Jonathan Coulton
Photo credit: Shervin Lainez

A lot of us are Jonathan Coulton fans around here, and for good reason: he’s a tremendously gifted songwriter — and as his many fans know, he also has a really unique perspective, both as an artist and as one of the more successful entrepreneurs in the independent music business.

Since Jonathan is so wonderfully different, we decided we needed to do something equally different for our interview. So we reached out to Ella Childs: 12 years old, sharp as a tack, and the co-host of Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child, the terrific kindie radio show that you should be listening to with your family every week. We knew she’d ask interesting questions. We knew Jonathan would have fun. And we knew the result would be an entertaining read. Hey, check it out! We were right.

Ella: Most of the music I listen to is stuff that my friends have never heard of. I remember the first time I heard one of your songs, it stood out to me because you were singing about brains.

Jonathan: Yeah, that one does tend to stand out. And it’s good that you’re listening to stuff your friends have never heard of, because that means you’re making decisions for yourself.

Ella: Well, that or I’m listening to the music my dad listens to.

Jonathan: [Laughing] Right, or your dad is making decisions for yourself.

Ella: So you have a new album out. What are some of the things you like best and least about it?

Jonathan: Well, I don’t know. The thing I like best about it is that it exists, you know? I hadn’t released anything with new stuff on it since probably 2006, which is a crazy amount of time, so I felt great that I was still able to write some songs that were halfway decent. It was also interesting for me because it was produced by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants…

Ella: What was that like, by the way?

Jonathan: That was great. They’ve been heroes of mine — I’ve been listening since I first heard Flood, when I was in college.

Ella: I’ve been listening to them since I was a baby, so I can trump you on that one.

Jonathan: Don’t remind me, Ella. It was a long time ago! But yeah, it was great to get to work with John Flansburgh — I’ve been wanting to crawl around inside his head for as long as I’ve been listening to his songs.

What do I like the least about it? I don’t think there’s anything bad about it. I guess the one regret I have is that it came out kind of dark, and I don’t know why. It’s less freewheeling and sunny than I would have expected.

A lot of the other songs I’ve written have a sort of whimsy to them — they’re kind of fun, they don’t take themselves too seriously. So they also work pretty well as music for kids, sort of unintentionally. There’s a lot less of that whimsy on this album, and I think that’s probably because I’m five years older. I’ve lost my whimsy. I’m a sad old man, Ella.

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Ella: Aside from the lack of whimsy, do you think you made any other changes for this CD?

Jonathan: Yeah. I used to record everything myself, which was good and bad. In some senses, doing that means it’s a very honest expression of my artistic intent, but on the other hand, it isn’t, because I can’t play all the instruments in the world that well. I have to fake a lot of things, make a lot of compromises.

This album being performed mostly with a band, and having the creative input of John Flansburgh and Pat Dillett, who mixed it — it has other people’s fingerprints on it, so it’s kind of a collaboration, but on the other hand, having professionals who could make it sound good meant that I could say, “This should have a horn section,” and Flansburgh could snap his fingers and make one appear. So I feel like in many ways, it’s more of an honest expression of what I had in my head when I wrote the songs.

Ella: You mentioned your earlier music working as kids’ music. Have you ever given any thought to recording an album specifically for kids?

Jonathan: You know, I’ve always thought about doing that, and it’s one of those things that hasn’t really caught fire with me yet. I think it would be a lot of fun, and an interesting challenge because I have kids. If you don’t have kids, you kind of forget what their brains are like. You’re 12, so you’ve crossed the boundary into being an actual human being. [Laughter]

Ella: I’m not quite sure about that.

Jonathan: Young children are like crazy aliens. They’re so weird, the way they think and the way they perceive the world. It’s a fascinating perspective to have, and to try and get inside of when you’re writing. I still want to do that someday, I just haven’t done it yet.

Ella: Well, you’ve already recorded one great kids’ song: “The Princess Who Saved Herself.”

Jonathan: Thank you! My daughter was just singing that this morning as she was getting ready for school.

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Ella: What’s it like touring with They Might Be Giants?

Jonathan: It’s a lot of fun. Both of the Johns are fantastic, and everyone in the band is really nice and fun. We’re the opening act, so the Giants have this big tour bus that they sleep on, and we have this van that we drive in and sort of follow along a few hours behind them. So we do the show, and hang out a little bit, and then they get on the bus and go to sleep, and we go to the hotel.

Then we drive and drive and drive, and hook up at the next place. It’s really fun — anytime you’re on a journey with a bunch of people on a road trip, there’s a weird sort of camaraderie that develops, and you start to drive each other crazy.

