it’s not a real heart, but it’s real: Artificial Heart [the buildup]

It’s getting close to four years ago now that I first happened upon Jonathan Coulton. I remember I first heard “Code Monkey” in the background of a video sometime that fall, but it wasn’t until early 2008 that I really finally got into Coulton. From that point on I was hooked- his clever lyrics, interesting melodies, and eager communication with fans had me obsessing for weeks until I got to a point where I felt like I had been following him all the years prior. I hadn’t, but many had, and they had followed him through the years when he quit his day job (six years ago yesterday), started “Thing-A-Week”, and wrote the song for Portal.

Soon after becoming entrenched in Coulton I was already exchanging emails with him and his touring buddies, Paul & Storm. I recorded the first show of theirs I attended in May of ’08, another one in February of ’09, and another in October of ’09. The recordings were instant hits with the fans, and subsequently with JoCo and Paul & Storm themselves. Coulton gave out a flash drive to the cruise attendees with six songs from various recordings; three of them were mine, and another was one that I helped another fan record. Paul & Storm actually emailed me requesting two of the songs in high quality to use on their “best-of” disc.

Coulton has been on my now playing list consistently (almost too consistently) for over the last three-and-a-half years of my life. It’s always been extremely fun listening to the recordings I’ve made again and again, and it’s been interesting to follow him for these last few years and watch how much his music has evolved in just that short amount of time. His songs have become more meaningful in their lyrics and much more intricate- and all of this musical growth has been tidied up and then let loose on his latest album (and overall mainstream debut) Artificial Heart. But first, a little more fun backstory on that.

Not long after my JoCo-mania, while preparing to look for colleges, I decided to email Patrick Dillett, the long time sound engineer and producer for They Might Be Giants (who I had been a fan of for many years), to see if he might be able to spare a little advice for a high school kid trying to figure out what to do with his life. To my surprise, he emailed me back just a few days later. I was ecstatic. I had always been interested in audio engineering and had hoped to make it my career. Mr. Dillett had some incredible advice to share which was in line with what I had expected (and somewhat feared). He advised me (in many more words) to keep my options open as it was dangerous to dive into the music industry head-first. His response was a defining event that ultimately helped me choose my path for college. I decided to go into Computer Science, but to promise myself (as if I would forget) to continue messing around with sound on the side.

Fast-forward to August 24, 2009: I’m sitting in my first class on the first day of the first week of school at Iowa State, Introduction to Music Listening. The class hasn’t even begun and over the speakers comes Mono Puff’s (John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants’ side project) “Unsupervised, I Hit My Head”. Not only was I already excited for what the class might bring, but I remembered- I never once emailed Patrick Dillett (who, coincidentally, produced the Mono Puff album) back after his incredible reply to my letter. Immediately after class I ran back to my room and punched out a letter to Mr. Dillett. In the past year and a half since I had received his reply, I had worked with my best friend Billy Schoenburg to record an album of his songs for our senior project. I told Mr. Dillett what I had been up to, apologized profusely for never responding, asked him if he wanted one of the CDs, and hoped that he would remember me.

Not even three hours later I received a reply. He remembered me, and apologized for possibly sounding pessimistic with his advice, but was happy that things were working out. He gave me an address to send the CD to, and asked me to keep him posted on how school goes. And he added this:

“P.S.: I assume that Mono Puff was being played to demonstrate the dangers of listening to music, but I like that song a lot even 13 years later.”

I sent him the CD the next day, a couple months passed, and I checked in with him to see if he had enjoyed the album. He replied:

“I listened to it right away when it came and I wanted to tell you how good a job you guys did on it. I really apologize for letting it slip so far away. And thank you too for your excellent note you enclosed. You did a great job, recording and mixing simple arrangements like some of those are, can be the hardest kind of mixing. Well done.”

Around this time JoCo had announced that he would be doing a show covering the entirety of They Might Be Giants’ Flood, since the They themselves were doing a Flood show the same night, also in Chicago. I was unable to make it myself, but asked Dillett if he had heard about it, and mentioned that I would be “mentoring” someone to make the recording, and would send it his way when it was done. He replied:

“I had not heard that Jonathan Coulton would be doing a Flood show. Sounds like it could be a lot of fun. I have a lot of great memories working on that record, mostly just meeting those guys then because I was already a big fan. Flansburgh still tells a (true) story that I was disappointed to be working on a Mariah Carey record as an engineer when I could be an assistant on TMBG.

It worked out.”

Nine or so months later, we learned that John Flansburgh would actually be working with JoCo for the the new record, acting as producer. Of course, I fired an email off to Dillett asking if he’d be working on it, too, as if I even had to ask. And not even an hour later (I see a trend here):

Hey Christian,
“Yes, we have begun some preliminary work on a Jonathan Coulton project. He has some great songs, and I think he will be writing a bunch more before we begin the record.”

***

A year, a month, multiple updates from the studio, and performances of in-progress songs on the road later, we’ve been delivered Artificial Heart. It’s an incredible album that will no doubt be a huge surprise for casual monkey-loving fans, but that’s not a knock by any means. I’ve really enjoyed listening to all of the new songs from live performances over the past year and how his material has evolved. While one could have argued that a fair amount of Coulton’s repertoire in the past felt gimmicky (though I’d beg to differ), that claim doesn’t apply to the subject matter of this record. Artificial Heart ditches the monkeys, robots, and vampires in favor of much more realistic subjects and situations.

Though he’s been writing about personal situations and feelings for years, the songs on Artificial Heart sound like the little gems that Coulton’s been trying to put to music this whole time- and it’s really, really exciting.


  • Erin

    Hey it is your “mentee” for the recording. I was so nervous I would mess it up. haha I actually stopped listening to JC once he got too rock and roll. Your name was on my twitter feed as a suggestion or something so clicked through to see what you were up to. Nice write up and story around all of it. Anyway, just wanted to say “hi.”