Jonathan Coulton Interview Excerpts (Which Are Actually Far Longer Than the Interview Itself)
I believe I mentioned earlier that I had interviewed Jonathan Coulton, the Internet’s favorite geek singer, prior in advance of his concert appearance here in Dayton (which, incidentally, will be Saturday, December 2, at the Canal Street Tavern, 308 First St., at 9:30, tickets $10). The interview is up at the Dayton Daily News site (registration required), and as it happens, I have a lot of interview material left over. Why waste it? And so, herewith, nuggets of pure wisdom from Jonathan Coulton:
On who he is and why he does what he does:
My name is Jonathan Coulton and I am 36 years old. Hooray! I went to public high school in a small Connecticut town called Colchester, CT. I went to college at Yale and got a BA in music, partially because it was something I was interested in, but also because there was no senior thesis requirement in that major. I’ve played guitar since I was a kid, and sung since before then (my family was kind of musical). In college I was heavy into the a cappella scene, joined a group called the Spizzwinks and later another one called the Whiffenpoofs. I never played in a band in college, which is strange. Probably I was shy. When I graduated I moved to New York and made a few half-assed attempts to play in bands, but never took it that seriously. Somewhere along the way I accidentally got a job writing software, which quickly became a nine year career. But I continued writing music for myself and friends to hear, and I wrote songs for a live show that John Hodgman created and hosted called the Little Gray Book Lectures, sort of a reading series on steroids.
I’m sure it was doing songs for this show that made me want to have them on a website. There was a big enough audience coming to that show that I felt the need to make the music available to them. And then after my first appearance at the Pop!Tech conference where I heard Lawrence Lessig speak about Creative Commons, I started really getting serious about building a web presence – especially after I saw the power of reaching an audience of geeks and bloggers. Once you get a taste of the link love, it’s hard to imagine how you got along without it before.
On when he let his geek flag fly in his songwriting:
The geek factor just sort of emerged I think, because it’s who I am, though it was really after the Pop!Tech appearance that I realized there was actually an audience for it. I played “Mandelbrot Set” for that crowd, and when I got to the part where I sing through the equation the audience stood up and cheered – aha! I said. Before that, I had gotten mostly blank stares whenever I performed that song. So I think that positive feedback allowed me to feel more comfortable tackling really dorky subjects.
On his decision to let his music out into the world via Creative Commons:
When I saw Lawrence Lessig speak about Creative Commons, I felt like my brain was going to jump out of my skull and fly into outer space. It was the most thrilling idea I’d heard in a long time, and it just made so much sense on so many levels. It directly addressed a lot of the stuff that I was feeling about filesharing and copyright and mp3 – one of those moments where all these vague feelings crystalize into an actual opinion about something.
There’s no question in my mind that the way I’ve done things so far has been a huge benefit to me. The interesting thing is that nobody really knows whether all this “stealing music” actually benefits or harms the artists, it’s just too hard to track what’s really going on. In my experience, the ratio of people who pay to people who don’t is certainly very small. But I get a much larger piece of each sale because I don’t owe a ton of money to a record label, and lots of people donate, or contribute artwork, or play me on podcasts. And I’ve been really pleased to see the numbers going up every month – as the traffic increases, so does the actual income. Granted, internet fame is not at all the same thing as regular fame, a fact which I inexplicably find surprising over and over again. But it’s become apparent to me over the last six months that there really is a big fanbase out there, and that I can reach them through my site and my mailing list, and that they’ll actually come out to live shows in large numbers.
On the thinking behind his year-long “Song a Week” project:
I had just quit my software job, and I was looking for something to keep me busy and writing. Actually, a co-worker of mine suggested it during my last week at the job, and I thought he was crazy. But once the free time hit, it started to make sense. Then about 12 weeks in it seemed crazy again. There were definitely some weeks where I felt uninspired and empty of ideas, and certainly there were times when I took the easy way out. But that was an important part of the process – I found that even when it was a really difficult week, even when I hated every bit of what I was creating (in a panic, at 6 PM on a Friday), in the end there was always something there to be proud of. Maybe not the whole song, mind you. But even the songs that turned out less than great have something in them that I’m proud of. It was torture in many ways, but I’m so glad that I did it, and it taught me a great deal about who I am as a songwriter.
On the impact of covering “Baby Got Back” and whether his original work has eclipsed its popularity:
That was the first big hit. I think it was #5 or thereabouts [in the “Song a Week” output]. It was my first cover, and it certainly felt like the easy way out at the time. But then it just exploded. Since then I think it’s been surpassed by songs like “Code Monkey” and “Re: Your Brains“, but at the time its success was like delicious crack. Honestly I haven’t run the numbers in a while, so I’m not sure what the biggest hit was out of the 52. But I seem to remember on an Alexa graph that there was a conspicuous spike somewhere around when “Code Monkey” was released.
About how his Popular Science gig happened:
I knew a couple of the editors through mutual friends. I performed at Pop!Tech (there it is again) and found myself later that night at a poker game. Whiskey was drunk, and promises were made, including one in which I said I would write a popular science theme song. Sometime later after we had all sobered up, they told me that I was on their masthead as contributing troubadour, and where the hell was their damned theme song? So I ended up doing that five song “soundtrack” for the September 05 issue, and the rest is history.
About why he’s coming to Dayton:
Right. That’s in Ohio, right? I don’t know, because Dayton rocks?