Ella: Kind of like me and my brother on road trips.

Jonathan: Exactly — you switch into family mode, and you’re making all these decisions about where to eat and when to wake up, when to stop for gas, so it does kind of feel like you’re in this family with people that you don’t know quite as well as your actual family. But it can be a great deal of fun, and They Might Be Giants are really nice guys. I still get a kick out of just being backstage and watching the show.

Ella: When you were my age, which books were you reading? Which albums were you listening to?

Jonathan: Let’s see. When I was 12, I was probably pretty firmly in my Billy Joel and Beatles phase. I listened to them almost exclusively.

Ella: The Beatles are great. I don’t know much of Billy Joel’s music, I’m afraid.

Jonathan: I know. Well, talk about an old man… [Laughter] He’s a controversial figure to actually like. I know a lot of people who hate — hate — his music with a fiery passion. But when I was 12, I really loved his songs.

What was I reading? Oh, boy. I don’t even remember. I joke about this all the time, but I had a subscription to Omni Magazine that was one of the highlights of my month. You don’t remember Omni. You barely remember magazines.

Ella: Oh, no. I get a fencing magazine, an archaeology magazine, and Cricket.

Jonathan: (incredulous) You get an archaeology magazine?

Ella: Yeah, it’s really good.

Jonathan: Do they talk about digs and stuff?

Ella: Yeah, and also a lot of stuff about sites that are in danger — that’s a big thing in archaeology right now.

Jonathan: Oh, wow. Well, I never got archaeology magazines, but maybe I should have. I read a lot of science fiction — the classics, like Heinlein and Asimov, things like that. I still have a fondness for that pulpy sci-fi stuff.

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Ella: What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?

Jonathan: [Laughter]

Ella: Unless everything’s been fairies and rainbows.

Jonathan: No, I’m embarrassed almost constantly onstage. You know, I used to get really embarrassed when I couldn’t remember lyrics or chords, which happens all the time.

Ella: Your fans can help you with that, I’m sure.

Jonathan: It’s true! Sometimes I have to ask the audience to help me remember what the next verse is. I’ve also still never gotten over what happens when a string breaks. Sometimes the guitar goes terribly out of tune, and sometimes it doesn’t break all the way and it’s kind of rattling around, but either way, it doesn’t sound good.

So you have to decide: either stop and deal with the situation, which means trading for another guitar, having somebody change the string, or whatever it is, and start again, which is kind of a bummer. Or just deal with it and plow through. It definitely has a tendency to throw me off my game, and it takes some time to recover.

Ella: What’s your favorite thing about being a musician?

Jonathan: It’s a certain thing about the writing of the song, where I’m over the initial hump of trying to find an idea, and past the part where I have to build the idea into something. It’s like pushing something heavy on wheels — it’s awful getting it started, but once you build enough speed, you can unbend your knees and let the momentum carry itself forward.

For brief moments, it feels effortless. It’s like your brain is flying, you know? It’s a small window of time, but it’s a very exciting thing, because it feels like someone else is doing it for you.

Ella: And where do you get the ideas for those songs?

Jonathan: Oh, man. I wish I knew. It varies — sometimes it’ll just come to me. I’ll be doing something completely unrelated to songwriting, and a phrase will catch my ear, or I’ll notice something, or remember something someone said, and it’ll spark an idea.

But more often than not, you have to decide to think of something, which is weird. I sit down with a guitar or at the piano, and just play. Sing nonsense syllables, hum melodies, whatever it takes to get a wedge into the door and pry it open bit by bit to figure out what it’s about — then decide it’s no good, or continue with it, or combine it with something else.

It’s more the second method. The “sudden inspiration” only happens maybe 10 percent of the time — the rest of the time, it’s me deciding that I need to write something and working at it until something sticks.

Ella: And what are you doing next? Are you thinking about the next record?

Jonathan: I’d definitely like to do another record. John Flansburgh and I would like to work together again. I was out touring with them in November and then the holidays came and sucked everyone into a black hole, and now we’re getting ready to go back out on the road. I’ve also got my cruise coming up in the middle of February.

I think this spring will be the first time I have a chance to settle in and get some decent creative work done. I hope to write a bunch of stuff then and see where it leads.

Ella: You sound like you lead a very busy life.

Jonathan: I do! It’s crazy. I’m busier than I was when I had a real job!

If you’d like to listen to the audio from Ella’s interview with Jonathan Coulton, visit Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child.