From Zero to Hero: Singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton joins the ranks of the Nerd Do Wells
Since quitting his day job some seven years ago, singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton has gone from Internet sensation to up-and-coming recording artist. The sharp pop hooks and nerdy lyrics on his forthcoming album, Artificial Heart, suggest just how talented he is. The disc features some terrific power-pop tunes and includes guest appearances by Suzanne Vega and Sara Quin. We did a brief rather clandestine (we sat together in the van behind the club) pre-show interview with Coulton last night in Cleveland before he opened for They Might be Giants. The interview was for an article that will run in the November issue of the music magazine Hearsay Now, but we thought we’d post it early here and include the rest of the dates Coulton is playing with TMBG. Artificial Heart has an official release date of Nov. 8 but Coulton is selling it on his website and at his shows.
You have one of the most extensive Wikipedia entries I’ve ever seen.
That’s what you get for having nerds for fans.
But I’d still like to know a little more about your background.
I’ve been interested in music all my life and I’ve sung all my life and played instruments all my life. Sometime in high school I decided that this is what I wanted to do when I grew up. I took a big detour to college and then a big detour into my early twenties. I was living in New York working crappy jobs and didn’t really know what I was going to do. I had a band for a little while but I could never really figure out how to get the ball rolling.
What did you study in college when you were at Yale?
I was a music major but it was not a rock ’n’ roll major. It was a Western classical music/theory degree. I didn’t play an instrument. There was not a performance aspect. From high school on, I was writing songs and recording on four-track. I grew up in rural Connecticut in a town called Colchester. Music was a hobby for years and years and years until I accidentally got a job at a software company and figured I would try that for a while. I was also interested in computers and had taken some computer classes in college and knew how to program a little bit. Before I knew it, I was writing code and it was my career. I did that for nine years and did music on the side. Then, when I was 35, my wife and I had our first child earlier that year and I was home for paternity leave for three weeks and it was time to go back to work and it felt like I couldn’t do it. It didn’t feel right. I had been saying every year that I was not destined for that job. My daughter was born and it was a wake up call. Your perspective shifts and you feel your own mortality in a way. You feel like you need to set an example to the kid. I quit and did this thing called Thing a Week where I released a new song every week and put it out for free on my blog and got lucky with a few songs that got picked up and did a viral thing for a few days. This was in September of 2005 and by the end of September 2006, I had done a song a week for a year. Over the course of that year, I was blogging about what I was doing and hoping somebody was going to notice. I thought I was going to get the rich and famous contract. I think I really sort of imagined that I would be hired to write music for something else, like a TV show. The idea of getting signed by a record label seemed crazy. That was when record labels were falling apart. Over the course of that year, I developed a big enough following and the numbers went up and up. By the end of that year, it was clear to me that while I wasn’t getting rich, I was making enough to cover a portion of the mortgage and pay the babysitter while I pretended to be a rock star. From there, it’s just been touring and writing and all that stuff.
But I’ve read that one year you made $500,000.
It’s true. I was being interview by NPR’s Planet Money for their podcast and they wanted to know how my business worked and what the percentages were. So we were sitting at my computer in front of a spread sheet and I hadn’t even noticed the number myself since it was actually the gross from last year, so I’m not a half millionaire. We were looking at the spreadsheet together and he said, “Does that say half a million dollars?” I was like, “Oh my God, that does say half a million dollars.” He wanted to make it public to show that it was a real business. I kind of saw his point, though I’m not sure whether I regret the decision now. It’s strange because it gets misquoted all the time to the extent that I sold $500,000 worth of digital downloads. I’m like, “No! no! It was the gross!” somewhere along the way, I discovered this niche for myself. You make a thing you like and you find other people who like it.
Yes, there’s a huge nerd component because I do write a lot of songs about geeky things and the songs that got picked up are songs like “Code Monkey” about a sad software developer and “Your Brains,” which is a song about zombies. A lot of them are funny and about odd, semi-nerdy subjects like science and math. But there are lots straight ahead rock and pop songs. I try very hard to make the music matter. I don’t just think of an idea about a monkey and write a crappy song to support the joke.
It seems like you have very good power-pop sensibilities.
The thing I struggle with the most is making the music good because I feel like you’re writing a funny song you’re on semi-dangerous territory that someone is going to call you out for being not genuine or taking the easy route. It’s not easy. Comedy is very hard.
Was Artificial Heart the first time you recorded with a band?
