathan’s songwriting style, his leap into online fame, his various ongoing projects, and his future music production and tour plans.  A great DIY artist.


GARAGESPIN: You’re a songwriting machine, you’ve been writing and recording solid tracks each week for almost what, 40+ weeks?  What made you decide to commit to such a challenge?   Which track(s) surprised you the most when it was finished?  Do you plan to continue past your 1-year anniversary of Thing A Week?

JONATHAN: Yes, this week will be song #41 [now up to #42], which amazes even me. The idea came from a co-worker at my long lost day job as we were discussing my impending unemployment and what I was going to do with my time. It sounded totally insane and impossible, but I had a lot of pent up creative energy, so I figured I’d give it a shot. And the more people paid attention, the harder it was to stop. If I do make it to 52, and I can certainly see the finish line at this point, I will probably take some kind of a break. I also will release CDs with the entire year’s songs in their original order (and state of completion), which I think will make for an interesting cultural artifact.

The most surprising tracks for me are the ones that were done under extreme pressure and still turned out pretty good. There were weeks where I had no ideas until the afternoon of the day I was supposed to post a new song. And there were plenty of sad songs that came out of the horrible desperate feeling that I would probably never be able to write a song again. Both When You Go and Drinking With You were like that. And there were songs of circumstance – Sibling Rivalry was done on my laptop while I was traveling around the country, mostly because it seemed like the most I could technically handle without my studio. That’s a stealth favorite of mine – something that I never would have chosen to do sitting comfortably at home.

GARAGESPIN: When you produce a weekly track, how much time do you spend writing it, recording it, mixing it, and mastering it?

JONATHAN: It varies greatly depending on how long it takes me to come up with the idea. Generally I take Mondays off from my brain and do other things – bookkeeping, answering emails, errands, etc. By Wednesday I hope to have at least some germ of an idea, and best case scenario I write most of it then. Thursday is recording (I sort of mix as I go). And then Friday is bonus recording and second guessing and over-thinking the mix. Though there have been weeks where I had to start recording before I had much of anything written. I think the fastest one was Pizza Day – I decided I was going to write that at about 2PM on Friday and was mostly done by 5. That’s why there’s no bridge…

GARAGESPIN: Where do you get your inspiration?  And when inspired, what hits you first, lyrics, melody, a song title, a guitar chord lick?

JONATHAN: Sometimes I think I’m writing about the same character over and over, and that character is me. For some reason (ask my therapist) I’m moved most by monsters who feel misunderstood or unappreciated – zombies who are trying to be reasonable, giant squids who hate being themselves, evil geniuses who don’t know how to flirt properly. Or else losers and chumps who don’t know that they’re losers and chumps. I like all kinds of music, but my biggest influences are probably They Might Be Giants (for the off-beat but still really deep subject matter) and some mashup of Dan Fogelberg and Billy Joel (for that 70s singer/songwriter thing with lots of vocals).

When I’m not forcing it to happen in one of those difficult weeks, I’m usually initially inspired by a germ of an idea that comes with a melody and some words, often just a phrase that speaks volumes about what the rest of the song will be. "All we want to do is eat your brains, we’re not unreasonable" was a line that came to me all at once. I knew immediately who was speaking that line and what his story was, and the rest of the song sort of wrote itself. If I don’t have this lucky break but have to write anyway, I usually just play the acoustic and sing nonsense vocal lines until I get something resembling one of those idea germs.

GARAGESPIN: You sang in two a capella groups, the Spizzwinks and the Whiffenpoofs at Yale.  How do you think those experiences have affected your songwriting style?

JONATHAN: I’ve always been a huge fan of close harmonies and tight arrangements in pop music. I think that’s why I was drawn to a cappella to begin with instead of say, singing in a rock band like a normal college person. And I think that while a cappella can be kind of dorky and lame, when it works it can be really beautiful and moving. And I opt for the beautiful over the rocking every time – I’ll choose Beatles over Stones, then McCartney over Lennon, AND THEN "I Will" over "Back in the USSR." I’m serious, I’ll do it.

GARAGESPIN: I checked out in Alexa, and noticed a ginormous traffic spike in late April.  Tell us about it — what the heck happened?

Jonathan Coulton's Alexa rankingJONATHAN: Yes, that’s "Code Monkey," which was posted 4/14 and then got Slashdotted a few days later. It’s funny, if you look at the year long chart for my site in Alexa, you’ll see spikes that represent the biggest hits: "Baby Got Back" in October, "Flickr" in December, and "Re: Your Brains" in March. Code Monkey got the biggest response by far from the internet, but Baby Got Back got the biggest non-internet response – old fashioned paper press, radio, etc.

GARAGESPIN: If one Googles "Jonathan Coulton", your brilliant "Baby Got Back" cover page is the first result that shows up.  Even more impressive, if you Google "Baby Got Back", your page shows up third.  Please explain how you, your song, and Sir Mix-A-Lot are related.

