The Jonathan Coulton Way

by Chuck Dauphin

This season seems to see a few more Christmas albums than usual, but one that will definitely set itself apart is One Christmas At A Time from singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton. He shared with Music News Nashville what sets the album apart. “There’s a fellow named John Roderick from a band called the Long Winters. He and I have been friends for many years, and have spent a lot of time talking about songwriting. We thought it would be fun to collaborate on a Christmas album. At a certain point in your career, you make a Christmas record. Our initial thought was to do the Christmas covers, but as we started to come up with a list, we realized that we couldn’t stand most of them. We had a hard time imagining how we could do honor to the songs. I’m not anti-Christmas or anti-nostalgia,” he stresses, “but so many Christmas songs are not good songs, so we decided we would write all new Christmas songs,  and that’s what happened.”

Is there any kind of mindset for coming up with original ideas for Christmas material? He says that first, you can’t approach it as though you are trying to compose a standard. “I think if you set out to write a song that is going to hang around for hundreds of years, you are setting yourself up for failure. Nobody knows how to do that automatically at the time. What you have to do is find something honest, and talk about it. We tried to think about which aspects of Christmas meant something to us. Songs like ‘The Week Between,’ which is about that week in between Christmas and New Years.’ Really, that holiday is about sitting around at home with extended families, a lot of ham sandwiches and cookies, and nobody’s working. It’s kind of melancholy, and once we thought about it, it was amazing that nobody had written a song about that anymore, because that’s how we experienced Christmas.”

Just a few years ago, Coulton was enjoying a successful software career, when he and his wife decided to roll the dice on a musical career. He’s glad they took the risk. “I think it was the right decision. At the time, it seemed pretty foolhardy and vain. I didn’t have much of a plan, but I knew I wasn’t being true to myself and what I wanted to do on a day to day basis. It seemed like something I had to try. My wife was working full time at this point, and we could take a year where it wouldn’t ruin us. But, over the year, I attracted some attention, and by the end of the year, I was touring, and on my way to making a living at it. It’s amazing to have an opportunity for a second act of my life. I’m really grateful.”

Though he has released the successful Artificial Heart disc, his best known works are in a completely different medium – video games. His song “Code Monkey” was used as the theme for the G4 animated series “Code Monkeys,” and in 2007 he was tapped to write “Still Alive,” the closing song to the award-winning game Portal. That song won the Game Audio Network Guild’s “Best Original Vocal Pop Song” award in 2008, and has been called the greatest video game ending song of all time.  “It’s a whole new platform,” he says. “That was an amazing thing, getting connected with those guys. I had been a fan of their games, and the way they do business. They are just smart, forward-thinking people, and they invited me to work with them.  I don’t think that anybody had an idea we were going to have that kind of cultural impact. But, after it was out, people started going crazy. It was very exciting.”

Listen to Coulton’s music, and you just might hear an artist who sympathizes with the underdog – much the same way that Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison once did. He admits “It comes from a true place. I can’t write about being successful with women or something like that, because I’ve never felt that way. All I know to write is how I feel. There’s a lot of alienation out there where people feel like they don’t belong, and I can identify with that guy. It’s a painful thing to feel like you are misunderstood,” he admits.

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