Great narratives often tell a unique perspective or feature uncommon characters. Jonathan Coulton‘s songs meet the criteria.
The web programmer-turned-musician writes songs about monsters or creatures that most would not consider emotive. On his latest album, Solid State, he explores how these different characters feel in ways everyone can relate, making stories about giant squids or lowly programmers an audible reflection on human nature.
Coulton was once an Ivy League graduate working as a programmer at a New York City software company. Although he had always enjoyed “nerdery,” it was more of a hobby than the backbone of a career.
“Stories about people who feel like mad scientists and people who feel like monsters, [had an] under-served segment of the population,” said Coulton, who opens for Aimee Man at the Fillmore next week “My career was certainly helped by the fact that there was this synergy between the subject matter that I was writing about, this nerdy stuff, and the fact that I was not available in record stores. … It was a nice bit of things lining up for me.”
Coulton was equally influenced by the Beatles, Pink Floyd and technological innovation, which seeped into him from a young age. As he began to present on NPR’s “A Thing A Week,” his songs and music videos began to draw attention from the community in which he was once entrenched, and the larger internet community as a whole.
Coulton the musician explores many themes with which Coulton the programmer would be very familiar. One example comes in the tune “Code Monkey,” which describes a desolate programmer working an unfulfilling job. For Coulton the musician, songs like these revolve around the nature of his lyrics. The subject matter makes Coulton’s songs digestible to a wide audience but his textured, inventive songwriting grows his fan base.
“I think having an opportunity to say, ‘that’s me, that’s how I feel,’ works for all of us,” he said.
The inquisitive nature of his music can be heard in almost every tune. It’s particularly revealing on “I Crush Everything.” The song has a folksy ballad melody and describes the plight of a giant squid. The squid is somber because despite having a deep love of ships, he cannot get close to any without destroying them.
“And the dolphins are all phonies/ They seem nice enough at first/ But they pretend to be your friend/ Until they see you at your worst and then they leave you,” he sings.
“The first time you hear that, you’re, like, ‘That’s hilarious, dolphins are phonies,’” Coulton said. “And then after you’ve heard the song a few times, you’ve identified the dolphins in your life, so it becomes personally meaningful in a way that is incredibly sad.”
Beyond the novelty of his unique approach to songwriting lies Coulton’s desire to understand human nature and figure out what makes the collective cells and flesh making up our bodies truly human. The contemplative phrasing and vivid imagery are heavily present in Coulton’s work and are a central component to his fans’ adoration
Coulton has a foot in numerous mediums and represents the varied nature of artistry in the 21st century. Podcasts, graphic novels, music videos and even an annual cruise make Coulton not only a versatile artist but also an entrepreneur.
“I like the fact that I can be a different kind of artist at different times,” he said.
While his musical influences are not unusual for men of a certain age—the aforementioned Pink Floyd and the Beatles, as well as Billy Joel and Steely Dan—his lyrical composition has turned him into a cult-like phenomena in the coder community. So, why does he write about monsters?
“I’m not doing it in a way that’s like, ‘Oh, Frankenstein is scary and hilarious.'” he said. “When I write about a monster, what I’m interested in is how that monster feels.”
He writes about monsters in a way that many artists write about themselves and others. The way he humanizes these creatures helps his audience connect with the songs. Not everyone likes songs about zombies but most can relate to feeling lonely or being in love. Coulton’s has ability to flip the conventional narrative of these creatures.
Solid State, which Coulton says is a concept album, is accompanied by a graphic of the same name. Thematically, both deal with the perils of technology in our modern world and question whether or not these innovations are truly good for us.
“It tells a story about current internet culture and internet trolls, and … how technology may ultimately save us and make us better humans but only if we learn to have empathy for one another and try to be better,” he said. “If you look at the long arc of history you can identify moments where technology was bad for us. But in the long term it is always moving us forward, it is always making our lives better.”
This hopeful optimism is not without tapered skepticism, especially in the wake 2016’s presidential election, but Coulton said he feels these moments can often be the referential points of human history for the future.
“In my view, we are in one of those moments where we have this new technology,” he said. “It’s very powerful. We haven’t figured out how to use it. We haven’t figured out all the ways in which it is dangerous.”
Follow columnist Ian Firstenberg at Twitter.com/IanFirstenberg.