When Mike Doughty's voice stretches over the syncopated strum of his guitar, the often galloping grooves will bounce you through his tales like a ride in an old jalopy on a bumpy road full of panoramic vistas. A ride through his songs offer views that span sweeping emotions of human relationships and intricate and idiosyncratic details of life that are best captured by a keen and aware observer and communicated by a true wordsmith.
Denver musician and songwriter John Common caught up with Mike to discuss music between musicians, and to gain a little insight into his process of making and performing music, and the differences between Mike' solo career compared to past experiences fronting the band Soul Coughing.
"Some of the most interesting stuff for me to know about as a listener is some of the hardest stuff to talk about... It's weird, I would be unable to sit down and just outline my process."
John Common - There are some really great music writers out there... but there are also some underwhelming ones. I can only imagine how many uninspired, boring, thoughtless questions you've had to endure. What kinds of questions do you wish music writers would ask you?
Mike Doughty - Some of the most interesting stuff for me to know about as a listener is some of the hardest stuff to talk about--like the writing process and the recording process. Some writers are more skilled than others at teasing out answers for that. It's weird, I would be unable to sit down and just outline my process.
JC - What comes first -- the music or the lyrics? Kidding. Don't answer that.
MD - I'm answering anyway. It's kind of simultaneous. Lyrics will suggest melodies, and words will seem to pop out of chord progressions.
JC - Groove. You bring groove into your songs better than just about any songwriter I've heard. Even as a "solo guy with an acoustic guitar", your shit grooves hard. How/where did you learn this? As a songwriter, do you ever find yourself having to choose between supporting that pulse in a song and some other element in a song -- for instance, a really amazing bridge that would dilute the groove?
MD - I'm a pretty cyclical guy in all aspects--so that kind of near-Krautrock-y devotion to a pulse is inherent in me, something I couldn't shake if I tried.
JC - What new ideas/emotions/approaches are you trying to incorporate into your music these days?
MD - I'm trying to write songs about how I always end up finding the same archetypal woman no matter what relationship I get into. I'm also trying to look more deeply at my own failings. But, you know, even when I have ideas for the songs, the songs often have their own ideas.
JC - What aspects of live performance do you find difficult? What has performing in front of audiences taught you?
MD - I get a little pain in my strumming arm, that's about the only difficulty. Performing in front of audiences has taught me that, as much of an audience-interactivity-guy as I am, musically the only way to do it is to pay close attention to the songs as they're being played, and not think too much about how to get them over to the crowd. Focus intensely on the music.
JC - Tell me about a) what you miss -- if anything -- about making music in a traditional band situation and b) what you love about making music as a solo artist.
MD - In bands, my solo bands as well as Soul Coughing, I've always chosen collaborators that I trust, and haven't given them much direction. It's a real joy to hear a musician doing himself or herself as opposed to playing a prescribed part. Right now I'm touring with the cellist Andrew "Scrap" Livingston, and I've allowed him to find his own parts, rather than dictating what he should do. Sometimes you need to give a nudge in a particular direction, but I rarely sing out a part that I want specifically played.
JC - If you didn't make music any more, what would you do all of that time and energy?
MD - Lord, I don't know. What a nightmare scenario.
JC - What matters most?
MD - Love and music.
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