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Observational Tragedy: Jonathan Coulton’s Approach to Songwriting

Jonathan Coulton reveals how his unique balance of comedy and tragedy, optimism and cynicism, and the past and future form the heart of his new multimedia concept album.
Jonathan Coulton
Solid State

“We’re now suddenly able to hear each other and it’s sort of terrifying and awful because we haven’t been able to do that before.”

Solid State is Jonathan Coulton’s new, self-described “concept album about the internet, trolls, artificial intelligence, and how love and empathy will save humanity!” complete with a graphic novel companion penned by Matt Fraction and Albert Monteys. Yes, this guy means business.

Coulton is no stranger to musical storytelling, but this is the first full-length story from him, a semi-humorous sci-fi tale following the line of modern technological advancements to their furthest logical conclusion. It’s an ambitious project and continues the more serious tone set by 2011’s Artificial Heart.

Coulton made his early career on the internet as a novelty songwriter putting out goofy songs about IKEA, Tom Cruise, zombie office workers, and a mountain dwelling mad scientist with a nice-guy complex and his assistant, Scarface. This tactic worked well enough for a long time earning Coulton a dedicated fanbase of nerds and music lovers alike (to say nothing of his nearly-iconic end-credit songs in Valve’s legendary Portal video games).

Yet Artificial Heart, his second professionally-produced album and seventh full-length proper, found Coulton taking a less obviously funny approach, favoring subtlety and sincere personality and straying away from highly conceptual songs. Solid State feels similarly somber and sincere as it explores isolation and the pitfalls of technological advancements even when Coulton’s inevitable cleverness and humour peeks through.

Coulton spoke with PopMatters about the new album and his perspective on the state of the technology age.

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So the title of the album is Solid State. Please tell us what that means in the context of the album’s story.

This album is about struggling with my feelings about the internet. A few years ago it felt like we were on the edge of this amazing future and we were all connecting with each other and knocking down all these old barriers and then lately the internet has felt like a more and more crowded and toxic place. Thinking about solid state amplifiers that replaced tubes and how everyone loves tube amplifiers because they’re so warm and ultimately kind of chaotic. They have a charm to them that comes from this analog technology and when you go to digital technology sometimes you kind of lose that.

So for me, the title Solid State is, in part, talking about technology and the way technology changes us. You can go around saying “the internet is terrible”, but what you really mean is “people are terrible”, because we’re what make up the internet and I think for me it’s thinking about how do we learn to be better humans?

A lot of your older songs like “The Future Soon” take on a sort of simultaneously cynical and hopeful view of the future and technology. Where are we on that spectrum with Solid State?

It depends on the day, but I think I tend to take the long view of things and I hope that’s what comes across is the record. I do think that we’re at this point in history where essentially internet trolls have taken over the White House and we’re going to be unpacking what happened on Facebook and in social media for the next hundred years. It’s easy to look at this in the short term and say, “Well, the internet has ruined us.” We’re now suddenly able to hear each other and it’s sort of terrifying and awful because we haven’t been able to do that before. But sometime over the next few years or decades, we will figure out how to deal with that and we will get better at it.

So this is a concept album but what made you feel that it really needed a companion piece to tell the story in more detail when so many of your standalone songs really speak for themselves?

You know, I really loved Pink Floyd when I was younger and I still do, and they’ve got a few concept albums. That time in the ’70s when all albums were concept albums was kind of an exciting time. As I was finishing up some of the songs it became clear to me that there was sort of a story arc happening. I put them in an order and came up with a thesis statement and then built this skeletal story, song-by-song, of what I thought was happening. And at that point, it was suddenly this science fiction story about artificial intelligence and about technology, and once it seemed like a science fiction story it seemed silly to not have an actual science fiction story.

I gave this outline to Matt Fraction who is a fantastic writer and he and Albert Monteys, the guy who drew it, really were able to build in all these fantastic details that got right at the emotional core of what I was hoping my story would be about. They both kind of stand on their own but they also work together, I think it’s a really interesting and unique piece.

Was there a reason you decided to go with a comic book aside from your knowledge of Matt Fraction?

