Jonathan Coulton: Weird Science

Written by March 9th, 2012 at 7:48 am

Like any good scientist, Jonathan Coulton is ahead of the curve. He created a music career for himself out of whole cloth, recording and releasing his own music on the Web. Given the state of CD sales and the rise of iTunes, Coulton might do as well to release his music on wax cylinder at this point. He laughs at the suggestion. “Now that would be smart,” he says. “That would be such a step backwards that it would be a leap forward, I think.”

Yet a physical CD with his name on it, titled Artificial Heart, was released in November. It was recorded in a studio with other human beings and no less a producer than John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. It’s a novelty for Coulton. “In many ways, this feels like the first real concerted effort I’ve ever made to write, record, and release an album,” he says. “I’m curious to see how it works. And if it works. And what the benefits actually are of that part of the industry.”

Coulton hedged his bets by offering pre-orders of the disc with special features like t-shirts and USB flash drives with his complete recordings. He had already made back his budget by September, with sales topping $100,000. It was gratifying, he says, to get that kind of fan support. But not unexpected.

He had flirted with music for years, but hit his stride in 2005 with his Thing A Week project, writing, recording, and releasing a new song every week. YouTube videos went viral, Slashdot loved him. He quit the day job as a computer programmer and now has his own Caribbean fan cruise.

Coulton impressed Flansburgh enough during a 2010 opening stint for They Might Be Giants for Flansburgh to suggest he produce Coulton’s next album. “I was immediately struck by the rigorousness of the songwriting,” says Flansburgh. “Besides just writing catchy songs, Coulton has some interesting and idiosyncratic modulation ideas, and still seems invested in writing original bridges. I’m a sucker for that stuff.”

After having been essentially a solo act, giving up some of the control over the music to produce Heart was challenging for Coulton. “I had done exactly zero collaborations until that point,” he says. It was intriguing and scary, he says, “to have to let somebody else into the process, to have somebody else telling me what was good and what was bad and what was working and what wasn’t. I’m certainly not used to that. But it was really lovely. It was a really valuable experience because it pushed me into places where I wouldn’t have otherwise gone.”

Coulton credits Flansburgh with inspiration and ruthless editing. “He would say, this is great, these are the parts that are working really well, this line is kind of bullshit,” says Coulton, laughing. “And it would sting, but he would be absolutely right. He had such an unerring sense of which parts could be improved and how to improve them.”

Heart is a sonic upgrade for Coulton but still captures his sense of humor and pathos perfectly. There are quirky ideas – “Je Suis Rick Springfield” is sung in French (generated through Google translator) by a narrator who may or may not be Rick Springfield. And there are deeper, more delicate tunes like “Now I Am An Arsonist,” which features Suzanne Vega, and “Today With Your Wife.”

Coulton’s funnier, more geek-oriented songs like “Code Monkey” and “Re: Your Brains” tend get more attention than his more serious efforts. He understands a funny song about mustaches like “The Stache” is going to get passed along quicker than a song about grown-up relationships like “Today With Your Wife.” “There’s something about comedy,” he says, “funny things, that people want to pass them along. Serious things and personal things are much more privately enjoyed. That’s why there are not a lot of sad viral videos.”

Coulton doesn’t waste time worrying about getting pigeonholed as a novelty act. His success has coincided with what he calls “the rise of the nerd,” but he isn’t defined by any one aspect of his catalogue. “There is a larger part of my body of work that is not particularly nerdy and not particularly funny,” he says, “and I think that I am most well-known for the stuff that has resonated with that niche because that’s been the loudest megaphone. But I try very hard to just continue to write the things that I want to write and not worry about who it’s for.”

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