The last year has seen internet folk superstar Jonathan Coulton expand his scope, but he’s not leaving his roots behind.
What: Jonathan Coulton Band
Where: Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage, 818 S. Second St.
When: 7:30 p.m., June 18
You won’t hear many people besmirch Kanye West ‘round these parts, but if we’re being honest, Jonathan Coulton beat ‘Ye to the “give away a song a week” game ages ago.
Back in 2005, Coulton left his job as a computer programmer to self-record 52 nerdy folk songs about zombies participating in office politics (“RE: Your Brains”), a mad scientist who falls in love with his captive (“Skullcrusher Mountain”), and an adorable acoustic cover of “Baby Got Back.”
Coulton began selling his home-recorded music through a bare-bones website. He also used social networking, still in its infancy, to advertise. Coulton was a pioneer and not just because he wore a coonskin cap to gigs. But these days, he said, the approach isn’t that unusual.
“I don’t feel like I’m particularly cutting-edge anymore,” Coulton said. “MP3s were still rather new when I was first starting, and podcasts were new. There wasn’t a Twitter yet. The landscape has really changed.”
Coulton himself has also changed. He has a dedicated following online and is making major bank — $500,000 in 2010, according to an interview with NPR. He toured with fellow nerdy rockers They Might Be Giants, and contributed music to “Portal” and its sequel.
With his profile growing, Coulton has also left behind some of his DIY approach. He recorded his latest album, “Artificial Heart” with a full band for the first time. “Artificial Heart” is something of a coming out party for Coulton. After being pulled out of his isolated recording process by They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh, who produced the album, he said it was scary but thrilling to make his private writing and recording process public for the first time.
“Part of the challenge was sharing unfinished things with my hero John Flansburgh,” Coulton said. “I felt a lot more pressure to be good and for the songs to be good.”
Besides evolving sonically, “Artificial Heart” moves away from geeky subject matter, and focuses instead on turning 40, frustrations with work and failed relationships. Coulton said he was a little worried about alienating his original audience with these more direct lyrics, but ultimately “Artificial Heart” doesn’t lose Coulton’s voice just because it ditches the sci-fi references.
Coulton’s songs always had a lot of heart to begin with. The self-loathing of the giant squid narrator in “I Crush Everything” came from some place real, as did the dissatisfaction in “Code Monkey,” which stems from Coulton’s experiences in his old job.
“You can certainly write a song about a giant squid that’s just about a giant squid,” Coulton said. “But I think it’s a lot more interesting to write a song about a giant squid that’s really about something else.”
Despite enjoying the success of a musician that’s signed to a label, Coulton said he hasn’t lost sight of his origins. He’s selling “Artificial Heart” himself and continues to be realistic and clear-eyed about the ongoing debate surrounding media and the internet.
It’s a very exciting time to be an artist, Coulton said, and now that he’s in a stable, comfortable place, he’s excited to see what new artists will do and where the conversation will go.
“The cat’s out of the bag: The internet is big,” he said. “But if we can figure out the nuanced parts of these discussions, that’s when we’re going to really leverage this incredible technological gift we’ve given ourselves into something that’s truly amazing.”
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