I had just read a couple of Matt’s graphic novels and really loved them and was really struck by his ability to use the form to tell a really affecting emotional story. In particular his voice and the way his characters speak and the kind of human issues he deals with felt like they would be right for the story.

Now you’ve got a comic book tie-in, you did a series of performance videos using various technological quirks for Artificial Heart, you made your name by doing a Thing a Week, how do you draw the line between creative multimedia experiments and gimmicks and are gimmicks necessarily bad in your view?

There are really two stages to when I make an album and the first is getting music out and making the record and then giving it the context that I think it wants. Doing the graphic novel, or the music video that I did for the song “All This Time” which is a text-based adventure game. It all feels essential as a way of describing what I’m talking about. It’s a very fun creative exercise for me.

There’s a fine line between a piece of art and something that is kind of gimmicky. I mean, talk about the internet and its problems. It’s very hard to get people’s attention these days so the temptation is to come up with a gimmick or a hook that’s gonna grab people but in a way that’s a tale as old as time.

That balance between gimmicks and creativity is similar to your balance of comedy and sobriety. Do you ever feel like now that you are writing fewer comedy or novelty songs the fans who found you because of those things might not appreciate the newer material?

I used to worry about that. The bell of being a comedy songwriter is a hard one to unring, but I really don’t see it in the fans. Even my funny songs have a core of sadness to them, at least the most successful ones. The ones that people seem to really attach to are the ones that are funny the first time you hear them but the fifth or sixth time they make you cry. And that is the thing that I was always shooting for when I was writing songs. That sort of observational tragedy is still very much there and I think very much a thing that attracted fans to me to begin with, so I don’t think it’s too alienating.

As an example, the opening line to “All This Time” is ‘10,700 days we’ve been accident-free.’ It’s the kind of funny that you mentioned before where it allows for a laugh but the rest of the song underscores the sort of dreadful monotony implied by that statement.

It’s funny, I’ve been playing that song at these shows and there are always many more Aimee Mann fans than there are Jonathan Coulton fans so a lot of these people have never heard me before and that line is a big laugh line which I didn’t really expect. I didn’t think about it as being a funny line when I wrote it, but it is kind of hilarious to think about somebody updating that sign every day.

So you’re on tour with Aimee Mann who you collaborated with on her album Mental Illness and she contributed to Solid State as well. You’ve done a lot of strictly solo writing and a fair bit of collaborative work, so what works differently about those two approaches and how did collaboration help to shape the sound of the album?

The nice thing about writing with Aimee for her record was that it was just a very free-flowing, ego-free process of creation which is very different beast from locking yourself in a room and trying to get the perfect thing out. They’re both very pleasurable ways of writing. My producer, Christian Cassan also plays a lot of the instruments on the record and his contribution was just essential to the sound of it. It was he who suggested that I take the title track and reprise it later in the album and that was the thing that tipped it off as a concept album in my mind. It was just him and me in a room cooking up this stew for a long time and that was a lot of fun. It’s always nice when you can have a thing and give it to somebody else and they polish it and massage it and it comes back better than it was when you handed it to them.

The ideas on Solid State of tech isolation and all that goes with it perhaps feel a bit more real and present now than they might have when you first came up with the concept. You’ve clearly thought about that issue a lot in your process. In your view, what needs to happen next, what do we need to do to get to a place where you can feel optimistic about the fate of technology and our situation?

I don’t want to get too political but the current administration, I think it’s a big problem. But I am very gratified and excited to see the way the left has become a lot more vocal and engaged than it was in the past. Just looking at the way that all of these conversations about identity politics, and inclusion, and different points of view, women, and minorities, and gay and trans people, it’s a really powerful thing.

I’m already feeling optimistic because I have learned a lot about these issues and about other people’s points of view in the past six months just because there are so many more conversations happening and I thought I was a pretty enlightened guy. But it has been really delightful to learn that I had a lot more to learn and to feel like I’m moving forward. That’s sort of what I feel like is happening to a lot of people and a lot of my peers and friends. I feel like that arrow pointing in the forward direction is very much where we need to go and I’m hopeful that that is where we are in fact headed.