Jonathan Coulton is a nerd singer/songwriter, best known for his work on Still Alive for the Valve game Portal. In the geek/gamer community, his music has achieved cult status with hits like Code Monkey (about a sad programmer), The Future Soon (about a kid dreaming of the future where he can engineer away all his problems) and Re: Your Brains (a letter from one employee to another after the first guy has been turned into a zombie.)
But Coulton achieved internet stardom without ever publishing under a record label. He quit work, and spent a year writing and recording one song every week in a tiny bedroom in his apartment. He called it Thing a Week.
From an Interview on AboutCreativity:
In the course of the year you spent working on Thing a Week, did you develop any techniques that seemed to help you tap your creative side?
I wish I could say that I developed a sure-fire strategy for writing a song. That’s one of the things I was hoping would come out of Thing a Week — that I could somehow discover a process that worked every time. But it was always different.
I spent a lot of time walking and riding my bike, mumbling under my breath, making up lines about things I saw or thought of. Ideally, one of those lines would be interesting enough to stick with me and grow into something. Sometimes I would get inspired early in the week and the song would sort of write itself. Other times I would think and think all week, and Friday would find me with no good ideas.
The one thing I did learn was that even the good songs have a point when they feel awful — for me there’s always this deep valley of self-doubt when it seems like I should stop writing and abandon the idea. But sometimes even the songs that started with bad ideas would have a very strong finish, and I would find that I’d pulled something really great out of nowhere. Not always — there were certainly some songs that never really got good. And I think that’s an important part of the process too — you’re going to write some clunkers for sure, but you’ll never really know unless you write them. Starting a song is easy; finishing it is a lot harder.
How did you stay focused and productive, particularly on those days when you were feeling a little less inspired?
JC: Solitude and boredom. If I ever found myself stuck, that was usually a good time to take a long walk or a bike ride. There was something about separating myself from all the instruments and gear in the studio that made things move forward — I think it’s easy to get bogged down in a particular detail when what you really need to do is brush lightly over the surface of the whole thing. And I have so many patterns that I rely on when I’m actually playing the guitar that it can sometimes be a hindrance to write with it in my hands — my brain makes different choices when it’s by itself.
From an interview on Joystiq:
Which one of those songs surprised you the most? That went on to be a hit?
I would say the longest distance from how much I thought it sucked to how much people actually liked them, is the song “Mr. Fancy Pants.” [download link] — which is really about a minute and fifteen seconds long; which is evidence of how little regard I had for it while I was writing it. It’s kind of a silly, nonsense song with a tune that gets into your head and creates lesions in your brain. And I was writing it I was thinking this is completely dumb and it doesn’t make any sense. It’s kind of catchy but what’s the point? And the form of it was weird and so it ended up just being this really small, fluffy thing.
And then … a few weeks later, I still sort of had that song in my head. I’m actually kind of proud of that song! It’s weird but it’s one of those songs that you’re like, “Wow! How did anyone ever write this?” And it feels that way to me the more distance I get from it. How did I possibly … it doesn’t seem possible. And of course, now when I do that song live, I don’t do it with a guitar. I do it with a Zendrum, which has a midi controller that lets me play the drums and trigger samples and all this stuff. I sort of do this live remix of the song to distract people from the fact that it’s short and nonsensical. And in that sense, that’s always a big hit at shows. And it’s a good example of something that, as I’m writing it, I never would have imagined what it was going to become.
Was there anything that you learned about the craft of songwriting that really stands out, in terms of what makes for a good song?
The best ones were always the ones that sounded a little bit crazy in my head — there’s a safe way to write a song, and there’s a way that’s more risky. The risky approach almost always ends up producing something that rings true in a way the safe approach never does.
I knew I had hit the spot when the character I was writing started saying really ridiculous things. It certainly makes things more interesting when you go off in a strange direction and have to find your way back, but it’s also a kind of release. Sort of like I had to get my own ego out of the way and let the character say and think whatever they wanted, even if that made them sound like a jerk or a loser. And strangely, the characters who get that freedom tend to talk and think like me — go figure.
What’s the best advice that you’ve heard about the creative process?
I think Stephen King said some great things in On Writing — the main bit that I took away from that is the idea that you really have to sit down and do it. Treat it like work, spend a few hours TRYING to write every day. Sometimes it will be good and sometimes it will be bad, but there will be a lot of it. And really, it’s not the creating that’s the hard part, it’s the decision to sit down at your desk and start working.
And lastly, from an interview on Nukezilla:
Do you have any closing words of wisdom, any advise for anybody either about getting into the music industry or the music indepen…dence? I guess? Or otherwise?
JC: [Laughs] The only thing I will say is that, you know, people ask me all the time, ‘how did you do it and also how can I do that?’ and the answer is, ‘I don’t really know, and nobody does, and everybody is still figuring it out’. So, whatever the creative thing is that you do that you want to do professionally and for a wider audience, the best advise I can give you is [to] work very hard, make the best stuff you can make, and make a lot of it. And publish. Publish, publish, publish. That is the biggest thing that divides people that you have heard of and people that you have not heard of, is that the people you have heard of have all published, and usually they have published a lot before anything happens. You know, there’s no real secret other than doing the work and putting it out there.