March 16, 9 p.m., $24, $34, Bridge Street Live, 41 Bridge Street, Collinsville, (860) 693-9762, 41bridgestreet.com.
Want to buy a Mike Doughty song, in the key of your choice (the options right now are C, C# and D; perhaps others can be negotiated), with a bridge (that's extra), performed by Doughty, signed, numbered and delivered (via digital recorder) right to your mailbox? ($810.27, please.)
Or scrap that: You do want the song — "Dogs/Demons," which has never appeared on an album or been played live — sans bridge (a $267.18 savings; who needs a bridge anyway?). And since Wall Street is currently breaking records again, why not have Doughty tack on the "personal message" option (your name, date, a few other details and whatever you want him to say, within reason)? (Total cost: $35,878.62.)
A strange commercial enterprise, yes, but one that Doughty fans will likely embrace. Soon after leaving Soul Coughing — one of the great (if underappreciated) alternative bands of the '90s — in 2000, Doughty jumped straight into a busy solo career, recording and touring, blogging when he can (at doughtybespoke.com) and writing material for The Lo-Fi Lodge, a subscription service for fans who'll receive an unreleased recording once a week for 32 weeks.
Two big projects — The Book of Drugs, a memoir, and The Flip is Another Honey, an album of covers — bookended his output in 2012. Doughty spoke to the Advocate by phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. He'll play a solo show at Bridge Street Live in Collinsville on March 16.
I know you keep pretty close tabs on pop culture. How much does it flood your head during the songwriting process?
I don't know if I sit down and really think about current events in any capacity, important or not important, when I'm writing songs. I sort of work from notebooks I've been keeping, and the stuff is usually more fragmentary. I'm not a topical guy. I'll start with some words that sort of fit, for some ineffable reason, and I'll sand it down until I find what the song wants to be about, if I may be permitted to sound like a hippie for a moment.
Is there a set time in your day for writing songs?
Songwriting is a lot looser than other kinds of writing. When I was writing the book, I had to think, "I have to get up, I've got to write 300 words or 500 words." But songwriting just happens when it happens, just when something occurs to me. It's not even necessarily that an idea jumps into my head. It's more that I feel like picking up the guitar, or I feel like looking at the notebooks or whatever. I do know that when I'm on the good foot, I wake up and pick up the guitar first thing in the morning, and usually there's a couple of good riffs that come out of it.
Did you have to pitch the book, then keep yourself to a strict writing schedule?
I decided I was going to write the book, and I knew a dude at Da Capo. There was a literary agent that had been poking around, seeing if was interested in writing something for a few years. So I talked to her, and she said, "Why don't you write an outline and some sample pages?" I was like, "I just don't want to do that. I want to sit down and start writing a book and grapple with that and let it go wherever it wants to go." So I just went with Da Capo, because it was easy, you know? Then, to my editor, the moment it was all set up, I said, "How long does it need to be, and when do you need it?" He was like, "Oh, you know, just take your time." Almost consciously I said, "Okay, great, I'll talk to you in 18 months when you're yelling at me to finish it." And that's exactly what happened. I'd written about 50 pages of it to send to him, but basically I was like, "Okay, when you call up and yell at me, that's when I'll finish it." Eventually he did, and I finished it in six or seven months.
What kind of roles do covers (recording and playing) serve in your life as a songwriter?
I don't really know. But I do know that I've been sitting down and figuring out the chords to songs for as long as I've been playing the guitar, and most of the time I just steal. I'll take an element of [a cover song] and build my own stuff on top of it. So there is a very conscious choice when you sit down with the task of interpreting something. And also, there's stuff that I'd just never done before, in terms of having to listen to the particular phrasing of how things were sung — particularly the John Denver song ["Take Me Home, Country Roads"] — and really sit down and practice it, and really have to nail it, which is something you don't really have to do when you're simply stealing.
I love the concept of the digital recorder for a lot of reasons, but one that sticks out right now is the specificity of the price list: $543.09 for the song, plus $267.18 for the bridge, and $35,335.53 for the personal message. It speaks to the difficulties of placing any particular dollar value on art.
Exactly. And it's jarring. You look at $249.95 and there's a certainly blankness to it. But if you look at, like, $234.62, it kind of looks more like money than a straight $300 does. For me, it connects you with the fact that this is a sum. It looks like your bank balance.
How many folks favor C, C# or D?
I get a lot of D#, or whatever the highest one is, I can't remember. I think people must think, "Oh, it's the highest key, it must be the best," even on the subconscious level. But you know, I've sold enough to keep it interesting, for me.
What can people expect at the show?
The show is solo-acoustic versions of stuff I've been doing in the last 12 years. I don't play Soul Coughing songs at this particular point in my life.
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