Jonathan Coulton: Still alive at the Varsity
Jonathan Coulton writes and records sweetly melodic folk-pop tunes about brain-eating zombies and lovestruck mad scientists. His geek-powered lyrics have earned him an Internet following so dedicated that his fans have produced hours of music videos to accompany his songs. In addition to receiving big ups from the gamer community for his song "Still Alive," written for the end credits of the critically acclaimed video game Portal, Coulton's become famous for setting himself a seemingly impossible goal: Create one new song every week for a year. The project forms the bulk of his music to date, and can be found in a four CD set, Thing a Week 1-4 .
CP: Thing a Week seems like it must've put you under some serious pressure. Why did you decide to do it?
Jonathan Coulton: I'd just quit my day job writing software for a firm in Manhattan with the intention of becoming a musician. I knew I wanted to make music and turn that into money, but I really hadn't thought all the way through. I started Thing a Week to give myself a deadline and pretend that I actually did have a job writing music; the last thing I wanted was to quit my day job and sit around playing X-Box all day. From a creative standpoint, I figured doing a song a week would force me to make faster decisions; it takes me a long time to do things because I'm really a bit of a perfectionist. I wait for just the right idea, and I'm very careful with that idea as I write.
CP: What was it like to force your creativity like that?
JC: By the end of the year, I was in a strange place because I'd long since run out of ideas. On top of that, more and more people were paying attention, so the pressure was going up and the well was completely dry. But the last thirteen songs, which are what I put on Thing a Week 4, were some of my favorites; it's my favorite CD out of the four. I think it was only at that point that I got to a place in my head where I could write and create in sort of a pure way, because I'd stripped everything else away. To this day those songs sound and feel to me like somebody else wrote them. Or at least I don't remember writing them.
CP:Were there weeks when you didn't want to write another damn song?
JC: Oh sure, there were plenty of those weeks. It was sometimes hard and sometimes easy. A lot of it had to do with what else was going on in my life, and what had just happened in Thing a Week. If I had just written a song that was receiving a lot of attention, it would ruin me for a couple weeks because I was competing against myself. It went in cycles, so that would happen and then I would write a couple that maybe my heart wasn't in it, or I was stymied in some way. A couple didn't turn out great, and then I would get through it and forget about it, and when I least expected it songs that either I really loved or everyone else really loved would just emerge.
CP: "Still Alive" is sung in the voice of GLaDOS, a power-mad, humorously flawed artificial intelligence from Portal. How did you get the gig? How did you so accurately capture GLaDOS' character?
JC: I was doing a show in Seattle and a couple of people came up to me afterwards. They said they worked at Valve and asked if I would be interested in writing some music for them someday. I said, "Yes, yes please," because I'm a fan of the games. I loved Half-Life when it first came out. I played an early version of Portal before they'd figured out exactly what the ending was, but it had most of GLaDOS' dialogue in there. They had extensively thought and planned out what her deal was. One of the writers and I had many discussions about who GLaDOS was exactly.
CP: A lot of your songs, like Re: Your Brains, are tongue-in-cheek, but you also have more sincere songs, like Summer's Over. Do you feel any pressure to write quirky stuff because that's what seems most successful?
JC: I feel the pressure of the audience's expectation. And yeah, I've relied on the funny, quirky stuff to attract attention, and that makes sense. There's a vast sea of earnest pop out there, and it's very hard to distinguish yourself from other people in that field. What it comes down to is, I don't always control what I choose to write about because I'm only really creatively motivated when I have a subject, or a character, or a musical idea that's interesting to me and challenging to me. As much as it might be wise to write a long string of songs about aliens and robots and zombies, once I do the zombie thing, it's like, "Eh, I don't know if I want to write another zombie song." Maybe I'm feeling a little sad this week and I want to explore that, or use that as the creative motivator. So I feel the pressure, but I try to ignore it.
CP: You mention a creative idea around which you form your songs. How do those formative ideas get started?
JC: I usually have to make them come to me. Very rarely do I get unbidden ideas that interrupt me while I'm doing something else. I don't wake up from a dream with a great idea; I wish I did. But more often than not I have to do something kind of boring. I have to be on a long drive or take a bike ride or spend 20 minutes parking the car here in Brooklyn. It's moments like that where my mind is idle that it creates those things and serves them up to me. The ideas start from there, and once I get one, it's usually a snapshot of the song. It'll be a musical phrase, or a lyric, and it'll suggest the style of the song to me. Most of the time it also suggests a character in the song. From there, it's just a question of fleshing that out, bootstrapping the lyrics and the music together. One sort of suggests the other, spinning out what the larger structure is and filling in the pieces.
CP: Speaking of creative ideas, you do a hilarious cover of Baby Got Back. Why did you decide to cover that song?
JC: It was my wife's idea. She's always loved that song and she knows all the words by heart, which is adorable. She just thought it would be funny to do a sensitive, folky, white guy version of it. I'm not sure I actually listened to the lyrics when the song was out in the ‘90s; I sort of dismissed it as hip-hop silliness. But it's brilliantly funny. I think Sir Mix-a-lot is a very funny guy, and very smart too. The thing I really loved about it: if you listen closely to the lyrics, it's not really misogynistic at all. It's actually a very positive message about body image, which is not what you'd think from seeing the video or hearing the song and thinking about it on the surface. So it was that that hip-hop sheen with earnest depth to it that attracted me.
CP: What was it like turning a rap song into pleasant folk-pop?
JC: One problem with arranging it is there's so many words, when you slow it down, it gets really long. It also doesn't fit regularly into a verse-chorus structure, so I had to shoehorn it a little bit. There's an extra couplet in the second verse that I had to extend. The other challenge was referencing parts of the actual arrangement and the reference song, which is why I included the background vocal "L.A. face with the Oakland booty," because I think that's such a funny line.
CP: Your Creative Commons license allows others to use your songs, royalty-free, in their own non-commercial creative projects. This has led to a lot of mash-ups and homemade music videos of your tunes. Why did you decide to adopt that Creative Commons license?
JC: Creative Commons seemed like a great practical tool for spreading my music and my name around, but also it was just such a beautiful vision of creativity and culture, and what it means for us to create and consume culture. Everything you do is sort of based on something else whether you know it or not, so why not acknowledge that? It's just a beautiful idea. I've had a great time with it because I'll create something, and somebody likes it enough to create something else, and then that comes back to me. It's so exciting to have that kind of connection and that kind of feedback between artists and fans. Ford can't put my music in a car commercial, and nobody can put my song on a CD and sell it, but they're free to do all sorts of remixes, covers, mash-ups, and videos. There's a huge body of work out there that people do just because they want to do it, not for any profit. It's a huge ecosystem of stuff that's growing every day.
CP: How do you think this reflects on the RIAA?
JC: I think that the RIAA missed the point and by now missed the boat. I think it's a shame that so many people in that industry are going to lose their jobs. That's what's going to happen. They've refused to change for too long. They didn't take advantage of the opportunities because they saw them as threats instead. The industry is going away in the same way manufacturing has disappeared in America. The record labels are also disappearing as a viable industry. There's still a need for people to manage artists and help artists reach their goals, but it's not going to look anything like the current record label.
Jonathan Coulton performs tonight at the Varsity Theater. 18+. $16/$18 at the door. 7p.m. 1308 Fourth St. SE, Minneapolis; 612.604.0222
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