Those not entrenched in geek culture probably haven’t heard of Jonathan Coulton (though his bearded mug did grace the cover of the arts section of yesterday’s The New York Times). The New York singer-songwriter developed an Internet following with his satirical songs about zombies, computer coding, and IKEA. But even at his zaniest, Coulton’s music has always had a side of sincerity. He’s a musician who happens to be funny, not a comedian who happens to play the ukulele. His latest album Artifical Heart (produced by They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh) features his most serious songwriting to date. Coulton is currently on the road with Seattle’s own John Roderick of the Long Winters and their tour stops at Showbox at the Market this Friday.
We thought Coulton was the perfect person to kick off Culture Fiend’s new running series Points of Reference. Here’s the deal: We ask artists to provide five pieces of pop culture that had an impact on their latest work. It could be a record whose sound inspired, a book or poem that helped craft a lyrical style, a film that gets them through the long days of recording. Art isn’t made in a bubble— well, not always.
Here Coulton offers five points of reference for Artifical Heart.
They Might Be Giants – Flood
"There’s no getting around the influence of They Might Be Giants. Flood was the first time I’d ever heard them and I was in college. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was a really thrilling thing because as a guy who had written some sad songs and some funny songs in high school—that weren’t very good—they were the first band I’d heard that was funny and weird but also incredibly sad at the same time. When I was working on this album and handing these songs to Flansburgh, in the back of my mind that whole time was, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m giving these songs to the guy who made Flood.’"
Billy Joel – Glass Houses
"I grew up listening to Billy Joel and for me Glass Houses is his sweet spot. You can hear him trying to make a rock record and trying to move out of the mode of guy who wrote ‘Piano Man.’ For me, that was certainly part of what I was doing with this record. I had written songs of all different types, recorded them at home, mixed them all myself, released them all myself, and then was kind of like, ‘Well, now what?’ So from the moment I hooked up with Flansburgh and we started talking about making a rock record with a band, it was something that was scary because it felt outside my comfort zone. That was one of the reasons I was so excited about doing it, because it was like, ‘Here’s a chance to put yourself in a place you haven’t been before.’"
The Long Winters – Putting the Days to Bed
"Putting the Days to Bed is such a great record. The thing that I first noticed about John [Roderick], and continue to really admire, is that his lyrics fit in the song in a very natural, organic way. When I write a song I always end up thinking of it as a puzzle, sometimes to the detriment of the song. You have to set up some constraints at the beginning. There are rules: This chord comes after this chord, the song goes this fast and this long, these parts rhyme. But then you need to know how to break those rules in a way that is pleasing, because otherwise it sounds like a robot wrote the music. John’s lyrics just sort of tumble out in this very conversational way; not just the rhythmic quality, but the way he speaks without really caring if you know exactly what he means. All these ideas strung together and you don’t necessarily know what he’s talking about. The character in the song is not trying to explain anything to you. It’s very satisfying when you pass through the third or fourth listen, you realize what he’s talking about. Then the lyrics become really powerful."
Leonard Cohen – The Best of Leonard Cohen
"On a lot of the sadder stuff on this album, I tried very hard to be less direct about what I was saying. The biggest inspiration for that is the music of Leonard Cohen. There was a time in my life when I listened to The Best of Leonard Cohen on repeat probably 1,000 times in a row. There’s one song in particular called ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ that I think is my favorite song in the world. It’s written as a letter and you don’t really know the story. You know that somebody’s heart was broken—there’s sort of a love triangle—but it’s not clear what happens. The way the story has unfolded in my mind as I’ve listened to that song over and over again, just from the little clues, I delight in imagining what is behind that. There were a couple of songs where I really tried to not talk at all about what I was talking about. The song that Suzanne Vega sings with me on the album, ‘Now I Am an Arsonist,’ is such a weird song; it’s like I’m describing a dream. It’s uncharacteristic for me, because I’ve often been very direct in the past."
John Hodgman – That Is All
"John Hodgman is a friend of mine. I released Artificial Heart in September of last year and his book came out in November. The whole time I was working on this album, he was working on this book. I would send him tracks and he would send me snippets that he was writing. We sort of compared notes. And I realized along the way that he and I were sort of addressing the same issues. That Is All is the third in his trilogy of ridiculous fake trivia, but it has this really poignant quality to it. Ostensibly it’s about the end of the world that is coming in 2012, but if you read it as a personal narrative, it’s much more about the state of mind that comes upon you when you are middle aged and you have some career behind you. You’re maybe in your 40s and that number four is a very scary number. It’s a time that everybody tends to take stock of their lives: compare what’s happening with what they thought was going to happen, evaluate their careers, their relationships, and who they are. There’s that cliched expression, ‘Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.’ It’s like, all the ages that you are that do not have a zero on the end are when you’re making plans. The only time you notice your life is when the zero is on the end, and then you gotta take a look."
Jonathan Coulton with John Roderick
June 22 at 8, Showbox at the Market, $30