JONATHAN: I’m honored to be so close to Mix-a-Lot in the google results. As I say, that song got such an amazing response, I think it’s just been linked to from so many highly ranked sites that google thinks it’s important. Maybe it is…

GARAGESPIN: Have you been approached by any labels?  Are you even pursuing one?  You seeing to be doing just fine on your own — what have sold better, your physical CDs, or your digital album downloads?

JONATHAN: I haven’t ever been approached by a label, which sort of surprises me. I mean, I know that I’m a little too niche-y for the big guys, but I imagine there’s got to be some indie label who’d like to make a million dollars off me. And initially I did want to attract some label attention, but all the numbers have been trending up these past few months – maybe I don’t need them. I don’t know yet how sustainable is the income I’m currently making from my site, but it’s certainly better than I expected it would be. Digital sales have been huge for me – I think that I make more money off single song sales than I do off of album sales. And while the iTunes store traffic is great, the plain old DRM-free mp3s on my site sell even better. I think that’s all people really want is a nice easy way to buy songs they like in a format they can control. I mean, duh.

GARAGESPIN: That’s very cool.  And you’ve just added ringtones — are they getting a similar response?

JONATHAN: Ringtones not as much. People are buying them, but so far it’s not looking like they’re going to be a big contributor to the bottom line. Probably part of the problem is that only some phones and services are supported. I think pretty much all Verizon customers are excluded, because Verizon stinks. Not that the phones aren’t technically capable of playing the ringtones, but that they’ve made it impossible to buy ringtones from anyone other than Verizon. I hate Verizon. What was the question?

GARAGESPIN: You’d think there’d be more label interest. I mean, you’ve got loyal fans creating cover art, song illustrations, and music videos for your songs.  Crazy.  How did that start?

JONATHAN: Well, the Creative Commons license allows for that, and I’ve always loved getting little things like that sent to me. There’s been kind of an explosion lately, which is really flattering. Len from the Jawbone podcast has been diligently creating artwork for each song in Thing a Week for quite a while now. And of course there’s The Jonathan Coulton Project site which does music videos. I don’t know what all these people are doing wasting their time on me – don’t they have jobs?

GARAGESPIN: Your song "Social History Theme" was used in an MTV show.  Awesome.  Tell us about how that happened.

JONATHAN: A friend of a friend who had seen some of my work with John Hodgman’s Little Gray Books lecture series liked my stuff and was working on a documentary show for MTV called "Social History." She asked if I’d like to write a theme song and I said "hells yes" and the rest is history. Social history. I was a little intimidated by the idea that I was writing music for MTV, and thus for viewers that were on average 10 or 20 years younger than me, but it was still really fun to do.

GARAGESPIN: You mention the Little Gray Books series in your bio — please explain.

JONATHAN: Little Gray Books was a reading series/variety show created by friend and now famous person John Hodgman. It was like a literary reading on steroids – there were slideshows, spelling bees, dog shows, etc. Each show had a theme, and I would write and sing a song for that theme. Actually a lot of good music came out of that, it was a great exercise to have to write about something that I didn’t choose.

GARAGESPIN: What new projects, song deals, albums, etc do you have coming up in the future?

JONATHAN: Thing a Week is keeping me pretty busy, but I don’t think it can last forever. I’m currently putting together some Thing a Week CDs that will be released soon, and then in October I’ll be touring with John Hodgman for the paperback version of his book. After that, who knows. But I’ve written so much these last few months that I’m sort of itching to start playing shows a little more often – in particular I’d really like to see what can be done with the demand system to set up some shows at new venues, or mini tours in parts of the country that are far away.

GARAGESPIN: A tour would be awesome — I was wondering what that "Wanted" box on your site was for.  Does your day gig give you the flexibility to travel?

JONATHAN: Well, there’s not really much of a day job, so yes. But Thing a Week and general management of my site is keeping me more busy than I thought it would. I can’t tell you what I do all day, but I can tell you that I feel more busy now than I did when I actually went to an office five days a week. Hopefully when I take a break from the songwriting I"ll be able to concentrate more on playing in public.

GARAGESPIN:  Well, I’m psyched for your next show, as well as next week’s song.  Best of luck! 


There you have it.  Be sure to check out some of Jonathan’s music – it can all be streamed from his site.







10 responses to “Interview With Jonathan Coulton, Song Writing Machine”

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    Great interview! I’ve been rabidly addicted to JC ever since a great friend pointed me toward “Baby Got Back”. It’s always fun to see someone who is both good at and passionate about something. Thanks for providing a midweek JC fix.

  2. MikeB Avatar

    Thanks, MikeToo! JC’s material is great; I truly hope to see more media pick up his music for TV/video/film productions.

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    Just heard an interview on KUOW. Baby got back was absolutely wonderful!

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