Yeah, it’s a whole new thing. I was opening for They Might be Giants for a stretch of shows in spring of last year and [singer John] Flansburgh at the end of it approached me at the end of tour to see about maybe producing my next week. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time. I had done all this touring and wasn’t sure what to do next and how to move forward. It felt like an opportunity to do something new and really stretch what I was doing. It really felt scary and every time I sat down to talk to him about it, he would say that things that frightened me like, “First of all, you’re going to play a lot of electric guitar.” I haven’t played a lot of electric guitar. “And there’s going to be a band. You’re going to teach the songs to the band.” All these things seemed terrifying to me. He wanted to book a couple of shows where I could debut six new songs with the band. I said, “Yes,” even though I didn’t think I could do it. As I stepped through it, each thing became less scary. The great thing about it, and I know I’m late to this news, is that playing with a rock band is awesome.
I like the album’s title track. What was the inspiration?
I was actually thinking of a kind of cultish thing, like scientology. I don’t want to say that out loud because I’ll get sued. But I was thinking about fixing yourself. About the various things that people do to try to fix problems in their lives and how sometimes the problems are worse than the solutions and how sometimes you can convince yourself, and I know people like this, that even if your life is falling apart, everything is really great. I was thinking of that guy when I wrote that song. I made it the title because, even though I didn’t intend for the album to have a theme, it sort of did and that one seemed to be at the center of what was going on. I think it had a lot to do with growing up and turning 40 and having kids and looking at yourself and comparing how you thought things would turn out. Every time the numbers roll over to zero in that column, it’s always kind of a shock to the system. I remember when I turned 10, it was kind of like, “Aw, I’ll never be single digits again.” In general, if the album is about anything, it’s about the freak out that happens when the ones digit becomes a zero.
I love the fact that the song Suzanne Vega sings sounds like a Suzanne Vega song.
It’s funny you say that because Flansburgh knows her and asked her if she’d be interested in doing something on the album so I wrote something to try to make it suitable for Suzanne Vega’s voice. I love her voice and I love her music and it was a great challenge to make something suitable for her voice. The funny thing is that she came into the studio to sing and we chatted for a little while and she was very nice and then she stepped in front of the microphone and as soon as she started to sing, she sounded exactly like Suzanne Vega. It was just crazy to hear that voice come out of her because it’s such an iconic voice.
Are you touring with a band?
I am. It’s not the same band that I recorded with. The band I recorded with included Marty Beller, the drummer for They Might be Giants, and a guy named Chris Anderson, who is getting married right now, so his priorities are all messed up right now. I have a replacement drummer and a replacement bass player but they’re great. They’re both musicians and we’ve been having a lot of fun. Since 2006, I played acoustic shows so this whole thing is new. I never used to have to rent a van before because there was never any gear and there were never any other people. It’s a whole other learning curve to have to do this now that other people are involved. But for me, it’s worth it. It’s been so much fun. I love the intimacy and the conversation that you get to have with the audience when you find that perfect listening room. Shows like this place, it’s this giant square room and everyone is standing there in front of you, packed in front of you, and the energy of it is just amazing. I’m not saying anything that people haven’t known for along time but playing an electric guitar on a stage when people are jumping up and down is one of the greatest thrills in life.
What aspirations do you have at this point?
I don’t know. It’s still challenging and interesting and fun to me I’ll keep doing it as long as that is true. I don’t know what’s next. I’m still processing what is happening. There has been a lot of growth and change for me. And it’s felt really good to be doing something that feels slightly dangerous again. I forgot how much I like that feeling. I hate that feeling you get before it happens. But once you’ve actually jumped off the cliff and you’re heading towards the water, it’s kind of great.
Majestic Theatre (w/ They Might Be Giants)
GRAND RAPIDS, MI
Intersection (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Southgate House (w/ They Might Be Giants)
The Vogue (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Riviera Theatre (w/ They Might Be Giants)
ST. LOUIS, MO
The Pageant (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Cain’s Ballroom (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Cannery Ballroom (w/ They Might Be Giants)
The Orange Peel (w/ They Might Be Giants)
The National (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Theatre of Living Arts (w/ They Might Be Giants)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT
The Depot (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Knitting Factory (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Knitting Factory (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Venue (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Showbox SoDo (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Crystal Ballroom (w/ They Might Be Giants)
Van Duzer Theatre (w/ They Might Be Giants)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA
Fillmore (w/ They Might Be Giants)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA
Fillmore (w/ They Might Be Giants)
House of Blues (w/ They Might Be Giants)
SOLANA BEACH, CA
Belly Up Tavern (w/ They Might Be Giants)